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Vincent’s Vs Na Fianna : Preview

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If you want to understand just how little, and why, Na Fianna’s championship form against Vincent’s over the last four years, losing heavily on three occasions out of three, probably bears no relation whatsoever to what we can expect in Parnell Park on Thursday night, let me tell you a short story.

Not so long ago I was at a regional division soccer match in my home village in Senegal, where I was running a local football project. One Saturday, I went down to watch the local side play their fourth match of a four team group.

Broadly speaking, it was around the same standard as the Leinster Senior League, with two players on my village’s team, Abéne, who I reckon had the technical ability to maybe play in the second or third tier in France, but they didn’t have the requisite comprehension of the game.

It ended up nil nil which wasn’t surprising to me considering the dynamics of the game. Equally unsurprisingly, I was informed that it was their third nil all draw in four games, three at home and one away. They had won the other game one nil.

The problem, apart from sandy, bumpy pitches without grass, was twofold. Number one, they were playing a 4-3-3, but the management clearly didn’t understand the high pressing principles which Yohan Cruyff would have told you are essential to go hand in hand with that system.

More significantly, they played with absolutely no width whatsoever. When they’d have a throw in the left full back position, for example, the two centre halves would be close to ball, and the right full back would be in front of his keeper. The right side of the field would be empty. The opposition, though playing 4-4-2, had the same problems with width.

Quite simply, there was no space in the middle of the field to penetrate, with all twenty outfielders frequently occupying less than half of the area of the field closest to the ball. Attacking in such circumstances, is nigh on impossible. Hence one goal in four games in total.

One conversation led to another, and next thing, I was their guest trainer for a session the following Wednesday. Two and a half hours of training, an hour of it talking, and one positional switch later, and I figured that they looked like a new team.

I wasn’t wrong. The following Saturday, they played the toughest of away matches, two hours in land from their coastal haunt where the regular temperature at match time is 39, not 32 degrees like on the coast. They won four nil. That represented a sixteen-fold goal per minute ratio increase!

In an equally testing game in the provincial capital, the following week, further in land and even hotter, they beat the previous year’s champions 2-1. They had never beaten them away from home before.

No, I’m not telling you this so you can know what a great soccer coach I am. In fact, I’m not really a soccer coach at all. The principals at play are common knowledge to any half decent soccer coach. They just haven’t filtered down to regional teams in sub-Saharan Africa yet.

And until relatively recently, they hadn’t much filtered down to the G.A.A. either.

The point of the story is to illustrate how radically a team’s net performance and ability to control a game can be overhauled when they apply these couple of not immensely complicated principles relating to width and when they properly apply the tactical system they’re playing.

Managers like Jason Ryan at Wexford, Mickey Harte at Tyrone and Jimmy McGinness at Donegal gained huge tactical advantages by applying these principles of width, amongst other things, before the majority cottoned on.

Jim Gavin became the first manager I’ve seen, to apply it rugby style, when the team attacks, applying a C shape formation across the field and line hugging width which opens up the centre.

If you read my analysis of the Vincent’s Na Fianna game from last year, you’ll see that Tommy Conroy’s Vincent’s have systematically applied this principle of width around the field. Na Fianna haven’t.

Let’s forget about the 2013 hiding Na Fianna suffered at the hands of Vincent’s. That was when they had all of the aforementioned problems and were still playing old school man on man tactics, plus many of their current panel were only chaps back then.

Presumably their 2014 loss to Templeogue/Synge Street, where they attacked twelve on twelve and defended two on two, conceding 1-4 to Eoghan O’Gara alone, ushered in a new dawn where they began to get men behind the ball.

The problem, looking at last year’s loss, however, that like the Abéne boys in Senegal, applying a 4-3-3 but not originally pressing the opposition, it looked distinctly like Na Fianna hadn’t come to understand many of the principles required to attack effectively when a side get men behind the ball.

Vincent’s, whether systematically having planned it, or whether the players just had the nous to do it themselves, also applied what I would consider to be a key principal in football. They rarely had possession without having an attacking option within thirty yards of the ball, directly upfield.

They systematically applied what I call “the bow and arrow”, with a “C” shape along the line of the ball from one wing to the other, and a player or two directly ahead of the centre of the arch.

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“Bow and arrow” width with Connolly ahead of the ball

Na Fianna, by contrast, frequently had the ball in the middle third but were looking up at a gap of over fifty metres between the ball and the next player up field. They simply couldn’t launch attacks with the same level of efficiency and were typically forced to try outrageous passes or turn back and allow Vincent’s to get numbers behind the ball.

There’s no doubting Ger Brennan’s influence in all of this, moving out of the centre to create the requisite width when the need arose, but broadly speaking, it came down to the systematic application of structure.

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Put a Ger Brennan or a Kieran McGeeney at centre back or midfield and they alone could probably have put seventy or eighty percent of that right on their own. But these two are/were rare birds. Without such a character, it simply has to be enshrined systematically in this day and age.

Interestingly, in the 2014 league final, when Na Fianna simply couldn’t get the ball out of their narrow defence against a high pressing St. Maur’s for in and around five minutes, late on, Emile Mullan darted backwards towards the line, received the ball and alleviated the situation with ease, leading to a score for Conor McHugh in one pass (if memory serves me correctly regarding the one pass). Mullan didn’t start against Vincent’s last year.

The simple reality is that the primary difference between Na Fianna and Vincent’s, as well as TSS, in recent years has not been raw ability, it has been structure.

In fact, that Na Fianna created three one on one goal scoring chances from five long kick-outs won, the only time they managed to attack man on man, stands testament to their capacity to break down Vincent’s in a situation where, structurally, all things are equal.

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Savage deprive McHugh with a top one on one save

I simply refuse to believe that Vincent’s are that much better than Na Fianna. Not because of Na Fianna’s recent minor domination, but because I’ve seen them play, and they have a team full of excellent and intelligent players.

In fact, a league game I saw a couple of years ago, when they took a good lead early on against Plunkett’s, illustrated just how clever and able they are. Their game management was perfect, holding possession, playing “keep ball” to draw a trailing Plunkett’s out of their zonal defence and playing the right ball almost every time. It was as efficiently intelligent a performance as I’ve ever seen.

Get those aforementioned structures right, and I don’t think there’s so much between these two sides.

Considering the fact that each side has a new manager, there’s a reasonable possibility that the huge gap of previous years could be significantly closed. Phil McElwee, Na Fianna’s new manager, was the man behind much of Na Fianna’s minor success, so you have to expect that he knows what he’s about.

Of course, a good all round organiser with decent players and a head for selecting the right team can manufacture minor championship success. There’s significantly extra nous required to cut the mustard at senior level, where you face off against the best managers in the county, or country in the case of Dublin. So, until I see them in action on Thursday, I’ll keep my powder dry.

Undoubtedly, however, we have to expect that this is an opportunity for Na Fianna to finally begin to reap what they’ve sown with a phenomenal under-age structure in recent years.

Vincent’s new manager, Brian Mullins, on the other hand, has the toughest of toughest of acts to follow. It’s hard to improve on near perfection. As Man United know only too well, any period where a new manager takes over champions ushers in a period of the unknown.

As Brian Mullins’ stint in charge of Derry was long before the tactical revolutions of the noughties and current decade, we simply have nothing to go by regarding what he can bring to the table. I assume this is why Ballymun, whose new management team illustrated their calibre last year, are the bookies favourites.

The tragedy for McElwee is that he’s drawn one of the big guns before the summer break. You’d have to imagine he’d have fancied the summer to put his stamp on things and to have more time with his four Dublin under 21s, not to mention, seniors.

The second tragedy is that three of his marquee players were injured for their opening round against Olaf’s ; Jonny Cooper, Tomás Brady and Adam Caffrey. While Brady is apparently back, I can only assume that Cooper isn’t, and I don’t know about Caffrey. Even of the three can play, it’s less than ideal bringing injured players back for such a game.

Cooper stayed on Connolly for most of the afternoon

Cooper will be sorely missed if he can’t play

Tempting as it would be to speculate on head to head battles, with six or seven of what you’d typically expect to start championship for Na Fianna, missing against Olaf’s, we really can only speculate on what side McElwee will select.

Obviously, as Slaughtneil illustrated, any side who are going to beat Vincent’s are going to have to do a superb marking job on Connolly. If there’s one lesson from Vincents’ games against Na Fianna, Lucan and Ballymun last year, it’s that whoever marks him, should probably follow him wherever he goes, even if it means a centre back going to corner back.

Connolly scored a plethora of goals and points against each of those three last year when he “snuck” into the full forward line/onto the wing, for brief periods. Normally, you wouldn’t consider sending a centre back to corner back, but if it’s a centre back who is commissioned to do a man marking job to begin with, I’d say exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures. I’m almost certain Chrissy McCaigue would have followed him to corner back in Newry in February.

If Cooper is available, it will be a big ask coming back from injury.

At the other end, the big question is who will pick up Conor McHugh. He was made to look like a shadow of himself by Vincent’s last year, but again, that was on account of flawed attacking structures. I don’t believe that Diarmuid Conolly would have made much more hay in the same circumstances.

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McHugh was typically outnumbered on the ball last year

Presumably Craig Wilson or Mick Concarr will pick him up. Outside of the Dublin panel, they’re as good of man markers as there are in Dublin, so it would be an intriguing battle to see who’d come out on top if McHugh could find himself man on man a few times.

Anybody who has seen McHugh at club level a few times knows what he’s capable of, and either of the aforementioned corner backs would have their work seriously cut out to keep him under wraps in the optimum circumstances.

Much has been said about Vincent’s concession of three goals against Clondalkin in the first round, with suggestions that their defence is in demise. I’d doubt it.

Concarr only erred in fouling his man for the third, giving Towers a penalty instead of giving Michael Savage the opportunity to stop him from play. Otherwise, he made no technical defensive error. His man getting inside him represented one of those inevitable percentages goal concessions where the defender correctly marks from the front and gets caught out with the perfect ball/unlucky break over the top. If Concarr’s standard man-marking position was different, to protect against this possibility, he’d concede a hell of a lot more points than this single goal.

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Concarr was initially in a near perfect man marking position

Their other two goal concessions definitely represented individual technical defensive errors and I’d mark as them both as “Grade 3” score concessions.

The thing of it is, however, that both were representative of the exact same errors made by the exact same players for a number of score concessions last year, against Ballymun and, particularly against Rhode. Yet they won those two games against top and very good opposition!

Undoubtedly, a couple of Vincents’ defenders get the man-marking lines wrong when the opposition have the ball within ten yards of the given defender’s man, but they have other attributes that more than compensate for it.

There’s simply no way that Nathan Mullins is as good a defending wing back as Mick Concarr was, who played there in 2013 and 2014, but he brings a balance to the team that more than compensates for this and is key in games which develop into “pick and poke” affairs. All the while, this switch leaves Concarr to use his pace and man-marking ability to snuff out top corner forwards, the likes of Conor McHugh.

In general, I wouldn’t be panicking about those goal concessions. They conceded plenty of similar scores last year and still won Dublin and Leinster.

The key question is this, however. Why was it two goals conceded in this manner and not a couple of points like last year. Why were these situations created with the space and opportunity to score goals, as opposed to points? Having only seen the DubsTV highlights, I can only speculate.

Was it random chance? Quite possibly? Was it a symptom of team who had the game out of sight early on who let their foot off the gas? More likely. Or could it allude to a loosening of the structures which Tommy Conroy had so steadfastly put in place. That key question remains to be seen.

All in all, looking at Vincents’ line-out against Towers, it looks like Brian Mullins hasn’t tried to re-invent the wheel. Barring the omission of the injured Mossy Quinn, the side looks almost identical to last year’s. So, unless Mullins tries to alter something systematically which reduces a significant strength elsewhere, you have to expect they won’t be too far off their standard from last year.

If Phil McElwee had the summer to experiment with his side with Eoghan Murchan, Aaron Byrne and Glen O’Rielly, and if he’d had Jonny Cooper fit for the last six weeks and if McElwee had the luxury of trying his full hand against a mid-weight side in the last sixteen to tweak things before playing Vincent’s, and if he turns out to warrant sharing the same table with the likes of Tommy Conroy, Paul Curran and And McEntee, I genuinely wouldn’t see this as being far off 50/50.

However, facing a Vincent’s side with four years and 35 odd championship matches inside and outside of Dublin to refine everything, for different reasons than previous years, it’s possibly still a big ask, but not beyond reason. You would still have to fancy Vincent’s.

Saying that, if the bookies are still offering Na Fianna at 10/3 to win by the time I get home this evening, I’ll be re-activating my account. I don’t think you’ll get a better bet all year.

By Stephen O’Meara

@grassrootsgaa

@somearagaa