Jim McGuinness: Monaghan’s smart game plan gets them over the line

Despite this painful Ulster final defeat, I wouldn’t be writing Donegal off just yet

I arrived in Glasgow airport on Sunday and saw a few Donegal jerseys gathered around the bar as I reached the top of the escalator. I arrived when the Ulster final was in its 68th minute and saw the closing stages. The Donegal lads in the bar jumped off their seats when Patrick McBrearty took that last shot and there was a second when we were all celebrating. Then we realised it was waved wide. Monaghan prevailed by a point.

It was so disappointing and I immediately thought of how devastated the boys would be. They cherish the Ulster championship and losing a final so narrowly after such a tough draw was severe. Celtic had a pre-season friendly against Eibar in the Basque region so I couldn’t be in Clones and it was a strange sensation sitting down at home that evening to watch the recording knowing the result.

What I saw was basically a tale of two game plans. It struck me that Malachy O’Rourke had done the very same thing: watched games on tape. My bet is he absolutely ravaged the DVD of last year’s Ulster final for every detail he could find and that he also closely studied each of Donegal’s championship games this year.

Donegal went into Clones on Sunday with a plan that has carried them past Tyrone, Armagh and Derry. From the outset, Rory Gallagher decided to go with a one-man-up formation, leaving Paddy McBrearty inside and dropping everyone else deep inside the 45. It is an interesting strategy and it worked very well against Tyrone and Armagh because both those teams man-marked Donegal men and left Patrick in space inside.

Donegal’s defensive structure has been excellent all summer. But they are calibrated to defend no further out than their 50. During my time with Donegal, our game plan was predicated on overwhelming teams with defensive intensity. This year, it is not about pushing out and asking questions. They are inviting teams into their web, turning them over and striking at speed, exploiting the space and looking to hit Patrick inside with direct ball.

The bait

Monaghan studied all this and didn’t take the bait. Defensively, they man marked inside and had a double sweeper, one on the left and one of the right of Patrick and then had everyone else marking their men. They negated the long ball option into Patrick by leaving three back regardless of what happened down the field. Patrick scored a fine early point but it was on the loop: as the match developed there was very little ball kicked in by Donegal.

So once Monaghan’s game plan developed, they forced Donegal to run the ball and support off the shoulder. The Monaghan players were very successful in stifling that too and regrouped quickly around their own 45 and so forced the Donegal boys to play lateral passes, all of which made Donegal look ponderous on attack. The other consequence for Donegal was that they had 14 men trying to get up and support the ball and then tracking back on defence. It was very demanding and draining on a hot day.

Once Donegal got back to their 45 to defend was when Monaghan really began to turn the screw. I counted double digit instances where they carried the ball up along the Gerry Arthurs stand side and they were right out about three metres from the sideline until they hit the 45 and then they turned and bounced the ball back and recycled it to the far wing. So they played keep ball just beyond Donegal’s line of defence.

Interestingly, they sought to kick-pass the ball rather than hand-pass it, thus shifting the Donegal unit over and back the pitch. So they were swinging the entire Donegal unit from side to side while also looking to drop the shoulder and make an incision or to find space for shots on the wing. They didn’t care how long it took or if the ball went wide. They knew they had cover behind them and it was about patience, steadily wearing Donegal down.

Last year when we played Monaghan we had a thing called a double switch, where we would switch from the left to right wing and back again. There were elements of that in what Monaghan did on Sunday. Karl O’Connell’s point in the first half – left to right wing and coming onto the ball at pace and wrong-footing the defence; that is off the training pitch.

Scores like that give a team a massive infusion of confidence because they can see something they worked on coming off. You could see the pattern starting to come into the play as early as the ten-minute mark. They were also looking to get their very strong runners like Dessie Mone and the Hughes boys to punch holes.

Monaghan looked very composed and had huge belief in their game plan. Donegal tried to respond by pushing Michael Murphy inside a few times. For instance, Neil Gallagher sent a long ball in to him but it was a three on one situation he was coping with. I noticed that, by the 28th minute, Donegal were defensively more stretched across the width of the pitch in order to deal with the attacks coming down both flanks.

Consequently, they weren’t as compact as they had been throughout the campaign. They were thinned out and it meant that there was more opportunity for incisions. Monaghan began to pick little holes and that is when it went from 0-4 to 0-3 to 0-8 to 0-4 very quickly.

Goal chance

So suddenly Donegal were in under pressure. It reminded me of 2011 when Tyrone were rampant against us and they went 0-6 to 0-1 ahead and then had a goal chance. I can remember my heart sinking on the sideline because they looked so well organised and so well-coached. When you are in a defensive structure and you are trying to get hands and pressure on the ball and you know the opposition are really well coached, it is very frustrating.

Monaghan excelled at not taking the ball into contact. It meant Donegal couldn’t do what they wanted to do: tackle. They took that weapon away from Donegal while running them all over the field.

And it was very difficult for Donegal to adjust. That is a key point about football at this level. If you know what a team is going to do, then you have a chance to beat them. And in Clones, Monaghan took the field with an iron-cast mindset that they knew what the Donegal boys would do. Asking a team to adjust – to push out, say, – off the cuff is very difficult.

It t is conceivable Monaghan have been rehearsing that game plan for months. So even when Donegal started to see what Monaghan were at, it was difficult for them to adjust and to respond to it. Conor McManus’s point after Monaghan worked ferociously hard to force a turnover on Christy Toye was a critical moment. It was a psychological blow for Donegal and a statement of intent by Monaghan. McManus seemed to identify that when he tipped Neil McGee on the chest.

At 0-9 to 0-4 it looked like the game was over. Facing a defensive team like Monaghan, it is a big ask. The positive in the second half was that the McHughs and Frank McGlynn were starting to run the ball with some aggression. They were needed because it was a very testing day for Donegal.

Karl Lacey’s departure must have given the Monaghan players a great fillip. Monaghan seemed to be making tactical substitutes whereas ours were a response to the game. Owen Duffy came off after 45 minutes and Dermot Malone after 55 in the second half: both are pure workers.

Because of the set-up of both teams, from the fifth minute to the 60th minute, Donegal just couldn’t get traction. Late in the game, McBrearty kicked a couple of fantastic points – just as he did last year. The wide was tough on him at the end but I think Patrick’s performances all summer have been one of the main reasons Donegal made it to the Ulster final.

Moving freely

Donegal rallied really well and they never gave in. But the game was lost over the 70. Monaghan people won’t like to hear this but it seems to me Michael Murphy played injured. He was heavily strapped and he wasn’t moving freely. For the ball he kicked away that led to Conor McManus’s last point before the break, he was unable to chase back the way he normally does.

In fact, what was notable about that score is that two Monaghan men made the transition to attack after Fintan Kelly got possession and they ran past five Donegal players. Donegal were fatigued by that stage from the running they did. Michael’s injury would have been easier on him if he had been full forward and it would have tied up a few more of Monaghan’s players.

Donegal’s defensive shape has been exceptional this year. But the defensive intensity has not been there. The Donegal game plan has been predicated on outwitting players inside the 45. However, Monaghan didn’t’t fall into that trap and focussed on retaining possession and not letting Donegal get close to the ball.

During Donegal’s rally, they struggled to find supporting players. Even the two McHughs were running in isolation. The support play that Donegal are usually so good at just wasn’t there. They kicked a lot of wides but most of those shots were under extreme pressure because of the way that Monaghan set up.

Hats off to Monaghan. Conor McManus had a fabulous game and underlined that he is one of the classiest forwards in the game. I thought Neil McGee did well on him but McManus’s points were of the highest order. Karl O’Connell and Frank McGlynn showed they are among the leading half-backs in the championship so far and both goalkeepers were excellent in their kick-outs and ball retention.

The defeat will be painful for Donegal but they will learn so much from it. The key for Donegal now is to respond to the challenges they encountered on Sunday. Despite the result, I feel Donegal are better placed to go further in the All-Ireland than the Ulster champions. What we saw on Sunday was a very smart game plan executed to the letter of the law by Monaghan yet they still just about got over the line. That is because Donegal have high-calibre players. Donegal will be hit hard by this but they have two weeks now to take a breath. I wouldn’t be writing them off just yet.