Sunday 11 December 2016

Joe Brolly: If Mayo can bring themselves to kick long and early, they will scare the arse off any defence

Meanwhile Dublin still don't know how to handle a blanket defence

Joe Brolly

Published 19/07/2015 | 17:00

Aidan O'Shea, Mayo
Aidan O'Shea, Mayo

I was touring the coast of Ireland recently and found myself in sleepy Ballycastle in north Mayo.

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As I parked my car and got out, an ancient car drove slowly past, driven by an old woman with a sheepdog on her lap. I went into the only café in the town and feasted on black pudding and onion marmalade. "I made it myself," said the beaming owner.

Shortly afterwards, a man came in, came straight over to me and shook my hand.

"My daughter was out jogging and said she saw you coming in here," he said. "I wanted to see for myself. It's yourself alright."

"It is," I said. "Do you think Mayo will ever win another All-Ireland?" he asked.

"I do," I said.

"Arra," he said, "I don't think we will." With that, he got up and left.

The reason Mayo haven't won another All-Ireland is that they haven't had a reliable strategy for either creating scores in the danger zone or preventing them in their own danger zone. I have been pointing out until I'm blue in the face that they have the means at their disposal to solve both problems.

Alongside their tactic of hard running through the middle third, they need to kick long and early to Aidan O'Shea on the edge of the square and develop Cillian O'Connor as a poacher, feeding off the big man in the manner of Star and O'Donoghue.

Against Galway, they did kick some ball into O'Shea and even on those scraps, he won the game for them. As yet, however, O'Connor has not learned the difficult art of playing second fiddle. He has always been the go-to guy for club and county and it is going to take him time to educate himself in the subtle art of mooching. This requires little dummy runs to get the defender out of position and sprinting in an arc as the ball is in the air. Most of all, it requires positional sense and timing.

‘Michael Darragh Macauley might charge through and fist points at this level. Last year when he tried that in the semi-final he was submerged’
‘Michael Darragh Macauley might charge through and fist points at this level. Last year when he tried that in the semi-final he was submerged’

Joe Kernan's Armagh won an All-Ireland and a handful of Ulster titles by kicking long early ball to Ronan Clarke and Stevie McDonnell. They spent years perfecting this in training until their understanding was telepathic. After Kernan stepped down, he was asked why he had never worked on a Plan B. He said: "It took us three years to get Plan A right. We hadn't time for Plan B."

It remains to be seen whether the Mayo management have left it too late. Today is a valuable opportunity for them to work on changing their self-defeating passion for solo-running with their heads down in the middle third.

If Lee Keegan, Donie Vaughan, Colm Boyle and Keith Higgins can bring themselves to kick long and early, they will scare the arse off any defence. Donegal, Dublin and Kerry are all particularly vulnerable under the quick, high ball to the square and it saves a huge amount of energy on pointless solo-running.

The other strategic element they need to perfect is much easier. When Mayo attack, at least one half-back and one midfielder must drop back immediately in front of their full-back. This will staunch the flow of ridiculous goals that has dogged them over the last four years. A failure to micro-manage has been their undoing. Not an ancient curse.

Which brings me to the Dubs. Last Sunday's Leinster final showed how even a hastily-put-together blanket defence can stifle an opponent. Dublin, with all their heavy artillery, struggled to break down a Westmeath wall that had been built at a fortnight's notice. Their manager, Tom Cribbin, had five training sessions and a friendly against Mayo to arrange his flood defences against a team whose average winning margin in Leinster before Sunday was 23 points.

By the 32nd minute, it was 0-7 to 0-4. The half-time score was 0-8 to 0-4 and the Dubs left the field extremely frustrated. Meanwhile, the Westmeath lads trooped off with an expression on their faces that seemed to say, 'Why didn't we think of this a year ago?'

A fortnight is not enough. To put that into perspective, at Donegal's first training session for the 2014 season, Jim McGuinness began working towards an All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin. Just think about that. A team that had already spent three years working repetitively on the system they had patented, now began a year of more refined work designed to beat a specific opponent.

As I pointed out last Sunday on RTé, the easiest part of the system is the defensive element. So long as the primary defenders mark their men, there are twin sweepers roughly on the 21, roughly in line with either post and the midfielders and retreating forwards know their spot in the zone, then it is going to be a bitch to score against.

Problem is, unless there is a huge amount of work done on the counter-attack part of the system, it is going to be a bitch to score.

You cannot lie on the ropes for 12 rounds. At the right moment, you must come off them and stun your opponent with counters (think Donegal against Dublin in last year's semi-final); otherwise you will lose. Westmeath's defeat was therefore inevitable.

The striking thing about the game was how easily Westmeath kept the Dubs out for that entire first period. Dublin have no target man in the mould of O'Shea or Donaghy or Murphy. Nor do they attack the blanket in threes, with pace and width. Finally, they do not give reverse passes to a support player making a diagonal run.

Instead, their efforts were eerily reminiscent of their travails against Donegal in the first quarter last August when they relied on stupendous trick shots from Flynn and Connolly to keep them in it. They reached the defensive cordon. Then they worked the ball around the perimeter and tried long-range shots.

They managed some scores against Westmeath they would never get against the northern infidel.

Michael Darragh might charge through and fist points at this level. Last year when he tried that in the semi-final he was submerged time and again and the yellow horde emerged with the ball.

It is said that Jim Gavin has a basketball coach to help them penetrate the zonal defence. To date, there has been no on-field evidence of this. They made no headway against Derry in the League and all we do is defend. Likewise they struggled badly against Monaghan. They could hurl themselves against Derry's defensive wall without fear of repercussion. They cannot do this against a team like Donegal, who will punish them ruthlessly.

True, Jim Gavin has improved their defence by using Cian O'Sullivan as a sweeper in front of the full-back. But it is not a blanket defence and they remain vulnerable to the counter.

The Dubs have had it easy peasy in Leinster where everyone is terrified of them. They are about to meet teams who aren't in the least bit terrified and managers who will ruthlessly exploit the obvious shortcomings in their system. I wrote this time last year that Donegal were coming for them.

I see no reason to alter that opinion.

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