You won’t win any­thing with a zonal de­fence

No team will beat Dublin un­less they have brav­ery to com­mit num­bers to at­tack, says Joe Brolly

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

IT was a great day’s foot­ball and fun in Croke Park last Sun­day. Af­ter­wards, I was in Cu­sack’s Bar for an hour thaw­ing out and en­joy­ing the ban­ter with a crowd of ya­hoos from St Vin­cent’s.

We were talk­ing about trash talk­ing, and a Dro­more man (wear­ing his Ty­rone top of course) joined us and told us this one: he had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing hot-headed when he was young. He was play­ing in the un­der 21 cham­pi­onship semi-fi­nal, and just af­ter the throw-in his man started, “Your mother was at the bingo on Fri­day night in Omagh?” “She was,” he said, taken aback that his op­po­nent knew this. “I slept with her af­ter­wards,” he said. Cool as a cu­cum­ber, the Dro­more man said, “What time was that at?” “Half ten.” “You must be mis­taken, at half ten I was sit­ting be­side her on the sofa watch­ing The Late Late.” The place ex­ploded.

The first game was played in a great spirit and it is highly doubt­ful that there was any trash talk­ing. Spec­tac­u­lar goals duly flowed, both teams show­ing their con­sid­er­able skills. It gave us a flavour of how pro­fi­cient our play­ers are now.

Ca­van looked un­recog­nis­able from the team that brought us such abysmal, ro­botic, de­fen­sive muck be­fore this sea­son. The Black Death is gone, cured by foot­ball, the only an­ti­dote. In­stead of try­ing not to lose, Ca­van were striv­ing to win, and they played vi­brantly for long stretches against an equally imag­i­na­tive Roscom­mon team. Even when they were five points down with five min­utes to go, they kept fight­ing for the win.

Roscom­mon were just fur­ther down the road, more set­tled, older and more sea­soned, even if the Dubs would prob­a­bly score 12 goals against them. Their Con­nacht ti­tle and ex­ploits over the last two years have given them a com­po­sure that this young Ca­van group do not have yet. This was the only dif­fer­ence. I was sit­ting amongst Ca­van peo­ple at the game and they were rightly proud of the way their team played. As Oisín McConville is fond of say­ing, “The game is about dy­ing with your boots on.”

Dublin, mean­while, con­tinue to save Gaelic foot­ball. Their an­ni­hi­la­tion of Ty­rone’s sys­tem last year high­lighted the fal­lacy of play­ing a packed zonal de­fence with no one ahead of the ball. Gal­way think they are the young pre­tenders, but they are merely play­ing Ty­rone foot­ball from last year, so it is not pos­si­ble for them to beat Dublin. This was il­lus­trated in Salthill a fort­night ago against Dublin’s B team, and again last Sun­day, in spite of the fact that for 27 min­utes of the sec­ond half, they were a man up, and play­ing with a gale-force breeze. Like Ty­rone last year, they got hemmed in by Dublin’s full court press, were turned over in very dan­ger­ous ar­eas in the mid­dle third and even fur­ther up, and in the end were labour­ing fu­tilely in­side their own ‘45, al­low­ing Dublin to hold pos­ses­sion (at one point for three min­utes and 24 sec­onds) with the clock run­ning down and the Dubs four points up.

This was a car­bon copy of what hap­pened a fort­night ear­lier in Salthill and un­der­lines the point that the 1-13-1 for­ma­tion is one-di­men­sional. Like Ty­rone last year, when they needed to change tack, they couldn’t. The gale and the ex­tra man were ir­rel­e­vant. In the fi­nal quar­ter, Dublin outscored them 0-6 to 0-2, cre­ated and nar­rowly missed two great goal chances and, in truth, romped home.

Back to Cu­sack’s. Mark In­gle, the bas­ket­ball coach who works with Dublin, was among the Vin­cent’s faith­ful. His con­stant theme was the fu­til­ity of zonal de­fend­ing in Gaelic foot­ball.

“The pitch is too big, Joe. It will only work if the other team are do­ing the same thing.”

Just to tease him a bit, I started ask­ing ques­tions about what’s happening in­side the squad. Which turned out like the scene in The 40-Year-Old Vir­gin where Steve Carell is fol­low­ing his men­tor’s ad­vice and chat­ting up the woman in the bookstore by only ask­ing ques­tions. “What’s the prob­lem with Diar­muid? “What do you think the prob­lem is Joe?

“Is he too up­set to go back af­ter not be­ing picked for the fi­nal?”

“Do you think that’s the rea­son? “I don’t know. You’re his club­man. Or is he not happy with the role he’s be­ing asked to per­form?”

“Why would he not be happy about that?”

“Is his re­la­tion­ship with Jim poor?” “Why do you say that?”

“Is it over for him? Is he just mov­ing on?”

“You’d have to ask Diar­muid that.”

And so it went, like Paddy the Ir­ish­man on Mas­ter­mind in the mid-1970s. Paddy was from Cross­ma­glen and his spe­cial­ist sub­ject was the Trou­bles. He ‘passed’ the first four ques­tions, and some­one from the au­di­ence shouted, “Good man Paddy, tell them feck all.”

The Dubs man-mark be­cause it is the smart way to play. They do not re­treat into set po­si­tions and al­low the op­po­si­tion to hold pos­ses­sion out­side their perime­ter. In­stead, they ap­ply con­stant pres­sure in an ef­fort to turn the ball over and re­gain pos­ses­sion. This can only be done via man-mark­ing, since oth­er­wise there is con­fu­sion as to who should pick up whom and the team in pos­ses­sion has the ad­van­tage.

Dublin choose to man-mark, tack­ling fiercely the whole way down the pitch if nec­es­sary. This wears the op­po­si­tion down, since nor­mally they are used to car­ry­ing the ball out of their own de­fence fairly freely. It also means they are al­ways ready to at­tack. If they turn the ball over in­side the op­po­si­tion ’45 they im­me­di­ately go for goal or an easy point. The same in the mid­dle third (think of their first goal against Ty­rone last year). If the op­po­si­tion com­mits ev­ery­one for­ward when they counter-at­tack, then their men go with them, so that when the Dubs turn over in that sit­u­a­tion, the op­po­si­tion is turn­ing and run­ning back to­wards their own goals with their backs to the play.

There are two other re­fine­ments. Firstly, when the op­po­si­tion for­wards re­treat, the Dubs drop a tem­po­rary sweeper into the space in front of the full-back. Se­condly, when a Dublin de­fender re­alises his man is mak­ing a dummy run or that his man is stay­ing on the touch­line to cre­ate space, he will drop off to­wards the dan­ger area and help in there. This is an il­lus­tra­tion of foot­balling in­tel­li­gence.

Put in a nut­shell: the Dubs do not want to de­fend zon­ally. They want to get the ball back as quickly as pos­si­ble. You can­not play a pres­sure game if you zon­ally de­fend. This is why when a team is play­ing the Dubs, they can never hold pos­ses­sion against them, string­ing the ball around and killing time. It is also why the op­po­si­tion find it so dif­fi­cult to score against them, be­cause they are all con­stantly be­ing pres­surised and strug­gle to work the ball up­field, which they must gen­er­ally do out of a zonal de­fence that only has one or two for­wards ahead of the ball.

The key mes­sage from the last few years is that un­less teams get the bal­ance right be­tween de­fence and at­tack (and this is dif­fi­cult, though not im­pos­si­ble to achieve once you depart from a man-mark­ing tem­plate, since a com­bi­na­tion of zone and man to man is very tricky), then they will not make it to the high­est level. And it will re­main im­pos­si­ble to beat the Dubs. Though I didn’t hear any of that from Mark In­gle . . .

Clar­i­fi­ca­tion

IN last week’s col­umn, Joe stated that two Derry GAA mi­nor foot­ballers are in Aus­tralia, ac­com­pa­nied by the county’s di­rec­tor of coach­ing, for AFL tri­als. We wish to clar­ify that in ac­tual fact, the two play­ers and also the county’s games de­vel­op­ment man­ager trav­elled as part of an on­go­ing coach­ing and ed­u­ca­tion part­ner­ship be­tween the GAA and St Pa­trick’s Col­lege Bal­larat, Vic­to­ria. We ac­cept that AFL tri­als were not part of this pro­gramme.

The Dubs man mark be­cause it is the smart way to play

Gal­way’s Peter Cooke is crowded out last Sun­day by a Dublin rear­guard that al­ways gets the bal­ance right be­tween de­fence and at­tack. Photo: Daire Bren­nan

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