2016 Football Championship : Explained in Tactics

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How the modern evolution of tactics played out in the 2016 Dublin Senior Football Championship

In short, the tactical evolution of inter-county football has gone like this in the last 15 years.

First there was man on man football. An important point to note in this is that kick-outs, for the most part, were long and hard to midfield. Short ones were pretty uncommon, and there was little value in getting off quick ones over slow ones.

As of the early noughties Armagh, Tyrone and lesser noted, Fermanagh, brought the “blanket defence” to the game. For a few years, these sides, as well as Wexford had a tactical advantage over the others as they defended space, not specifically men.

By 2010, only Dublin, cocooned in a weak Leinster, hadn’t caught up, and that changed when they shipped five goals against Meath that year.

By the time they had re-grouped and caught up, they played Cork in a semi-final that season, whereby both sides happily allowed the opposition possession on the kick-out throughout. Each were sitting an extra player at the back, and each knew that there wasn’t actually any advantage in gaining possession in your own full back line.

grassroots 17 champ dublin cork

Dublin happily allowed uncontested possession on the kick-out

In fact, GaaProstats analysis had since shown time and time again that there was actually a distinct disadvantage. You’re more likely to concede upon the first turnover than actually score from the initial possession.

This tactic, allowing the opposition to play the short kick-out, was actually stumbled upon by Cork in the 2009 semi-final against Tyrone when they surprised the nation by not alone beating them, but maintaining  five point half time lead, playing into a strong wind with fourteen men.

With fourteen men they were forced to concede the short kick-out to Tyrone, but with five clever forwards, understood that the best thing to do when faced two against one, is to back off the two of them and blend into the re-enforcement line at midfield.

It worked out to consistently set Cork up with 13 men behind ball, a position from which they completely stifled Tyrone who only managed five points in the whole half.

grassroots 17 champ 16 tyrone cork

Cork channeled a one up 13 back system a man down

By 2011, Jimmy McGuinness had torn up the book on supposed football etiquette, cut out the nonsense, and didn’t even pretend to try to prevent the opposition from playing the ball to their defence. He simply lined 13 up in their own half/two thirds of the field and let the opposition try to break them down. He almost won an All-Ireland in his first year doing it.

grassroots 17 champ 16 donegal blanket

Donegal were happy to leave just one up front and concede the kick-out

Then Jim Gavin came along and revolutionised the whole thing. He calculated that if you had athletically superior players, that could over-run the opposition that there was indeed a value in playing short kicks to the full back line… long as you played them quickly.

Playing what even he would probably consider at this point to have been somewhat naïve man on man tactics, they managed an All-Ireland in his first season with this ingenius new strategy.

By the time Donegal came to town again in 2014, McGuinness realised that you could no longer let Dublin have the short kick-outs. The only way to prevent them from dictating the pace of the game and running you into the ground was to prevent the short kick-out and dominate the long one.

The key point to this, however, was that it’s the athletically superior side who can afford to try to get the quick kick-outs off and attack at pace. The athletically inferior side can’t because they’ll run themselves into the ground. That’s why the last five Dublin Senior Championhsips have been won by athletically excellent sides, Vincent’s, Ballyboden and Ballymun.

Both Vincent’s and Ballyboden have won All-Irelands playing this hundred mile an hour game whereupon the quick kick-out is key to running the opposition into the ground and creating man on man attacks. Ballymun who are even more athletically superior than Dublin, relative to their field, reached an All-Ireland final playing the same way.

The problem for the lesser athletic of two sides is that they know that there’s an advantage for the opposition to get off the quick kick-out and attacking at pace, but they don’t have the legs to implement the same strategy. It’s no coincidence that it’s athletic sides are dominating.

This whole tactical conundrum played out fascinatingly in last year’s Dublin Senior Football Championship.

The Croke’s Ballyboden game was a game of chess in which the key battle was getting off the quick kick-out, and equally importantly, trying to prevent the opposition from doing so. Croke’s applied some intelligent if clandestine strategies to prevent Boden from getting the kicks off.


Mark Vaughan would run into the Boden keeper’s path to delay the quick kick

In the end, Croke’s didn’t actually get much more off more quickly than Boden. Had Boden converted their four “one on ones”, two of them would have come directly off the quick kick-out. However, it was not being beaten in this regard by Boden that served as the platform to win.

What seemed to me to be a massive tactical mistake by Croke’s is that they tried to apply the same tactic against a significantly athletically inferior Jude’s side. By my calculations, miscomprehending the reasons why teams like Donegal and Mayo had come to push up on Dublin’s kick-outs, they put an over-emphasis on going man on man on the Jude’s kick-out.

Pied Piper like, from beginning to end, they fell hook line and sinker into Judes’ trap, as Judes left a chasm of space in the half back line as Croke’s followed them man on man into the Jude’s full back line. This allowed Judes’ keeper to dink balls into the chasm of space in front of the midfielders who dominated and launched man on man attack after man on man attack. Eight of their fourteen points on the night would come from this source.

Murphy runs onto it, and Martina lies in wait

The space Jude’s created on these kick-outs was key to their dismantling of Croke’s

If Croke’s were using the type of in game statistical analysis that professional rugby teams use and that GaaProstats provides, they’d have realised quickly just how many sores they were onceding dircetly from this source, and changed tac. All they needed to do was drop off on the kick-out, let Jude’s play the short kick-out and say “go on, see if you have the legs to go at us.” They wouldn’t have.

Castleknock’s management team worked it out and that’s exactly what they did. Time and time again they were left only with the option of going short as Castleknock flooded the middle/got men behind the ball on the kick-out and deprived them their source of eight points against Croke’s.


Neither long nor short was a good option for Jude’s as they were swamped in the middle

Meanwhile, the grossly athletically superior Castleknock got their kick-outs off quickly, and ala Jim Gavin and Dublin, forced a pace to the game that Jude’s couldn’t cope with and murdered them in the final fifteen minutes.

Would Castleknock have beaten Ballyboden or Croke’s who would have been almost athletically equal? I’m not convinced.

Predictably, the final played out as battle with the quick kick-out being the key tactical element. Castleknock turned three of their four first half quick kick-outs into points. Not coincidentally, the only one they didn’t was the only one they failed to breach the “Killer Quarter”.

With some wily foxes using the same clandestine methods as Croke’s had against Boden, and Skerries had actually tried against Castleknock, Castleknock were deprived the opportunity for two quick kick-outs early in the second half, where first half patterns suggested they were a 75 percent chance to score. A third, making a substitution themselves, deprived them another when the keeper was set up and ready.


Mossy Quinn ran across the keeper to delay the quick kick

Instead of an expectation of scoring two or three points off these quick kicks, they conceded two points after losing long ones. Level at half time, instead of a statistical projection that they should have been 0.5 points down on forty minutes, they were actually five points down and the game had drifted away from them.

And Vincent’s, constantly getting the quick kick-outs off, as ever, were champions again.

So there you go. Allow the opposition to get quick kick-outs off early at your peril….unless your athletically superior in which case, fire ahead. It works in theory and it worked for Castleknock, until Vincent’s didn’t let them.

By Stephen O’Meara