Jim McGuinness: Defensive strategy could be Donegal’s downfall

The way championship is unfolding deepens my conviction that reform is needed

The Tipperary footballers reminded the entire country on Sunday evening that the chief source of appeal of the championship lies in the shock result. The result was a real triumph for the traditional underdog and brought home how seldom that happens. It was a brilliant and deserved return on many years of excellent underage work in one of the counties which has always carried the torch for hurling. And it shows once again that there is no divine law which dictates that the strong teams must always prevail.

Still, if we scan the bigger picture of the championship just now, it is clear to see that in general the strongest counties are starting to come to the fore. Imagine what might be possible if we had a championship structure that didn’t all but guarantee safe passage for the dominant teams?

In Ulster, for example, the four best teams will compete the semi-final spots after a series of games which undermined the province’s reputation of being supremely competitive from start to finish.

The Donegal-Fermanagh game on Sunday was interesting in that it exaggerated the division between teams accustomed to operating within the top tier and those beyond it.

With the exception of Neil McGee’s sending off, the match ran along expected lines: a tight opening period gradually opening into a relatively comfortable win for Donegal. Fermanagh exhibited the confidence acquired last summer in the opening half in Ballybofey but they lacked the quality to keep pace with Donegal over 70 minutes. When you think of Donegal, it was innate quality that saw them through.

First on my list in that respect would be Frank McGlynn for his overall game intelligence, his defensive positioning and his ability to initiate attacks – and to take a score. The other big plus was the emergence of the two debut players of immense potential, Mark Anthony McGinley and Eoin McHugh.

Odhrán MacNiallais was the outstanding player on the field and seems to be growing in stature all the time. He is a classical Donegal midfield player; very stylish and a ball player who sees things early and who possesses a devastating finishing touch.

Ongoing debate

Patrick McBrearty looked strong and dangerous and even though Fermanagh operated a sweeper, Donegal were able to play around it fairly comfortably. Funny, a lot of the ball Patrick saw was delivered by Michael Murphy. And this is the ongoing debate about Donegal. There is a slogan in Donegal: There's only one Michael Murphy. It's true and more is the pity.

I heard through the grapevine that Michael worked extremely hard to be fit and ready for this game and having come through it, he will be in a strong position as he prepares to play Monaghan.

He wasn’t all-dominating against Fermanagh but his delivery was excellent and when his team were struggling in the middle, he came out and essentially recovered that area to give Donegal the platform to go ahead and win. Donegal’s experience was paramount here.

The sending off might have upset the team but as it turned out Fermanagh were completely outplayed in the second half, psychologically and in terms of technical ability. You couldn’t have asked much more from 14 men in the second half.

So Donegal got over the line and move on to play Monaghan in what promises to be a mouth-watering game. It’s a pity that it is a semi-final because in a way, it is the defining game of an era in Ulster.

And with Monaghan in mind, there are elements of Donegal’s play that concern me. If you go back to last year’s championship and the national league, I feel the defensive intensity isn’t what it might be. And I think that is going to be crucial for them to get past Monaghan.

It is this tension between defensive shape and defensive intensity. What we are talking about here, in essence, is the number of runs the Donegal players make from the offensive 45 to the defensive 45 in order to set up to defend. It’s a 60-metre sprint in retreat. The idea of doing that repeatedly over 70 minutes is something that kind of troubles me. And it makes me wonder if there is a correlation between that and Donegal’s occasional drop in defensive intensity.

Most teams hit 35 or 40 attacks per game. And for Donegal, it is not a run back to their defensive alignment. It is a sprint back. If you look at Dublin at the moment, the benchmark team, they are firing about 45 shots a game. So if you don’t take them on when they are initiating their attacks and just retreat, that means the team is sprinting back about 45 times a game. In other words, you could have players running maybe two kilometres just to get set up. That’s a lot of high-intensity running for very little gain. Then the work starts even though you have to get your breath. So it is a delicate balance.

Conceding ground

Donegal are conceding ground rather than tackling and challenging teams as they carry the ball forward. In last year’s Ulster final against Monaghan, Donegal did the same thing. It was a very hot day and that may have told against some of the older players. There were four or five instances when Fermanagh cut through the defence and created goalscoring chances. And I couldn’t help wondering if the effort it took just to get back contributed to the gaps which Fermanagh were able to exploit.

So you reflect on Monaghan and the way in which they ran the ball with five players across the middle against Down and the width and pace with which they carried the ball and then imagine that approach against Donegal. My sense is that Donegal’s defensive set-up will facilitate Monaghan’s high-energy running game.

Mark Anthony McGinley had a storming debut in the Donegal goal. He made some really good saves from open play, let alone the penalty. He proved his shot stopping is of a very high standard.

Against Monaghan, Donegal’s kick-out strategy is going to come under extreme scrutiny. There are times during the championship when winning your own kick-out becomes key: it is about more than claiming that individual possession. It can be a momentum-changer.

Fermanagh were dominant at midfield in the first half. Because he is a new goalkeeper, Mark Anthony will be still developing his kick-out strategy with the Donegal midfielders throughout the championship. He’s learning as he goes.

It's clear that Donegal are still heavily reliant on Neil Gallagher as a traditional ball-winning midfielder but we don't know if he will be ready to play against Monaghan. So the big challenge for Mark Anthony now is to try to create, through his kick outs, a platform for Donegal not just to claim possession but to initiate attacks.

Donegal can't afford to simply break even on their kick-outs. It comes down to his technical ability on the kick-out but also on the overall strategy and movement outfield. There are a lot of variables to pull together in a short space of time. Stephen Cluxton has had years to develop that aspect of his game. So it's a huge task for a young goalkeeper starting out.

Finally, Donegal scored 0-12 in points again. My fear for them is that if they don’t get goals, they won’t have enough on the board.

Malachy O’Rourke and Monaghan will feel they have the match-ups to neutralise Donegal. The loss of Neil McGee is a double bind because he is almost the prototype full back to cope with Conor McManus. And a hidden part of his game is the offensive thrust he holds.

When things are going against Donegal he will burst out in straight lines and keep going and it’s almost like reverse thrust on a battle ship: he turns the whole thing around. And he will score. So Neil is a big loss and it adds to the debating points of what is going to be a tantalising Ulster semi-final.

Seismic shock

Cork’s defeat to Tipperary is a seismic shock in terms of tradition. But in terms of immediate form, how surprising is it? This is a special moment for Tipperary and it is built on the minor team of two years ago and their under-21s last year.

I would imagine that winning a game like that will make those players absolutely glow with pride and satisfaction and a sense that they are travelling in the right direction. I feel they will give the Munster final a good rattle but may not have the overall package to knock Kerry off their perch.

But they are a coming team along with Cavan, Tyrone and Roscommon. There is a form line here running through all underage grades in those counties and sooner or later that percolates through to senior level. Those young Tipp’ players are winners. That is their mentality.

If you look at the big picture now; the top-eight teams are doing what they are expected to. Dublin look to have Leinster sewn up and Kerry will be expected to win in Munster. Mayo are favourites to win in Connacht. The way that the championship is unfolding deepens my conviction that it is time to redesign the format in a way that would guarantee the meeting of the top- eight teams against the next eight teams.

I outlined the format here last summer: a seeded top 16 championship tier predicated by league form and guaranteed places for the provincial final winners irrespective of their league placing. And then a corresponding championship for the teams 16-32 but carried out in a meaningful way, with proper promotion, games run in tandem with the Sam Maguire games and the final played in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.

Tipperary’s splendid win showed what is possible. I strongly feel that it precisely a team like Tipp, fighting against a lack of winning tradition, would thrive under this system and could break into the top tier.

The prevailing championship structure allows the competition to run along trends that everyone can predict. It is almost tailored to allow the strongest counties to thrive, to the detriment of those underneath desperately trying to get a foothold. That is why what Liam Kearns and Tipperary achieved is so special. In a way, they beat the system.

Now, they just have to beat Kerry!