Kevin McStay: Defensive systems only get you so far in Croke Park

Weekend proved Dublin and Mayo are the two best teams in the championship

Dejected Tyrone players Lee Brennan and Cathal McCarron at the end of the game in Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dejected Tyrone players Lee Brennan and Cathal McCarron at the end of the game in Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

By half-time, the second semi-final was over. Tyrone simply weren’t playing well enough to retrieve a seven-point deficit. Dublin were excellent. Their pace and tactics are always referred to and they’re really well-coached but sometimes just how high their skill levels are slips the attention.

Watching them spreading the Tyrone defence quickly from left to right and back again before seeking out little pockets of space you could see it was straight from the training ground. But the skills and speed of execution was just excellent.

First of all, ask what Tyrone hoped to achieve in the initial stages. Up until Sunday they had been running an outstanding defensive system, which you would imagine they hoped would spook the Dublin forwards. In their matches to date they have been conceding hardly anything in the opening quarter of matches.

Then in the fifth minute Con O’Callaghan runs through to get a goal with Colm Cavanagh looking at his backside rather than being in position between him and the goal. It was really unusual for Tyrone to be caught out like that so early in a game

They got a score back but what followed was a sequence of those moves where Dublin necklace the passes together and engineer scores. Paddy Andrews twice and Ciarán Kilkenny shoot points in quick succession.

Now Tyrone are in a place they don’t want to be and where they probably thought they wouldn’t end up – stretched across the field.

I don’t understand why they let Dublin come up so close with uncontested possession, no pressure on the execution of skills, which you expect at this high a level.

It was interesting comparing the two semi-finals. On Saturday Kerry tried to implement a sweeper system but it ended up undermining their natural game whereas, in the second half on Sunday, Tyrone had to push up to chase the game and that compromised their strongest suit, the defensive system.

Systems protect players but when they break down it’s every man for himself and you could see that in the second half when Tyrone lacked cohesion and were unable to get back into contention.

I think the days of the blanket defence are over. With the exception of Donegal, these systems don’t suit Croke Park because the opposition is always of a higher standard and everything is faster, zippier and harder to shut down.

Bench policy

I was a bit surprised by Jim Gavin’s bench policy and couldn’t understand why he gave Diarmuid Connolly just a few minutes given that the match was over and he could have got longer into his legs. I also thought we’d see Michael Darragh Macauley because with the final in mind he’s the type of unorthodox player that would suit playing against Mayo.

On Saturday Mayo were consistently very good and that is now the third match in a row after the draw and Roscommon replay where they have been consistently steady, energetic, enthusiastic and scoring well.

Dublin aren’t going to relish playing them.

I had a sense that referee David Gough would play a role in the match because of his zero-tolerance policy on off-the-ball fouls. I agree with him; players have to be left to play.

At this level of the game, Kerry’s discipline wasn’t good enough. There was too much holding going on off the ball. Between Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty Mayo had seven frees and hardly any difficult so this holding was going on in the D area, closer to goal. This was a big issue and Kerry had to be aware that Gough would referee it that way.

Momentum is so important in a game. Mayo were going nicely but hadn’t padded out the scoreboard. Then came the most dangerous shot in football, the point that doesn’t quite make it and the next thing Diarmuid O’Connor gets in on the end of it and it’s in the net.

There’s a tendency to believe that a winning manager has got everything right but Stephen Rochford did very well in bringing something different to the full-back situation by rotating Séamie O’Shea and Donal Vaughan in on the square as well as Aidan O’Shea.

What’s fascinating is the gradual process through which a manager over a series of games can find his best 15.

Kerry tried to tighten up but switching to a sweeper or double-sweeper system isn’t an easy thing to do unless you’re committed to it and you practise it and it’s part of what you believe in.

It looked to me that Kerry believed in it but only as a last resort and therefore they wouldn’t be as familiar with it as Mayo, Tyrone or Dublin. There was also the law of unintended consequence.

A huge problem for Kerry is that the system makes it hard to get from back to front – just as Tyrone’s departure from their system made it harder for themselves to get from front to back in the second half on Sunday – and in the first half when they set up that way they looked very ponderous moving up the field.

Number one, they didn’t have a physical presence in the Mayo half. That hurt them because their scoring rate was low – six points in a half of football?

 None of this should detract from the pitch of Mayo’s performance, which means we have without doubt the two best teams in the final and that’s as much as you can ask of any championship.

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