Why Mayo Came So Close…and Why They Didn’t Win

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In my preview to Sunday’s All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Mayo I had suggested that it seemed unlikely to me that Dublin were as far ahead of Mayo as was the general perception, and that being almost 3/1 on favourites flattered them somewhat. This was based on the fact that in Dublin’s four championship games against Mayo and Kerry in the last two seasons, despite attacking phenomenally, that there had been some striking pattern relating to defending and how they fared when they couldn’t get their kick-out off quickly.

Considering the fact that Mayo had actually been statistically poorer this year than they had been in the previous five seasons, having failed to win Connaught for the first time since 2010, the question which remained was whether or not Stephen Rochford and his background team were as au fait with these patterns as Mayo’s previous management teams had been. The answer was an overwhelming “yes”. And with the Mayo management clearly cognisant of these factors, not surprisingly, as I had suggested, Mayo managed a seemingly unlikely draw and may well consider themselves to have been unlucky not to have won.

The first key piece of analysis was that Dublin’s net profit on kick-outs which they had got off quickly had been huge in the past. Significant, however, was the fact that they had recorded a net  loss on scores conceded upon the first turnover when they played delayed kick-outs, relative to what they scored from these kicks. They had also conceded a net loss on kick’s where they had to go long to midfield and put the ball in the melting pot in the air.

My conclusion was that if Mayo could manage to stop Dublin from getting the short kicks off and force them to delayed and/or go long, that they ‘d be there or there about. And that’s exactly what they did. From start to finish they only allowed Dublin to get off four of these quick kicks.

What’s more, is the fact that it was a bold move which allowed them to manoeuvre this. With the slight figured Kevin McLoughlin deployed as sweeper, it seemed unlikely that they’d use him to push up man on man for Dublin’s kick-outs. Not alone did they do this, but they pulled a daring move, pushing him up on Paul Flynn, who relative to his height is probably the best fielder in the country. You could have been forgiven for thinking that this would be an aerial mismatch.

What Mayo had presumably done their homework on meticulously, however, is the fact that Flynn generally requires a free path to run onto these kick-outs. As a number of generally un-noted wing backs have done in the past, McLoughlin tormented Flynn by covering/blocking him from running into this path and hence McLoughlin deprived Dublin this previously crucial outlet of Flynn as a long kick-out option. Flynn wasn’t on the end of a long kick-out all day and Mayo managed to push up man on man, crucially depriving Dublin of the quick kick-out.

In the end, with this element taken care of by the Mayo backroom team, they were well set up to stifle Dublin’s attempts to record high scores and run their opposition into the ground by getting quick kick-outs off. From start to finish, Dublin only managed four. Startlingly, even pushing beyond previous patterns, Dublin scored 1-1 from these kick-outs. On all other Dublin kick-outs, they failed to record a single score, recording a net loss of four points (including calculating scores conceded on first turnovers after the kick-out). Also, this meant Mayo didn’t spend the afternoon on the back foot. For the second time in two years, it was they not Dublin who made the late late drive. Starting to see the value of these quick, short kick-outs?

I had also pointed out the manner in which Dublin had conceded scores in these four aforementioned Kerry and Mayo games was alarming. I had noted how they had conceded what I rank as “Grade 3” concessions for ten out of Mayo’s 1-15 in the replay last year (a “Grade 3” concession means that the opposition didn’t have to beat a single defender in order to score, and are generally symptomatic of a flawed defensive structure). Once again, such concession very nearly came back to haunt them, albeit not as spectacularly as previously. From fifteen points conceded on Sunday, they conceded six of these soft scores.

As I had suggested, if Mayo could prevent Dublin form getting off more than a few short kick-outs, and they could exploit Dublin’s propensity for allowing opponents to gain shooting positions without directly beating defenders, that they could well win.

In the end, though generally defending epically, it was lapses leading to such score concessions which also cost Mayo. In the midst of a generally exceptionally methodical defensive performance, they still conceded 1-3 that I’ve logged as “Grade 3”. In case that figure seems perplexing, an own goal in itself is not considered as a “Grade 3”. It’s the line break which is key. While Mayo could consider themselves unlucky for conceding two own goals, it must be noted that Dublin had initially gone one on one with the keeper on both occasions.

In fact, they had done so three times in the first half. Considering the fact that Dublin tend to score just over a goal from every two times they go one on one with the opposition keeper, a tally of two goals from three chances wasn’t so outrageous , unfortunate as the finishing touches were from Mayo’s point of view.

What made the first goal a “Grade 3” is not that Kevin McLoughlin kicked it into his own net. It’s that Séaumus O’Shea made a school boy error in being dragged towards the ball and allowing Brian Fenton go through unopposed on the keeper without Dublin having to take on and beat a Mayo defender.

Bizarrely, as you’ll be well aware, is the fact that Dublin had only scored two goals, two own goals, up until Dean Rock’s 31st minute point. What you’re most likely not aware of is the fact that that my “Score Concession Analysis” illustrates that of the 2-4 which Mayo had conceded by half time, Colm Boyle or Séaumus O’Shea combined had been culpable for the key breach for 2-3!

Considering that centre back and especially midfield aren’t generally positions which a lot of scores come through, that’s a startling figure. Equally noteworthy is the fact that neither of these players recorded anything like possession statistics to compensate for such  high score concessions. Considering the fact that Mayo won just one kick-out from five hit long, on the day, O’Shea was hardly worth his weight for fielding.

My preview article stands as evidence that armed with the correct statistical analysis, key patterns can be pinpointed in advance to illustrate which patterns could potentially be the most significant if they’re accentuated, or more significantly, if they’re neglected.

Whether or not there was prior information to suggest that Séamus O’Shea was likely to be responsible for coughing up 1-3 or not, I can’t say. What I can say, however, is that from a statistical point view, whatever about Colm Boyle, had Séamus O’Shea not coughed up 1-3, 1-1 of which was entirely avoidable, the chances are Mayo would have won.


By: Stephen O’Meara