Tuesday 16 October 2018

Scoring stats show blanket defence has had its day

Talking Point

Dean Rock scores a Dublin goal against Kildare in Croke Park, one of many green flags raised throughout the opening weekend of the League. Photo: Sportsfile
Dean Rock scores a Dublin goal against Kildare in Croke Park, one of many green flags raised throughout the opening weekend of the League. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There was a surreal feel to Donegal's second and third goals against Kerry in Killarney on Sunday - slight variations in their construction but similar in that their source was Donegal's own kick-out and both finishes were applied by hand.

But perhaps the most striking similarity was the space in front of Kerry's own goals that Donegal players were allowed to target and exploit.

First Paul Brennan ran on to a touch from one of those Peter Boyle kick-outs and sent Odhrán Mac Niallais away for a 'two v one' that left Shane Enright isolated with Donegal substitute Niall O'Donnell and the finish by Mac Niallais off O'Donnell's lay-off was clinical.

Then later Hugh McFadden, again seeing acres of space in front of Ronan Shanahan and his colleague Darach O'Connor, just on the field a handful of seconds, launched a speculative delivery which caught Shanahan out of position and landed perfectly for O'Connor to bat home for a lead which, ultimately, didn't last long.

Kerry were defending a two-point lead, they had an extra player as the clock ran into added time yet so many of their players had pushed so far up that the retreat, when it became obvious where McFadden was going to place his free, was like a stampede.

Shanahan's defence was poor in that moment, having played well otherwise, and Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice would point to an element of naivety which goes with the territory of putting faith in and having to run with so many new players.

But there was also a sense that Kerry's fast and loose defending was a spin off from a less structured approach.

Dropped

When Donegal dropped an extra man into midfield in the opening half, Jason Foley followed him out.

After Nathan Mullins' red card reduced Donegal to 14 players they didn't sit an extra man back for protection. Instead, they went for it.

It exposed them to their biggest league concession (3-14) in almost three years since Cork hit them for 3-17 in Páirc Uí Rinn but conversely was one of their biggest Division 1 returns (2-18) on Fitzmaurice's watch.

Fitzmaurice didn't articulate any specific style adjustment but quite clearly they were more aligned to scoring more than conceding less to win a match. After being panned locally for the unsuccessful deployment of Paul Murphy as a sweeper in the first half of last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo that may not be a road to be travelled again any time soon.

Declan Bonner has made no secret since coming in as Donegal manager to see a more expansive game played and they lived up to that in many respects on Sunday.

Bonner admitted afterwards that watching an All-Ireland final last September between two teams that weren't afraid to expose their defenders to one-to-one situations has helped to shape his thinking.

"Dublin and Mayo are the benchmark," said Bonner.

"They have proper defenders and they can also attack so we've got to try and get to that level. We're well off it at the minute."

It was a common theme at many grounds around the country hosting first-round league matches.

In 16 games, 32 teams delivered an average of 16.34 points each, up by almost one point on last year's first round which was played a week later and in largely benign conditions.

There were exceptions. Conditions in Tuam, where Tyrone and Galway mustered just 1-17 between them, made scoring more difficult.

But the average first-round score from each team is worth comparing to other recent years - 15.40 in 2017, 13.53 in 2016, 13.78 in 2015 and 16.28 in 2014, the first league matches to embrace the introduction of the black card where there was a lot of reluctance to tackle and obvious confusion on behalf of players and referees as to what the parameters were.

The opening day of 2018 compares more favourably than any other in recent years. Why? Weather was possibly a factor on the corresponding day in 2016 but on all other opening days the skies have been relatively calm.

An even more significant bounce is in the number of goals scored, 44 by comparison to 28 last year, 29 in 2016, 21 in 2015 and 37 in 2014.

Half the teams involved in the 16 football matches on Sunday scored two goals or more. Eight didn't register a goal at all, five from Division 4.

On the evidence of just one weekend it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion but it is plausible to ask the question as to what way teams and managements are possibly thinking this year.

Is the lead shown by Dublin and Mayo seeping in? What impact has Dublin's ruthless dismantling of Tyrone in last year's All-Ireland semi-final had on the psyche of other teams.

Of course, teams will always be mindful of compact defence. And there will be times for pragmatism like Carlow's approach against Dublin in last year's Leinster quarter-final.

They got a lot from denying Dublin a goal and keeping the margin to 12 points, enough to sustain them for three more championship games and a warm winter glow that makes them one of the favourites for promotion from Division 4.

Where was the practical benefit for them in taking Dublin head on?

But higher up the food chain that approach is clearly becoming redundant with the odd exception. The spike in goals last weekend is surely a pointer in that direction.

The introduction of the mark and the necessity for kick-outs to cross the 20-metre line are small changes that may be feeding into a more progressive mindset being taken by teams.

But the instinct to push out and push up is changing the terms of engagement once more.

Irish Independent

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