Monday 27 January 2020

Are bad defences to blame for increased scoring rate in this year's championship?

Stefan Campbell scoring for Armagh v Donegal
Stefan Campbell scoring for Armagh v Donegal
Bernard Brogan

Donnchadh Boyle and Liam Kelly

Are poor defensive displays to blame for the high scoring rates in the football championship? Vote below.

Yes, says Donnchadh Boyle

It's a measure of how far things have gone that when football suddenly looks a little more fluid and open than we have become accustomed to over the past few years we turn and look for something to blame.

It's not poor defending that is at the root of the this year's more open contests - we've just seen a return to some old values that had been ignored for a while. Over the last decade or more, setting a team up to make them hard to beat rather than sending them out to try and outscore the opposition was the fashion.

It was understandable too. The amount of time, effort and financial resources going into the preparation of county teams, along with the ever-growing pressures placed on managers to make tangible progress, means that more drastic tactics were used.

Quite simply, players and managers were willing to go further than before to get the desired result and that often meant cynical and negative play. And until this year, referees just didn't have the powers to deal with how players were exploiting the rules.

People soon got fed up of the growing emphasis on negative play as witnessed by the introduction of the Black Card after an exhaustive consultation process by the Football Review Committee.

The sanction was designed to stamp out cynical play and while the rule is still bedding in and is far from perfect, the threat at least means that there are real consequences for doing something like blocking a supporting runner or deliberately dragging down an opponent, which previously halted forward momentum and helped keep scoring rates down.

Being a marquee forward before the black card was a lonely existence.

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A few years ago, Down star Benny Coulter stated that he wouldn't pay to watch football when he retires because it had lost some of its entertainment value.

But now star forwards have a little more room to operate and that is being reflected in the scorelines.

Kerry's James O'Donoghue, Galway's Shane Walsh and several of the Dublin forwards have shone this year and it has made for a better spectacle.

The new sanctions don't prevent good defending either. Some of the work by Dublin and Mayo in the tackle has been exemplary. Dublin's Jonny Cooper recently insisted they treat defending as an "art form".

It all means the balance between a skilful player and an athlete has also been redressed and that's good news for everyone involved in football.

So defences haven't suddenly faded dramatically, it's just that some of the more underhand tactics that were used are now only available at a price that most inter-county footballers, who dedicate their lives to their sport, aren't willing to pay.

That can only be positive as football evolves.

No, says Liam Kelly

In a perfect world that is nirvana for team managers and coaches, their teams would never concede goals in any match.

Players can be drilled to the nth degree in training, systems can be put in place and rehearsed over and over again, but it only takes a player or two to switch off mentally for a couple of seconds, and a Bernard Brogan or Colm Cooper will smash home a goal.

Don't get me wrong. I love to watch creative play and crafty forwards running rings around defenders, particularly in the era of the blanket defence.

However, strictly speaking, goals are avoidable if defenders do their job properly.

Bad defending is essentially about losing concentration, and losing your man in crucial areas at vital times, as was evident at Croke Park last Saturday night.

Donegal were struggling until Odhran MacNiallais scored a 22nd-minute goal to put them 1-1 to 0-3 ahead.

As always, the little things counted. Aaron Findon of Armagh lost MacNiallais as the Donegal man made a run forward.

Meanwhile, Anthony Thompson's angled run put him a couple of paces clear of Brendan Donaghy.

Neil Gallagher then neatly played a ball from midfield into space for Thompson to collect it.

From there, Thompson handpassed to Paddy McBrearty.

An excellent fisted pass by McBrearty found MacNiallais, who still had the jump on Findon.

Next, Findon made a vain attempt to block MacNiallais' path. The Donegal man stepped inside him, and with a left-footed kick, beat the goalie on his near post.

Great for Donegal, great for the match as a spectacle? Definitely.

Avoidable? Unquestionably, as was the Armagh goal in the second half which put them 1-10 to 1-9 ahead with ten minutes to go.

Again, it began with a ball played down the wing, this time on the left side of Donegal's defence.

Eamon McGee didn't get close enough to prevent Ruairi Grugan tipping the ball along the endline to Brian Mallon. Neil McGee was also in no-man's land, and could not prevent Mallon crossing to his full-forward Stefan Campbell.

Campbell must have been amazed to be on the fringe of Donegal goal area, free and unmarked.

He jumped, batted the ball downwards, and it rebounded off the upright, and into the net off Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan.

In such a tight match, that concession could have killed Donegal, but they survived and got to the semi-finals.

The message is clear: good technical defending and tackling must be perfected as much as possible to give teams a platform for victory in any game.

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