Friday 23 August 2019

Peter Canavan: 'Game-changer Patton has the key to unlock Cavan defence'

Breffni have made huge progress but Donegal are a cut above and can win with room to spare

Donegal's Shaun Patton. Photo: Sportsfile
Donegal's Shaun Patton. Photo: Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

Leaving Kingspan Breffni Park after Donegal's win over Tyrone, it was clear that goalkeeper Shaun Patton exerted a significant influence on the game - but it was only after crunching the numbers that it became clear just how good he had been in that match.

Patton is a former League of Ireland goalkeeper with Derry and Sligo Rovers and with that background, you'd expect the basics of his play between the posts to be solid, but it was his kick-outs and ability to find his man from restarts that set him apart.

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He only made his championship debut last year but against Tyrone in the pressure cooker of an Ulster semi-final, he gave a display of kicking that Stephen Cluxton or Rory Beggan would be proud of.

Of his 24 kick-outs that day, Donegal won 23. In modern-day football, stats like that might not be so unusual given that a lot of teams opt to concede the kick-out. But when you consider Tyrone went man-for-man on Donegal kick-outs, it's a remarkable return.

As the graphic shows, he varied his kick-outs, going both short and long, left and right. On the day, 14 of them went beyond the 45m line and, remarkably, Donegal won every one of those.

Donegal were a well-oiled machine, pulling some of their bigger players such as Hugh McFadden and Jason McGee towards the ball as a decoy, leaving Ciaran Thompson and Michael Murphy to rule the skies around the middle. This Donegal team has many strengths, but Patton's kick-outs laid the foundations on which their success was built.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

When Cavan manager Mickey Graham sat down to look at Donegal this week, he is likely to have focused on Patton's impact, and possibly concluded that his team will need to make the goalkeeper's life difficult in Sunday's Ulster final.

I played against Mickey a few times and got to know him a bit when I was with Cavan Gaels. His enthusiasm for the game was always clear and he's already shown himself to be a shrewd manager. In the Ulster semi-final replay against Armagh, he spotted that without Brendan Donaghy, Armagh lacked a bit of size in the full-back line and were vulnerable in there

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Mickey sent two of his bigger men - Gearoid McKiernan and Conor Madden - in there and it worked. If there's a crack to be found, he can exploit it.

At kick-out time, his team will offer the Donegal goalkeeper a different type of challenge to Tyrone. Tyrone's man-for-man style expects each player to take care of his opposite number.

The problem with that approach is that it leaves pockets of space for Patton to chip the ball into.

Most teams have several approaches to kick-outs but Cavan's preferred method is to press higher and go zonal on Patton's kick-outs, meaning different players have responsibility for different parts of the pitch rather than individual players. It means Patton will be looking at a different picture this Sunday. It will be interesting to see how he gets on.

That approach has its own limitations. Donegal are likely to go short from their restarts, which in turn invites teams to run the ball. There are not many in the business better at that than Donegal, as illustrated by their goal against Tyrone.

At one stage in the build-up to that goal, Paddy McBrearty was the only Donegal player inside the Tyrone 45. Fast forward a few seconds, Donegal had the ball in the net and there were five Donegal players inside the Tyrone 20m line. When they run the ball, they can be devastating.

Still, I don't think Cavan will leave their defence so exposed and I think you'll see two teams mirror each other. I expect the Breffni men to be a little less gung-ho than they were against Armagh, given the amount of ways Donegal can hurt you.

Dilemma

At the other end, they'll need big games from McKiernan and Dara McVeety. And much like the Armagh game, Graham might try to pick at the Donegal full-back line. After Neil McGee, there isn't much in the way of size in there, with Patton one of the smaller keepers around.

If McGee picks up Madden, they have a dilemma with Gearoid McKiernan. Do they put a smaller player on him and hope he's not exposed or end up bringing a midfielder (maybe Hugh McFadden) to deal with his aerial power?

When it comes to it, I think Donegal will have too much. Cavan have improved under Graham. They have some top-class players and are getting to express themselves.

For Donegal, it's just about winning and getting into the 'Super 8s'. They already made their statement when beating Tyrone in the way they did.

I think Declan Bonner would take a low-key, one-point win. But I expect them to win by a few points more than that.

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