Jim McGuinness: Mayo must adjust defensive strategy to win All-Ireland

Concession of costly goals will continute until exposed full back line are better protected

One of the tantalising questions of every recent All-Ireland championship has also been one of the hardest to answer: can Mayo win the All-Ireland?

On Sunday, I felt we saw a new and compelling reason as to why they can. But I also felt we saw the reason why they may perish by the same sword unless they adjust their defensive strategy between now and September.

For me, placing Aidan O’Shea in at full forward answered many of the questions that been asked about the Mayo attack. With Cillian O’Connor playing alongside him, Mayo have a top-class inside forward line in terms of ball-winning capability, free-taking, an obvious point of attack and options from both the long diagonal ball delivered from deep and the little dink ball to run onto.

If you bring Aidan out to centre-half for kick-outs, he becomes an option along with the brother, Barry Moran and Tom Parsons. His presence gives the Mayo attack a balance. He is not a typical marquee forward in terms of scoring prowess but in stature, size and skill level and, critically, in his leadership he is all that and he brings a shape to their attack.

In doing so, he will cause sufficient distraction for space to open up for his team-mates. In addition, Diarmuid O'Connor is big and hard-working. When Mark Ronaldson came on, apart from a bad decision to shoot rather than slip Séamus O'Shea through the middle in his first possession, he didn't put a foot wrong thereafter and that too is a positive.

So if Mayo persist with O'Shea as a target and choose to move him in and out – much like Donegal do with Michael Murphy – it gives the team a very strong offensive threat. Opposition managers will be cognizant they need a sweeper to cope with him – therefore freeing other people up.

Mayo’s attitude is so strong. They went into Salthill with a very strong mindset. Even in their post-match interviews, they were controlled and focused and they just know what they are about. They are very experienced.

Concede goals

So what is going to hold them back?

Mayo need to bite the bullet and sort out their defence. I don’t believe they can continue to leave their full backs hanging out to dry if they want to win an All-Ireland. Mayo have to get to the point where they don’t concede goals.

It is not about personnel: it doesn't matter if it is Ger Cafferkey or Tom Cunniffe or Kevin Keane or Keith Higgins on a smaller player we are talking about. When you watch Mayo play, with the defensive system they have in place, you always feel it is inevitable that sooner or later a goal is going to come.

Mayo are very strong on their kick-outs. They are good going forward and now have a point of attack and they are a mature team. They have almost all of the required qualities to go all the way.

But if you ask me are they going to win the All-Ireland as they are set up now: I think they will come close but will probably perish on the same sword that has caused them so much devastation in recent years. Goals conceded will be their undoing.

But it doesn’t have to be that way and if they make a minor concession in their approach they can make it much more difficult for opposition teams.

Their man-to-man system works extremely well high up the field when they press and in the middle third of the field. But once the ball goes deep, I don’t see that ruthless, relentless hunger among the middle-third players to get back and help out the full backs.

It absolutely astounded me to see Galway attacking and three or four Mayo men sticking to their own men while the ball travelled past them towards the Mayo full-back line. Once the ball goes into the final third, I feel they must become ruthless and single-minded in the protection of their goal. They need two or three men programmed to help their full backs once that happens.

You don’t have to go extreme. You can still leave three or four men up. But for the Galway goal, I just saw a three-on-three situation inside the 45. That won’t work against the very top teams. It comes down to a one-on-one scenario for attacking players every single time. Any defender in Ireland would struggle in Mayo’s full-back line because of the lack of support.

At the moment, you can almost foresee what will happen. If you have 40 or 45 scoring chances like Dublin, for instance, often do and it is three v three or two v two, then what is the end result going to be?

For me, it is a numbers game. A defender can defend brilliantly 19 times but on the 20th, the ball ends up in the back of the net. This is increased when you meet forwards like Bernard Brogan, Michael Murphy, Colm Cooper and company.

Changing that doesn’t require Mayo to abandon their football philosophy. But if you were facing a Mayo team, with the fitness level, the strength, the age profile, the mentality and experience they have, which had also developed a reputation for not conceding goals, then as a manager you would know you have a serious job on your hands to try to beat them.

Mayo shouldn’t have a problem in making that adjustment. It wouldn’t be a betrayal of their football beliefs. Every time a question has been asked of Kerry, they swallowed their pride and went in a different direction. They did it with Tyrone. They did it with us in Donegal. The bottom line for Kerry is winning the All-Ireland and they adapt as they must to do so.

Little detail

The big question for Mayo is: if you really, really want to win it then why not eliminate the chances in the last third of the field? For instance, they have a converted wing back in Kevin McLoughlin who has a marvellous work rate. Why not deploy that?

That little detail would put them in a bracket where they have a very strong chance. We all know that they have been really close in the last few years. But have they? Bernard Brogan’s goal in the 2013 final: over the course of 70 minutes, based on the numbers, was that not inevitable?

So I feel this is a critical issue for Mayo because the weekend games confirmed the provincial champions are in the position they expected to be as the championship goes through its sorting process.

Donegal are in a position now where they will try to improve by a further five per cent in each of their performances and I can see them doing that. It was a very classy execution of their game plan in Armagh.

Michael Murphy was obviously a towering figure. People talk about Michael on the edge of the square but there is nobody better in Donegal at delivering those long, diagonal quality passes from 60 metres and when you have an excellent forward like Patrick McBrearty in there, it can cause damage.

Because Michael is a natural full forward, he knows the type of ball that player wants. Paddy McGrath closed out Jamie Clarke completely and the Armagh attack struggled as a result. Karl Lacey brought his form from the Tyrone match into the Athletic Grounds and proved again how important he is to Donegal. He got on a lot of ball and I don't recall him making a single mistake.

Key figure

Within an excellent team performance, Odhrán MacNiallais was outstanding in his athleticism and decision-making and in the switching of the direction and emphasis of play. He is a very fine footballer and emerging as a key figure for Donegal.

But Armagh mystified me. Both Galway and Armagh lost on Sunday but there are ways to lose. I liked everything about Galway’s approach. They refused to be intimidated and had a cut and worked some terrific scores. They didn’t do everything perfectly but would still have woken up on Monday morning knowing they had given everything and probably feeling they had closed the gap on Mayo. You can feel at peace with yourself when you lose in those circumstances.

My hunch is the Armagh players will feel very differently because they know they offered no resistance. They essentially prepared for this match for nine or 10 months. Kieran McGeeney spoke last week about physicality and how the Kerry-Mayo semi-final was the best game of the year – even though it was officiated to a level where anything was let go.

It made me think it was going to be a war in Armagh. But the opposite was true. Nothing happened. There was zero pressure on Donegal. Karl and Neil Gallagher and Michael got on ball and threaded passes through without a hand raised or a shoulder put in. There was so little tackling or turnovers. So what happened? For me, one of two things: either the management got it badly wrong or the players let them down very badly.

The question I would ask is: did the Armagh players believe they could win the game? I am not so sure. Armagh lost by nine points. Donegal were beaten by10 points four years ago in Crossmaglen and maybe for the same reason.

Belief is a big factor when it comes to winning. The top teams acquire that. Mayo are still clearly pulsing with belief. The importance of that can’t be underestimated. I feel that if they are willing to take steps to eliminate the factor that has repeatedly tripped them up in recent years, then they increase their chances of squeezing the race for the All-Ireland much more in their favour.