After the Galway game, I stayed away from blogs and podcasts for a week or so. It was like when you would like a swim in the sea but the water just looked too cold.
At half-time in the Galway game, it looked like we had got to grips with them and that the early jitters had been overcome. The first 30 minutes of the second half showed that we could start both halves poorly and this was frustrating to watch. When I wrote my last post here, I was fairly critical but I really wanted to be proven wrong. Regrettably, Galway proved I was not and it was not a nice feeling.
You see, the thing is, we have an excellent squad. Individually, they are some of the finest footballers in the country. We also have a management that keeps developing new talent and keeps bringing us to national finals. Supporters of most other counties would take your hand off if they were offered this.
Listening to the John Maughan interview on the podcast, I was greatly taken with his passionate appreciation of the efforts of players like Niall McNamee. Niall has played senior inter-county for Offaly for nearly 19 years since he first togged out as a 17-year-old. He and his fellow warriors continue to give everything to the cause of their county, in the full knowledge that he will never walk out to a full house in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
We in Mayo are blessed with these riches. But when the All-Ireland title is the benchmark by which we continue to measure success, we are always likely to be one of the 31 disappointed counties in any one year.
So, should we just get over ourselves and accept our lot? I don’t think we can. We have been within touching distance so many times. The waft of success has been so close that we imagine that we could smell it. But we have not been able to get that success and so must continue to suffer.
And that is what the aftermath of the game against Galway felt like. Suffering! We are like addicts that need a fix. We get a bit of it every now and then, but never enough, thereby keeping us in its addictive grip. Give me ONE, just ONE!
Ironically, getting to the final so often in the last ten years is now working against us as we have been one of the most watched teams in the last decade. We have been coached by several men from other counties, Cian O’Niall, Donie Buckley and Tony McEntee in the last decade alone. Our systems are well known and widely studied.
At this stage, aspiring inter-county managers could search the internet and be fairly sure to find a virtual ‘How To Set Up Against Mayo’ manual. Consequently, teams know how to stop us from scoring. Crucially, teams also know the defensive weaknesses that can be exploited to develop goal scoring opportunities against us. Conversely, we seem to set out a very similar stall regardless of who we are playing and the recent results show that this is not working.
After the Galway game, I spent some time reading Mike Collins’ book Carrying the Fire. Mike was the third Apollo 11 astronaut, the one that stayed in orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made history by getting their boots dirty on the moon. In one of the chapters, he wrote of the hundreds of “what if” scenarios that they had to develop in planning for the Apollo programme.
All of the what if scenarios they could dream up were documented and were there if ever they were needed in the future. Some of them were useful, such as the time that the oxygen tank blew out on Apollo 13 – there were several scenarios that helped solve that one – however, most of the what if scenarios were never used and just gathered dust.
On reading this, I have since been wondering how much of this “what if” type of thinking could be used in game planning at inter-county level. This brings us into the area of strategy and tactics.
Strategy is an overall approach – and I’ll come to it in a minute – tactics are the actions that enact the strategy or the actions that maximise the reaction to a threat or an opportunity that occurs during the game. This is the core of what people have been calling Plan B in terms of how the team attacks the game.
Examples of “what if” scenarios that would require a tactical response are as follows:
- What if one of our key players gets injured?
- What if one of our players is sent off?
- What if one of THEIR players is sent off?
- What if our man-on-man strategy isn’t working and is resulting in the likes of David Clifford shooting the lights out?
- What if we can’t develop scoring opportunities with our running game?
- What if we give away a soft goal?
- What if we are six points up with 10 minutes to go but we have already emptied our bench?
Of course, there are other things that can happen, but we need to have response to whatever happens.
In the Galway game I saw some really good tactical stuff that swung the game temporarily in our favour. Towards the end on the first half, when Ó Laoi got the black card, they lost their ability to play an out and out sweeper. Mayo pushed up a bit more and the balls going in stuck a bit more. The scores followed.
Joyce and his generals reset their tactics at half-time and it worked for Galway for most of the second half.
The second really noticeable tactical move from Mayo came with about ten minutes to go when Jack Carney came on and Aidan O’Shea was relocated to the edge the square. Putting Aidan in there is a much-maligned tactic, but it causes havoc for opposition full back lines.
Their sweeper dropped back further to negate Aidan, thereby creating space in front of the D. Aidan didn’t get a ball, but his presence in there was telling because the extra space gave more scoring opportunities. Again, the scores came, but regrettably we just ran out of road.
This tells me that James Horan and his merry men are looking at, at least some, what ifs. What we need to see now is more of this. In particular, we need to bring tactics that cause panic in the opposition ranks. To date, particularly in this year, such shock and awe has been absent. Maybe we saw green shoots in Castlebar?
Which brings me to strategy. This is where I am really scratching my head.
Ryan O’Donoghue was the only man that started all eight league games for us. He started every game in the full forward line, he was our highest scorer and was in the shake-up for Man of the Match in every game.
So when Cillian O’Connor was fit, what did we do? Move our biggest threat out of the area in which he is most dangerous! Really? When we needed men who could win their own ball in the full forward line? I just didn’t get it.
Also, Diarmuid O’Connor has played some absolutely brilliant football every time he has played at 11 this year, but he too was moved, lining out at wing-forward at MacHale Park.
Going further back the field, Mayo has been known for breaking half-backs, but against Galway three of the four best line breakers on the field were in our full-back line. Our power in breaking forward is needed on the opposition 45 metre line. It is too much to expect full-backs to do the line breaking when they are also expected to do man on man marking jobs close to goal with no sweeper cover. So, what was the line breaking strategy? I couldn’t see one.
So, to summarise. The Galway game had a bit of the curate’s egg about it. The overall strategy seemed to be man on man at the back, get the ball to centrefield, look for the killer pass inside and play it laterally until the pass opportunity arises. That gave us 19 minutes of the first half and nearly 30 minutes of the second half without scores from play.
Am I missing something? If I’m correct, then surely this is an area of real concern.
The evidence on tactics is that there are things being worked on to maximise in-game opportunities. More of this would be very welcome.