The Connacht final threw up some tantalising questions: could Roscommon put titles back-to-back for the first time since 1991 and it was also a test of Galway’s credentials, not just in the province but in terms of the bigger picture.
Their defensive system was also under the microscope and what Roscommon proved in the first half was that without intensity, Galway’s system – and to be fair, the same applies to any team that wants to play that way – is a very average tactical framework.
The final on Sunday was very tactical early on. Roscommon's game plan was excellent in how they took on Galway and their obvious threats. Eamonn Brannigan and Shane Walsh bring a lot of pace and they have Damien Comer on the edge of the box. In dealing with this Roscommon got a lot of things right, particularly in the first half.
Galway defended very deep: everybody bar one either inside or on the 45 and then the full backs were taking turns sweeping, depending on who Roscommon were rotating into the full-forward line. Seán Andy Ó Ceallaigh ended up there a good few times.
To my mind they were defending two-thirds of the width of the pitch. At times early in the game, Roscommon were keeping the ball and you can see that there’s a wing back in his position not marking anybody and a half forward in his position on the 45; it’s the same formation as you have 15-on-15 only it’s compressed into 50 metres of the pitch.
That was Galway’s defensive set-up and how they intended to counterattack. Roscommon had their homework done and were incredibly alert to deal with and stop those counterattacks.
The critical takeaway for me from the game is that intensity is key to Galway’s system and if they’re going to do anything in the remainder of the championship that is the one element they have to get right.
I’m aware that the emerging consensus about the match is that they were, ‘too defensive in the first half and let the shackles off in the second’ but for me that wasn’t the case.
They were as defensive in the second half as they were in the first; the difference was that they brought far greater intensity after half-time.
In the first half they had a line of Barry McHugh, Conroy, Kelly and Brannigan along the 45 but they weren’t pushing out and getting pressure on Roscommon and this is the difference between a ‘passive’ and a ‘pro-active’ defence.
An example of this was a Diarmuid Murtagh point early in the game. Roscommon keep the ball moving and hold possession because there is no defensive pressure and Enda Smith punches the ball behind the cover to Murtagh who kicks a good score from distance. The zonal defence created a lack of collective responsibility.
In a counter-attacking system, you must be the hunter and not the hunted, which means that if you’re going to put yourself in those positions, you must go after the opposition. You have to play on the front foot defensively and look to overwhelm and force mistakes via real and consistent pressure.
Early in the game, Galway weren’t doing that.
In the 16th minute Damien Comer played a ball across the face of the goal but Roscommon turned it over inside their own 14 and worked the ball all the way up the pitch, going up the left-hand side and switching to the right and back over again.
Galway have almost everybody back in defensive positions but can't get a hand on the ball once; can't make contact
Nine times they moved the ball either with hand or foot during that sequence before it ended up on the other 14 at the far end with Donie Smith kicking the ball over the bar for a lead of 0-4 to 0-1.
From one 14 to the other Galway never laid a hand on Roscommon.
For Roscommon’s first goal the same dynamic was at play. It was a fantastic bit of individual skill – pace and power and when you look at it, you think, ‘wow, what a goal!’ but what preceded it?
Roscommon did really well to turn over on their own 21 and then, 14 passes later moving the ball and keeping it out of contact, possession ends up with Ciarán Murtagh and the ball ends up in the net.
Yet Galway have almost everybody back in defensive positions but can’t get a hand on the ball once; can’t make contact; can’t get a shoulder in; can’t make a block?
It was constant possession for Roscommon and Galway were just passive. Roscommon on the other hand were the opposite: very well organised, making contact, disciplined, making blocks defensively and breaking from the back.
There’s a term in soccer, ‘counter the counter’. A team is set up to counterattack, like Galway, and they have the numbers back and in blocks, they are hard to break down and when they turn the ball over look to really go at the opposition.
‘Counter the counter’ is about teams being specifically set up to deal with that. That means being cognisant that your team shape is always in position and even if you lose possession, being able to react immediately and win it back and get at the opposition when they are disorganised – countering their counterattack.
I thought Roscommon did that very well on Sunday, particularly in the first half.
Niall McInerney was marking Comer very tightly inside and they weren't allowing the runners to come from deep. They were making hard hits but were disciplined and the shape of the team meant that as soon as Galway got the ball, they were in a position to get pressure on them almost immediately.
Do you push five players into the full-forward line? If you do, obviously there'll be big space in the half-forward line and massive space out the pitch
At the same time the defence was swivelling around into a central position and they were establishing their shape behind that. Offensively they were moving the ball at pace, not taking it into contact and playing with their heads up. It wasn’t about the long or short ball; it was about the right ball.
The only negative was their finishing. They dropped a lot short and kicked too many wides – all of which left Galway with a chink of light. They took advantage.
Shane Walsh kicked a really sweet point from out around the 45. He was the one Galway player who was exceptional all through the game. Even in the first half he was trying to do the right thing, go at them and ask questions.
That Galway score originated from a short kick-out and they did this a couple of times on Sunday. They aligned four and five players along the 21. That causes a problem for the opposition. Do you push five players into the full-forward line? If you do, obviously there’ll be big space in the half-forward line and massive space out the pitch.
Along with the full backs, Paul Conroy and Gareth Bradshaw were dropping in there, which created a five-v-three.
So they go short to the corner back, who hands it to Conroy, who hands it to Walsh and he’s in an acre of space. He soloes up the field and his team-mates were sprinting to get ahead of the ball – something they did really well – and that dragged the Roscommon defenders towards goal, which cleared more space for Walsh, who then kicked an unbelievable point from long distance. Really smart stuff from Galway.
On the long kick-out, both teams did exceptionally well. The high fielding was a feature of the game and I really enjoyed it. Obviously you need good players to do that and big enough men to catch but I think the mark has really helped.
The original debate was whether the GAA could reinvigorate a traditional aspect of the game by a rule change. I think it has been a success and has really helped the mentality of midfielders, who before used to go up to catch with the question in the back of their mind: how many of these boys will be waiting for me when I land?
We all remember the All-Ireland semi-final in 2003 when Darragh Ó Sé got zero return from dominating the skies because he was swamped when he returned to earth.
The incentive is there now to really go for the ball because it gives the winner of possession a free kick. The other thing is that teams are pushing up very effectively on kick-outs and forcing them long, which is a challenge for midfielders but from what I’ve seen they’ve been stepping up to the plate.
Galway's difficulties on Sunday came from allowing Roscommon too much control of the ball and this will be critical in next weekend's Ulster final.
Look at the semi-final between Monaghan and Fermanagh: Monaghan had the bodies back and Fermanagh were allowed to control the game in the middle third. They were able to keep the ball, not to bring it into contact, come back out of the pressure zone, rebuild and restart and go again.
How do you stop that?
One option is to have 12 players behind the ball with your three full forwards positioned between the two 65s with the objective of squeezing the opposition from both sides.
When they decide to come back out and recycle the ball they need to be hit with pressure from both sides
Otherwise they are under no pressure when recycling and rebuilding. What you need to create is ‘backwards pressing’: most teams setting up defensively have the game in front of them but can’t get pressure on the ball.
If you can both push out and press from behind, that’s a different dynamic and the team in possession are not just focused on breaking down the defence. They also have to worry about what’s coming at them from behind, which could also create apprehension for the player on the ball.
This could have an impact on Galway but also on the Ulster final. We know how Fermanagh will set up and we also know how they’ll want to keep the ball offensively when going forward.
When they decide to come back out and recycle the ball they need to be hit with pressure from both sides. In terms of how the game is evolving, this could create stress for teams trying to restart attacks in the middle third of the pitch.
How did Galway turn it around? For me it came down to one moment, when full back Seán Andy Ó Ceallaigh decided he was going to go and went with purpose and drive and an evident mindset that he wasn’t going to be stopped.
The ball was moved out to the left to Shane Walsh who kicked an excellent point.
That was the catalyst in my mind, the moment Galway found their intensity. Roscommon will be disappointed but they got a lot of things right and have every reason to feel confident about making the last eight.
Galway have a lot of talented players – their bench had a big impact on Sunday – and they’re now the first team into the Super-8s.
Croke Park might well suit their personnel but they need to get their system up and running a lot earlier. Critical to this is intensity. Systems give you structure but intensity gives you turnovers and for me this is key if Galway want to progress deep into the championship.