Donegal enjoying the best of Michael Murphy because of everyone else
In Clones in 2017, Donegal were swept aside in the Ulster semi-final by a slick Tyrone machine.
Rory Gallagher had Michael Murphy in midfield and it was probably the best place for him to get on the most ball because, despite trying to flood the full forward line with four players at times, Donegal just couldn't stretch Tyrone and they couldn't get enough space in attack.
But, that day, Murphy had Padraig Hampsey hanging out the back of him wherever he ventured and the Glenswilly giant was nullified completely from trying to get a grip of that middle third platform for Donegal. Instead, he was left to watch Hampsey scale the pitch to kick two points during his man-marking shift.
Two years later in the same venue and it was like Murphy didn't even notice Hampsey was there.
The Tyrone man came to work alright and he came with the same enthusiasm to do the same job but the rules had changed. That last day, as the men from the hills dumped Mickey Harte from the provincial championship, Michael Murphy wasn't restricted to a midfield job or bound by defensive duties and he certainly wasn't looked to as the man who had to win the ball and put it dead himself. He was just a part of the team.
Granted, he was a very big and the very best part, but Donegal have set Michael Murphy free, tactically, positionally and mentally, and they've been able to do it because of three men:
- Hugh McFadden
- Shaun Patton
- Declan Bonner
McFadden dominating alongside Jason McGee rids Murphy of the necessity to play as an orthodox midfielder. He's defensive-minded and mans the Donegal backline where Murphy's size and aggression is no longer needed full-time and, along with McGee, Thompson and Michael Langan, he's an option for their own and for opposition kickouts which now don't require Murphy to win every single one as well as spoil the other team's best player whilst he's at it.
Shaun Patton's kicking is scarily getting better and better and with the pace, trajectory, distance and accuracy he gets - coupled with Murphy's freedom - it's like Donegal are back in the golden era with Paul Durcan himself picking out Murphy on the half forward line.
The most important thing Declan Bonner has done though is made the county self-sufficient. Tactically, the shift has been to get the most out of Murphy in midfield and attack - rather than pining for him in one or the other - and the positional changes have helped but so has the coaching and so has the mindset.
There's no player not contributing in an impactful way to the Donegal set-up and, if there was, they'd be out. The looping is relentlessly dizzying, the angles of the runs are sharp and meaningful and the off the shoulder bursts are genuine and threatening. There are options inside and strong ball winners and when you add that up, you have Michael Murphy as just one of the lads. One of the bunch. Christ, an add on. When Michael Murphy slips off the radar like that, he'll hurt you.
It makes Meath coach Colm Nally's comments on the We Are Meath podcast seem baffling. He stopped short of calling Donegal a one-man team... but he still said they're the closest thing he's ever seen to a one-man team.
"I'm not saying Donegal are a one-man team," Nally clarified before the but.
"But they're the closest team I've ever seen to a one-man team.
"Michael Murphy was getting scores, then he was in the middle catch the balls and then at the end he was clearing the ball off the line. So I mean if you put him in our team, I think you'd see a different result."
The man's a massive player and he's a Donegal player so complaining about what he can do to teams is like undermining Barcelona's wins just because they had Messi. Messi's a Barcelona player.
It also overlooks what is actually happening and how Murphy is benefitting from the work of others - almost like it's a team.
His score on his first game back from injury this year when they beat Armagh in March highlighted a pattern that would be reeled out from then right into summer.
Ryan McHugh is advanced, driving in at the opposition defence and drawing players towards him.
Michael Langan gets off his shoulder and goes straight for the posts.
He shakes another man to make a dent and you can now see Murphy come into picture on the left.
But it's impossible to worry only about Murphy when the rest of them are posing very real problems. They're not paying lip service with their runs, they're actually looking to do something and Michael Langan has scored in every game this championship so he can't be ignored to keep an eye on one man.
And that's just an example of McHugh and Langan. What about the rest of them? The most vicious of them?
The scoring charts show where the damage is being done for Declan Bonner.
Donegal top scorers (2019 championship)
- Paddy McBrearty 1-19 (6f)
- Jamie Brennan 2-14
- Michael Murphy 0-14 (5f, 2 45s)
- Oisin Gallen 1-2
- Ryan McHugh 0-4
- Michael Langan 0-4
So when Jamie Brennan runs at you from deep with all that power and all that chaos, do you risk not doubling up because you think the one-man team are going to throw it back out to that one man? Or do you panic and scramble because you've seen what him and McBrearty can do at their cruellest worst? Do you worry about the other yellow jerseys washing forward too?
Good coaching, good players and good conditioning has Donegal at a place where everyone committed to an attack is a weapon, not a decoy, and Michael Murphy can choose when and where he wants to launch his own assaults from.
During that same Armagh game, his goal showed it off perfectly when, even with 14 men, Donegal sliced through - McHugh to McFadden to Langan to guess who you weren't picking up because you couldn't afford to?
— The GAA (@officialgaa) March 2, 2019
Four months on, Murphy is still so important from their kickouts and he's still a bulldozer around the middle but he comes to life in attack because others are igniting the flame and, worse still - or better if you're from Donegal - he comes into it unmarked with a head of steam.
Donegal have reduced Michael Murphy's role, they've made him one of the team again.
In doing so, they've made him even better.