Friday 18 October 2019

Rory Gallagher: The Tyrone trio Dublin need to stop to keep three-in-row hopes alive

How Gavin's side tackle Red Hand's 'transition trio' will decide semi-final

Niall Sludden and Peter Harte of Tyrone
Niall Sludden and Peter Harte of Tyrone
'The roles of Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly (pictured) and Niall Sludden are at the heart of their current progress.' Photo: Sportsfile

Rory Gallagher

Whose terms will tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final be played on? That depends on how Dublin deal with that trio responsible for perhaps the most critical element of Tyrone's game - transition.

The roles of Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Niall Sludden are at the heart of their current progress.

Mickey Harte has made significant changes in 12 months. Padraig Hampsey has come in to do the same job as Justy McMahon, man-marker in some cases or sweeper, but with added licence and ability to get forward that Justy didn't have as much of.

With Ronan McNabb injured Kieran McGeary, a club forward, has come in essentially as left half-back.

One of the biggest decisions has been to make Mark Bradley a permanent starter.

Mickey has clearly decided that neither Ronan O'Neill nor Darren McCurry had cut the mustard against Donegal and Mayo and weren't good enough to play with their back to goal at this level.

Bradley shows for the ball better and will go it alone up there for long spells. Conor Meyler has been taken out and Conall McCann has come into midfield, where he too adds a greater scoring threat.

All of these changes have allowed Mickey to develop that axis between Bradley and the rest. Sean Cavanagh makes it a quartet but he's not as fluid as the other three.

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Tyrone have totally settled this year on Peter Harte and Sludden as forwards. It's a brave move to give Donnelly the same portfolio, considering he is a double All-Star midfielder, albeit not a conventional one.

The sequence of changes have added more scoring power to Tyrone when, ironically, they are playing without recognised 'back-to-goal' attackers.

So, Donnelly, Harte and Sludden have become to Tyrone what James O'Donoghue, Kieran Donaghy and Paul Geaney are to Kerry. And they are the line that Dublin must pay the most attention to.

That gives Dublin a problem. How do you mark these players because they go so deep? They deserve to be man-marked because they provide so many assists and score from play.

Do they push out on them or do they hold their shape and pick them up as they come into the danger area, 60-65 metres from goals? If you go the whole way with them you are conceding huge space, which they want you to do. That's what much of Tyrone's game is based on - drawing opponents out.

It presents a dilemma for teams who play orthodox full-backs. What use are they if they have no one to mark inside? Dublin don't have that issue because Mick Fitzsimons can pick up Bradley and Jonny Cooper and Philly McMahon are equally comfortable sweeping in front.

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey gets away from Karl O’Connell of Monaghan during the SFC quarter-final in Croke Park last night. Photo: Sportsfile

I feel Dublin will sit numbers back and won't get sucked in too deep. They won't engage this trio until they reach a certain point and then any combination of John Small, Eric Lowndes, Cooper, McMahon, and even Jack McCaffrey will pick them up.

The 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal has been referenced often this week and with good reason. But Dublin are a much better coached team in the three years since.

Look at the 'front eight' they had then - three Footballer of the Year winners (Alan and Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley), four-in-a-row All-Star Paul Flynn, a once-in-a-lifetime player in Diarmuid Connolly, Eoghan O'Gara, Cormac Costello and Cian O'Sullivan.

In all probability, none of that eight will start in any of those positions tomorrow - though I'd start Connolly because of the way Tyrone set up, they may not man-mark him.

But because Dublin are coached better now, they have a much better chance of unpicking the same kind of concentrated defence they faced in 2014. They tried to win the game with long-range scores that day but that will only work for so long.

Dublin have become a team for all seasons, all challenges. If they have to play a possession game, they'll play it. Against Donegal in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, a game they dominated, they had only 15 points scored before Paul Mannion went through for that goal. For the semi-final against Kerry they scored 22 points. Different game.

Tyrone want you to go down the middle. You can make a decision to go the wings where it is harder to score but you can't force ball into the full-forward line. You won't see Ciaran Kilkenny, Brian Fenton and James McCarthy doing that.

Dublin will give something extra for Tyrone to think about too by playing a conventional three inside forwards, forcing Tyrone to use three man-markers. Generally, they only have to play with two markers and two sweepers, Hampsey and Colm Cavanagh.

Cavanagh and O'Sullivan, for me, have the best understanding of the sweeping role because they know when to push the line out. That helps Cavanagh to get in so many blocks and interceptions.

The Monaghan game wasn't the dry run most felt it was for Dublin because Monaghan tend to man-mark, Tyrone are almost exclusively zonal in their approach.

Kilkenny and Connolly, if he plays, could have more freedom than they're accustomed to - but only in certain parts of the field.

Tyrone have changed their approach to opposition kick-outs too. In the past they've sat back off them to allow themselves to set up but now, like all the top teams, they press high. Tyrone can't afford to give Dublin easy possession. They'll put four into the front line at times. It's part of their evolution.

There's nothing that this Dublin team hasn't experienced or planned for. In the two most recent Croke Park league games between the teams Dublin allowed that space to develop, which suited Tyrone. This time they'll sit back, hold their shape and wait for the 'transition trio' to come to them.

That will be on their terms for a 0-16 to 0-13 win.

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