The problem with a "man on man" kickout strategy and the blanket defence attack
After Armagh ended Derry's championship in Celtic Park, everyone interested pulled up a stool at the only bar they can convene at nowadays. Twitter.
There was but one item on the agenda: Just How Rory Gallagher Was Rory Gallagher's Derry Team?
The evidence - some of it anecdotal, some of it without context - was being mounted on both sides in condensed 280 character piles until a cross-examination was needed to stand up a claim from the defence (lovely bit of serendipity).
It stated that Derry pushed up man for man on the Armagh kickouts so there wasn't much else Rory Gallagher could do to get his team to "go for it" as such.
This, believe it or not, was not the smoking gun we were hoping for.
And, if we leave aside for another day's work the so many other things any team can do to chase a game when in possession and out of possession, it brings us to the first of two very noticeable patterns of Gaelic football in 2020.
1. Going man for man on kickouts is NOT aggressive
Sure, it's not tame and if everyone is switched on, it'll give you a chance but the percentages will never be with you with this tactic on opposition kickouts. It's their set piece after all.
Going man for man means every player is tagged but a goalkeeper will generally have between nine and 11 team mates to choose from. That means you can't have one of up to 11 of your players switch off for a second. And you can't afford one in 11 being slower, or smaller or weaker than the player they're marking - and you definitely can't afford that being discovered of course. You also can't afford to get sucked out of a zone to create space so the keeper can hit another option anyway with a player up his backside or not. But that's what happens when you go man for man.
There is nothing more demoralising than following your player across the pitch because you're told to, even though you know he's just dragging you out of the way. What inevitably happens is the ball is put in front of someone sprinting into the space you've just vacated.
The press that Dublin employ is well documented and it was highlighted best with everything Rob Hennelly tried for Mayo to get out in the semi-final only to find that Dublin were able to attack every option. If Dublin go man for man - and they do on a lot of occasions out of necessity - it's easier to get your kick away to a team mate. Why, because you can set the terms faced with a man on man tactic. You know the calls, you know the runs, the keeper is in control of where the ball is going and just wants something to hit.
Dublin go man to man and battle for everything but when they get a half chance to pile more bodies forward and pen a team in, they take it. All they needed in that game against Mayo was 12 minutes of an aggressive press to not just beat Mayo, but hammer them into the ground.
It's been said that Down could do nothing about Cavan's second half comeback in their Ulster semi-final because, finding themselves 10 points down at a stage, Cavan "pushed up". They went man on man (they did) and with a bigger, stronger unit of players (they do have that) what else could Down do?
Down could've done loads, especially with Cavan setting up like they did.
If you had the pleasure of watching Derry against Longford in Division Three after the restart, you wouldn't believe just how easily Derry were getting their kickouts away faced with a Longford team all pushing up on their players. Derry bunched in the middle and broke to the empty flanks and the 'keeper simply popped the ball in front of whichever player had gotten furthest from his marker. Time and time again it happened and it was unbelievable - verging on frustrating - that something so basic was allowed to be so effective.
Cavan wouldn't have fallen for that obviously but, faced with a man on man system, that's the power you have to move the other team around and create the space you want. Down didn't even try to move the blue jerseys out of the way or hit them with a different problem. They didn't try to overload one side or bunch in the middle, at least until Cavan were forced to stop following their men so closely - then you can ask them a different question because suddenly it's not man on man. Instead, Down men stationed themselves around the pitch and poor Rory Burns tried to hit whatever looked best - and nothing looked good on that menu.
2. The days of your attacking plan being your defensive plan are over
Get everyone really, really fit. Get them all behind the ball. Make it horrible for the other team who are desperately trying to get through. Overrun them into the space they've left behind and use our fitness and their fatigue to get up the pitch before them.
We're in a new decade and the only thing worse than someone falling for that now is someone trying it, thinking it will work - because the former doesn't exist.
Ball retention, game management, scoring zone, space creation - this is the stuff that's even being coached into underage players so the idea that you're going to 'catch' teams is outdated.
What the best sides have is a defensive shape and they have separate attacking plans.
Anything from who's marking who, who's holding the centre, are the midfielders an anchor, are the wing forwards dropping back? Where does the wing back go when the ball is on the other flank and how does that affect someone else in a zone beside him? Do we have designated forwards who are free from defensive duties to keep our shape and keep team's honest? Or do we want everyone following their players all over the pitch?
If you think it's best to play a blanket defence with your defensive shape, that's obviously alright - as long as that isn't your strategy for attacking too. You'll just give yourself less chances to win with that defensive shape because you'll see less of the ball because the opposition will play with less risk.
The thing is, there isn't a scenario that a team can't prepare for in terms of attack, that's why the 2011 model is all the more baffling. Everyone can practice playing against a blanket defence game plan. It's not a surprise.
Every side is going into a game knowing there will be periods where 15 bodies are behind the ball. They know there'll be times when they win the kickout and can attack from a higher line with a traditional set-up. They can practice for how to best work it from one end to the other, either with a turnover or from their own kickout and if you watch Donegal, you'll rarely find a team better prepared for each scenario that unfolds throughout a game.
Donegal can counter-attack with frightening speed, they can press kickouts with pure aggression and hunger, they can get their own kickout down the pitch like no other team and they can hit it direct to what are serious options in their full forward line. When that spooks teams too much, they loop in off the flanks or they free up space for Langan and Thompson to curl over from distance. When that attracts even more bodies back in defence, you'll see Ryan McHugh slow up and take some solos from a standing position.
What's happening there isn't Donegal inviting a team out, it's them setting up a new play based on what they're seeing in front of them now. We have 14 defenders here, how can we move them out of the way? And with patience, imagination, power, skill, they usually do.
Like Dublin always do.
The difference between average teams and Dublin when faced with 10 or 11 defenders 👇
They scatter sheep like it's nobody else's businesspic.twitter.com/9N7NYdEjb4
— Conán Doherty (@ConanDoherty) February 8, 2020
Just because another team set up really defensively, that doesn't mean you have to do it too and say, "they did it first". And it definitely doesn't mean you can't find your ways around it, especially in times when they can't set up like that - like a kickout.
Bring a defensive plan to the fray - make it separate to your different attacking plans. That sounds really simple, right? Not everyone is doing yet.
Donegal and Dublin are and they're streets ahead of the rest.
And they sure as hell won't be hoping a man on man press helps them chase a game when they've fallen behind - if Dublin ever fall behind. Ever again.