Athleticism, versatility and emerging talent - why 2019 already looks like a strong year for Mayo
After a disappointing early exit to last year's championship at the hands of Kildare, few would have thought that there would be a kick out of this Mayo team in 2019.
Yet under the management of the returning James Horan, Mayo have won their first national title since 2001 and their first bit of silverware since their 2015 Connacht championship final.
A great help to Horan was his ability to unearth a stream of new talent, particularly up front to add to the team's stalwart names like Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty and Diarmuid O'Connor. We saw in the league final how seamlessly the likes of McLoughlin linked up with James Carr and how Carr in particular stood up and took the game to Kerry in the second half.
It is a signature of Horan's teams to give it their all on the pitch and never give up no matter how high the odds are stacked against him. He gets the best out of his players and utilises them in the best way he can to achieve their max potential.
In his first four-year tenure between 2011 and 2014, Horan got Mayo to the All-Ireland final on two occasions, losing out by the narrowest of margins in 2013 to Dublin.
Horan utilised his powerful and athletic group of players with an effective running game which maximised the athleticism of their half back line against their opponents.
Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Chris Barret, Donal Vaughan and Keith Higgins have all famously ran up the field to great effect in Horan's heyday. But their greatest asset was turned into their weakness in all their Al-Ireland short comings.
Ciaran Kilkenny famously admitted in no short terms that the Dubs always targeted the Mayo attacking half backs because it was the most effective way to stifle Mayo's influence on the scoreboard.
Mayo's game plan of 'running from deep' has been a trademark of this team and a hallmark of some of their most memorable scores.
Lee Keegan's goal in the 2017 final and his goal in the All-Ireland Final Replay a year earlier are two stand out examples of this.
There's no doubt that under ex-manager Stephen Rochford, Mayo diversified their attacking plan. The kicking game they deployed for Keegan's 2017 goal was an example of how their game plan had evolved.
Yes, the goal was scored by Keegan after he had made a lung busting run up the field. But, Keegan was not in possession of the ball until he received it in the Dublin square after a series of kick passes in along the Hogan Stand wing.
Multi-dimensional Attack Plan
That was a mark change in Mayo's play nurtured under the influence of Crossmaglen coach Tony McEntee, who honed a kicking transition into Mayo's play.
This change was brought out of necessity as Dublin had hemmed in Mayo's two main game plans in the 2015 season to great effect, their runners from deep and the Aidan O'Shea full-forward experiment, which had worked to devastating effect in their twenty-four point hammering of Sligo in Mayo's last Connacht final victory.
The Dubs were able to nullify both attacking plans by crowding the middle third of the pitch. This made the Mayo runners coming through run into a blue wall, forcing unforced errors and allowing Dublin's to intercept and turn them over time after time.
Crowding the middle third also allowed Dublin to stop the threat of Aidan O'Shea close to goal, as the Mayo transition players couldn't deliver the kind of quality ball into them as they had against Sligo and Donegal.
McEntee gave Mayo the option of kicking over the crowded middle-third, and made the Mayo attack more versatile as a result. But, the reliance on the half backs never changed and we still saw the likes of Higgins roaming forward and scoring goals in Croke Park in the All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Roscommon in 2017.
Under Rochford, Mayo had a game plan which pushed the Dubs all the way in both 2016 and 2017, losing out by a point on both occasions (after a replay in 2016). But, their versatility in strategy was not met with a versatility in personel.
New Emerging Forwards
Horan appears to have risen Mayo from the dead in a phoenix-like rebirth this year. Personnel change has been the big difference, as the underage stars of the minor and U21 All-Ireland-winning teams come flooding through.
While Mayo were tactically hemmed in by their reliance on thunderous half back scoring sprees, now they have more than two forwards up front who can cause serious damage on the scoreboard.
James Carr, Fionn McDonagh, Brian Reape, Ciaran Treacy and Matthew Ruane have all written their names onto the team, with Ruane being likened to the 2018 Footballer of the Year Brian Fenton.
All these forwards and even midfielder Ruane have showed lethal finishing throughout the league, which marked a sharing of responsibility by Mayo forwards to add to the scoreboard.
McDonagh is an exciting prospect and has been the most visible of the new crop of players throughout the National League. He is an invaluable left-footed player in a Mayo set-up that has struggled to find a left-footed free-taker, preferring Cillian O'Connor on both sides of the posts.
As Mayo only had two real dangermen close to goal in recent seasons (Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran) it made them predictable and easy for the likes of Galway to defend against. This year's youth brings a dynamism to their attack.
The style with which Ruane, Diarmuid O'Connor and Treacy finished their goals in the league final shows that there has been a profound change in how the team plays as a unit, with the six forwards trusted to get the crucial scores.
The Great Achilles heel
Anyone who has paid a bit of notice to this Mayo team over the past few seasons knows their Achilles heel has been in their defensive set-up.
Under Rochford, the Kevin McLoughlin sweeper (2016) and the rotation sweeper (2017) were tried to remedy the gaping holes that were left in Mayo's defence when they pushed Dublin all the way in those campaigns.
While Mayo did stop early ball and high balls with these tactics, they didn't manage to outscore the Dubs (although they did come very close.)
In the league final, Mayo had a formidable set of man-markers. Chris Barrett, Patrick Durcan, Brendan Harrison, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Donal Vaughan all made for a ferocious unit to man Mayo's goals.
With the Mayo backs given the option of being more reserved in their runs forward, they were able to mark the likes of David Cllifford and Sean O'Shea out of the game.
McLoughlin's changing role
To see the freshness that Horan has brought to the table this season all you have to do is look at the changing role of Kevin McLoughlin. He has probably been underused due to his great work-rate in recent seasons but his move further up the pitch under Horan in this year's league has been a revelation.
McLoughlin has been playing at corner forward for Mayo but his role has been more that of a traditional centre forward. He's a play maker. McLoughlin was the fulcrum for a lot of Mayo's attacking plan in the league final. If a ball was kicked in towards the 45, he would burst out from near the goal to win possession of the ball in front of his marker and any sweepers hanging back.
From this position he has been able to cause havoc in attack, offloading to the likes of James Carr in the league final and also setting up Matthew Ruane's Tralee goal with a brilliant kick pass over the Kerry defence.
He is such a hardworking and clever player that a traditional fifty-fifty ball will be won more often than not by the lightning fast Knockmore man.
Having saved Mayo from relegation against Donegal by salvaging a draw with the last kick of the game last year, McLoughlin has the nerve and experience to help the new young guns blend into the team.
There's no doubt that Mayo have become a more balanced team this season. Their potency in attack with the new young players will put them in a great position this summer.
The big test will be Galway in the Connacht final, if they can get over Roscommon on the 25th of May. They will need their full compliment of forwards shooting on all cylinders to break down the dogged Tribesmen, as well as their backs holding their positions to stop the Galway attack punishing them on the counter-attack.
If they can continue their league form into the Super 8's they do have the balance in footballers to execute a potent and unpredictable game plan capable of halting Dublin's ambition of five in-a-row. However, the forwards must take the mantle of notching the game-changing scores that the half backs have traditionally got.