Tuesday 16 January 2018

Henry Shefflin: We're not in the middle of a tactical revolution - skilful players will always make the difference

Waterford’s Austin Gleeson steals a march on Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan, who played a patient game in the Munster final
Waterford’s Austin Gleeson steals a march on Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan, who played a patient game in the Munster final

Henry Shefflin

At times during last Sunday's Munster hurling final I found myself drawn to watching the movement of Seamus Callanan, just to get a sense of how a player of his calibre positions himself against a defensive set-up like Waterford.

Tipperary's full-forward has been burning it up in recent times and his team are often nourished by his goals.

So when Derek McGrath was constructing the system that had taken Waterford on a nine-match unbeaten run, Callanan was surely the type of player he had in mind.

From my vantage point I was interested in how a player who thrives on space would deal with such a concentrated white screen in front of him. Would the temptation to get on the ball, get that feeling that you're in the game more, draw him out?

If he did, I felt he'd be playing into Waterford's hands, crowding out a wing-forward or a centre-forward, allowing them to dictate how Tipperary set up.

Callanan remained disciplined, though. He stayed in. He ensured that Barry Coughlan and Tadhg de Burca remained vigilant.

He couldn't get into the game, and there was the frustration of seeing a colleague in possession make eye contact with the promise of a diagonal ball but then wheel away in another direction to make a pass elsewhere because there was too much traffic between them.


You can be sure though that his 'sacrifice' wasn't in vain, that there were benefits for someone elsewhere.

I've known that frustration. I've played games where sweepers have been planted around me. But I've always felt that a team that comes to the table with a defensive plan is going to be missing out on something elsewhere.

You never feel you are going to lose a match because a team sets up that way against you. You always feel you'll still do enough.

It makes a game harder to win but that bit harder to lose too. Hurling differs from football in that regard.

My first experience of a sweeper was against Clare in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final when Alan Markham dropped back as a seventh defender. In more recent years Dublin regularly did it.

The common denominator? Anthony Daly managed both teams. The consensus coming away from Thurles after three games last weekend that produced just two goals was that we are in the grip of some tactical revolution.

We're not. If Kilkenny, Tipperary and even Cork meet in an All-Ireland final I wouldn't expect much variation from an orthodox 15 versus 15 set-up.

Clare, Waterford and, to a lesser extent, Cork essentially set up with extra defensive cover, and the goals were down. But when you play that way you're depending on so much to go right for you. The margins are much thinner. You're never going to be fully gone from a game but you're never going to be fully in it either.

And for so many players the games just bypass them.

I'm sure there were players last weekend who didn't have five or six decent touches, when the average is somewhere in the mid to high teens. They're running left, right and centre to occupy particular positions in the knowledge that 'ball in hand' might be limited. That's hard.

I can understand why Derek McGrath has taken this approach, Jimmy Barry-Murphy too. I'd rather see a game played in the more traditional way but I don't have any negativity towards it.

Cork's use of Mark Ellis as their extra man has been effective. It's a leap for them to play this away, but against Waterford in the last match they pushed up, sometimes left four on four in their own defence and paid the price.

I was most impressed by Tipp's patience and the structure they kept to their game. They didn't force it. Padraic Maher sat back but it still left six on five in their defence.

That's the way they wanted to play. As with Callanan at the other end, they weren't going to allow Waterford to dictate how they set up. They weren't going to make the same mistake as Cork in the semi-final.

I spoke last week of the inner belief that being a winner again will give this Tipperary team. To close a deal is something you bank, not think about all the time.

Twice in successive second halves Limerick and Waterford have breathed down their necks heavily and they have responded the right way. They dug it out.

It won't and shouldn't bother them one bit that they didn't score a goal or the manner of their victory wasn't as swashbuckling as their supporters might like.

For Waterford there'll be a new dynamic at play when they meet Dublin next week - they'll be favourites for a game for the first time since March.

Getting used to favouritism takes time. In Kilkenny we got used to it because invariably we were favourites. But it brings a different emphasis now for these young Waterford players that they experienced in Ennis during the week when losing to Clare in the Munster U-21 semi-final.

Maybe expectation will tempt them out a bit more but I don't see things changing too much. Derek has a really good base of players now, and their positive reaction after last Sunday's defeat will help them focus quickly on Dublin.

Cork's stomach for battle was questioned beforehand. I felt Clare would have enough in hand to win and was reminded of that with a few texts. But once Cork got their levels of aggression right they became a different team.

Patrick Horgan showed good leadership qualities. He hit a few first-half wides but was maybe trying to force it too much, striking over the shoulder.

He came out and laid on a couple of points for colleagues in better positions, got himself back in the game and got the rewards later on.

As a forward you're often better served not taking on too much when things aren't going right. You can always play yourself back in and Horgan did that well.

A word on Paul Ryan too, his ball striking was superb in difficult conditions last weekend, the difference for Dublin. It was a huge win for them, really getting their season back on track. They were under pressure early on but the experience of players like Liam Rushe, Dotsie O'Callaghan and Johnny McCaffrey saw them through.

Watching the three games, the tactical detail is at such a high level which is commendable. But skill will win out and the skilful players like Ryan, Horgan and John O'Dwyer were the difference for three winners. That will never change.

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