Allen and Dunne question sweeping assertions
Managers who faced Clare during the summer believe Fitzgerald should stick with the set-up that came so close in drawn final
Cork’s Daniel Kearney and Patrick Donnellan of Clare during the All-Ireland final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Sometimes teams in big matches can’t see the wood from the trees. Having pondered how to cope with Clare’s sweeper system before the drawn All-Ireland final, Cork found themselves facing a conventional, 14-on-14 mano a mano struggle.
The outcome was emphatic with Clare winning all sectors of the field. Cork’s miraculous survival was based in the team’s resilience in not being submerged but more materially on the surprising ability to treble their four-match season’s goal haul in 70 minutes.
One of the goals came from Anthony Nash’s thunderous 57th-minute free but the other two came from porous defending. Had Clare been able to keep out even one of the goals, they would have won.
Given the success enjoyed by manager David Fitzgerald in using team captain Pat Donnellan as a sweeper against both Galway and Limerick the conversion to orthodoxy in the final came as a surprise to their final opponents but did it compromise the defence in relation to the goals?
Donnellan’s display against Joe Canning in the quarter-final which greatly limited Galway’s goal threat was playing in front of his full backs whereas in the semi-final against Limerick he played a more advanced role.
Recently retired Limerick manager John Allen thinks that the advantage for the replay – trying to recapture the dynamic of the drawn match – is an objective best served by sticking to what worked the first day even if Cork won’t be as disorientated by the line-up.
“The first thing is that they conceded three goals – and I know one of them was a free – so possibly they will consider using a sweeper. They played so well and dictated the match-ups the last day but that element of surprise is gone.”
He still believes that some form of flexibility would be desirable.
“I still think they probably shouldn’t use a sweeper and should go 15 on 15 with the proviso that if they build a good lead like the last time they can drop an extra defender back to protect it.”
The concept of using an extra defender isn’t new and as long ago as 2004, then Clare manager Anthony Daly used Alan Markham in a withdrawn role primarily to curb the goal threat of Kilkenny. In charge of Dublin, Daly also used the tactic but it had come to suggest a priority of damage limitation and a lack of ambition.
“I think there are pros and cons,” according to Allen, “because while it strengthens the defence it leaves an extra back on the other side. If your team are playing well enough it doesn’t matter how many you’re playing at the back. If you’re playing as well as Clare were in winning primary possession – ball on the ground and puck-outs – that’s it.”
Taken to extra-time
Wexford took Clare to extra time in the qualifiers after Fitzgerald’s team had blown a six-point lead in the closing quarter of an hour.
Wexford manager Liam Dunne says that the speculation about whether a sweeper would have helped counter the goals is an example of being wise after the event.
“Davy is in a win-win or no-win situation. He’s told he should have dropped someone back when they were four or five points up but he’d matched them up 15 on 15 and why would you change things around when it was going so well for you?”
He also says that whereas Clare’s configuration three weeks ago was orthodox in terms of players going one-on-one with their marker, the impact of deploying a two-man full forward line was to compress play in the middle third anyway.
“Clare were playing so many out the field anyway – two guys in the full-forward line and the rest playing farther back. Cork were taken by surprise but it worked so well that I wouldn’t change it unless he needs to.”
Although Donnellan was playing more or less a straight centrefield role, Dunne argues that in the absence of Cork domination and consistent pressure the Clare defence should have been able to do better in keeping out the goal threats.
“Conor Lehane’s goal was just bad defending. He’d nobody in support but none of the defenders would go to him. One of them should have moved out towards him at an earlier stage.”
Issue of tactics
For all of the debate on the issue of tactics and how teams will set up to play matches, John Allen believes that the question of how players are deployed is subordinate to older-style considerations of form on the day and how the individual contests work out around the field. “I remember coming off after the semi-final (against Clare in Croke Park) and being asked at the media conference about tactics.
“From a management point of view positions are less important than how your players are performing. If they’re on top in their personal contests, the team will do well.”