Kerry defence playing a dangerous game Tyrone will seek to exploit
With no one to sweep around the ‘D’, Kingdom’s full-back line inordinately exposed
Paddy McBrearty: caused major problems for Tadhg Morley and the Kerry defence during the drawn Super 8s clash in Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
How Kerry defend, a story in three scores.
Actually, it’s kind of a story in four scores because the first one worked so well it counted double. We’re in Killarney on July 14th. There’s 20 minutes gone and Mayo are coming down the left flank of Fitzgerald Stadium, three points down but not plummeting through the floor just yet.
Aidan O’Shea plays a kick-pass into the Mayo attack, looking for James Carr. Carr has Tom O’Sullivan clamped to his back and the Kerry defender disrupts him enough that Carr need two goes at it to collect the ball.
By the time he does, he’s 20 metres further from goal than when he started, just out past the Kerry 45. He turns and looks to play a kick-pass inside, aiming for Darren Coen near the top of the D. Shane Enright reads him like a book though and pounces out to intercept. He feeds David Moran who plays a glorious 60-metre kick pass to Paul Geaney, who in turn finds James O’Donoghue and it takes a fine David Clarke save to prevent a goal.
For the kick-out, Kerry flood the Mayo half. Four Kerry forwards push up inside the Mayo 45. In all, 11 Kerry players are beyond the midfield hash mark as Clarke lines up his kick-out. He goes long and high and Adrian Spillane beats O’Shea to the ball and sends Gavin White on his way. White feeds David Clifford and 11 seconds after kicking the ball out, Clarke is watching it sail between his posts again.
When Kerry are defending well, that’s what it looks like. It’s flooding the middle third in the first instance, it’s O’Sullivan and Enright and Jason Foley and Tadhg Morley right up the backs of the opposition’s inside forwards in the second. It’s arms-in, physical, a touch on the ball, an intercept, a turnover and away.
And when the ball goes dead up the other end, it’s Send All Boats time. For the next kick-out after Clifford’s point, Kerry had six - six! - players inside the Mayo 45. It’s buccaneering stuff, reflective of the youth, ambition and sheer chutzpah at Peter Keane’s disposal.
Everything comes in shades and tones, of course. One man’s chutzpah is another’s gauche ineptitude. So let’s have a look at a second score. We’re in Navan last Saturday and Kerry are leading by a goal with just over 10 minutes to go until half-time. Meath corner-forward Thomas O’Reilly has drifted out on a loop and is fouled by Gavin White 50 metres from goal, dead in the centre of the pitch.
As O’Reilly bounces to his feet to get his head up, there are nine Kerry players between him and the goal. Watching it back a few dozen times (hey, it’s a living), it’s instructive to see what they do – and don’t do – about it.
The most striking thing is the absolute absence of cynicism. Nobody accidentally-on-purpose runs across O’Reilly’s eyeline to slow him down. Nobody pretends to argue with the referee about the spot of the ball in order to buy their full-back line time to get set. Indeed, White all but gets out of O’Reilly’s way to let him take it quickly.
The other thing nobody does is fall back to protect the D. Of the aforementioned nine Kerry players between O’Reilly and the goal, seven are between the 45 and the top of the arc of the D when he kicks the ball in. Not alone is there no sweeper, there is nobody making a shape at pretending to be one in order to force O’Reilly to think twice about firing a quick ball inside.
Essentially, it leaves Foley and O’Sullivan with a one-on-one match-up apiece and the whole of the scoring zone to defend between them. Bryan McMahon beats O’Sullivan out to O’Reilly’s quick diagonal free and it’s a twist and a turn and a dummy solo and Meath cut the margin to two.
When Kerry are defending badly, this is what it looks like. It’s having the bodies in the general area but not doing anything with them. It’s the momentary switch-off, the lack of a foghorn bollocker arranging everyone into shape. As the ball leaves O’Reilly’s boot, six of the seven Kerry players are either looking at him or looking up the pitch or looking at the ground. Only David Moran is half-turned, with any sense that danger is imminent.
Above all, it’s the almost louche transfer of responsibility onto the man-markers in the full-back line with no immediate protection. O’Sullivan and Foley are young and quick and tigerish and over time, they will likely win more than they lose back there. But this is senior inter-county football. Nobody leaves two-on-two in the scoring zone with the ball only 50 metres from goal anymore. That sort of carry-on went out with the Y2K bug.
And yes, it’s deeply unfair to a snapshot of a single quick free and extrapolate a broader theme from it. Kerry actually gave up a Meath goal from the kick-out but only conceded another seven points for the rest of the afternoon after that. In general, they forced their game on Meath, played large swathes of the afternoon in the opposition half and ran out handy winners in the end.
So let’s not do that.
Let’s instead take the middle Super-8s games against Donegal. It’s Croke Park three weeks ago and it’s a skittering firework of a game. Both sides put 1-20 on the board by the time the longest whistle is blown – according to Kieran Shannon in the Examiner, it’s the first time anyone has scored 23 points in an All-Ireland quarter-final, semi-final or final and not won.
And instead of taking one score, let’s take one type of score. By far the most successful route to goal for Donegal that day was the long kick-pass into Patrick McBrearty. Over the course of the afternoon, McBrearty beat his marker Morley to eight out of 10 balls that were kicked from distance into him. From that, he either scored, set-up or was fouled for the free that led to six points. He also kicked two wides.
It took until the 31st minute for Morley to beat McBrearty out of a possession. The Kerry full-back got a roasting but he deserves some sympathy. That McBrearty was able to beat him in almost every foot-race is obviously not great.
But in a system that has nobody patrolling the D and up against Michael Murphy raining in bespoke 70-metre kick-passes, better defenders than Morley would be in just as much trouble. Keeping the damage to six points probably isn’t far off par.
The Donegal penalty showed just how susceptible Kerry can be to a very simple accurate kick-pass. Ciarán Thompson is on the Kerry 45, no more than two feet in from the Hogan Stand sideline when he collects the ball running out towards his own goal. He wheels in towards the middle and arcs a left-footed kick over the six Kerry players strung across the 45.
The only players in the scoring zone are the young Donegal substitute Oisín Gallen and his marker, Jason Foley. As the ball leaves Thompson’s boot, Gallen has got a five-yard jump on Foley and is crossing the 20-metre line directly out from the black spot on the crossbar. There is nobody else in the D.
Gallen actually fluffs his attempt to collect the ball first time but Kerry are in such trouble now that it doesn’t matter. Out of nowhere and after a slow build-up from their own full-back line, Donegal suddenly have a four-on-two 25 metres from the Kerry goal. Gallen feeds Ryan McHugh who transfers to Daire Ó Baoill who gets poleaxed by Stephen O’Brien. Murphy does the needful.
Kerry are the only team of the four who are left who don’t make it someone’s job to sweep around the top of the D
So here’s where all of this is leading. Time and again through the Super-8s, Kerry have been cut open by something almost anachronistic at this stage, the simple act of a long kick-pass. They are the only team of the four who are left who don’t make it someone’s job to sweep around the top of the D. And it shows.
Tyrone have Colm Cavanagh, scampering back like a mother duck fussing over her chicks at the first sign of a ripple in the pond. Mayo job-share between Colm Boyle deep down in the hole and Aidan O’Shea as a sort of scarecrow figure to ward off those who might chance it.
Dublin usually make it Cian O’Sullivan’s job but in all truth, they’re not fussy who does it – Brian Howard, James McCarthy, Johnny Cooper will all find themselves filling in at different points in the game.
What none of them do is leave that 20-metre gap between the full-back line and the curtain of bodies posted along the 45 or 65 or wherever they’re choosing to dig their trench in any particular situation. Kerry do, routinely. And it leaves their full-back line inordinately exposed.
Cathal McShane is almost certain to end the summer as the championship’s leading scorer so his threat is obvious at the tip of the Tyrone spear. If Kerry aren’t going to cut off the space in front of the D, his mouth will be watering. If Mattie Donnelly is up beside him, his ought to be too.
It’s a dangerous game that Kerry play. The question for Tyrone is how to exploit it.