Ciaran Deely MSc MA CSCS
Last week I was in a café in the centre of Trinidad- a lovely provincial town on the south coast of Cuba- last week having a Cuba Libre cocktail drink while taking a few quiet pulls of a nice homemade Cuban cigar to chill a bit after a day spent horse riding around pristine countryside in the Topas de Collantes National Park. I finally managed to finally grab a fleeting bit of Wi-Fi that Raul Castro permitted in 2014 in certain hotels, cafes and public spaces for $2 for an hour of internet access. With the week that’s in it, I straight away accessed Jim McGuinness’ Irish Times article previewing this weekend’s All Ireland Final that my brother Brian sent the link to me through WhatsApp. The usual afternoon summer storms had rolled in from the Caribbean Sea, so it was getting dark and grey, but reading through the article left my mood even gloomier. At least a second glass of Cuban rum helped lift my spirits!
Many analysts and commentators have had their say this week about how Tyrone can finally break down the shackles of this seemingly unbeatable Dublin team. The beauty of having a break from London life and being around in Wexford for the week leading up to All Ireland Final day, is the opportunity to devour all the info online and in newspapers and take in all angles related to the game. The analysis is excellent and there is currently some really top-class work being down out there at the moment. It seems there is an inverse relationship between the quality of football being played in the last few years and the quality of analysis of GAA being carried out. It’s fascinating and engaging and there is so much stuff out there to learn from. Colm Parkinson’s podcast The GAA Hour each Monday and Thursday forms part of my weekly homework on learning and developing my coaching, managing and tactical insight. The great thing, of course, is that the analysts rarely agree on how Tyrone would set up and/or approach the challenge of Dublin. Jim McGuinness proposes to put 15 men behind the ball and don’t go out beyond the 45m line; Colm O Rourke says they should simply attack, like the men of old (like most O Rourke’s analysis looking back to an era of when men were men); Peter Canavan says they should stick with what Mickey Harte comes up with but show more attacking intent; Michael Hannon proposes that Tyrone can only beat Dublin if they do something completely left-field and different (something I agree with); Mike Quirke in his usual excellent article maintains that Tyrone need to have bulletproof belief and togetherness; and finally Joe Brolly advises Tyrone to go man on man and allow only Colm Cavanagh to drop off and let the defenders push up and actually defend their men.
Jim McGuinness’ article was as always, the most tactically detailed and you could see that much thought was put in to the writing of it. It sparked my interest the most. This time last year, with the London Gaelic football season long over, I took a series of trains from the Ukraine through Belarus, the Baltics, across Russia into Siberia, down through the grasslands of Mongolia, into China and finally finishing off in South East Asia. It was an amazing trip and I experienced so many challenging places, along with meeting some really interesting characters along the way. One of the most interesting of course, was Jim! He was a coach in the Chinese Super League with Beijing Guoam FC and along the way I contacted him about meeting up there for a chat and a few beers. We had a shared experience of working in professional football, but also of working with a pro club aboard in Asia- him in China and myself with Kerala Blasters FC in the Indian Super League in 2015. It made for an interesting chat and an opportunity to share stories of working with these clubs in far flung places. Joe Brolly once said that meeting Jim made him feel inadequate, and I have to admit that chatting through some of the things he did with Donegal back in 2011-2014 I couldn’t help but feel the same. Now we are very different personalities in that his work then and now consumes him, whereas I try to get a bit more balance in life and enjoy the ride along the way- but I took a number of his ideas and implemented them to relatively small success last season with the London football team. The biggest effect he had on me, however, was to make me challenge my approach to managing an inter county team and how to get a group of men to 100% buy into what they are doing and commit themselves over to it. I learned a lot over a meal and few beers, went to the Beijing Guam game later that week with a few German friends I met on the Trans-Siberian Railway coming over from Mongolia with match tickets that Jim provided. I was eternally grateful for the time he gave me and the opportunity to learn from him.
Reading through the article in Cuba though left me a little empty inside. McGuinness article shows one way of approaching the ominous challenge of playing the Dubs. It is a game plan coming from a position of pragmatism and conservatism. Of seeking to limit your opponent’s superiority and hide your own inadequacies. It can work, maybe, potentially, in a one-off game. If every single little thing falls into place; if Dublin have a serious off day; Tyrone perform greater than they have ever done before; if the referee is very lenient on their hard tackling; and if they get a good dash of good luck also. Lots of ifs there. It can work. But unlikely.
In soccer, it is a typical, viable game plan to set up your team in a compact, tight defensive formation. Especially when a minnow comes up against a mighty. Sit back, stay compact, throw yourself at every ball, frustrate the opposition, and then hope to snatch a 0-0 draw or even catch them on the hop with a lightning fast breakaway, or a corner kick. You can see it in the current English Premier League battle of philosophies of Mourinho versus Guardiola at Man United and Man City: Mourinho’s pragmatic approach based on his incessant fear of his players’ inabilities versus Guardiola’s all conquering expressionist fast-flowing football that seeks to exploit his players’ talent and ability to control the play. If you think you can only play that type of football with world class players like De Bruyne, Silva and Sane, check out how Bielsa has got his mediocre Leeds United players purring in the space of 6 weeks. Guardiola famously travelled to Bielsa’s house in Argentina in early 2007 just as he was taking over Barcelona’s B Team and spent the whole night up talking footballing philosophies and how to set up your team. So, perhaps it is not such a surprise Guardiola professes Bielsa to be his greatest influence, alongside his mentor Johan Cruyff.
The ultimate expression of Mourinho’s conservative tactics were on show for Inter Milan in the Champions League Semi Final 2nd leg versus Barcelona in 2010- though remember than the Italian Catenaccio system of play was developed way earlier in the 1960s to much success for Milan, Inter, and the Italian National Team. Commentators long hold Inter’s performance up as the solution to Barca’s rampant possession-based football- where Inter played with 11 men behind the ball for the duration of the game and in the second half even preferred to kick the ball up the field and away from their own goal time and time again- believing that they were defensively sounder and ‘in-balance’ without the ball, than with. Surely a first! Diego Simone’s Atletico Madrid did something similar in their run to 2 Champions League Finals in the last few years- they seemed happier sitting in on the edge of their 18-yard box out of possession, than further up the pitch with the ball. On both occasion, however, they were undone by a more talented Real Madrid team in the final. It seems, as the always excellent Sunday Times’ Michael Foley says- a solid defence gets you to a Final, a potent forward line wins it for you! The even more important thing it showed was that quality of player is the all-conquering factor in any success. We tend to over play the importance of the coach in the contributing to the overall success of the team. The players are the ones who win championships, every successful team is underpinned by excellent individual players. Quality is king…and for all that is said about Dublin’s excellent set up, management, coaching etc, it cannot be overlooked that they simply possess the best players in the country. Just like the great Kerry and Kilkenny teams had the best players of their era. The thing that people forget about in terms of that seminal game in 2010, is that Mourinho’s Inter actually lost that game 0-1. So, for a one-off game and tactic to use in a final to win, I can’t see how it could be deemed a success. Also, it was only possible due to Inter gaining a highly impressive 3-1 win at the San Siro in the 1st Leg of the Semi-Final; a game where Mourinho looked to exploit Barca out wide where they were vulnerable and Samuel Eto’o probed that channel time and time again until Barca folded. Inter attacked with intent and at speed in a controlled manner and took the game to a much more talented Barcelona team. Something Mickey Harte, perhaps, could keep in mind.
The above is one tactic. There is, however, another way. Packed defence will not catch Dublin out. They are too used to dealing with that type of defensive set up and they would do what they always do when faced with that opposition. They will patiently hold possession of the ball, switch it from side to side, probing the defence at all stages, keeping the ball out of the tackle at all costs and wait for that little opening to appear when one defender falls asleep or gets lazy. With the quality Dublin possess, they have numerous avenues where they can then pick the opposition team off.
When people ask me regarding my London team- do you like to go zonally on opposition team’s kick outs- I say yes. Man for man, yip that too. Drop off and allow them to have it- yeah. Push up and squeeze with 7 players pressing- yip that too! Play cat & mouse and set a trap for the corner back to receive and then pounce on him- yup, obviously that too! The point being- in the modern game- you need to follow through on a range of tactics, for different teams and at different points in a game. No longer can you get away with being a team that goes zonally, or sits back or is defensive or is all out attacking. You are all that! And more. We need to create players that are so apt at being tactically flexible that they can change the whole team’s tactic in game, by themselves, without even that manager’s input from the side-line. That is what Dublin do, and anyone who wants to catch them, that is what they need to bring to proceedings also. You need many things in order to achieve this- quality intelligent players, top class coaching, insightful analysis, bullet proof tactics, supreme conditioning, but also player ownership and maturity. If you’re not preparing your team to perform on a big day- in the highly pressurised setting of Championship football in Croke Park- on their own, without the manager dictating from the sidelines, then you are not doing your job! There are many ways to skin a cat, but a common thread through all successful teams quality of player; good leadership from management; and ownership of the process from the players.
So Tyrone, like Dublin, need to be so tactically flexible. Who are the team in the last few years that have most taken the game to Dublin- Mayo of course! They are the one team that Dublin struggle against and it is because Mayo are not afraid and are tactically flexible in that. So, what does this tactically flexible approach look like in taking the game to Dublin. Personally, I would use a mixture of: man markers on top scorer Dean Rock, Ciaran Kilkenny and Cian O Sullivan (controversial but I believe it is worth sacrificing a forward to occupy such an important cog in the Dublin machine). But most importantly, they must man mark Brian Fenton. Fenton is the heartbeat of this Dublin team. When he is on song, Dublin are unstoppable, and I believe him to be the best player in Ireland. I can’t see any major weaknesses in his game- especially given that this season he has added scoring to his repertoire. If he doesn’t win Player of the Year there is something wrong. I wouldn’t dare profess to know what Tyrone player suits each role, but I think Kilkenny’s marker needs to be athletic, mobile and intelligent enough to read the play and the positions and pockets that Kilkenny likes to get into. 1v1 battles are needed then around the pitch, in terms of the likes of the indefatigable Niall Scully, MDMac, and Dublin’s full back line. The Tyrone defensive 6 need to hold their position, or should I say, 6 players as it can be different players each time and the half back line need to have the freedom to attack also.
Tyrone need to give the Dublin full back line something to think about also. After watching how Laois pinned back Dublin’s full back line and made them actually defend rather than attack, by stationing a big man on the edge of the square in the Leinster Final, I would play Colm Cavanagh in there where he can do damage. It is the kind of left-field tactic that Harte used to always come up with in All Ireland Final- I can’t see him doing it though. Cavanagh is likely to spend more time on the edge of his own 21m line rather than the opposition’s. If Tyrone are to make an indent into Dublin’s defence, I believe they need to leave at least 3 up front (sometimes 4) at all times. In soccer this is the simple tactic of the no. 9 centre-forward ‘stretching the opposition defence’ by playing high up the pitch. I understand the counter attacking game and it’s a good tactic, but you also need a target up there and someone to occupy the defence and make them defend. Dublin stretch their own attack so well and you see them occupying all 6 forward positions when in possession- it means the man on the ball has an option up high, out wide right, out wide left, and someone coming from deep behind him. Greater amount of options, great chance to keep possession of the ball and critically, more chances of penetrating the defensive shield.
When out of possession, they need to at times drop back a roaming sweeper from their half back line, rather than simply stationing someone back there all the time- it is too predictable and ineffective. I would call him a deep lying playmaker rather than sweeper, as he needs to be an exceptional ball player who can start moves from deep. As mentioned above, a whole range of tactics need to be used in response to Dublin’s KOs at different stages of the game and what preceded each kick out. Press up after a set piece or a score from long held possession or phases of play; drop back behind 45m line and allow them to have the short KO when you score or shoot from a counter attack; and set traps if the full-back line has got jittery. It goes without saying that Tyrone need to defend with manic aggression and a ferocity and franticness in the tackle comparable to the seminal performance in 2003 against Kerry. Also, counter attacks need to be made at breakneck speed; the ball must be kept out of the tackle at all costs (or possession will be swallowed up by a physically more impressive Dublin); and the Dublin forwards’ clever loops & cut backs need to be tracked and snuffed out. Easier said than done obviously. Lastly they need to be mean, nasty, in your face and take the game to Dublin. If you want to beat the best, then you need to show personality and confidence. Give The Hill something to give out about. They will begrudgingly give you their respect and you will make them earn their win. In my mind, this is the only way to play and beat Dublin. Setting up with 15 men behind the ball and defend inside the 45m line would be a massacre, Dublin are simply too smart and know how to handle that situation.
In the end, I think Dublin will be simply too good for Tyrone on the day- with their ability through Con and Paul Mannion to get goals and the immense talent of Brian Fenton at midfield to see them through. Dublin remind me of a rampant Kilkenny hurling team from a few years ago the way they go for goal and seek to bury teams early in the game and break their spirits right from the throw in. Can’t wait to see what they have in store for us all on Sunday.
As for the day itself, I am just looking forward to being there and watch the tactical battle unfold. I’ll head up with my great friend and cousin Niall Collins and we’ll watch the game together in Croker. We were brothers-in-arms playing together for years- winning Senior titles in Wexford with our beloved Horeswood GAA Club, with his brother Steven. They called us the Triangle, for the amount of times we found each other on the pitch. We’ll meet up with Brian Scully (Niall’s father) before the game in a pub near Croker to enjoy a pint of Guinness together and a chat about the game. Brian was my boss when we were involved on the Dublin club scene in the late noughties, when you could see the awesome Dublin machine clicking into gear; and a young Niall Scully was a skinny, confident, ball-playing 15-year-old down in Bushy Park in Terenure, and I loved him for it! The Dublin conveyer belt keeps on moving…