Tuesday 21 November 2017

Laois star Billy Sheehan on how to beat the blanket defence

It is the question which occupies most Gaelic football coaches: How do beat the blanket defence? Billy Sheehan offers a solution

We saw the arrival of the blanket defence in 2011. Donegal under Jimmy McGuinness (pictured) unveiled it and initially it came under intense scrutiny and criticism
We saw the arrival of the blanket defence in 2011. Donegal under Jimmy McGuinness (pictured) unveiled it and initially it came under intense scrutiny and criticism

In an article on girls' basketball, Malcolm Gladwell described how a political scientist had looked at every war fought in the past 200 years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won 71.5 per cent of the time.

The conflicts analysed were the type where one side was at least 10 times more powerful than their opponents, taking into account their armed might and population. Even in those obviously one-sided contests, the underdog won almost a third of the time. This got me thinking about how Donegal conquered all.

We saw the arrival of the blanket defence in 2011. Donegal under Jimmy McGuinness unveiled it and initially it came under intense scrutiny and criticism. It was a unique system devised to win an All-Ireland and ultimately Donegal's objective was realised. Many hours have been spent on and off the pitch developing a strategy to unlock this seemingly impenetrable rearguard unit.

Today it is still the subject of much opinion and debate as ideas are conceived with the aim of perfecting a plan to counter what is in many respects a zone defence. The system originally put in place by Donegal has now been modified and enhanced.

Defence remains the platform from which attacking thrusts and counter-attacking runs are launched. Dividing the pitch into four, players run their lines with purpose in groups of three or four. All the time keeping the pitch spread and if they are blocked, they recycle the ball patiently, waiting for an opening or key shooters to come on the loop. Midfielders and three or four of their forwards retreat and cover the gaps left at the rear.

Much of the focus of the doctrine preached surrounds not conceding goals or fouls. In Donegal's last 27 Championship games - since McGuinness took the reins - they have scored 30 goals and conceded 13. Their average scoring returns have increased from 13 points in 2011 to 17 in last year's Championship. Ultimately, the creators have moved on, while most of the others are watching on and wondering.

Donegal have changed mindsets all over the country. From Ballinskelligs to Bundoran, teams at all levels now feel they have a chance at glory if they adopt a negative defensive system.

However, people must realise that it is not just about getting bodies back behind the ball. Players must know their own specific role and the part it plays in the overall system.

The original blanket has been cut in two, with a transition needed to attack if a team wants to achieve success. Ideas on how to break teams down and transfer this to the scoreboard vary from supporters, to players, to management. For me, there are a few key ways to make this happen.

Ideally, the full width of the pitch must be utilised with both touchlines occupied by supporting wing- or corner-backs. These players make the runs at times with the aim of just engaging the opposition's sweeper, to take them out of their structure.

Players must avoid being swallowed up in traffic going through the middle. Movement of the ball must be quick and accurate by foot, sideline to sideline, looking for the opening and players must resist the temptation to go into the tackle. It is vitally important that possession is retained because a turnover will develop into a counter-attack, as perfected by Donegal. Deep-running players will provide support if needed and this overlap will cause problems when an opening appears. Patience is key; unlike basketball there is no shot clock. Also, players must be disciplined and willing to sacrifice going the other way.

Players must provide a lot of movement out from the full-forward line. The knock-on effect is that this movement will drag man markers out to create space for runners to get in behind. This gives marquee players such as Bernard Brogan, Cillian O'Connor and James O'Donoghue the chance to find the necessary time and space in scoring sectors. Against Donegal, Brogan scored two points in last year's semi-final, while O'Connor and O'Donoghue failed to register from play in their respective All-Ireland final encounters.

Positioning a big man close to the square is an option and could, and indeed did, yield dividends for Kerry and Kieran Donaghy. But there is only one Star and teams could put more than one big ball-winner inside. Would Westmeath have been better served by locating 6' 6" Darragh Daly inside along with John Heslin and Kieran Martin in the Leinster final as a three-man target zone? Donegal are now posting Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher on occasion as twin targets with Paddy McBrearty and Colm McFadden providing the finish from the fringes.

Man markers could be detailed to limit the input of game-breakers such as Donegal's Karl Lacey, Dublin's Jack McCaffrey and Cork's Barry O'Driscoll - who had such an impact in last week's drawn Munster final.

Hurling people will point to the situation which evolved when Lar Corbett was given a similar task against Tommy Walsh, but in hindsight would it have been more effective if Bonner Maher was entrusted with those particular duties on that important day?

Communication is vital, and it must be clearly defined as to who commits and who sits. This involves many painstaking hours on the training ground and players willing to sacrifice their normal games. Teams now need to be able to adjust. Fifteen versus fifteen has become redundant and teams need to be coached and organised as a unit with the roles and positions completely different to what they were 10-15 years ago.

Targeting kick-outs when the blanket is not in place is also essential. If a team can win possession high up the pitch, their scoring percentage rate will increase significantly.

Tyrone's pressing game in the opposition's half of the pitch during their golden era throughout the noughties was hugely significant in their success.

Of course teams could also mimic the tactic used so often by Donegal. In the Ulster Championship semi-final, Derry frustrated them by doing just that but again you need at least two top scoring forwards to turn the frustration into a defeat. In their last Ulster Championship defeat, Monaghan used Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus to great effect.

Most of the current focus is on Dublin and their ability, or indeed, inability, to cope when the blanket is spread in front of them. In last year's semi-final they conceded three game-defining goals but still scored 0-17. Monaghan, who operate a system quite similar to Donegal's, tested them in this year's League semi-final. Dublin came through as they have against other teams who have set up in this manner during the League. A +27 points difference in Division 1 and the concession of only four goals in 12 League and Championship games is testament to the fact that they are learning.

Against Westmeath, Dublin kept the game wide, broke tackles, created space by moving in and out of areas quickly and set up a few block screens which might have come about because of the input of basketball coach Mark Ingle. But they are still looking for answers at both ends of the pitch. And their current strategy, which they modified after last year's defeat by Donegal in the All-Ireland series, will be fully tested when the likes of Kerry, Cork, Donegal, Mayo, and Monaghan roll into town.

The bottom line is that whatever system you devise you need top-quality footballers at peak fitness. Teams like Kerry always have this type of player whereas Donegal have remodelled and fitted all of their players into the various roles that need to be filled and, more importantly, form part of what is central to their philosophy and system.

They have defenders like the McGees and Paddy McGrath, running ball players like Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn, link players such as Odhrán MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh as well as scoring forwards like Paddy McBrearty and Colm McFadden. To top it all, they have their orchestrator, Michael Murphy, in whatever sector his talents are needed most. They can of course be beaten and were by Kerry last year, but their system will fully test every other team's tactics, discipline, resolve and belief. Very few teams, if any, will look forward to meeting them.

Billy Sheehan has been a member of the Laois inter-county panel since 2005

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