Kilmacud Croke’s vs Castleknock – Tactical and Statistical Analysis

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The clash of Croke’s and Castleknock had potentially promised to be the contest of the quarter-finals, and it didn’t let us down. With three stand-out favourites in the other three quarters, this was the intriguing clash of the round.

There may have been nagging doubts in some minds regarding Castleknock’s capacity to stick with the Crokes’ big-guns, and by the quarter hour mark, those doubts were spreading to corners they might not initially have been, as Croke’s put up 2-2 to 0-3.

Mark Vaughan had shown his calibre when he put over a beauty from wide left. Pat Burke’s superb goal had left doubts about Castleknock’s full back line’s capacity to deal with this kind of quality when he scored a goal from a position with his back to goal, where only a threat of a point had looked imminent. Paul Mannion looked a different class as he picked up a ball from what shouldn’t have been a massively threatening position, with Peter Sherry in a sweeper position, but cut through the Castleknock defence with what appeared like relative ease.

crokes knock pic 18 mannion goal

Mannion was over 55 yards from goal, facing a sweeper

Credit to Castleknock. Others may have been doubting their capacity to keep with this Croke’s side, who had the luxury of leaving county seniors on the bench, but Knock never looked like they doubted themselves. They kept doing what they do, playing a methodical possession game, and by half time, there was only a point between the sides.

The two early goals, however, alluded to issues regarding selection problems Castleknock had since they played the last round.

The Selections

Crucially, three of Knock’s six starting defenders from the previous round against Plunkett’s were unavailable.

Eoin O’Brien who had kept a handle on Bernard Brogan in each of the last two years was unavailable. Paul Burke who started the Plunkett’s game and marked Gareth Smyth, and started last year’s final, in the other corner, made an injury time entry, just back from injury. And Ross Mullins, who dominated Paul Galvin in the previous round, was basically unavailable, apparently, on account of the most bizarre of circumstances.

Knock were forced to draft in Jack King at corner back for his first ever championship start, and first championship appearance in over a year, and were also forced to to pull Rob Shaw, who had played wing forward against Plunkett’s, to fill the other corner.

crokes knock pic 8 shaw

Shaw switched from wing forward to corner back

In a move you have to imagine that few would have expected, Ciarán Kilkenny was pulled back to wing back. It was a bold, yet logical move.

I’d surmised in my preview that he’d probably see more forward time in future on account of the man-marking job Lee Keegan did in the recent All-Ireland final, and how significantly it affected Dublin’s capacity up front.

By putting him wing back, it not only filled the hole that Mullins had left, it put him in a position where he could still get on the ball in the middle third, but, really, couldn’t be man-marked. On top of that, it gave due regard to the threat that Crokes’ Shane Cunningham poses, by putting Kilkenny on the wing forward.

There were three significant elements to this move. Firstly, while you couldn’t say that Cunningham had a poor game, he exerted less of an influence than you might expect. Whether it was pre-meditated or not, with array of talent on the bench, he was taken off by the 40th minute.

Noteworthy, however, is that Kilkenny made four turnovers in the game, something I’ve never seen from him before. Of course, it falls within the confines of the laws of probability that he could just have had this higher than normal turnover rate on this day, amidst what was still a noteworthy performance. Four turnovers by normal standards, actually isn’t particularly high either.  It’s just unusual for Kilkenny. It was, though, perhaps, a symptom of being further back the field and trying to hit more killer balls to exert the kind of influence he does, on the game.

Noteworthy, as ever, though, it allowed him to slip under the radar and go into full forward on the 48th minute mark, and cause carnage. Before he moved to full forward, Knock had scored 1-6 in just under 49 minutes. Six minutes later they had tallied 1-9. Kilkenny had won the ball into the full forward line for all three – he was fouled for one free and set up Séamus O’Carroll for the next two.

crokes knock pic 10 kk ff

Kilkenny caused carnage at full forward

You wonder would Cian O’Sullivan have marked him from the off had he started at full forward. Would he have been so heavily involved in these scores if had O’Sullivan been on him?

As against Plunkett’s, the timing to send Kilkenny into full forward was perfect.

Of course, the flip side of that question is, would O’Sullivan have had such a game-controlling influence had he been marking Kilkenny up front all along? Who can say?

crokes knock pic 16 kk osullivan

O’Sullivan never marked Kilkenny directly

Strength in Depth

The calibre of substitution which Croke’s brought on, however, illustrated the comparative strength in depth of the two sides.

Between the 39th and 40th minute, Crokes’ brought on Armagh senior and former Aussie Rules pro Kevin Dyas, recent Dublin senior panellist Craig Dias and Aidan Jones who started in their slaying of Ballyboden last year, as well as Cian O’Connor.

More notably was the calibre of player they brought off – Mark Vaughan and Shane Cunningham for example.

Crokes knock pic 11 dyas

Dyas was sprung in the 40th minute

This was in stark contrast to Castleknock who were forced to restructure their team in the absence of three players. There’s simply no way Knock could have afforded such a luxury.

The only such substitution they made was Kevin Kindlon. He had been their key line-breaker in the first half from half forward, including being the major part of the line break for their first half goal.

By the three-quarter mark, however, despite looking a stone or so lighter than a year ago, his race was clearly run. He had been all too easily overlapped for Croke’s first point of the second half.

It’s hard to imagine that Knock would have had the luxury of substituting a player like Shane Cunningham, who could surely have kept going at full steam for sixty minutes, in the 40th minute. It was illustrative of the value of the 21, not just fifteen. It alluded to quality, Division 1 sides, coming through in Croke’s year in, year out.

Crokes knock pic 7 kindlon ocarroll

Kindlon was Knock’s key line-breaker in the first half

Pat Burke would score 1-1 and be fouled for another scored free on the night. It was a key development since last year, when Burke was used off the bench, that he would start and score/be fouled for scored frees for 1-2.

You have to imagine that either of Knock’s regular starting corner backs, Burke or O’Brien, would have fancied a crack at the former Dublin and Clare senior.

All the while, presumably unavailable, Croke’s were unflinching without 2011 All-Ireland final man-of-the-match Kevin Nolan, and this year’s under 21 All-Ireland final starting under 21 corner forward, Tom Fox – not to mention Rory O’Carroll, still away.

With all of that said and done, let’s take a look at three key statistical elements.

Zonal Defence Analysis

The most noteworthy statistical element of the game relates to Zonal Defence Analysis. Alluding to two exceptionally efficiently set up sides, and a fast evolving tactical element of the game, was the fact that from start to finish there was only one attack in the entire game which wasn’t into a zonal defence.

Despite the fact that each of these sides created a plethora of man-on-man and/or overlapping attacks in their respective most recent slayings of top eight opposition (Knock against Plunkett’s and Croke’s against Ballyboden last year), neither of them could create them against each other.

crokes knock pic 19 zd

Croke’s have numbers behind the ball

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As do Knock

From start to finish, Knock created 36 attacks and Croke’s 35 (measured by crossing an imaginary arched line sixty yards from goal, in possession). Not one of Knock’s was a man-on-man attack. This is in contrast to having created three man-on-man attacks against Plunkett’s and five over-lap attacks.

Every attacked faced into a zonal defence. Croke’s got behind the ball too efficiently, and owing to Knock drawing players behind the ball, simply by some defenders holding their positions, Croke’s had numbers at the back.

It was the same at the other end. Croke’s created just one man-on-man attack, off the back of a turnover in the middle. The other 34 attacks were into a zonal defence of some shape or form

What is noteworthy is that when we sub-divide the attacks into zonal defences which had just one surplus player compared to having more than one (or ten or more players inside sixty yards), their figures were more less even too. Croke’s created eight while Knock created seven.

Crokes knock pic 14 blanket crokes

Ben Galvin was never allowed man-on-man

You’ll generally expect to score more into zonal defences with just one surplus player than with two or more (or one with ten or more men inside sixty yards). Knock’s figures were a score ratio of 43% on attacks into a defence with one surplus defender, and 36% into a full on zonal defence.

Crokes’ figures are more striking. Into full on zonal defences, they scored 1-5 from nineteen attacks, a 31% ratio. Into zonal defences which comprised of just one spare defender, they scored 1-3 from eight attacks, a 75 percent attack to score ratio!

It alludes to two things. Firstly, it’s not a marvellous ratio into full on zonal defences. Secondly, given any bit of space at all, Paul Mannion is simply lethal.

Hannigan vs Mannion

Graham Hannigan was to mark him and it was an intriguing duel. Hannigan showed the county star no respect, going off an age-old half back’s premise that “if I attack enough, he’ll have to worry more about me than I’ll have to worry about him”.

Whether it was pre-meditated by Croke’s to have Mannion come so deep into his own half so frequently, or whether Hannigan forced him is dificult to say, but there were two key elements to this duel.

crokes knock pic 1 manion hannigan

Hannigan marked Mannion throughout

Firstly, when Mannion picked up the ball for his goal, despite Knock having a spare defender in place, I feared the worst for them.

Hannigan had darted up-field on the previous move and wasn’t on Mannion when he picked the ball up. Tom Shield was. Shiels is a monster athlete, but he was never going to have the first five yards of pace to stick with Mannion, that Hannigan would have had. You have to assume, with Peter Sherry in place as a sweeper, the goal probably wouldn’t have happened had Hannigan been the one on Mannion’s shoulder.

The flip side of that is that, by the same token, Pat Duggan at midfield for Croke’s, simply didn’t have the pace to track Hannigan’s run from deep which set up Kindlon to come off his shoulder, break the line, and put the ball on a plate for James Sherry’s goal.

crokes knock 21 a hannigan

Hannigan had the legs to get a yard on Duggan

crokes knock 21 b hannigan

And got inside him

crokes knock 21 c hanningan

To set up the line break for Kindlon for the goal

On top of that, while he made a few significant interceptions, Mannion’s deeper position saw him give away one frees with what could best be described as a “forward’s tackle” (it was one, not two as initially reported. I had thought that an advantage already existed against Mannion for a foul by Duggan in the sixth minute, but the video shows this not to have been the case).

All in all, it was an intriguing battle.

Zonal Kick-out Analysis

Another stand-out figure is the fact that from sixteen kick-outs for each side, only one of them was competed for long in the middle, and both sides came away with a one hundred percent primary possession gained ratio.

From Crokes’ point of view, for the most part, this came off the back of Knock taking a policy of sitting a sweeper, while more or less, allowing Croke’s primary possession.

At the other end, Knock got the ball off in record time, some kick-outs coming in at under four seconds. They were simply undefendable in terms of trying to prevent Knock form gaining possession in the full back line.

Where Croke’s did manage to go man-on-man, notably after stoppages in play, the Knock backroom team of Lar Norton, Kevin Stritch and co. had prepared the most meticulous of set-plays, cut and paste from Aussie Rules strategy. With all players converging in the centre, bar one hugging the corner back spot, key runners would make runs into the space. They won them all.

Crokes knock pic 6a set play

Knock bunch the centre

Crokes knock pic 6b set play

And break from there

At the other end, where the easy option didn’t exist, David Nestor had the boot to pick out the man in the open channel.

crokes knock pic 21 nestor

There’s no easy option this time

crokes knock pic 21b nestor

But Nestor picks out the man in the small hole

Notably, however, was that Crokes’ two goals came off classic statistical stereo-types. Typically, at club level, if you go short to the full back line, more than 9.5 seconds after the ball goes dead, you’re more likely to concede a score on the turnover than from your initial possession. This is on account of the opposition having time to set up behind the ball and then being set up to counter-attack. Crokes’ first goal came off this source – the first turnover after a delayed Knock kick-out to the full back line.

Considering Knock’s athleticism in the middle, the positioning of the larger, but less mobile, Duggan at number 9 was interesting. You have to assume that Knock never intended to go long, regardless. With no kicks going long, Duggan was replaced with the more ground-covering Dias in the 40th minute.

This switch meant it no longer guaranteed “keeping Knock honest” on the kick-out. With James Sherry in the middle they routed Plunkett’s in the second half on long kick-outs in the previous round.

While continuing with the short ones was probably the prudent option, a higher stakes risk might have been worth aiming a few long ones at Sherry, with Duggan off the field.

Crokes knock pic 5 duggan

Duggan, presumably, would have been the aerial target man

More significant, Mannion’s goal came off that most statistically profitable of sources – quick kick-outs top the full back line where “the killer Quarter” is breached.

In keeping with typical figures, Croke’s got off five quick kick-outs to the full back line. On three they didn’t breach “the Killer Quarter” and scored from none. On two they breached “the Killer Quarter”. Mannion’s goal came off one these!

Credit to Crokes’ backroom team, led by Gabriel Bannigan, and their player’s application of the system. They only allowed Knock two quick kick-outs which breached “the Killer Quarter”, and they conceded from neither. In total Knock scored three points from quick kicks to the full back line and conceded one upon first turnover.

There was one staggering figure, an exaggerated version of a classic modern read-out – when Crokes’ kick-outs came after the ball had gone out from open play, they had a 73% gross kick-out to score ratio. On kick-outs after a dead ball (when Knock could set up for the kick-out in advance), they had a -40% kick-out to score ratio (counting first possession for each team).

Case in point for preparing substitutions when your side have the ball and the opposition are likely to have the next kick-out. Management teams around the country are slowly catching on!

Frees Conceded

If Castleknock were significantly below par on one element, it was the concession of frees where no direct threat existed. Normally they are meticulous in this regard, averaging barely one a game (if we exclude a couple of shocking refereeing decisions against Plunkett’s). When they look back, they’ll surely rue some frees they gifted to Croke’s.

On the 36th minute Croke’s got their fifth score of the game to go 2-3 to 1-5 in front. Between that and the 48th minute, a period where Castleknock typically start to control games, they conceded three unnecessary frees where no direct threat existed.

On two occasions the man fouled was running away from goal, and on one, he had lost control of the ball and was running into two defenders, quite possibly about to be dispossessed.

crokes knock pic 22 free

Knock conceded a soft free

The three frees conceded on the bounce saw them go from level scores, after Shane Boland had impressively rounded Cian O’Sullivan to equalise in the 37th minute, to trailing by 2-6 to 1-6 by the 49th minute.

With the dust settled, they’ll surely rue these gifted frees at a time where their defence was otherwise beginning to look almost impenetrable.

Saying that, Croke’s also conceded three such frees, where no direct threat, but that is more in line with their averages. Noteworthy, and predictably from a broader statistical pattern, none of these three were conceded by defenders.

All in all, you have to credit Croke’s composure for retaking the lead late on, after giving up a three point lead. A lesser side would have panicked.

In a game where every tactical detail was impeccably prepared by both sets of management teams, it was small margins which won the day.

An equally, if not more intriguing semi-final awaits, as Croke’s will face Ballymun in the semis, a game which will feature no less than six of Dublin’s All-Ireland final starters on display.

By Stephen O’Meara