Cats facing further aerial bombardment
Perceived weakness under high ball has become the biggest threat to reigning champions' crown
Last Sunday at Nowlan Park, JJ Delaney was catching high balls like an aardvark hoovering up ants.
In a relentless internal match, Delaney caught anything that came near him in the first half. After the break, he made five high catches. The players delivering the ball in Delaney's general direction may as well have been hitting it off a wall.
Delaney has always been imperious in the air but he looked to be on high alert. So did the whole full-back line. When Kilkenny conceded four goals against Offaly two weeks ago, it was the first time that they had shipped as many goals since the 2010 All-Ireland final.
Kilkenny rarely leak that many. In the 62 previous championship matches Kilkenny had played under Brian Cody, they conceded four goals or more on just two occasions. And they lost both of those games.
The third goal that Offaly scored originated from out the field when Kieran Joyce was turned over in possession before the delivery inside was initially spilled by Paul Murphy. The fourth goal was primarily down to a lack of communication between Eoin Murphy and Paul Murphy. The sun may have been a factor but those two goals exposed a renascent trend over the last year – Kilkenny have been conceding goals from high ball launched in around their full-back line.
It's been evident since Joe Canning out-fielded Jackie Tyrrell two minutes into the 2012 Leinster final before drilling the ball past David Herity. The opening for Niall Burke's goal in the drawn All-Ireland final was created by three players crashing into one another but the explosion was detonated from a bomb launched into the danger area.
David Burke's two goals in the replay had similar reference points. The first was a flick over Tyrrell's head from a long Iarla Tannian delivery. The second was created by Cyril Donnellan initially winning a long ball over the head of Delaney.
Galway began where they left off in February when two of the three goals they scored originated from long Canning deliveries into the red zone. In March, Colm Galvin's goal for Clare came from a similar delivery on top of the Kilkenny full-back line.
Statistics can often be contrived or skewed to inflate a problem that isn't as big as it seems. However, teams have been making Kilkenny look vulnerable in the one area where they never looked vulnerable: under the dropping ball in the full-back line.
"We have a lot of big men so we tried to play to our strengths against Kilkenny," says Offaly's Brian Carroll. "We faced down Kilkenny where they are at their strongest. They are so strong in the air but we decided to hit them where they least expected it.
"You have to clear their half-back line. They sit so deep and have a wall across their half-back line that automatically means loading high ball on top of their full-back line. They still catch a serious amount of possession in the full-back line and are still very hard to break down. But I think teams have copped on to it a bit more and the full-back line is dealing with more high ball than they ever had to before."
Tipperary didn't go down that road in the league final, primarily because they appeared to be keeping their powder dry for a meeting which might now happen sooner than they initially expected. Tipp have always needed goals to beat Kilkenny but they created just one goal chance because their long-shooting tactic didn't drag the Kilkenny defence out the field to create extra space inside.
Kilkenny still ruled the skies as normal, winning the statistic for high catching in aerial duels 15-8. Kilkenny have never lost that statistical category over the last seven years.
The primary reason Galway beat them in last year's Leinster final, and almost beat them in the drawn All-Ireland final, was how they contaminated Kilkenny's aerial possession. They got the ball to the ground as quickly as possible, before seeking to win it on the deck and then moving it fast inside.
It was only when Kilkenny got to grips with that tactic in the second half of the drawn final, when making nine high catches in 50-50 aerial duels, that they began to stem Galway's dominance. Kilkenny played with a far more zonal defence in the replay but Galway still got at them with long, high ball into the danger zone.
Bombing high ball on top of the full-back line is a by-product of trying to bypass the Kilkenny half-back line but Galway have repeatedly shown the best way to crack them open under that bombardment. They had a strategy last year of constantly rotating three players in a triangle between the half-forward and full-forward lines. With at most two, often just one, of those players inside, it was harder for the Kilkenny full-back line to set up under high ball as they were on the move.
However, the responsibility to counteract that tactic is as much dependent on work rate in the middle third as solidity inside. The fact that Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice have missed considerable chunks of the last 12 months with injury is related to the concession of so many goals in that time span.
"If we are conceding goals, perhaps it isn't the full-back line we should be looking at," says Pat Henderson, former Kilkenny defender and manager. "If Kilkenny are playing well, they are defending from their full-forward line out. If they are not defending well, they are leaving their full-back line more exposed than normal. I wouldn't single out any one player but as the team has been evolving, it's difficult for all of the new personnel to be completely au fait with the defensive set-up that was there."
The Kilkenny machine is still relentlessly marching forward but it has also been slightly slowing down. When they were on their way to, and at, their absolute peak between 2007 and 2008, Kilkenny conceded four goals from play in nine championship matches. In the 2011 championship, they conceded just two goals from play. Yet since last year's Leinster final, Kilkenny have coughed up 13 goals in six championship games. They have only kept two clean sheets in their last 12 league and championship matches.
Conceding so many goals negates Kilkenny's ruthlessness because it leaves teams in games. It has also stripped a couple of layers off their aura of invincibility. Teams are no longer as fearful of them, especially without Henry Shefflin and Michael Fennelly. Teams still have to go and beat Kilkenny. But they have a better idea now of how to get at them.
"It's not rocket science but the more ball you can get in closer to goal, the more damage you can do," says Carroll. "You're not going to win every ball that goes in there. But if a lot of high ball is going in, something is going to have to give at some stage."
Over the last four years, Dublin have failed to score a goal from play against Kilkenny in four championship meetings. They will need to hit the net on Sunday. And Galway and Offaly have shown them the best way of doing so.