Gaelic Games
Subscriber Only

Jim McGuinness: Monaghan cannot survive uncontested Derry possession

The unpredictable nature of the Ulster championship set to continue this weekend

Days like that haven’t come around too often for Derry football in recent times, destroying the All-Ireland champions on their own patch, kicking 1-18 and holding them to 0-10. Players like Gareth McKinless, Conor Glass and Shane McGuigan have real quality so that quarter-final result didn’t come out of nowhere but the Ulster championship if anything is relentless and certainly no place for sentiment.

For me, Derry clearly pick their fights and by that I mean in four key areas.

One, their defensive structure: when they don’t have the ball, everybody sprints back to their own 45 and that is basically a declaration that we’re going to make a dog fight out of this and you need to be ready for that.

Two, they normally push up on the opposition kick-out, a statement that they’re going to win ‘x amount’ of your re-starts and that’s going to build on the defensive pillar. This for me is a requirement because you’ll struggle to win a match if you just go out to defend, defend, defend and hope that will give you enough on the scoreboard.

It will be interesting to see what approach they take this weekend against Rory Beggan.

The third area is possession-based football, which is very much in vogue at the moment and they’re good at it. The attitude here is, ‘we’re going to play possession and when we need to inject pace, we’ll decide when the moment is right’. They did that very well the last day.

Finally, there is the transition into attack, breaking at pace, getting ahead of the ball and running it aggressively. Of the four Derry pillars, I felt this was maybe the most eye-catching against Tyrone.

Beating the All-Ireland champions is never purely straightforward but Derry in many respects unleashed a perfect storm. Tyrone played a role in this in two respects, tactics and discipline. Despite having their Ulster title on the line at home against their neighbours and traditionally fiercest rivals, they decided to concede the kick-outs, which allowed Derry easy possession at the back

This was an ideal platform for what followed. What the Tyrone thinking was, I do not know.

Cards

Completing the perfect storm was the indiscipline and two red cards. The first sending off was pivotal. Why?

Because Derry were able to push up aggressively on Niall Morgan’s kick-outs and still have the ‘plus-one’ or sweeper at the back. As a result they were able to get really good pressure on Morgan and Tyrone.

If he decided to go over the press, which he’s well able to do, there was still the plus-one, who could double up on the Tyrone forward and stifle the attack.

All the necessary boxes were being ticked. First, the conceded kick-outs and easy ball, which facilitated their possession-based style and second, that they were able to go all the way by pressing aggressively and forcing Tyrone’s hand, yet still having a comfort blanket of the plus-one.

There was a third box getting ticked as well and that’s the transition game when Derry ran the ball, particularly in the second half. Obviously it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re a man up.

If you look at football nationally at the moment, there is a huge number of passes being made in the first third and middle third. If everyone is moving and manipulating the opposition in and out of spaces and you’ve still always got another man available that lends itself very well to transitional football.

That said, they played it brilliantly. There was really good pace. It was dynamic and direct. The man who was free was getting ahead of the ball and being joined by others.

How then were Tyrone going to deal with the packed Derry defence? The answer was, ‘not very well’. It looked as if they weren’t ready for it at all. There was no plan to deal with the numbers, the pressure, to deal with the intensity and the lack of space to run into and play into.

Their decision making and timing were really off so there was no clarity, resulting in lack of cohesion and a lack of composure. Those shortcomings are absolute oxygen for a defensive structure.

The bigger question in the context of this weekend is how will Monaghan deal with facing the red wall and it will be the same question from Derry, repeated over and again.

Watching Monaghan in the national league and more relevantly against Down in the championship, they have looked well schooled. They also like to build steadily from the back and move the ball at pace - most of the time through the hand - and look for incision moments from their speedsters and they’ve a number of those.

Then there’s how they use the ball: the dinked ball inside, the fisted ball inside with the runners off it, off-loads to support players coming in off the side. They were one of the first teams to be doing that, under Malachy O’Rourke, providing width, depth and then the runner coming off the side.

The two areas of their attack that I found most impressive the last day included those tactics but in particular the defence-splitting back door passes that they played. Darren Hughes executed two excellent examples.

They also exhibited a willingness to go long and mix their game up. I’m not suggesting for a minute that finding the space to execute all these thing won’t be difficult this weekend. There’s no doubt about that but there’s also no doubt that most teams in the country at the moment seem to have a fear of kicking the ball. No-one wants to do it.

Vacuum

Monaghan however are slightly bucking the trend.

Another significant factor for the team in the national league was essentially the unavailability of Conor McManus. That created a vacuum that had to be filled, which allowed Jack McCarron to be consistently the main man in the Monaghan attack.

McCarron’s career has blown hot and cold and he hasn’t been lucky with injuries but in the league he really stepped up to the plate. It was really important for Monaghan to find another talisman and he has carried that form into the championship.

His emergence as a go-to man up front, coupled with the arrival of Gary Mohan’s size and stature as a physical point of attack and the re-emergence of McManus means that Monaghan have a very balanced full-forward line as well as three really good reasons to go long.

If you look at the championship, there have been examples of full-forwards finding space, Michael Murphy and Rian O’Neill, but the ball never came. It’s a reflection of where the game is at the moment that when it is on, people can’t see the opportunity.

In this regard, Derry may not take any chances and you could see a double sweeper deployed around the Monaghan full forwards. There are however two sides to every coin and if Derry do indeed go with a double sweeper, this will create a numbers-up situation for Monaghan further out the park, which would facilitate their strong running game.

How in those circumstances Monaghan cope will be really interesting. A hint for them came in the Dublin-Wexford game when Wexford had the bodies back. Dublin’s attacking strategy could work for Monaghan and even Donegal or any other team.

They played Con O'Callaghan, Dean Rock and Cormac Costello all inside the box on the line of the small parallelogram. Everyone else was pulled outside the 45 so they had numbers to run the ball if the opposition played with sweepers.

Equally if they pushed out to mark those players, the option was there for the three inside to break from that position, left, centre and right and you could then fist it in or dink it in and get the runners off it.

This area will be incredibly important for Monaghan based on the numbers that Derry will have back and indeed for Derry if Monaghan decide to mirror their tactics. It’s going to be fascinating to watch but I think it comes down to a couple of key issues.

We know what Derry’s defensive structure will look like because it worked so well against Tyrone. The big question is will Monaghan have better answers to it? If they do, it will have a huge influence because if they manage to keep the scoreboard ticking over that strikes at the heart of the Derry tactics.

Another issue is whether Derry push up on the Beggan kick-outs. For me, they have to because simply defending deep with a lot of bodies won’t get them to a workable total on the scoreboard. We won’t have to wait long to get the answer to that.

If they do push up, that element of risk arises because Rory Beggan can easily go over the press and I think he likes the high press because he can get at the opposition by going long to the half forwards. That’s going to be huge in the context of the outcome.

I’m not sure that Derry will get their possession game and transitional build-up going the way they will want against Monaghan, who have shown regularly down through the years that they can play on the line, get physical and stop attacks at source.

If they do go down this road, Derry will have to match that and this game could get very spicy, very quickly.

It’s important that Monaghan push up on the Derry kick-outs because I think that uncontested possession is what gives Derry confidence. Tyrone were basically saying, ‘we respect you too much to risk a high press’.

That was madness in the context of the game not just because it gave the opposition confidence but because Derry are good with ball in hand.

It’s incredibly difficult to call but I have a sneaky feeling for Monaghan. If the tactical parameters were all the same where might the advantage lie?

They both have pace and they’re both good on the ball but when you look at the full-forward lines, Monaghan edge it against a Derry unit that’s very dependent on Shane McGuigan.

Like many games in Ulster, we’re down to very fine margins.