Sunday 18 March 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: Tactical flexibility sorely missing from Kingdom's armoury

David Clifford scrambles for the ball during last week’s rare defeat to Galway. Clifford’s
contribution has been outstanding but Kerry’s campaign has struggled to get off the ground. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Clifford scrambles for the ball during last week’s rare defeat to Galway. Clifford’s contribution has been outstanding but Kerry’s campaign has struggled to get off the ground. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

The real 'Beast from the East' has football tangled up in such an epidemic of second-guessing, Aristotle himself would struggle to figure out a solution.

Dublin's shadow is everywhere. You can't really judge any Division 1 team's performance on its merits without angling the conversation back to how they might cope further into 2018 against the boys in blue. When one team dominates the way Jim Gavin's has been doing, it's only natural to fixate on them.

And, as I read it, that's certainly where Eamonn Fitzmaurice's head is right now.

Now this brings its obvious dangers because it could amount to a wild goose chase. There's no guarantee Kerry will see Dublin again this year beyond next weekend's meeting in Croke Park, but I think Eamonn has taken the view that Gavin's men are the standard he must chase for Kerry. And he's dead right.

I was in Tralee last Sunday and, being blunt, Kerry looked a million miles off meeting that aspiration. They were neither one thing nor the other against Galway. "Let it in, let it in..." was all I kept hearing from the Kerry supporters.

But what's the point in just lamping ball down on mass defence? It would have been madness.

The general vibe I got from supporters was mixed. They get vexed when they see this pedestrian, lateral passing across the field that threatens nobody but, on the other hand, I detect general delight that so many young fellas are being blooded in this league.

My view is that Kerry will be there or thereabouts when the big prize is being handed out, but right now they're struggling to play with real clarity. And a consequence of that is that they're conceding psychological ground to teams they shouldn't be.

I mean Sunday's was Galway's first victory in Kerry for 18 years. That kind of statistic bugs me because I see it as a step backwards.

Put it this way, I suspect Kerry will run the Dubs close next week but I don't expect them to win. Why? Because no way will Dublin want to give a rival momentum. It's written into their DNA to hold teams down, to keep them in their place.

So they'll see that league game as an opportunity to compound whatever worries Eamonn Fitz might be carrying around in his head. And I suspect he's carrying around plenty.

I've seen most of Galway's games so far and been impressed by how they set up defensively. They strike a good balance, keeping two or three men like Eamonn Brannigan and Shane Walsh high up the field who can attack with pace. You could see the hand of Mickey Harte's former assistant, Paddy Tally, written all over their structure.

And they played with a hard, Ulster-like edge too. Now summer may show up whatever flaws they have, but that's for another day. Good luck to them.

I just think Kerry are looking at something different. As I see it, everything Kerry are trying to do right now is angled at trying, at some point in the future, to take down Dublin.

And playing the way Galway played in Tralee is not the answer.

Eamonn Fitz knows that. He knows you need to man up against Dublin or get blown away. In other words, if you don't throw punches, you don't hurt them. Tyrone had that message handed to them last August in big, bright letters. Unless they change, it'll happen again.

I understood the grumblings of Kerry people at losing another game on Sunday. But look at the positives - Ronan Shanahan, Gavin Crowley, Jason Foley, Jack Barry, David Clifford and Seán O'Shea.

This league for Kerry has been primarily about giving the new breed a sustained opportunity and all of those lads have already put their hands up for championship.

I'm looking at what the likes of Clifford and O'Shea, still in their teens, are doing and it's absolutely outstanding. I'd certainly never have had that kind of impact at their age.

But I would like to see a little more clarity in Kerry's game-plan too, because we didn't cope well with Galway's defensive numbers. I don't doubt Eamonn sees exactly how Dublin play against packed defence, but it's far from a simple thing to replicate what they do.

The movement of the Dubs' forwards is absolutely constant and it's always buttressed by attacking half-backs.

I feel Kerry need to use the likes of Paul Murphy and Peter Crowley better in that regard. Because that's how forwards get the opportunity to come out on those loops the Dubs have perfected - by having additional bodies bombing forward.

Otherwise, you end up just passing laterally in front of a defensive wall, hurting nobody. Look at Paul Mannion's goal for Dublin against Mayo. It came against packed defence and was all down to the movement around him. That has to be the message: You must keep moving and at pace.

Put it this way, a Kerry forward line with the likes of Paul Geaney, Clifford, O'Shea and maybe James O'Donoghue getting that kind of support will hurt anybody. The trouble last Sunday was that Kerry's attacks were being shut down at source, Galway then breaking at pace. And the Kerry forwards simply weren't sufficiently tuned in to stop that happening.

In this situation, Kerry end up looking wide open at the back. And it keeps happening.

But the key isn't simply to have bodies back or forward, they must be tackling hard. They need to be making the kind of physical contact that discourages an opponent from dropping the shoulder like Brannigan did for Galway's goal. Psychologically, there's got to be a virtual no-go area around the Kerry square.

He'd never say it publicly, but I'd imagine Fitzmaurice was fit to be tied on Sunday evening. Too many of his players were too passive in the contact areas. And, when that happens, no system is fit for purpose. Being honest, Galway should have scored three goals on Sunday. If they did, they'd have won the game pulling up.

Against Kerry! In Tralee!

Now, on some level, maybe what's happening is down to a conviction that Kerry must rob Peter to pay Paul to get where they want to go. That, with Dublin in mind, they must commit to attack more, even if that comes at the price of leaving themselves vulnerable against the likes of Galway, Tyrone and Monaghan.

Dublin will play football next week, we know that. Fifteen on fifteen. And that'll suit Kerry, given the way they're trying to set up now. But Kerry aren't even close to matching what the Dubs do against mass defence and that's the problem. Galway frustrated them everywhere and it was easy to do so against a team simply attacking far too slowly and deliberately.

When there was a turnover, Kerry looked wide open. Being brutally honest, they have done far too often over the past two years.

It's true Kerry don't have a Marc ó Sé, a Tom Sullivan or a Mike McCarthy back there anymore, but the likes of Shane Enright and Jason Foley are getting zero protection. And that's because Galway's backs were allowed come out with the ball far too easily.

Compounding the problem was that some of the Kerry half-forwards kept getting caught ball-watching.

In my opinion, Kerry should at all times have had a line of three across the middle of the field to slow ball coming out.

That, coupled with the inside forwards working their asses off, makes you a tougher team to counter-attack against. But that tactic takes concentration that simply wasn't evident in Tralee.

They looked naive against a counter-attack, something that doesn't happen Dublin anymore. They've fine-tuned their system so well since the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final meltdown against Donegal in 2014 that nobody gets a free run at them now. And they mix it up better than any team I've seen.

Kerry can't do that, not yet at least. They seem caught between a rock and a hard place, which means they remain vulnerable against these ultra-defensive teams.

To be fair, this has been a really positive start to the year for Galway, winning four from four. But their system will only get them so far in a world being dominated by the Dubs. I mean three of their back-line received black cards on Sunday and, in my opinion, you won't get away with that kind of stat against the top sides.

Galway have basically the same group they had last year, the difference is in the aggression and pace with which they're playing. That's Tally's influence.

I think Kerry had the better players individually, but that's not worth a hill of beans if you don't have real clarity and edge to what you're doing.

The ideal for me would be that Kerry could adopt Galway's style when they need to, but then change things up against the likes of Dublin. But to do that, they'll need time and trust now. And, in the meantime, they'll continue to look one-dimensional.

It should be said that a lot of their players under-performed individually last weekend, so it's still hard to know just how far down the road they are in terms of where Eamonn Fitz feels he needs them to be. But there surely needs to be more tactical flexibility in the side. Kerry need to start asking different questions.

They also need to take a leaf out of the Dublin and Mayo books, putting the fear of God into opponents closing on their goal. Because, right now, Kerry all but wave opponents through. That can't continue.

Still, as disappointing as they were against Galway, Kerry were just a kick of a ball from drawing a game they had no business drawing. So there's something to work on there but, above all now, they need to build something psychologically before this league is over.

Next weekend wouldn't be a bad place to start.

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