Donegal back to 2012 form and can beat Dublin

Jim McGuinness’s team aren’t just bodies behind the ball – they’re organised, clinical and totally in sync

Donegal’s Ryan Bradley and Michael Darragh MacAuley of Dublin during the sides’ All-Ireland football semi-final at Croke Park in August 2011. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.

Donegal’s Ryan Bradley and Michael Darragh MacAuley of Dublin during the sides’ All-Ireland football semi-final at Croke Park in August 2011. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 12:00

People are fickle, aren’t they? When Donegal were coming through in 2011 and 2012, people were up for them because they were an underdog. Then when they won the All-Ireland, it didn’t take long for the backlash to come. People said fair play to them but gave out about their style of play. How many times did you hear somebody go on about the Dubs last year, saying how great it was that they didn’t play the Donegal style?

And now, in 2014, just when it looks like Dublin are turning into one of the great football teams of recent times, all I hear is people going, “Well, hopefully Donegal will put it up to them.” It’s like Donegal are the country’s only hope all of a sudden. Funny how things change.

You had to be impressed with Donegal on Sunday. They’re very organised and very clinical in the way they go about the game and there is no doubt that they’re back to something like their form of 2012. They leave nothing to chance. They don’t rely on one or two stars to get them out of a hole. They play how they play and everyone knows their job to the letter.

Blanket defence

There’s a lot of ignorance around when people talk about Donegal. If it was just a matter of sticking 13 men behind the ball then everyone would be able to do it. I was in Hyde Park on Saturday for Roscommon v Armagh and both sides there were playing with a blanket defence. But the difference between them and Donegal the next day was huge.

Donegal play with purpose and method. They don’t just get bodies back in a wall across the pitch, they move forward and backward and sideways around the pitch in sync with each other. Watch Karl Lacey’s point at the start of the game for an example. Okay, he was lucky enough to get on the ball in the end because it came back to him off the post but the interesting thing about the way Donegal play is how the move started.

This was three minutes into the game. Rory Beggan hit a kick out to midfield, Darren Hughes punched it forward and Lacey picked up the loose ball behind his own 45. The only Donegal players between him and his own goal at the time were the two McGees. But when he kicked it over the bar less than 30 seconds later, only Colm McFadden was ahead of him.

If you watch it again, the most noticeable thing is the movement of all the Donegal players on the pitch. Nobody is static, nobody is hiding. Every player is making a run either to look for a pass or make space. The off-the-ball running is exceptional because it moved the Monaghan players around and nobody knew who to track.

Lacey passed a dozen Monaghan players between the time he picked up the ball and the time he kicked the point, yet nobody decided it was their job to pick him up. That’s because, like Armagh and Roscommon, Monaghan’s blanket defence isn’t as well developed as Donegal’s.

Filtering back

But the other thing to keep an eye on is the Donegal players who are filtering back to allow Lacey on one side and Leo Thompson on the other to attack. Michael Murphy stays around his own 45 all the way through the move.

Christy Toye takes the first pass from Lacey, holds onto it for a few seconds as Lacey goes by him, recycles it to Darach O’Connor and then drops back to fill the space Lacey has left behind him. A couple of passes later, Toye moves up the right as the ball is moved left and Neil Gallagher drops back into that space.

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