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Ballymun Kickham’s vs Kilmacud Croke’s – Championship Preview

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Background

After a painful few years, Croke’s have made it back into their first championship semi-final since 2012, when they lost to the side they face this Saturday, Ballymun.

There are significant subtle undertones as Croke’s come in as apparent underdogs, having been away from the business end of the championship for five years, having fallen foul to Ballyboden twice, Plunkett’s once and Jude’s once.

The fact of the matter, however, is that you simply couldn’t argue with Croke’s being where they are. They’ve come through what was undoubtedly the toughest end of the draw, albeit, that they came in at the back end of it.

Of the seven statistically stand-out sides in the championship four of them were in Crokes’ quadrant of the draw – Ballyboden, Plunkett’s, Castleknock and themselves. Plunkett’s beat Boden, Castleknock beat Plunkett’s and Croke’s beat Castleknock. You simply can’t argue with their place amongst the top four.

Croke’s came through the tough section of the draw

Noteworthy is that after three years in a row without beating a serious championship contender, they’ve gone through two in the last twelve months.

Last October they dethroned reigning All-Ireland champions Ballyboden, and this year they beat last year’s beaten finalists Castleknock.

Now, I preface my next point with the fact that I’m saying it partially tongue in cheek, but, actually, the statistics tell us that Ballymun’s 2014 to 2016 has thus far been very similar to Crokes’ 2013-2015. That is to say that they haven’t beaten a serious championship contender since the semi-final against Jude’s in 2013! The only difference is that they’ve drawn the big-guns in the quarters and semis, not the first and second round, like Croke’s did!

They’re the cream of the crop when it comes to massacring poor, and even mediocre sides, but actually, for all of the hype, you have to scratch beneath the surface to find evidence that their championship favourites tag, or even a claim to be in the top two, is justified.

They’ve fallen foul of Plunkett’s once and Vincent’s twice in the last three years. The highest ranked side they’ve beaten in the last four championships is what I make as ninth ranked Brigid’s.

Plunkett’s beat both sides in 2014

Of course, scratch beneath the surface and you will find the evidence, that this is mostly just a play on circumstances.

For a start, they had a different management team in 2014, 2015 and 2016, so anything pre 2016 is probably more or less obsolete now.

Unfortunately, from an analysis point of view, we’re not left with a huge deal to go on with Ballymun. They’ve only played one top side in championship in their current management’s tenure. That was a one point loss, down a man for half a game, to Vincent’s last year.

And that in itself, under the most difficult of circumstances, is ample evidence that the aforementioned statistics are probably insignificant, except for one thing – both of these sides will feel a championship final, let alone championship win, is long overdue.

We could start from the default position that Ballymun are favourites, but actually, based on the previous figures, with Croke’s having beaten Boden and Knock in the last twelve months, I’m not sure it’s justified without further reasoning. There is, however, some further reasoning.

Croke’s, as is the case with Ballymun, are brimming with individual talent. In the previous round they beat last year’s finalists without Kevin Nolan (2011 All-Ireland finalist), Tom Fox (2017 under 21 All-Ireland finalist) or Eoin Culligan (2016 Dublin senior panelist) and with Kevin Dyas (current Armagh senior) and Craig Dias (Dublin senior panelist until 2013) only coming off the bench.

Pat Burke was superb up front, Mark Vaughan, though somewhat squandersome after scoring an initial point, is obviously a forward of huge calibre. Recent Dublin 21’s, Shane Cunningham’s and Callum Pearson’s sheer pace and super ball carrying is the perfect link in the half forward line, with Paul Mannion to fit in somewhere in the mix.

Vaughan is one of a star-studded forward line

Against Castleknock Mannion played a deeper role, more or less making it a twelve back, two up front policy, but still was high enough up field to get a goal. Previously, he was at the apex of a front three triangle, making it an eleven back, three up front policy.

And as our Zonal Defence Analysis illustrated against Castleknock, the manner in which they’re getting men behind the ball now, is as good as any. They didn’t concede a single man-on-man attack in the entire game against Castleknock, and only conceded 1-10 in total. With defensive figures like that, and Cian O’Sullivan and Ross O’Carroll in the middle of it all, and the raw calibre of players they have up front, they appear to have all of the ingredients.

There is, however, one gaping trend which poses question marks for Croke’s. Do they have the capacity to “pick and poke” their way through zonal defences?

Zonal Defence Analysis

Last year against Jude’s they went out by a score-line of 0-14 to 1-8. Chasing the game in the second half, they managed just 1-3. In the quarters against Castleknock they scored just 2-8. Yes, a total of fourteen points, but again, barely double digit scores.

Their Zonal Defence Analysis figures are even more striking. Where they attacked against Knock into a defence with just one spare man, they scored 1-3 from eight attacks. When they attacked into a full on zonal defence (two or more spare men or more than ten men inside 45 yards, for example), they scored 1-5 from 31 attacks – and you can rest assured that a Ballymun full or corner back wouldn’t have let Pat Burke catch a ball the way he did on the edge of the square. It would be a brave man would even have tried with Eoin Donal behind them.

Burke was surrounded for the high ball for the goal

There’s simply no evidence that Croke’s can break down a stable blanket defence with any consistency. For all of their pace, they don’t appear to have the qualities to “pick and poke” their way through defences. Two forwards between them, ballooned six out of seven ambitious efforts, where recycling the ball looked like the percentages option on at least five occasions.

In the same game, from the 36th minute to the 57th when Pat Burke cut inside to score, they didn’t create a single clear-cut shooting chance, except for three entirely unnecessarily conceded frees by Castleknock, where no direct threat had existed. Throughout that 21 minute period, they looked extremely blunt up front.

Paul Mannion

Furthermore, amidst already low scoring figures, take one man out of it, and their figures drop further. Paul Mannion has scored a goal or created an open goal for somebody else with a piece of brilliance, where no particular threat appeared to have existed, in each of their last four championship games against top seven opposition.

Against Plunkett’s in 2014, he collected the ball with back to goal in a crowded box and manufactured a goal from nothing. Against Ballyboden last year he won a tricky ball over the top and finished into the top corner in a manner in which only an accomplished soccer player would do. Against Jude’s last year, he cut in from the left, reduced a zonal defence to nothing by beating two player and hand-passed to Burke to score an open goal. Against Castleknock, he took the ball sixty odd yards from goal, beat two defenders and scored.

Mannion cut inside two defenders to score against Knock

There’s a key feature, or lack there of, with each of these four sides. None of them have a starting, or even substitute Dublin defender. Ballymun have two/three!

But they scored 1-14 against Ballydoden last year, I hear you say? Yes, but that was a far more open affair with two sides who didn’t apply a sitting sweeper or third midfielder, where both sides tried and succeeded in attacking quickly off the kick-out. It’s also worth noting that the flip side of that game is that they conceded four one-on-one chances, all of which David Nestor stopped.

Ballymun’s Tactics

Imagine having the most proven and established man-marking defender in the country, yet playing him in a position where there are no man-marking duties required? That’s the luxury Ballymun have with such quality around the field.

Philly McMahon is probably the most proven corner back in the country, yet he’s positioned as a third midfielder-cum-playmaker, where he can seamlessly shift in as a seventh defender. You’d imagine a defender of his calibre would be the man to mark Mannion. Not to worry! You can just take another Dublin defender, John Small, and use him for that job. He marked Diarmuid Connolly for most of last year’s semi, but crucially, not for a period in the second half when Conolly scored a couple of points. He also marked Paddy Andrews in the previous round.

Small is the go-to man-marker

More to the point, McMahon’s relocation from corner back, where he marked Mossy Quinn in last year’s semi-final, alludes to the type of game we can expect on Saturday.

With two fit and pacey sides, you might expect an all action swashbuckling end-to-end game. It’s not likely to happen.

We saw how effectively Croke’s filtered men back against Castleknock, who got kick-outs off quicker than any side I’ve ever seen, and ran directly at them the same way Ballymun will. And with Philly McMahon making it 6-3-5 interchangeable to a 7-2-5 for Ballymun, we have to assume they’ll filter back quickly and get a sweeper back in place with ease when Croke’s come up-field.

It’s not perfectly clear what Ballymun’s approach on the Croke’s kick-out will be but you’d have to guess it will be about keeping McMahon at the back and trying to split up front. It’s impossible to say though, because Brigids’ Niall Davey man-marked McMahon in the last game. So McMahon never had to try to push up on “the extra man” because the extra man was on him all the time.

McMahon is the new play-maker

They initially tried to push up man-on-man on Vincent’s last year when Alan Hubbard was roaming from number 15, but the manner in which they only conceded six points in thirty minutes, a man down, when they were forced to concede the short kick-out, may have inspired a re-think

Assuming Mun to potentially allow Croke’s the short one, we’re back to that original question – can we expect Croke’s to break down a Ballymun zonal defence? All evidence suggests that it’s something that Croke’s have yet to prove.

For me, only Mannion and Burke look like “pick and poke” players against top defences. Against this defence, presumably with John Small marking Mannion, I’ll be surprised if Croke’s manage more than ten points – unless they stitch Mun up on kick-outs.

Kick-outs

Brigid’s stitched up Ballymun on kick-outs early on in the quarters and took a 1-3 to no score lead off the back of it. Equally, Croke’s did a fairly good job of compromising Boden on their kick-out last year, something which was a corner-stone of Boden’s All-Ireland success. There’s a history which suggests Croke’s could turn this element in their favour.

Equally, it alludes to one key tactical battle – Ballymun’s all energy, athletic midfield against Crokes’ midfield of Conor Casey and Pat Duggan, and which is significantly less athletic on aggregate, but has Duggan, towering above James McCarthy and Aaron Elliot.

Duggan’s aerial presence can be key

Kick-outs against Ballymun last year, competed for by Vincents’ Dáithí Murphy, towering at midfield, went eight/four in Vincents’ favour. You have to expect that Crokes’ Duggan could come out with a similar 2:1 ratio if Croke’s go long. In fact, zonal kick-out analysis over the last twelve months suggests that even if Croke’s have the option of the short kick-out, they may well be better off going long.

It would give them the opportunity to launch attacks into something more akin to a man-on-man defence, or at least into less congested zonal defences. It’s potentially the pay-off for having a midfielder who is going to have trouble keeping with James McCarthy and Aaron Elliot, or Davey Byrne if he should feature.

McCarthy leads a mobile midfield

The flip-side, of course, is that if Mun should struggle in this regard, they could always drop the larger, Jason Whelan, from centre forward, for the kick-outs.

Whether Croke’s try to press the Mun kick-out, or leave one at the back and split, they’ll face what is typically the most methodical of sides on the kick-out set play. Mun will either try to go short quickly and attack from there, or implement their set-play where they’ll create space out wide and look for players to run into the space, negating their inferior height at midfield.

And speaking of Ballymun’s quality – Seán Currie, Dublin’s recent second choice to Stephen Cluxton, was replaced at half time by Dublin’s current second choice, Evan Comerford, regarded by many as the second best kick-out deliverer in the country. Though the early stages against Brigid’s ran contrary to this point, typically, both of these keepers are deadly accurate.

Ballymun’s Attack versus Croke’s Defence

I’ve raised question marks about Croke’s capacity to break down Mun’s zonal defence. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Mun can break down Crokes’, which they’re highly likely to face.

But evidence since Paddy Carr has taken over suggests that they have a high capacity to do it. Even in Ted Furman’s absence, Dean Rock and Kevin Leahy are two of the best “pick and poke” footballers in Dublin, as are James MacCarthy and Philly McMahon, who’ll be behind them, supported by Jason Whelan’s cutting runs.

Whelan cuts through the Brigid’s defence

Despite Brigid’s getting big numbers back as much as they could, Mun put up 1-17 against them. They appear to be a long way evolved since only managing six points in the opening sixty minutes against Plunketts’ efficient zonal defence in 2014.

And with a frightening array of widely known talent already, Paddy Small must surely have put himself on Jim Gavin’s radar with 1-6 from play in the last round.

You might assume that Cian O’Sullivan will mark Dean Rock, but I wouldn’t take it for granted. Rock can alternate between the full and half forward line, and I reckon Ross O’Carroll will follow him if he’s in the full forward line, leaving O’Sullivan to try to dictate affairs from centre back.

Conclusion

On paper, you’re looking at two phenomenal sides, but for me, there are far bigger question marks surrounding Crokes’ capacity to break down the zonal defence than there is regarding Mun.

There’s no doubting that Gabriel Bannigan and his backroom staff have the capacity to concoct a plan to get under Ballymun’s skin, but it will have to a bloody good one.

Unless Croke’s can prove my theories wrong relating to their capacity to break down zonal defences, they’re going to have to create attacks into more space. This would most likely come off the back of winning their own, and/or Mun’s long kick-outs.

Anything less and I think you’d have to favour Ballymun.

By Stephen O’Meara

@somearagaa

@grassrootsgaa