The last two years have been a rollercoaster for Mayo. Signature Championship wins over Cork and Dublin and a run to the League Final have been punctuated by a couple of flat performances. Through 2012 however Mayo have shown a clear arc of progress from spring through the summer.
It takes time for a manager to truly make his mark on a team and the vision of James Horan wasn’t really apparent until the spring. Mayo never lacked scoring talent but Horan has looked to improve Mayo’s ability to get the ball into favourable attacking situations. Naturally this begins from a strong defensive base. Opposing ball-carriers are targeted by what I call a man-isolation strategy. Mayo’s objective is to cut the man in possession off from options and force turnovers. On its own, this is a high-risk approach, but Mayo have adapted the rest of their game to allow them to overload on ball-carriers.
The Connacht champions’ defensive plan begins with the half-forwards. When ball is lost in the final third, Mayo look to force opponents wide to slow the play down. Where necessary, Mayo will foul, but fundamentally the objective is to make it harder for the other team to move the ball rather than outright stop them. This gives time for Mayo’s cover to drop back and they regularly have eight players in their final third when under attack, despite the committal of players to stop the man in possession.
By forcing turnovers Mayo are able to make the most of a diverse attack. Alan Dillon doesn’t shoot often but when he does he usually scores. Dillon has converted 9 of 11 attempts this summer. The biggest advantage for the Connacht champions isn’t Dillon’s accuracy or Cillian O’Connor’s accuracy from distance; it’s their ability to spread the scoring around. Mayo had 9 scorers against Dublin, 9 against Down, 9 against Sligo, and 13 against Leitrim. That breadth of options means opponents can’t over-commit to any one attacker.
While having one of the deeper panels in the game, there’s no escaping the losses to the Mayo side over the summer. First Conor Mortimer left the squad and then Andy Moran’s injury ended his season. While Mortimer likely wouldn’t feature as a starter, his absence reduced the options for Horan on the bench. Losing Moran was undoubtedly bigger. An excellent playmaker who looked a cert for an All-Star, Moran’s absence removes a major creative force up front. If matters get tough on Sunday, Horan won’t have the kind of game-changing substitutes up front that Jim McGuinness can call on.
This battle is going to be fought on several fronts and depth is just one of them. The middle third will undoubtedly be the chief one. Mayo and Donegal both treat the area between the 45s as the key battleground. They approach this fight in different ways. While Mayo see this as an area to force turnovers and create counter-attacks, Donegal’s game looks to control how and where the ball enters either final third.
Whoever wins this battle should win the day and it promises to be an area where momentum swings throughout the game. In one respect that should lead to an exciting game but I also expect it to be somewhat unbalanced. Tit-for-tat scoring could appear in bursts but it’s more likely that each side will score in bunches. Whoever can make the most of their purple patches should come out on top. I’ll be making my pick on who I think pulls it out tomorrow over on Action81.com.
Emmet’s book ‘Tactics not Passion’ is available to order now – details here.