Saturday 24 March 2018

Fluid defensive strategy always liable to spring a leak

Tommy Conlon

Sometimes it's hard to square the circle: Kerry would've liked a severe test en route to the All-Ireland final but, as it turned out, they were just too good to give themselves that test against the teams that came their way.

And there's not much point in playing Russian roulette with the result, just because the ordeal might stand to them at a later stage of the campaign. So they negotiated each hurdle with due seriousness and one by one the challenges to them withered.

Cork in the Munster final was to have been the first major test and they met it head on with that devastating first-half performance. They'd have done the same no matter who they met in the quarter-final but they drew Limerick in the lottery and duly despatched them without fuss.

Given what we know now, it's probably fair to say they'd have sorted out Cork in the semi-final too -- but Mayo did that anyway. Mayo were rugged last Sunday and worked tremendously hard to keep them at bay but in the end Kerry coasted home.

Jack O'Connor wasn't complaining about Mayo's tackling strategy afterwards; in fact, he seemed grateful for it. But Mayo's overall challenge wasn't quite as rigorous as the Kerry manager maintained either. They didn't have the firepower to seriously examine Kerry's defensive formation.

And if they did, it mightn't have added a whole lot to what O'Connor -- and everyone else -- already knows anyway. It has become an article of faith that Kerry's defence is fragile. But there is room for debate on the degree of that frailty. The stats, for example, would suggest it is overstated. They have conceded 5-53 in five championship matches, an average of 13.5 points per game. Those figures, if not miserly, are economical. And these defenders are all good footballers -- a few are outstanding.

But of course these stats cannot be fully trusted as a future guide to form. They were accumulated against teams with weak enough firepower. And there are ongoing issues with the improvised nature of that Kerry defence: three of the six are playing out of position and this includes full-back and centre half-back -- the all-important spine.

The modern game has become so fluid that defenders are expected to go with the flow: adapt to the constant movement of forwards, fill in at short notice in any position, and figure out each situation on the hoof. Kerry's defence has the pace and intelligence to do this better than most teams. Last Sunday they made loads of smart, sharp interventions.

It was actually the traditional long ball that threatened to do most damage. They do not have a commanding aerial presence in the full-back line. Marc ó Sé has an exceptional array of talents -- a natural ball player with the discipline and concentration of a destructive man-marker. If there is any back in Ireland capable of containing Colm Cooper, it is his own team-mate -- ó Sé, for starters, has the turning circle of an eel. He can live with the twists and turns of the fastest forwards, as he proved in that marvellous cameo with Cork's Paul Kerrigan last year in Killarney.

We were treated to two more such moments last Sunday when Mayo's Andy Moran went one-on-one with him in a classic duel of dummies and feints and lightning-quick turns. Moran eventually shook him off on each occasion for a shot on goal, and then a point, but he had ó Sé in his face for longer than almost any other back would have survived.

That was on the ground. In the air neither ó Sé nor Killian Young -- a wing-back to his fingertips -- have the heft or the height to cope with a well-directed high ball. They are both striving manfully to make the best of it, and doing plenty of good work in the process, but it's a simple matter of physique. In the 29th minute, Mayo's Cillian O'Connor -- a taller, heavier man -- easily won a long ball against Young and then rolled him on the turn. It should have been a handy point -- O'Connor kicked it wide.

In the second half, Mayo targeted Moran with some accurate diagonal deliveries that should

again have yielded more on the scoreboard. ó Sé's positioning on each occasion was that of a corner-back not a full-back. In theory it might only be a matter of 20 yards between one position and the other; in practice it's a matter of mindset too. A natural full-back thinks like a civil servant: cautious, prudent, conservative. He will always want to be goal side of his opponent. A corner-back with pace to burn, like ó Sé, will gamble on playing his man from the front, hoping to win the race to the ball and trusting he'll have enough speed to recover if he doesn't. But when Moran twice caught the ball from behind ó Sé last Sunday, he was in on goal.

Kerry have one game left to negotiate. They may well hatch a strategy to protect the defence sufficiently on the day while their forwards go to work at the other end, baling out more water than they will ultimately leak at the back.

Naturally, a lot will depend on today's result. Dublin or Donegal? Jack will be diplomatic -- but it's not hard to guess who he'd prefer.

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