Mayo 2016: Breakdown of a Blueprint

 

The bros O’Sé are among two of the best analysts of Gaelic Games at the moment. Darragh’s weekly column in the Irish Times is always worth considering, and ditto Tomás’ inputs either on TV or in print media. There’s inevitably an element of cute hoorism and divilment with some of their views where the Kingdom are concerned, and indeed you could actually see the smirk on Tomás’ face when he stated things were “laid out” for Mayo on Sunday night. But by and large anything they have to say is usually measured, interesting and free from hyperbole. That they played the game to the highest level of distinction in the modern game gives their views further credence and also provides the odd glimpse under the bonnet at the inner workings of the senior inter-county machine.

Tomás was fairly forthright in his views on Mayo over the past few weeks, both in his Irish Independent column the weekend before last as well as in his summary remarks on the Sunday Game in the aftermath of the Kildare victory. In essence he felt there was a big performance in this Mayo side, but they needed to demand more of themselves to deliver it and not simply expect things to click into place. This was further backed in Darragh’s column in the Irish Times on Tuesday of the run-up to the Tyrone game. Difficult to argue with the general sentiment, and by and large their thoughts were validated in last Saturday’s gutsy win.

However, over the course of the qualifying run and particularly when trying to consider what went right tactically in Croker this weekend, the article that I continued to return to was one written by Darragh back in May. In it, he tactically disassembled the component parts of a prototype team for success in modern Gaelic football and I found it an interesting structure to test the current Mayo team against, and perhaps try to understand some of the logic in Rochford’s tactical set-up.


General Overview

Pace. Athleticism. Physicality. These provide the bedrock for any top-level team and for the past five years Mayo would have defined this template. However, at various points this season there has been a lethargy and almost sluggishness for large tracts of their performances. This could be a new approach to conditioning, with the aim to peak in late rather than early Summer. It could be the effect of a more contained possession-oriented game plan limiting the opportunities to showcase these physical attributes. Or it could also be the mileage of the past few years taking a toll on collective limbs. Mayo’s aim has always been to arrive at full tilt in August and in beating Tyrone a lot of these questions were answered. Tipperary will undoubtedly provide a further test of those credentials however.


Goalkeeping

Solidity is simply taken for granted in the view of the man from An Gaeltacht. Not so much on direct shot-stopping, but ability to provide a calming presence and command a defensive structure. It’s in distribution where O’Sé sees the critical and defining factor for top-level teams.

After Rob Hennelly’s sub-par showing against Galway and following a couple of smart saves in the subsequent games by his replacement, David Clarke would seem to have the edge when it comes to defensive assurance. He was particularly alert in those hectic closing moments against Tyrone to an undercooked cross-field pass. However a clearly defined and well-executed kick-out strategy still seems to be a challenge. A focus has undoubtedly been on short kick-outs, but this has often been to the detriment of Mayo’s other attributes namely height and presence in the midfield and centre-forward axis. A recurrence to kick short towards the left corner back position (invariably with Diarmuid O’Connor dropping deep to collect) has been somewhat predictable, and is an avenue open to pressure leaving an exposed inside 21 metre area. Tyrone picked off a point from an error with this strategy, while Galway capitalised on an intercept to major and only Westmeath profligacy prevented a similar mistake. Regardless of the strategy, improvements will need to be seen in the communication and execution, especially against a hard-working Premier side that will likely press from the front in addition to competing strongly around the middle third.


Defence

“There’s no full back line now. There’s a marker, maybe two. There’s a guy patrolling the D”

This would certainly explain why Kevin Keane has appeared in midfield territory almost as regularly as the full-back line in recent games, tracking runners into more advanced positions and perhaps furthermore explain why he was the man who lost out in the last positional reshuffle. Brendan Harrison would appear to be the dedicated marker, still effectively functioning as an orthodox corner back but on Saturday taking up a more central role. Kevin McLoughlin clearly seems to be the appointed person to drop and patrol, and he has certainly made some crucial interceptions. However, for someone to effectively guard this area, I can’t help feel that height or at least a more experienced defender would be a more effective use of the position and free up McLoughlin to operate further forward where he has done his best work. Peter Canavan did an excellent assessment of this prior to the Kildare game where he didn’t really fault the tactical design, but was critical in the communication and execution. McLoughlin has shown enough through the qualifiers to suggest he’s learning on the job and getting to grips with the role and further improved on Saturday, but he has always been a quietly effective performer and has one wonders if a more vocal presence is required to marshal the defensive pieces, similar perhaps to Ciaran Kilkenny’s role for Dublin last weekend. It may be too simplistic to simply state Higgins should slot in here, but certainly the collective alertness and positioning of the full defensive unit needed to improve, and there were encouraging signs of protecting this “D” area on Saturday, which can be addressed further when considering Darragh’s second observation.

“There are five or six across the 45, numbers irrelevant. There are no wing backs or wing forwards, just wingers”.

Arguably this should be one of Mayo’s core strengths. Vaughan, Boyle, Keegan, Higgins, Durcan are all capable of effectively operating in this position – holding a defensive line, forcing turnovers and breaking at pace. Dublin, Tyrone and Kerry are experts at coordinating this effectively to push “up and out”; forcing advancing attackers to recycle deep or laterally, eventually resulting in long-range or wide-angle efforts at the posts. To try to put some clarity on this concept of the “D” , let’s consider the central area to approximately 25 metres out as a “Hot Zone”, or area where scores are generally easier to come by as illustrated in the image below. The area beyond 35 metres (or also arguably down the channels out wide) can therefore be the “Cold Zone” by default, as it would indicate players are not only kicking from further out but have been forced to shoot from such a position and are therefore possibly under more pressure.

Image 1 - Scoring Zones

If the sweeper system functions effectively, it should be a point of strength to have an inside cover-man protecting this “Hot Zone”, with a quick and aggressive barrier in front preventing strike runners from punching through. The introduction of Doherty and Dillon to further swell numbers in this area against Tyrone was clearly an attempt to reinforce the barricades and there was a tangible improvement in delivering on this as can be illustrated by pinching some statistics from the excellent Don’t Foul. Take the performance against Galway as a benchmark (or nadir), of Mayo’s defensive coordination this year. This game was the first test in anger of this new defensive system and Mayo conceded 25 shots from 33 attacks. While this was less than 33 conceded against Tyrone (from 45 attacks), let’s look at where those were taken from as per the table below.

Table 1 - Scoring Breakdown

First of all, it’s worth noting that the conversion of scoring opportunities from attacks stayed broadly level around the 77% – 78% mark in both games. However, look at the breakdown of where they were conceded.

Image 2 - Scoring Breakdown

The decrease of scoring chances in the hot zone, and increase of same in the cold zone could indicate a clear strategy to force out, wide and frustrate the through-runners. Put simply, Tyrone got their hands on more ball than Galway but were forced to use it in a sub-optimal fashion. There has rightly been criticism of Tyrone’s shooting, but it’s arguable that the Mayo defensive structure was a major factor.

Setting aside the last few minutes of the first half and the entire second half against Westmeath, Mayo have conceded 32 points over 205 minutes of football. An extremely meagre tally which would have indicated progression and an understanding of how to implement Rochford’s system. However, of course we unfortunately can’t ignore that performance against the Lake county where the defensive system’s fragility was clearly illustrated in the concession of James Dolan’s goal against the run of play just a minute before half time, ultimately setting the tone for an extremely lax showing in the latter 35 minutes. As illustrated in the image above, only 4% of scoring chances in the hot zone against Tyrone were from play which would indicate a learning to accept the tactical foul rather than risk a direct run on goal and the possible concession of goals similar to the ones against Galway and Westmeath. The pieces appear to be there, but the collective concentration and communication will need to be maintained to the highest possible level for 70-plus minutes.


Midfield

“You need one giant to contest hop-balls but mostly, in the best teams, midfielders won’t be called on to catch anything above their heads”

Probably a fair summation of how the game is evolving, however a team with the aerial ability of Parsons, Moran and the O’Sheas should be attempting to harness this as a strength in securing primary possession rather than contesting second ball. In either case, the transition from defensive 45 to attacking 45 is becoming more and more critical and the lines between centre-half back, midfield and centre-half forward are ever more blurred. Put simply, a physical and hard-running performance will be the minimal requirement from whoever plays at 8 and 9, but effective passing and an ability to create space will be critical. The wayward passes into the forward line versus Westmeath and continuous carrying of possession into the tackle simply cannot be repeated.


Attack

“The most important player on the team is the link man at centre forward, which is the one position that is still broadly similar to what it used to be. You need a classy player there, a guy who plays constantly on the half-turn, taking possession while running laterally across the half forward line and sending fast, intelligent ball inside”

For all his attributes, skill and agility, this link is simply not Aidan O’Shea and the big Breaffy man has looked lost at times this season, bereft of a settled position. In an interview this week with Colm Parkinson on the sportsjoe.ie podcast, he alluded to personal issues affecting his form, however the lack of a clearly defined role was undoubtedly also playing a part, even ending up in the unfamiliar terrain of full back against Fermanagh. On Saturday however, aside from a ten to fifteen minute spell in the second half where the supply lines into him were labouring, O’Shea was back to his marauding best – commanding possession, full of industry, and cleverly switching between midfield and the edge of the square to bring runners into the game. Landing a beautiful long-range score himself simply capped a very welcome display, and it becomes clear that these are the two locations in which he needs to be stationed.

In reality it’s difficult to see how this concept of one key player (perhaps the legendary “Marquee Forward”?!) translates into the Mayo style of play as the half forward line has typically been based on hard-working, deep-carrying, breaking-ball winners in the mould of McLoughlin, Doherty, and Diarmuid O’Connor. However, Alan Dillon’s introduction against Fermanagh clearly illustrated the importance of a calm and clever playmaker along the 45 metre line. It was physically impossible to expect a full seventy minutes from the Ballintubber man against Tyrone, but  his subtly different yet similarly effective first half cameo was hugely important.  If anyone is to fill this role from the start then it should probably be his clubmate Cillian O’Connor, who has the guile to play inside passes and illustrated how comfortable he can be at long-range point taking which is always useful in the face of a compact defence. However, taking a scoring forward out of the inside line is a difficult trade-off to balance and  in truth, individual players who can comfortably play this link-man role are few and far between. At various points on Saturday Cillian, Moran, Dillon and even O’Shea all operated in this area and this is likely to continue to be a floating role going forward, acting more as a pivot to bring the deep runners such as McLoughlin and Higgins into play rather than playing on the half-turn.

“Upfront you have one strike forward. You’re pushing the boat out if you go with two”

Considering this, the exclusion of Evan Regan is somewhat understandable. The Stephenites man has done little wrong to date, but arguably without imposing himself enough consistently to demand that starting jersey. Given the style of game that was to be played against Tyrone, Doherty’s industry and tackling prowess between the previously described “blurred” lines of the two 45s became a pre-requisite. With Andy Moran’s ball retention, the need to give clarity to O’Shea by positioning him closer to goal and Cillian as the obvious starting choice as the “strike forward”, then four into three simply won’t go. However, having the option of using Regan’s pace from the bench against tiring defences adds another string to the bow, and as evident from his impressive tally versus Westmeath he undoubtedly will have a key role to play before the season is out.


The Verdict

Whether Darragh O’Sé’s blueprint for a successful team is even accurate is open to debate, but it’s nonetheless an interesting model to compare the Green and Red to. Certainly, the likes of Kerry and Dublin would stack up well against it, and perhaps their silverware in recent years proves the hypothesis. From a Mayo perspective, the individual component parts would appear to be there and Saturday’s tactical victory perhaps indicated that the manager is figuring out how to best assemble them. However, as the old adage goes, paper teams win paper cups and there is a further challenge from an exciting Tipperary side looming on the horizon. I can’t wait for the next road test.