Mayo have the necessary resources to defeat Tyrone and return to the final stage
Tyrone’s defensive focus will distract from the need to put up a challenging score
Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor celebrates scoring his second goal against Donegal. He has developed into one of the best finishers in the game. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Mayo come into this match with one of the strongest motivations, having lost last year’s All-Ireland final. It’s a powerful focus for mature minds and one of the differences between Mayo this year and 12 months ago.
It’s a tribute to James Horan that he was clear-minded enough after losing an All-Ireland final to sit down and make the right long-term calls to improve the team’s chances for this championship.
On the field they have got better. Donie Buckley as a new voice on the training ground is a significant reason for this because the team’s style of play has improved and has a pace and style that wasn’t there in 2012 in terms of kicking, passing and movement.
The only player I felt was a bit short in these areas in the quarter-final was Andy Moran, who’s still catching up after injury with match practice at the highest level.
Their defending has been very impressive with full backs marking much tighter, winning 50-50 balls and bursting out in front of their opponents. Forwards are putting in a huge effort tackling, maybe fouling at times, but contesting possession nearly all of the time.
Tyrone haven’t been at that level this year. During the league I felt that they were a top-four team and they’ve backed that up but this looks a step too far.
Mickey Harte’s taken them through the qualifiers’ route, which provides an excellent learning curve and is an excellent way of building spirit. They will be difficult to break down.
But I suspect they will also be so preoccupied with defensive strategy, in particular limiting goal opportunities that their attacking game could suffer. They are too reliant on Seán Cavanagh at midfield, registering big scores from play, which is a huge ask for a midfielder at this level of championship.
They’ll also be looking to Stephen O’Neill to produce his best – or at least, better – form, which we haven’t seen so far. But regaining form in an All-Ireland semi-final is not easy.
This will be quite a tactical battle because Mickey Harte has to set up to stop Mayo getting into their stride. But dropping half forwards back could backfire because the Mayo half backs are such a threat getting forward. Then the big question for Mayo is how to break down Tyrone if their defensive game is in good shape.
For all that veteran players like Conor Gormley and Joe McMahon don’t have pace they’re so experienced they rarely get isolated at the back and with excellent players like Conor Clarke and Peter Harte in the centre of the defence and the Donnellys dropping back it won’t be easy to pull Tyrone apart.
That will be one of the areas where Donie Buckley will be influential. I know him well enough to believe that he’ll have theories on how to crack the swarm defence. The way Mayo attack teams at pace, punching holes in the cover with support runners playing off the shoulder and finding at the end of the move the unmarked forward to get off the kick for a score is built on the speed and most importantly the precision of their passing.
It’s not by accident that Cillian O’Connor gets on the end of so many scoring moves. He’s a clinical finisher but the strategy is from the training field.
James Horan appears to have realised that O’Connor’s more suited to playing inside because he’s a finisher more than a play maker and doesn’t have the real athletic ability to do the hard running out the field. But he’s served his apprenticeship and is now up there with any forward in the game.
How do Mayo cope with Seán Cavanagh? I think they’re likely to put a man marker on him and Keith Higgins is the most obvious candidate for that. Cavanagh’s the key figure for Tyrone, not an orthodox midfielder in that he covers the pitch, picks up great forward positions and is often unmarked.
Obviously Mayo aren’t going to tie up Aidan O’Shea by asking him to follow around the pitch as a marker. Higgins is familiar with the man-marking role and would be well able to do it even if it means curtailing his current job as a sweeper.
I think Tyrone will go to break the ball because the O’Sheas are such good fielders that I can’t see the Cavanaghs trying to contest high ball but the Mayo forwards are so effective at man-marking themselves that Pascal McConnell may not be risking too many short kick-outs. But if that’s the strategy Tyrone will have to break even on the loose ball in that area.
The biggest problem for Tyrone is to get Stephen O’Neill on the ball. He seems to be easily marked on the full forward line so may have to drop out to get possession but with ball in hand his vision and ability to use it are second to none.
This has been a good year for Tyrone and their championship run has left them battle-hardened but Mayo are too much of a step up. There’s a gap between the teams: in the quality of the players, strength off the bench, where the teams are on the development curve and their motivation based on the past two years. Under all these headings Mayo are ready.