Soccer, Jim Malone Cup
Dundalk continued their pre-season schedule by following their glamorous friendlies against two quality European side in Spain with a more bread and butter fixture, their annual skirmish with neighbours, Drogheda for the Malone Cup bragging rights.
The only consolation about last Thursday night's encounter was that it provided an alternative to watching the last TV election debate with the seven party leaders, but in truth, like the debate, it was a rather tame affair, with the inevitable conclusion, a Dundalk win with two second half goals.
Over the demanding schedule of pre-season games, head coach Vinny Perth has rightly tried to give his full panel as much game time as possible as well as trying out a few trialists, but he has also tried, in a number of the games, to experiment with different playing systems.
Against Drogheda he started with three at the back, five across midfield, and Patrick Hoban leading the line with Michael Duffy playing off the main striker.
It's a system the head coach tried in the opening game of the season against UCD, and again in Spain and, in almost all occasions, he has reverted, or was forced to revert, to the more familiar system of 4-4-1-1 in the second half of the games.
Judging by the half-time comments on Thursday night it's fair to say that supporters were not entirely enamoured with the 'three at the back' system, and it was obvious that the players were struggling to conform to the system, with Michael Duffy looking baffled at times about his positioning, and the wing-backs, Sean Gannon and Darragh Leahy getting into good positions at times, but failing to deliver to exploit the space that was created for them.
On this occasion, the three selected at the back were Daniel Cleary on the right, Brian Gartland in the centre and Dane Massey on the left, with Gartland and Massey struggling in their new roles, as Massey who would not be a natural for that position in preference to Sean Hoare or Andy Boyle, finding it difficult to curb his attacking instincts, and Gartland's delivery, which is an essential part of the armoury of a player in that role, lacking sharpness.
Unquestionably there was a marked improvement in the second half when the introduction of Hoare saw the formation revert to a flat back four, with Gannon and Duffy restored to their best position, and the introduction of Daniel Kelly to inject some pace into the side.
Afterwards many were questioning the wisdom or trying new formations especially when the system employed almost every season since Stephen Kenny took over the club has been very successful, and is one with which the players are very comfortable.
That opinion ignores the reality that most teams, especially in the domestic League, know the way Dundalk play and come to Oriel Park with a well drilled plan to stop Dundalk playing, but if they arrive not knowing the system Dundalk will employ on the night they might find their well rehearsed plans won't work. In addition European football places additional demands in that currently many top teams employ three at the back, with a high pressing game, and Dundalk must be able to counter that system, and better still, perfect that system themselves.
It is therefore essential that the coaching staff experiment with new systems, and not just on the training pitch, but in matches, such as the pre-season friendlies.
It is only by doing so that they can learn about the systems in which the players are most comfortable, and it's obvious from the games to date, that it is going to take time to perfect a new system, for again in Thursday match against Drogheda, as in a number of the other games, playing three at the back can expose gaps in defence which good teams can exploit.
As the schedule of friendly games come to an end, Vinny Perth and his coaching staff, are going to have to settle on a system and the players they will select in that system before the opening League game against Derry City on February 14th.
They may not be inclined to reveal their full hand in Sunday's President Cup game with Shamrock Rovers at Oriel Park by reason of the fact that the game does not carry the same importance as the opening League game.
It could however set down a marker for the season, for it's highly likely that the two teams will be the main contenders for the League, and winning the first game between the clubs this season could carry some bragging rights, especially after Rovers Cup final win in November.
Perhaps the selection for the Rovers game will give more of an insight into the head coach's thinking for the Derry game, for if he employs the tried and trusted system, then it's likely that Gannon and Massey will occupy the full back positions, and two from three, Cleary, Boyle and Hoare will occupy the central positions.
In midfield, Jordan Flores and Sean Murray who are looking a lot fitter at the start of this season will be in contention for a place alongside the ever present and reliable, Chris Shields who will have a point to prove after missing the Cup final in controversial circumstances.
There could be a place two for newcomer, Greg Stoggett, but he offers much the same as Shields and John Mountney, (not just in appearance), and the one worrying aspect is the lack of a creative force to the 'number ten' role, for Patrick McEleney appears to be struggling with injury and Jamie McGrath has departed.
A player to fill that role must clearly be the target for the club to sign before the start of the campaign, but it's not ease to find a player of that quality, especially within the League.
Otherwise Dundalk appear to have a strong panel, capable of challenging for top honours, and whatever about the system they adopt, they still need a player at the top end of the field to provide the spark and the goals that will be needed in tight games.