Cracking the Kingdom

Sunday draws ever closer. Slowly. Tantalisingly. Deep down, there is that spark of excitement. Anytime the thought crosses your mind, which is often these days. How it will pan out, we cannot be certain. And yet, we know. We know, it is time to crack the Kingdom.

There is a school of thought that Kerry beat Cork and Galway in second or third gear and that they’ll be bringing their A game against us on Sunday. I’m not too sure do I buy into that notion – aside from an increase in intensity and work rate, I don’t see how they can play much better than they already have. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has done exceptionally well to mould this team into an effective unit, marrying the Kerry swagger of old with a smattering of the modern defensive game.

Yet this is not the Kerry of old. The last time they won the All-Ireland was 5 years ago, and since then they have been shorn of Darragh Ó Sé, Tomás Ó Sé, Paul Galvin, Tommy Walsh, Diarmuid Murphy, Mike McCarthy, and for this season, Colm “The Knee” Cooper. Kieran Donaghy is an also-ran, Darran O’Sullivan has had hip surgeries and is not his former self, Marc Ó Sé and Declan O’Sullivan have moved on in years. The only player of that star quality that Kerry have taken on in the meantime is James O’Donoghue.

And getting the best out of O’Donoghue (and Geaney to a lesser extent) is the foundation upon which Fitzmaurice has built his team. All of the other players are effective, with no obvious weaknesses. But for the first time in recent championship history, we are going up against the Kingdom with, pound for pound, as good if not better players in many areas of the park. There should be respect. But not too much …

Kerry’s game plan is deceptively simple, difficult to execute unless you are Kerry, but after watching closely, is actually quite predictable. It all begins with the restarts.

Fig 1

On their own kickout, depending on whether it is centred or to the wing, the half back that is closest to it (6) rushes to the rear of the “dirty ball area”. The other two half-backs tuck in and close up the hole. Meanwhile, Declan O’Sullivan (14) loops all the way around the back of the area. The big Johnny Buckley (11) acts as a third midfielder while the other two half-forwards O’Brien (10) and Walsh (12) hover around the fringes ready to pick up the break or make a quick break.

In the event that Kerry don’t win the ball, everyone just retreats en masse to the ’45. How long does it take nine men to run 30 yards? That’s how long you have on the ball until Kerry have twelve men back in their own half. Don’t be fooled by any talk of them always playing attacking football – Kerry play the blanket strenuously 30-45 metres out.

In the event that Kerry win the initial break from a kickout, the ball is recycled quickly to O’Sullivan as the link man. Depending on the level of pressure he is under, he either has the freedom to pick out a rampaging half-forward with a trademark 25-yard Kerry kickpass, or if he is even luckier, a sweeping diagonal ball to the inside line – or else he handpasses it off quickly to a wing-back to do the same thing. There can no hanging about – they need to kick it in as quickly as possible while their two inside danger men are isolated.

On opposition kickouts, Kerry’s full-forwards closely mark man-to-man. Meanwhile their half-forwards, while staying close enough to their men, drop back five yards towards midfield. As soon as it is kicked, they turn around and race towards the middle. This has the effect of essentially ruling the opposition’s half-backs out of the breaking ball. If Kerry win the ball, they move it into the scoring area as quickly as possible, often resulting in a long range attempt. If they lose the opposition kickout, they retreat en masse to their ’45. They will throw in some token tackles and pressing, but turnovers are rare. They prefer to force the opposition into a mistake by getting close and not giving them space rather than heavy tackling – even within their own half.

And that is Kerry’s game in a nutshell. Not exactly rocket science, but they execute it well and to a high level. And O’Donoghue is the one they rely on to push them into unassailable positions. How has he scored the guts of 18 points in two matches? Again, his game is deceptively simple – almost a “two-trick-pony” you might say! His finishing off either side is superb – but then again there are many players who are good finishers. What separates O’Donoghue is what separates Messi in soccer – acceleration and even more crucially, deceleration. To give himself space, he can get the ball, run two yards, turn and have run the opposite direction while his marker is still going the other way.

Fig 2

But when he is tackled, he can cough up the ball quite easily. The trick is to have a man fast enough to keep up with him (Keith Higgins), slow him down, and have a second defender there to intercept and finish the job when he goes to solo (Caff). Stop him, or restrict him, and we’ll have won half the battle. Because while Kerry’s midfield and half-forward line can chip in with a point from distance, their back line don’t and they don’t get very much support into the full-forward line. Keeping O’Donoghue quiet is the difference between conceding 13-14 points and conceding goals and 18-20 points. I can’t see them playing high ball on our full-back line – that is not O’Donoghue or Geaney’s game. But who knows, perhaps they think it would be worth a shot to put David Moran or Johnny Buckley on the edge of the square for a bit? We need to anticipate this and have a plan ready to move seamlessly into it.

So where can we get them?

  • They don’t defend the area around their goal well. They will go man to man and leave the full-back isolated if we pull forwards out. There isn’t a lot of height there either. Is this why we are hearing the Freeman rumours?
  • Their defence is giving away plenty of frees, and can be quite undisciplined. Even Marc Ó Sé who was a bastion of discipline is tackling a bit tiredly.
  • They can be ran through, particularly when they are in retreat after an attack breaks down. This plays well into our dynamic high-press and incisive running tactics.
  • We can hold our own at midfield, and we have the mobility to vary our kickout tactics. We need to split their goal kicks and cover the space to enable us to bring an extra man back on O’Donoghue.
  • Several of their players tire early – Ó Sé, O’Sullivan, Sheehan (the last two haven’t been named to start but are sure to feature at some stage). We should use our mobility to capitalise on that.
  • They stick with their man, no matter where they go. Hence the last day we saw the number 3 Aidan O’Mahoney follow Conroy out the pitch. We can exploit this.

But Kerry’s approach will be to target us not only where we are weak but also where we are strong. They will be looking at Lee Keegan and the O’Sheas and saying how can we keep them out of the game? They will want Donnchadh Walsh to mark Keegan out of it, and will have noted how Dublin by-passed Aidan O’Shea last year. They will have spotted our full-back line’s struggles in recent matches. We need to anticipate what they will try to do to us – let’s get the tactical upper hand for once.

The match-ups

  • Higgins and Cafferkey on O’Donoghue. I’m aware this will leave one of their defenders (Paul Murphy) free but it’s a risk we have to take.
  • Cunniffe on Geaney.
  • Vaughan on Buckley – we need to match his height, and use Vaughan’s mobility over him.
  • Keegan on O’Sullivan (when he eventually appears, which he no doubt will) – man mark him no matter where he goes, press him even when he doesn’t have the ball. Then use Keegan’s pace to tire him out.
  • Boyle on Walsh – let’s match their most intense grafter with our one.
  • Gibbons (assuming he starts) on Moran, Seamie on Maher.
  • Doherty/McLoughlin rotate on O’Brien. Let’s face it, they’ll both be around the middle, so we just need to pick him up from there.
  • Doherty/McLoughlin rotate on Crowley, though, no doubt, he’ll be given an assignment to curtail Aidan O’Shea.
  • Aidan O’Shea on O’Mahony – can draw frees and cards and takes care of their most physical defender.
  • Dillon on O’Sé – their most experienced defender.
  • O’Connor on Fitzgerald.
  • Freeman/Moran on Enright – this depends on how we want to exploit the isolated full-back – high ball for Freeman to catch and turn, or Moran to play out in front and pass it off to our inrushing attackers. I don’t know which way I’m leaning at the moment!

If Mayo pull this off, it will be one of the sweetest victories we will have tasted in my lifetime. Horan has some tough decisions to make. There will be risks, and it will be heart-stopping. Because it is never a straightforward task to crack the Kingdom. Up Mayo!

26 thoughts on “Cracking the Kingdom

  1. Brilliant piece Digits – and you’r’e dead right about their defence – they have been knitting their own blanket for quite a while now and against galway you could see there were periods they were quite happy to just run Galway up blind alleys but galway did prove that you can get through too with some strong running. If O’Shea gets some space up the middle you could see him creating good chances and maybe drawing a black card like the cork game.

  2. Bottom line here.

    We have the players to beat Kerry. We have the experience. What we need is confidence and good calls on the sideline.
    If we can achieve those and we HAVE to believe we can the wagon will roll on. Of course it wont be easy and I suspect there will be a point when leaders have to emerge.
    That is when our lads should come on top. I believe Freeman and Gibbons will start but we will know for definite later.

  3. Same team named.
    I suppose we just gotta support the lads now and hope horan knows what he is doing.

    Fingers crossed!!!!!

  4. Same team announced but I’d imagine we’ll see one change at least before throw in on Sunday. Be very surprised if the team, particularly the defence, played as selected.

  5. We are in trouble at the back if that team plays as selected, did u see the way they walked through the Dubs in last years semi final. Was confident enough before team announced, not so now, look what Hurley and o neill did to our full back line, and o donoughue, Geaney and o brien are in a different league altogether as they showed in Munster final. Our only hope is a mud bath, that rain won’t come half quick enough come Sunday,

  6. No we’re grand Liam, Willie joe has kindly arranged a lift for us, and he said he didn’t want any diesel money, where I’d say you would, and to bate it all he’s picking me up outside Guirys, where I would have to get a lift to Roscommon to meet u, so it made more sense, but the sister is now looking for a drive, u might take her off our hands, she’s her own bit of a job and everything.

  7. I know what your saying Digits, that Kerry haven’t won the all Ireland in 5 years, but we are still looking at black and white pictures of 1951, and soon they could be lost. We need to step up to the plate big time.

  8. Fallen into the trap of over thinking and over analysing this game,hopefully Horan and Co. do not fall into this Kerry media trap….that is what would stifle this hard working Mayo team, overthinking every possibility and situation……

  9. Cam across this. Mayo should win on Sunday. One point about the high ball into our full forward line – No problems, watch Geaney in the sigerson cup final this year where he ran the show fielding when out to midfield. No need to move buckley or anyone around

  10. – Brillant post Digits, you put all the so called Sport Journalists in the national media to shame

    – Same team named, bit surprized but like a lot of the rest of you I expect to see 2 or 3 personnel changes before the throw-in

    – No Mayo subs announced, good that will keep them guessing or will it ? we may have named a dummy team, we could have named a dummy subs bench

    – Declan O’S must still be carrying an injury and to be fair he has looked at bit mummified with all those leg bandages in the last two games

    – Sheehan is a cultured footballer IMO but not a man to dig out 50/50 ball which may explain why he is on the bench or else still recovering from the injury picked up against Galway

    – As supporters we need to be seen and be heard on Sunday. A good shoulder on JOD at the start to send him over the side-line would put down a marker ala Cunniffe on Harte last year. This is an opportunity to sway the stats in Mayo’s favour and as Joe Ruane often says ‘time will tell, it always does”

    – Good luck guys.

  11. Excellent piece, the best article i have read i along time. Great analysis of Kerry. It has made me more confident of victory , I know this is Kerry and i am really nervous here but i feel we can win.

  12. Have to hand it to you,Digits. As succinct an analysis as I’ve come across. Hope some of the more senior men kept in reserve for a while till we see how things pan out. A bit nervous but any team playing Kerry would be wise to be wary.

  13. Even if you are making this up it is brilliant, and I am not suggesting you are. I hope the people who matter have as good an insight.
    I am a bit nervous but given normal luck I think Mayo have the players and the experience to win this. I hope to see I Brady outside waving to us on the way home when I get to Frenchpark!

  14. “high ball to Freeman or play Moran wide who passes to inrushing forwards.”
    Prefer the Freeman option as the other way is too slow and the forwards are covered
    by the time the pass is made.

    We hope and pray

  15. Good piece Digits but I dont agree with the double marking of O’Donoghue. We are exposed enough in the back line. Kerry will have a game plan for a scenario where we take O’Donoghue out of the game in this manner. Very dangerous.

    Keep to our own attacking game plan.

  16. Good read, loved the ‘NFL playbook’ graphics aswell.

    Match-ups on kickouts are crucial, no doubt. I thought Boyle was superb on Goold who was the target-man for most of O’Halloran’s kickouts. Kerry have better options than Cork, three midfielders who can field ball in a crowded midfield. Boyle is good in the air but could he handle Buckley? I’d be tempted to put him on O’Sullivan to disrupt Kerry’s tempo.

    Cillian O’Connor is revelling in his full-forward role, he doesn’t seem to need much support and can easily hold up the ball making him a better target-man than Freeman, (the taller man). I think we could punish Kerry under the high-ball with Cillian in there.

  17. Thank you all for your kind comments. This was written before the team announcements. While it is true that this Kerry haven’t named dummy teams before, wouldn’t this be a good time to start – anything they feel can get them an advantage they should try.

    To be fair, the three players they have supposedly dropped have all had significant injury problems this season. The Moran for Sheehan switch is a relatively straightforward one – Moran will be able to compete more on kickouts than Sheehan. They say that Crowley will be a tougher prospect for O’Shea although they are losing Young’s distribution qualities. The problem with the supposed dropping of O’Sullivan though is can that middle eight produce the quality of ball into the inside forward line without him? Perhaps there will be a change in strategy to go with a 3 man full forward line in the hope of producing more goals and force Mayo to have less men out the field. Michael Geaney is a stronger player to have around the breaking ball than Stephen O’Brien would be.

    Whatever happens, if Kerry win, Fitzmaurice will be hailed as a genius. And if he doesn’t, no one will say a bad word against him. Not a bad position to be in.

  18. Was watching Seo Spoirt the other day and the two Kerry lads, O’Cinneide in particular played up Mayo’s favourite status at every available opportunity – it was almost funny!

    Both sides are better than Cork but that’s as close as I can call it. Think Mayo are stronger at midfield, no doubt about it and with McLoughlin and Doc playing as auxillary midfielders we have more options on kickouts – something that really tested Cork.

    Kerry are missing their chief playmakers but Donnchadh Walsh is still lining out and he’s a key man to supply ball. Their midfielders all have good distribution too, Buckley in particular. I’d like to see Boyle picking up Walsh, that would stifle them.

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