One of the main talking points coming out of MacHale Park on Sunday last was the use of the blanket defence by Tyrone. Those of us who have had the game of Gaelic football in our veins for several decades just can’t warm to the use of the blanket defence, especially when it bursts our bubble like it did on our second league outing.
It is often discussed, derided and denounced but few have come up with a way of counteracting it. It has been said that heavy pitches and early league form can lead to its over use and that it tends to be less effective as the evenings get brighter and the ground firms up, but what is it about the system that makes it so effective? Well, let’s take a look.
The system is comprised of two primary elements. Firstly, it involves slowing our attack, crowding the defence and forcing shots from outside the scoring zone, resulting is a lot of wides. Sounds familiar? It isn’t that Mayo couldn’t shoot last Sunday, it is that we were forced to take shots from outside the normal scoring areas and usually with two opposing defenders in close attention. This throws a player off his game, resulting in frustration and a lowering of confidence in the shot, leading to further wides, many of a galling nature. The second element involves a quick break from the back by the defending team, often with a resulting score. Supporters wonder why they can score so easily when we can’t. Well let’s delve deeper.
In my playing years I generally played as a back and it was drilled into me that I should always follow my man. That sort of advice tends to stay with you. When someone steps up to senior inter-county level or is getting another chance to get established there, such a player will throw themselves into the game, with the advice of many years ringing in their heads. Suddenly corner-backs suddenly find themselves deep in attacking territory, the full-back is trying to break tackles on the opposing ‘45, defenders are taking shots under pressure, the wide count builds, etc. Posters will remember many such examples from last Sunday.
What the opposing team has done is to suck the defensive cover up the field and take their minds off their defensive duties. And to compound this, they ensure that it is their own entire full-forward line that defends deepest, thereby ensuring that our most defensive backs are furthest from our goal when the break starts. As soon as the break begins, the players furthest up the field take off at speed to get into the best attacking positions. Often, such players are half-forwards or wing-backs as their full-forwards are keeping our full-back line occupied in the wrong end of the field. In the match last Sunday, the entire Tyrone full-forward line collectively scored just three points from play. Everything else either was from a free or from the half-forward line.
All very well, you say – but what can be done about it?
The first thing is to prevent them from destroying our defensive game. Our full-back should stay no further forward than the crown of the ‘D’ with an eye on the closest opposition player. Our corner-backs should remain within the ‘45 with eyes on the next closest opponents. Our centre half-back should remain no further forward than the ‘65 with the two wing-backs marking the likely runners who will look for the breaking ball. If any of the backs go forward, one of the half-forwards must drop to fill the gap. Collectively, this forces the opposition to come forward and try to win the ball around the middle, creating gaps for our full-forward line inside.
The second thing to do is to frustrate their breaks. Half-forwards must pressurise the kickers, reducing the quality of passes. If a foul is to be committed, delay the free as long as possible, so that we get our shape. Mark really tightly.
The third thing to do is to create “outs”. What this means is that when “A” gets the ball “B” makes a run, sometimes to get a pass and other times to create a space where someone else can take a pass. Players should work in pairs, e.g. if McLoughlin gets the ball, the objective is to get it to Cillian, etc. Everyone works to the objective. The key is to get the consistently good ball into the scoring zone to the most accurate forwards.
And remember that once you get in front, the opposition must then come out to play. Then they are playing OUR game.
Can this be done? Well, with the experience in the squad, the coaching ability of Donie Buckley, the man-management of our joint managers and the fact that so many senior squad members are smarting from last Sunday, I don’t see why not.
Time to throw off the blanket.
Keep the Faith!