Cuala vs Ballyea : Possession Wars in Middle Third Was Key
So Cuala are Dublin’s first All-Ireland club hurling champions, and what’s even more noteworthy is that nobody came even close to beating them outside of Dublin.
Their two closest games by a long shot were against Ballyboden in the Dublin quarter-finals when they went to extra-time and Kilmacud Croke’s in the final when they had to come from behind in the last ten minutes to win. In fact, their third closest game was against Lucan Sarsfield’s in the semi when they were only a nose ahead until the latter stages.
Of course, before we start jumping to conclusions that they are to Ireland, what Vincent’s were to Leinster football this year, evidence that the bulk of the top club sides in Leinster/Ireland come from Dublin, let’s not forget one key element. Con O’Callaghan, one the country’s top forwards, if not the top forward on evidence of Cuala’s five Leinster/All-Ireland games, didn’t start in Dublin. It’s difficult to imagine that they’d have slain the sides outside of Dublin so heavily without his presence.
And before we jump to conclusions that we could definitely expect Cuala to be as rampant in the future, we should bear in mind just how tactically superior they were to every opposition they played outside Dublin. You have to assume that Mattie Kenny will be first up in the shop window for county jobs this coming autumn.
Of course, unlike Ballyea as we’ll see, apart from, Kenny’s master tactics, Cuala had the players to execute the game plan. Most notably, in my preview, I had said that “there’s a good chance that this one is going to play out more like a game of chess” and that “if one side could get the upper hand in this chess-like game, don’t be surprised if one side wins this by a land slide”. In the end, that’s exactly what happened.
The manner in which it happened, however, illustrated just how shrewd an operator Mattie Kenny is, and just how silken skilled the Cuala players are.
Throughout the campaign, Cuala have systematically got an extra player or more into their half back line. Key, however, has been the ability of their half back line and midfield to play a possession game which has allowed them to find the extra man in that area so he could deliver measured balls into their outnumbered forward line. They achieved this once again, throughout, last Friday.
In Dublin, however, for the most part, they simply sat off the opposition on the puck-outs and “split” the opposition’s defence. Kenny, with his homework done, however, clearly knew that if they tried that against Ballyea, they’d be woven apart by the Ballyea defence.
Instead, he upped the ante, went man on man on a number of occasions early on, but filtered a player back as the ball was in the air. This meant that they didn’t allow Ballyea the short puck, but still managed to have that extra man at the back as soon as the puck-out landed. This allowed them the same tactical superiority they’ve enjoyed throughout the campaign, typically having extra men at the back time and time again.
For his part, whenever Ballyea tried to split the Cuala defence on puck-outs, Séan Brennan picked out the free man, allowing Cuala control once again.
Now, if you’ve been following our stats articles on Cuala, you’ll see that the key figures they’ve won on have been conceding less scoreable frees than their respective oppositions and winning more breaks.
However, based on the particular tactical nature of this one, in my preview I had predicted that you shouldn’t “ be surprised if you see a lot of possession play and weaving of hand-passes in the middle third. The side who do this best/coughs up the fewest turnovers doing this will probably win”. In the end, this did indeed turn out to be the most significant statistical element.
In fact, from start to finish, Cuala conceded the same amount of scoreable frees as Ballyea, and while they won more breaks, it was significantly less overwhelmingly than against O’Loughlin’s or Slaughtneil. In fact, regarding scoreable frees conceded, Cuala conceded five “Grade 3” frees to Ballyea’s four.
No, the key figure, as each side battled for possession dominance in the respective half back lines/midfield areas was how many turnovers were made by each side between the full back line and half way line.
From start to finish Ballyea turned Cuala over a mere six times. Cuala turned over Ballyea a whopping fifteen times! This statistical ratio bore the closest resemblance to the final score-line of all statistics.
What’s particularly noteworthy is the fact that from the six turnovers that Ballye made, they scored 1-2, painting a picture of how different things could have been if Cuala hadn’t had the finesse to weave their way through the half back line and midfield time and again. Ballyea’s midfield, including former “Hurler of the Year”, Tony Kelly, played second fiddle to Darrah O’Connell and John Sheanon.
And credit where it’s due. Time and again where lesser hurlers and men, in possession, would have simply launched the ball forward to avoid the possibility of being caught on the ball, they stepped inside an opponent or two, allowing them or the player they would hand-pass to to deliver a measured ball to Con O’Callaghan in the full forward line.
With O’Callaghan frequently outnumbered two and even three to one, this weaving in the half back line/midfield was the key element of the game. It allowed Cuala to play measured ball into the space for the outnumbered O’Callaghan.
And with Con O’Callaghan as devastating as he has been throughout, with Cuala swinging this key element in their favour, they were unstoppable. While his tally of two points might give the illusion that he was kept quiet, he was fouled for a number of frees, caused the panic for Cuala’s first goal and broke the line to set up their second.
Shrewd as ever on the line, once Cuala scored their second goal and took an eight point lead, they planted numbers behind the ball and allowed Ballyea the short puck-out. It swung the tactical dynamics hugely in their favour creating the optimum conditions to further exploit Ballyea and finish off with an encore of unanswered points taking the All-Ireland with more than a modicum of style.
The stats in this article were compiled using the newly developed GaaProstats statistical and video analysis program. This program has been specifically designed for Gaelic football and hurling. It is now available for all clubs to download free for a month’s trial.
By Stephen O’Meara