Jim McGuinness: Kerry not quite yet the complete package

Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side showed chinks in their armour in Galway game

Galway’s Damien Comer breaks through the challenge of Kerry’s  Mark Griffin during the All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

Galway’s Damien Comer breaks through the challenge of Kerry’s Mark Griffin during the All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

 

Since the league final the consensus has been that Dublin and Kerry have moved away from the pack and that the All-Ireland is a matter of waiting for them to get to September.

Of all the weekend’s games I was interested in particular in Kerry’s quarter-final with Galway. As things stand I’m not entirely sure about Kerry. I sat down to unravel their credentials as the race for Sam enters its last weeks.

The first thing I noticed was Galway gave them the first kick-out, which I thought was a mistake. In order to beat the big guns you have to disrupt their aim and their routine and have to ask serious questions – force them to think.

For me, you have to take them on on every level if you’re going to jolt them off target. That’s why I felt it was a bad idea to give them the first kick-out. Galway also seemed to give up the first and middle third by setting up defensively and overloading the 45 with a lot of bodies to get pressure on there. Then they went plus-one at the back with a sweeper, depending how many forwards were up.

There was a lot of attention on the decision to play David Walsh on Kieran Donaghy. I think they’d have been better served by a natural, aggressive defender with the likes of a big man like Walsh in front to double up naturally. In Donegal we would always have used Neil McGee, our hardest and tightest marker, to do the job of picking up the key man, no matter who he was. You’d also have a taller player to provide height for the aerial battle. David Walsh got caught trying to do two jobs.

Galway’s Eoghan Kerin tussles with Paul Geaney of Kerry. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
Galway’s Eoghan Kerin tussles with Paul Geaney of Kerry. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

That said, that isn’t where the problem lay. For me, the problem lay in there being no pressure out the pitch and the ball going into the full-forward line came from players able to lift their head, look up and play the pass they were looking to play.

The game was 0-3 to 0-2, good and lively, when Paul Geaney gets a score to make it 0-4 to 0-2. If you look back at that score there’s zero pressure on Kerry in the middle third of the pitch. They’re allowed to build the play and for a player of Geaney’s quality it ends up being a handy score.

A few moments later Galway concede a goal – again, no pressure in the middle third. David Moran is for me the best long passer in the game and probably the best midfielder. He picks out Donaghy over the defender and the ball ends up in the back of the net.

Shortly afterwards Peter Crowley is in the same position: middle third, looks up, gets the ball in and when he kicks the ball there wasn’t a Galway player within 20 metres. Again Donaghy gets a well-measured pass and now it’s 1-5 to 0-3 and the game is over. The question is, would those scores have come if the intensity had been there in the middle of the pitch?

Defensive structures

People talk about defensive structures but they count for nothing without that intensity. Dessie Dolan said on commentary that it’s almost an innate thing for Kerry players to slide the ball into the net.

I would suggest it’s innate for most players at this level and stage of competition to do the same under little or no pressure. You have to ask would it be the same dynamic if two or three players had been diving on David Moran’s boot, as he was getting ready to play the ball inside?

And if there were defenders inside hungry and aggressive and fired-up, looking Kerry players in the eye and ready to contest every ball – are we saying then that it would be ‘innate’ for the ball to end up in the back of the net? Would it have moved from 0-3 to 0-2 to 1-5 to 0-3 in the blink of an eye? I don’t think so.

It was just so easy for Kerry to move up the pitch. The game was framed as being between two traditional counties but is that true? If let play, Kerry will be Kerry but they’re also ready to match any team in the country with different tactical formations and indeed, the black arts. If teams want to go there, they’ll follow.

For Shane Enright’s yellow card, the ball was in Seán Armstrong’s hands when Enright decided to go through the player, Johnny Heaney. It was a stonewall black card and the same thing happened the night before to an Armagh player and there was no black card there, either.

Johnny Buckley and Donnacha Walsh put pressure on Galway’s Liam Silke at Croke Park. “There is undoubtedly a lot of quality in the full-forward line but the half forwards? It doesn’t jump out at you.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Johnny Buckley and Donnacha Walsh put pressure on Galway’s Liam Silke at Croke Park. “There is undoubtedly a lot of quality in the full-forward line but the half forwards? It doesn’t jump out at you.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

We’re living a lie with the black card, pretending that everything’s okay. Everything is not okay because in those two situations – at the business end of the championship – either the officials don’t know the rule or they don’t know how to detect and enforce it. Either way, it’s a very bad situation.

If you look at the Enright foul, Peter Crowley comes over and taps referee David Coldrick on the back, a wee bit of moral support. Enright gets the yellow and he taps the ref on the back because both the players knew it was a black card but the referee didn’t? It’s incredible!

Eamonn Fitzmaurice is a very good manager and a thinking manager, who can analyse a game and set his team up accordingly. They are very good and have some excellent players at the top end of the pitch but I feel in their overall game there are chinks in the armour.

If you look at Kerry on Sunday they dropped off time and again to squeeze the pitch into 100 metres rather than 145. In the eighth minute they forced a turnover along their own 45 with 13 men behind the ball. They pushed up consistently on the Galway kick-out, forcing them to go long and picking up a huge amount of breaking ball. This is coaching: a game plan for every phase of play. These are details that make sense to the players because a coach gives them instruction on the training pitch in terms of how to execute. That’s what I mean about him being a thinking manager.

Competitive province

Do they suffer from not having a competitive province and a recent history of undemanding All-Ireland quarter-finals? For me, that’s an absolute gift! You’re walking into a quarter-final and getting to work in training every single night without the black cloud of Tyrone coming down the track in six weeks and tapering preparations and making sure players are in the right place and that you don’t overcook them.

Without that you can just go hammer and tongs: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday – go and go and go, refine your processes over and again in training. Then you get the chance to run that out on game day. People say, ‘oh, they haven’t had a proper game’, but if you get that opportunity in training, your internal games can supersede that.

You can train for an hour or an hour-and-a-half and then play a 70-minute game with 30 or 40 players, who should be ravenous to play. So you’ve situations two or three times a week where your sessions are two-and-a-half to three hours long and they’re tearing strips off each other to get the jersey. There’s no taper and no black cloud hanging over you. It would be like the constant building of a pre-season and then, boom!

You’re saying to the fellas that we have a quarter-final that’s maybe not that difficult and then a semi-final – two games to get to an All-Ireland. That’s a far cry from a preliminary round and thinking, ‘we’ve got to win seven games to win the All-Ireland’.

I still feel there are areas where Kerry can be challenged. Question marks remain over their full-back line. Mark Griffin is probably one of the best full backs in the country at the moment in terms of the transition to attack but he hasn’t been tested going in the other direction.

Same with Tadhg Morley. Teams with hard, aggressive runners going in straight lines hasn’t happened to them on a sustained basis and I think that can cause problems. Galway managed to make incisions but we’ve yet to see Kerry deal with top-quality forwards consistently over 70 minutes. The half-forward line is very hard-working but maybe slightly lacking in intensity – I’m thinking of Mayo, Tyrone and Dublin.

Dublin are probably still a notch ahead of everybody, based on the weekend’s games

Donnchadh Walsh is the most honest player in the country and he’ll run all day for you but I felt at times the intensity wasn’t there. I know it wasn’t that kind of match but you’d wonder is the intensity still there – I’m not so sure. Johnny Buckley is a brilliant player, a great man to field, pick out a pass and kick a score but you get the feeling that the open expanses aren’t his favourite battleground.

So if you get a team that’s aerobically very strong and very powerful and using the breadth of the pitch to play with a high tempo, for me there are questions to be answered. There is undoubtedly a lot of quality in the full-forward line but the half forwards? It doesn’t jump out at you.

Lateral passes

Are managers fretting about how to handle the Kerry half forwards? If you go back a few years it was an incredible line: Declan and Darran O’Sullivan and Paul Galvin. David Moran is a top player, probably the best there is in the position, but I thought Jack Barry played very conservatively.

There was a lot of lateral passes, not taking the ball to the gainline. It was very safe. Fitzmaurice has built a good squad, though.

Looking at the game you’d have to say the team that finished – Jack Savage, Stephen O’Brien, Killian Young, Anthony Maher and Barry John Keane – was debatably stronger than the team that started. When you weigh it all up, how far are they ahead of the chasing pack? Looking at the personnel, how do you assess them: inside attack, yes; half forwards, not sure; middle of the park, one of them; half backs, untested against consistently direct attacks; full-back line, question marks?

That’s not a complete package where you’d say there are no gaps. They were worthy winners of the league but is the distance between them and the chasing pack that pronounced? If you look at the above and try to match it against teams with legs and intensity and power and directness – Tyrone bring that and Mayo, for all their struggles, can bring that. They have conditioning and run straight lines and ask questions physically.

Dublin are probably still a notch ahead of everybody, based on the weekend’s games. But maybe there’s hope for the chasing pack.

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