GAA Statistics: Tyrone’s new three-pronged attack explained

Mickey Harte’s team have gone from being toothless to ruthless in attack since change

Tyrone’s Cathal McShane passes to his captain Mattie Donnelly. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Tyrone’s Cathal McShane passes to his captain Mattie Donnelly. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho


Tyrone began 2019 with just 1-10 from play in their opening three league matches - the joint lowest combined total of any Division One team at that stage of the competition in the past decade. Two of them points were from their goalkeeper.

They went on to win their remaining four league matches - including a win over Dublin in Croke Park - before seeing off Derry and Antrim in reaching Saturday’s Ulster semi-final against Donegal. In those six wins Tyrone accumulated 8-63 from play, an average of 1-12 per match.

So what changed? Tyrone decided to deploy midfielder Cathal McShane at full-forward and stick with it, with Mattie Donnelly floating around him. When team captain, Donnelly, decides to go out the field he’s replaced inside by Peter Harte. Who otherwise looks to exploit the pockets of space from halfway to the edge of the D, created by Tyrone’s inside double threat. And most importantly, they are kicking the ball into them.

Against Dublin in the 2018 final, Tyrone registered 16 wides to Dublin’s six. They took on 13 shots from outside of the scoring zone, some from well outside of it, and they scored only one. A team who have perfected their transition game in recent years, Tyrone have struggled to create chances when held up and prevented from streaming through the defensive lines on the counter.

Now though, they have their alternative outlet, in the form of three very different players. It’s hard to decipher much from last month’s 14 point win over Antrim - by the 41st minute of that encounter Mickey Harte called ashore Harte, Donnelly and McShane in a triple substitution such was his confidence in securing the victory. However, their preliminary round win over Derry did ask more questions of them.

In that match 1-9 of the team’s total of 1-19 was the result of a kickpass into one of their inside forwards. And that long ball tactic not only gives them an option to kick beyond a defensive block, it also asks questions of the opposition defence and forces them to protect their last line. All of which leaves space for Tyrone’s best weapon - that lightning transition through the hands.

Last year’s All-Ireland finalists have been boosted by the likes of Michael Cassidy, Ben McDonnell and Brian Kennedy competing for starting places, Niall Morgan has transformed into a sweeper goalkeeper - but Tyrone’s biggest and most needed improvement from last summer has been in their forward line.

When it all comes together . . .

McShane has been the biggest success story of all, so far in this year’s Championship he’s scored 0-13 in two matches, 0-8 from play. He will contest, win and flick down aerial deliveries against any opponent, while he can also kick scores off both feet without hesitation. So far this summer he’s scored three with his left, two with his fist and eight with his favoured right boot. This variation allows him to shoot on sight as he can’t be marked off one side.

While the rest of the Tyrone attack/team will rotate positions throughout a match, it’s rare that McShane will not be the furthest player forward in this new look formation. Against Derry and Antrim, he had two thirds of his touches inside the opposition 21 metre line. And had his hands on the ball inside the 13 metre line on seven occasions.

Making up what’s often a two man full forward line, Donnelly joins McShane inside for large chunks of the match. Against Derry he had 22 possessions and was fouled for three tap over frees, while he scored three points against Antrim. And he ended the league campaign with 0-3 against Dublin and 1-4 against Galway.

Donnelly makes his runs from the full-forward position to the wings where his dynamism allows him to secure the ball on a one-on-one out in front, and also isolates defenders allowing him to take them on and create overlaps. A skill he is arguably the best at in the country.

When Donnelly comes out, which he seems to have free license to do, Harte goes in. The latter is Tyrone’s top scorer so far this year in league and championship (including frees) but has yet to score from play this summer. Albeit he has spent most of his time out rather than in.

He had only 11 touches from play against Derry, yet made much more of an impact against Antrim where he created the opening goal for Tiernan McCann with a defence splitting run. In Tyrone’s league win over Monaghan in particular, when he scored 1-6 (1-2 from play), Harte also showed how he can rip through a stretched backline wary of the long ball in behind.

The versatile attacker is capable of starting and finishing a counter attack due to his athleticism, ball carrying ability and the timing of his runs. He is also one of the main conductors between running that traditional transition game, and triggering Tyrone's new long kick option. Harte kicked long to Donnelly and McShane on five occasions between the Derry and Antrim wins.

Counting the kicks for only as long as Harte, Donnelly and McShane were on the pitch against Derry and Antrim, Richard Donnelly tops the list of 13 kickers with 10 long passes to his inside players. He has been thriving in his new role out around the middle, and in a team of players who have spent their footballing lives looking to carry rather than kick he appears to be the main player relied upon to get his head up and feed the talent.

The other is Frank Burns, of late he has filled the sweeper centre back role so often held by Mattie Donnelly, and he has also bombed on and kicked in eight kick passes.

Them passes can be long and high to McShane, out wide or in the corner to Donnelly - the two big men inside can win the ball and hold it whatever way it comes into them. They can keep it short too with Harte and runners aplenty ready to exploit the space. Essentially, Mickey Harte looks to have found a way to make three of his most unorthodox players thrive in a fluid yet structured system.

This weekend Tyrone will face a much stiffer challenge in the shape of reigning Ulster champions Donegal, but already in their last six matches against varying opposition they have proven that their new look three-pronged attack works.

How much faith they will have in it on the big day, we’ll soon find out.

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