O'Shea revving up Tipp goal machine
Published 03/05/2013 | 05:00
Sometimes, statistics stare you in the face because data, trends and logic don't seem to add up.
This time last year, it was almost impossible to make sense of some of Tipperary's stats. A team that hit 11 goals in successive games in the 2011 championship managed just four from play in over 420 minutes of league hurling last year.
The 2011 Munster championship confirmed that Tipperary team as the greatest goalscoring side of the last 20 years, even surpassing the numbers that the last great goalscoring machine – Cork's 1990-91 vintage – clocked up.
By that stage, Tipp had hit 24 goals in their previous six championship matches. And then the goals began drying up.
Dublin and Kilkenny subsequently limited Tipperary to just two goals and five clear-cut goalscoring opportunities in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final and final.
That trend carried into last spring. Of the 34 teams in the hurling league, only Armagh and Longford scored fewer goals from play than Tipp.
In total, Tipp created just 13 goalscoring chances in six games.
Those stats did contain an asterisk – Lar Corbett wasn't around, Seamus Callanan and Patrick 'Bonner' Maher were injured, while Eoin Kelly's game time was limited to just 79 minutes.
Of the 26 goals Tipp scored between the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final and the 2011 All-Ireland final, those four players either scored, or provided the final pass for, 24 of them.
Yet, when their gunslingers returned for the summer, their goal stats still didn't spike upwards.
Tipp scored just six goals in four games. In total, they created just 12 goalscoring opportunities in over 280 minutes.
This season, though, there has been a return to old trends. At this stage last year, Tipp had hit just five goals. In their last six games, they have raised 14 green flags. As a comparison, they have scored seven more goals than Kilkenny.
Against Dublin, Tipp created nine goalscoring opportunities. They scored four goals. It could have been seven.
So what has changed?
The Eamon O'Shea factor
When Tipp were shooting the lights out at the turn of the last decade, their attack and how they interacted with each other was the outcome of O'Shea's brilliant vision during his time as coach.
Their greatest weapon was disorientation. They were creating so much panic in defences that it was causing even more space and more goalscoring opportunities.
O'Shea's central coaching goal is to create thinking players. He has always been intrigued by the teachings of Michel Bruyninckx, the Standard Liege academy director who is arguably the first soccer coach to develop a training method specifically to target improvement in the brain's performance.
O'Shea is always looking for players to adapt, to open their mind, to see opportunity and move to take advantage of that opportunity.
The Tipp boss encourages flair and has given total freedom to his players. He encourages expression. How they express that flair and abandon has often been reflected in their goalscoring.
The players' grasp of how O'Shea wants them to play
O'Shea wants his players to enjoy their hurling. That lends itself to playing with an aesthetic quality.
When Tipp were at their peak in 2010-11, the players privately spoke of the enjoyment they got in spinning the ball around.
They took as much pleasure in the killer pass, or the angle of the pass, that led to a goal, as the goal itself. They are gradually getting the confidence back to try those moves again.
The attacking system that Tipperary developed to such effect was all about interchanging positions and the exploitation of space.
O'Shea has always felt that if the team that can find what he terms "a structured randomness", they will cause opponents serious problems.
There has been ample evidence of Tipp finding that groove again this season.
Before 19-year old Jason Forde was presented with his man of the match award after the win against Dublin, TG4's Micheál O Domhnaill asked him about the fluidity and relentless interchanging of the Tipp attack.
"If you're standing still, you're an easy target," said Forde.
"It's individual. Movement comes naturally. I don't think there is any game plan to that. It's more natural movement really."
It's natural because the players are thinking now the way their manager wants them to.
Top football and hurling coaches have often contacted O'Shea about drills for manufacturing space. He always tells them he doesn't have any.
"The first thing about space," he once said, "is that you trust each other."
Trust then enables players to develop the concept of looking at the pitch differently. And then O'Shea lets the players work it out themselves.
Their use of possession
Under Liam Sheedy, the team were always given a target of hitting 30 balls into the scoring danger zone and they normally averaged 25.
Yet, in the middle of the 2011 season, Tipp changed their approach and went far more direct with long ball. That tactic peaked in the 2011 Munster final when it yielded a direct dividend of 4-13 of the 7-19 total.
However, it failed to work in the All-Ireland semi-final and final against more streetwise and aggressive defences. Against Dublin and Kilkenny, Tipp played 52 long balls into their attack and only won 15.
Kilkenny exposed that tactic again when the sides met in the opening league game in 2012. Tipp went back to a more precise stick-passing game afterwards, albeit with far more emphasis on shooting from distance.
Yet they still struggled to penetrate close to goal and when the heat came on, old habits returned.
In last year's All-Ireland semi-final, 35 aimless balls rained in on top of Kilkenny defenders.
The quality of ball going in to the Tipp attack now is far superior. It is measured and mostly going to space, but to the receiver's hand moving in to that space.
That takes some of the defensive heat of the receiver and gives him that extra second to assess his options.
How will Tipp fare now against a more aggressive and physical defence?
Tipp scored 2-17 against Kilkenny in their league meeting in March but the two goals were preventable. In fact, if you coldly analyse Tipp's 14 league goals, six were down to either goalkeeping or defensive errors as opposed to carving defences open.
Tipp clocked up 11-61 against Clare, Galway and Dublin but none of those defences played with the aggression and togetherness that Kilkenny will bring on Sunday.
"It doesn't look to me that Tipp have a forward line for hard physical confrontation when it comes to it," wrote Ger Loughnane in his newspaper column before Tipp played Dublin.
"If hurling was a non-contact sport, Tipperary would be a very good team. When their forwards were closely marked by the Waterford backs at Walsh Park, tough opponents on a tight pitch, they really struggled."
That is the challenge now that Tipp must meet head on.
O'Shea has been trying to develop a couple of different styles but he may want to conceal some of his hand for a potential meeting with Kilkenny in the summer.
Yet Sunday will be the most accurate barometer yet of how far Tipp have come under O'Shea. Especially in their goalscoring.