Jim McGuinness: Mayo won't offer up the same gifts as Kerry

Kingdom looked like novices as they tried and failed to break down the mid-block

In Kerry the expectations are heightened. Most other football counties would consider what Peter Keane has delivered in three seasons - two Munster titles, two national leagues, an All-Ireland final draw and replay - to be a bounty. But all of that has been washed away with their defeat last Saturday to Tyrone.

The sight of Tyrone in victory must have evoked bitter memories from the last decade in Kerry and it has led to a mood of deep introspection and, because the Kerry football culture is so demanding, to public calls for a change in management. It’s a precarious life, managing the Kingdom! But as the dust settles, one question continues to engage Kerry minds: what happened?

So, what did happen?

The simple narrative of the game is that Kerry once again met a mass Tyrone defence and didn’t know how to cope with it. That isn’t fully true.


Go back to the start. Kerry were brimming with certainty. Twenty five seconds in David Clifford attacked Ronan McNamee and took him on and struck a powerful score. His movement is exceptional: for his next score he cuts in laterally and back outside and collects a mark on his chest which resulted in Kerry going two up. It was the perfect opening and designed to sow immediate doubts in the Tyrone minds: oh, everything we heard about these guys is true. If Tyrone were less bullish, they might have remembered the humiliation visited on them in the league in Killarney a few months back.

Also, Kerry came with a plan that enabled them to have their way with the kick-outs. On Tyrone’s kick-out, Kerry straddled five men in the central plank on Tyrone’s 45 metre line. Tyrone had five players there also. But along Tyrone’s defensive 65, Kerry had another four players lined up - marking nobody.

You had Tyrone players beyond that line as targets for Niall Morgan. But then you had a further six Kerry players - including the goalkeeper and fullback - lined up. So as the ball travelled, you had David Moran attacking it and the four Kerry players on the defensive 65 pivoting so that Kerry outnumbered Tyrone on the break every time. And it absolutely worked a treat. Tyrone were destroyed on their kick-out. On the other side of the coin, Kerry went short and initiated sharp transitional moments. So Tyrone were very much in trouble on the kick-out all afternoon.

And it was for that reason that Niall Morgan became such a central figure in the action. I think this game, above all, illuminated both his strengths and weaknesses and his central role in the Tyrone dynamic.

So you have this dynamic with him in which the sublime mixes with the ridiculous.

The first score Tyrone got was from a 45 kicked by Niall in the sixth minute. He plays a sweeper role and, also, his playmaking as the plus-one is a big part of Tyrone’s build-up. On short kick-outs they have a triangle system going on the restart so that their corner-backs are never isolated in possession. His capacity to kick over the press is impressive also. And then he delivered that mammoth score just before half-time.

But there is another side to Niall based on decision making. He tried a pass with the outside of the boot and mishit it to David Moran: that resulted in a point for Clifford. From the subsequent kick-out he thumped it down the middle and it was lost again. And immediately after that he tried another with the outside of his boot which Paul Murphy intercepted. That ended with Niall Sludden's black card tackle. In the 45th minute he lost another kick-out. In the 65th minute he was out around the middle and sliced a kick over the sideline. From that possession, Kerry got a goal chance which Tom O'Sullivan put over the bar.

So you have this dynamic with him in which the sublime mixes with the ridiculous. He can be brilliant. When he falls into a rhythm, he can be inspirational and hard to stop. But when that cracks he does things which can drag the psychology of the team down. We were always aware of his potency during my time with Donegal. But you have this thing in your mind where he can be got at. Pressure - and the high press - is the key in pushing him into a place where he will try things and perhaps gamble. Mayo are good at forcing teams and players into those kinds of areas.

But back to the game - and Tyrone’s mid-block press. You had a situation 9.30 seconds in. Kerry have the ball in the midfield area. Fourteen seconds later and their task was made even more difficult as Tyrone brought attackers back and pushed defenders forward to condense the area even more. So you have to visualise almost the entire Tyrone team - apart from the three fullbacks and goalkeeper - packed between Tyrone’s defensive 45 and their offensive 65. (30 metres by the width of the pitch).

The battle

That is where Tyrone took the battle to Kerry: a block of defenders compressed into that area. They were man to man from their own 45 to that offensive 65 and they had 12 bodies in there. Inside, Tyrone left their fullbacks in a straight three v three battle against Clifford, Paul Geaney and a rotating third. So they confronted Kerry with this mid block press. They were all man to man but it was so compressed and messy that it operated like a zone as well.

I looked at the clock and it took 40 seconds and several passes before Gavin White could cross the Tyrone defensive 45 with the ball. And within eight seconds of Gavin crossing that line, Tyrone had eight players falling back to the central plank and protecting their D. So they immediately had a defensive wall of 11 players and succeeded in turning the ball over. This would happen again and again all afternoon.

This was battle ground number two for Tyrone. They defended that D with everything they had. As a defensive strategy, the mid-block was a similar challenge to what Mayo brought against Donegal in the All-Ireland final of 2012. Interestingly, I think we could see the same in this upcoming final - from both teams.

So I don’t think it is true to say that Tyrone brought a very defensive game plan here. In many respects they brought the same game plan as Kerry. The difference was that whenever Kerry broached the Tyrone mid-block press, they flooded back in numbers and with intent to defend their D. Kerry did not.

I could see the Kerry fellas working it out as they went - moving the ball, looking for pockets of space to inject pace to get through this mid-block. But I don’t believe they had a strategy in their heads to fully exploit it. They didn’t quite know what they were looking for. Beating a press of that nature is a game of patience. It becomes about moving the ball at pace and not taking the ball into contact and critically involves swinging the ball from one wing to the other - and back if necessary. The space lies beyond the press so why try and why try and play through it?

The more often you shift that block from side to side, the more opportunities open up to play a pass over that block to your danger men. And the beauty is that if you hit them with the right ball - the dink ball, the diagonal ball - there will be space for them to exploit.

Another option is to pull two forwards to one side and isolate the one you think is best and go long to him. But Kerry were persistently and stubbornly engaged with the idea of trying to work the ball through that packed Tyrone block. And the result was far too many turnovers for Tyrone, which led to those transitional moments - and the fact that four Tyrone defenders were able to get up the field to kick points in the first-half.


I have spoken here about the lack of physicality in the championship over the summer. Tyrone fairly bucked that trend. They were hard, physical and made many well timed committed tackles. It was one of the best features of the game.

The foundation for all of that legitimate aggression and hunger was laid in the very first minute when Frank Burns shouldered Dara Moynihan out over the sideline. Two minutes later, he put a big hit on Jack Barry. There was a statement of intent there. The hits generated the turnovers, which fed into their running game.

I am still trying to get my head around what Kerry were thinking about.

It was vital that Kerry stopped that running game. I felt they weren’t aggressive enough in this regard. Tyrone were breaking tackles all the time. I didn’t think Kerry had the stomach to stop players in their tracks or, failing that, to track them. Did they put their heart and soul into defending the D?

Their decision making and tactic, almost, of taking the ball into contact, was incredible to me. They kept losing the ball at the top of the D because Tyrone were defending it with their lives. But Kerry played into their hands by coming back for more, time after time. I’d say those Tyrone defenders couldn’t believe their luck.

I am still trying to get my head around what Kerry were thinking about. I went into detail here last week about a warm-up drill Kerry execute, a kind of quick-passing over play. I just feel they became wedded to that and kept trying to force it against Tyrone. They would have been better off admitting that it wasn’t working and to play with width and depth and patience. They should have made Tyrone work much harder to even get close to them.

And I know the athletic profile of Kerry has changed a lot. Is it possible they have gone too much to a running game? Are there too many runners and not enough shooters now - and as a consequence not enough ball being kicked inside? In any event, it meant there was too much pressure on O’Shea and Clifford to keep the scoreboard ticking. The style and philosophy and tactics they employed did not serve them. And they ended up looking like novices: as though they didn’t know how to break down these kinds of defences.

Also, they didn’t look as conditioned as Tyrone, which was ironic given all the pre-match speculation about the covid incident in the Ulster camp. And they had chances! They were a point and a man up 60 minutes in and didn’t get it done then. After that, I felt they weren’t going to do it in extra-time either.

And for all of that, Clifford was immense. Tom O’Sullivan took Darren McCurry out of the game, Gavin White was electrifying in possession. They were without their talisman for extra-time. And they still only lost by a point! There will be a lot of regret down there this week.

Are Tyrone a different team than they were at the start of the championship? When you win the Ulster title you become a different team anyhow. You see yourself differently. But gifts offered up by Kerry will not be on the table when they face Mayo. They cannot roll up to Croke Park on Saturday week and expect a similar story.

It’s a wholly unexpected All-Ireland final and completely intriguing.