Jim McGuinness: Tyrone must exploit Kerry's soft spots to carry the day

Pairing is one of the best modern rivalries, but Kingdom likely victors unless they falter

Kerry’s David Clifford passes to set up the fifth goal during their meeting against Tyrone in the league in June. File Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Kerry’s David Clifford passes to set up the fifth goal during their meeting against Tyrone in the league in June. File Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

There was such anticipation before Mayo and Dublin that today’s All-Ireland semi-final seems muted in comparison.

The prelude was slightly farcical, with the big statement from Tyrone and playing hardball with the GAA. There was a sense of a stand-off but in reality the game was always going to be played. It was one of those occasions when it was handy for Tyrone to have two managers because they could deliver distinct messages and kind of play good cop, bad cop. It was absolutely the right decision by the GAA to grant the extension.

If Tyrone felt they couldn’t play the game on the scheduled date, then that has to be taken at face value. Brian Dooher has said this week that everyone is available to them now. They will get an opportunity to go out and play the game and hopefully do themselves justice. And Kerry-Tyrone is one of the best modern rivalries.

But the exercise leaves Tyrone in an interesting place. They are coming under the radar. They are a shadowy thing for Kerry to plan against. There is no great expectation on them because of the coronavirus outbreak. There is almost a get-out-of-jail clause irrespective of what happens now. So Kerry have had to deal with all of that- as well as the delay. Their Munster final win seems like a long time ago.

And Kerry are raging favourites for this. That has been the state of play for some time. On the field itself, the big question is whether there is a realistic hope for Tyrone. Two aspects stand out in that regard. The Kerry full back line. And, second, the Kerry kick-out. Those are the two areas where we have seen glimpses of vulnerability and they are areas Tyrone should try to pressurise and go after.

The starting position of the Kerry full backs is critical in whether or not Tyrone can profit

I went back again and looked at the Munster final with a view to Kerry’s full back line. The first 30 minutes were interesting. Cork troubled them with a pattern of play which started early: a fisted ball from deep into Brian Hurley with his brother Michael playing off his shoulder. In those early exchanges Kerry had midfielder Jack Barry and weak-side wing back Paul Murphy trying to come back and act as a plus one. In addition, you had Cork playing keep ball and then finding Dan Dineen with an offensive mark. So within seven minutes Cork had three scores on the board. Kerry had none.

Another moment: Luke Connolly hit a long diagonal ball. It was overhit. Brian Hurley was the target. I was watching Jason Foley’s positioning in that moment. For me it was a red flag. I think Foley has taken the brunt of criticism for perceived shortcomings of Kerry’s defensive line. But I think this is also a coaching issue. Kerry have implemented this policy throughout the championship. The management are asking their defensive players to front their attackers. Say Kerry are playing to the town end in Killarney and the ball is coming down the left flank. Well, then Foley or Tom O’Sullivan will be on the ball strong side, 3m or 4m in front of their man. They are almost inviting the ball over the top. But then, there were also plays in which Brian Hurley got out in front of Foley on the strong side. That doesn’t add up to me. And I found myself making notes several times this summer: the Kerry full back line gets caught under the ball sometimes. They should not be getting beaten strong side. In this instance Hurley kicked a very good score from a difficult angle.

In the 16th minute, another sequence to cause Kerry worry. Cian Kiely won the ball just inside the offensive 65. Right then Brian O Beaglaoich and Foley were playing in front of their men. So Kiely kicked a ball over the top, the obvious option. Brian Hurley knocked it down to himself. He had a look and then kicked it wide. But it was very easy for Cork. In the 17th minute Paul Murphy got turned over high up the park. Ian Maguire got possession and went down the flank to Brian Hurley who on this occasion was well out in front. He turned and squared Foley and took him on. The old GAA full back commandment is Thou Shalt Not Pass. Here, he did so with ease and then scored a goal to make it 1-5 to 0-3.

So in the 27th minute, O’Beaglaoich was given the responsibility of picking up Brian Hurley. I am thinking in terms of Peter Keane and personnel and tactics at this moment. It was the right thing to do but as a manager you don’t want to do it. You picked the team. Also there is the psychological impact on the player and his team-mates to think about after the switch. It is like an admission of failure. It is not a great place to be.

None of this will be lost on Tyrone. They are astute. So to my mind, the starting position of the Kerry full backs is critical in whether or not Tyrone can profit. When the attack is coming from deep there won’t be a plus one for Kerry. And because Kerry want their full backs to play in front of their men, they are susceptible to the long ball and the diagonal ball, to the mark and to being back-doored and to the direct ball into the box – both of which we saw in the league against Dublin. And they are also susceptible to being run at. That’s a lot of options!

Tyrone could have Cathal McShane and Conor McKenna inside and then Darren McCurry at the top of the D. They carry a goal threat. Have Tyrone got the calibre of players to deliver the right quality ball? I think so. In Niall Sludden, Daragh Canavan and Mattie Donnelly they possess good intelligent kickers. Critically, for me, it is about putting 5m to 7m more on the pass in order for the ball to reach the man where those Kerry defenders can’t recover.

Also, throughout the championship when teams have applied significant pressure to the Kerry kick out, it has faltered. This will be its stiffest test.

With Tyrone it is about the collective: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

The flip side is that Kerry continued to play well in these games and they bring so much. They are in superb condition. They carry serious hurt from last winter which is fuelling them. They are carrying the expectation that comes with Kerry. They have been winners at under-age level and are desperate to get over the line as seniors. The two Cliffords have been exceptional and Sean O’Shea is the glue to what is a well-drilled attacking unit.

They do this warm up drill where guys line up 30m apart centrally along the 45. Two groups: one on the left and one on the right. And two groups then inside facing the others. They play a diagonal pass inside and the inside guys come out: it is all about playing the ball at pace on the diagonal with lateral support and inter weaving. It is basically overplay. It reminded me of the San Antonio Spurs under Greg Popovich. There was a famous instance when the ball never touched the floor in an NBA finals game. Mano Ginobli was asked about it afterwards and he replied: “We do this in training all the time. The coach asks us to overplay.” He used that phrase, overplay.

This is Kerry’s take on when teams have numbers back. We won’t be deterred. We will go in at pace and move the ball at pace with no solo and no hop and it will be lateral and diagonal until we find that extra pass and that scoring opportunity. As an attack strategy it works really well. And it will be fascinating to see how it flourishes against Tyrone, who will defend in numbers.

Tyrone are Ulster champions. That is a massive thing in their minds. With Tyrone it is about the collective: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Their major worry for me lies in the second half against Monaghan. Once they faced that intensity which Monaghan brought, the quality of their play declined dramatically. Donegal also allowed Tyrone to play. I expect Kerry to try and start fast and aggressively and demand to see what Tyrone have in response.

So there is provisional hope for Tyrone, if they play it right. Even so, I am not sure whether they can match Kerry’s physical edge, their phenomenal attacking quality and their actual desire. I think even if Tyrone can exploit those issues we explored here, Kerry will still have too much in those other departments. I fully expect Kerry to find themselves in the place everyone imagined for them at the start of the championship: an All-Ireland final. The big surprise is that they won’t see the anticipated colour of jersey on the team warming up at the other end of the pitch.

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