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Armagh’s system creates a central issue

By Niall McCoy

ARMAGH’S league semi-final hopes came to an end against Donegal last weekend – and their relegation fears suddenly appeared on the horizon.

It’s harsh on Kieran McGeeney’s side. Riddled with injuries, they have competed more than well on their return to the top tier for the first time since 2012. They were deserving winners against Monaghan, they missed a penalty to go four points clear of Tyrone midway through the second half and they really will feel like they let a point slip in the 1-16 to 1-16 draw with the Tir Chonaill county last Saturday night.

It’s on to a relegation play-off with Roscommon next weekend then with the winners at the Athletic Grounds avoiding the drop.

It’s the situation that they wanted to avoid, but McGeeney is likely to be happy with the efforts of his team. The loss of players such as talisman Aidan Forker, Ryan Kennedy and Mark Shields to injury has undoubtedly weakened their defence, but they have been more than game in that area.

Take Ross Finn, for example. The Granemore man had never started a game for the Orchard county but injuries meant that he was thrown in at the deep end and often over the 70 minutes he came into direct opposition to an in-form Paddy McBrearty.

What the Donegal match did show was that there is still an issue in the heart of their defence as they continually made in-roads right through the centre half-forward berth.

Over the past two seasons in particular, McGeeney’s side haven’t really stationed a player full-time at number six.

Instead, the player wearing that jersey has been part of a fluid backline continually rotating, picking up men and being given licence to break forward.

Stephen Sheridan was the preferred option in 2020 but a broken jaw ruled him out. Aaron McKay, who was the best centre half-back in Armagh club football last season, has been given the task in recent weeks.

McKay is a noted stopper, someone who can read the game well and likes to physically engage, but he is often tracking players and is away from that danger zone. Against Tyrone he followed Paul Donaghy while he was given the task of following Ciaran Thompson against Donegal. On both occasions he did extremely well and his direct opponent was substituted.

The issue is that it takes away a recognised six in the centre of defence with that responsibility being shared amongst players. Good, experienced players can sniff that opportunity – and Donegal scythed through time and time again last Saturday.

Here were some examples of when Declan Bonner’s side ran right through the middle.

4th minute:

Stephen McMenamin advances past Jarly Og Burns and fist-passes to Paddy McBrearty on the terrace touchline. Burns, Ross Finn and Niall Grimley all go towards McMenamin so the fist-pass takes all three out of the game momentarily.

McBrearty looks up, sees not only that it’s one-on-one inside but also that there is a lot of space ahead of him. The Kilcar man takes off and although Burns makes a valiant effort to get back and Rory Grugan reads the danger and tries to intervene, McBrearty is through on goal. Rather than hit the net, the player blasts over – but it was much too easy as he was able to bounce the ball three times and toe-tap it three times before a hand was laid on him.

7th minute:

Peadar Mogan picks the ball up in the middle and makes good ground unchallenged. He passes to Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher but Armagh look in control of the situation as they have three players close to the advanced defender.

Gallagher, however, realises that while in his vicinity, the trio are all standing too far off and he puts the head down and runs straight for goal. Ross McQuillan, who has plenty of speed, does get close enough to get a hand on him but Gallagher shakes him off. Even though the angle was quite tight, Gallagher should be rattling the net but he slices the ball badly wide.

23rd minute:

Paddy McBrearty again tries to take advantage of the gaps in the Armagh defence.

He starts on the right and moves towards the central position, side-stepping McQuillan in the process. McBrearty passes to the on-rushing Michael Langan who is coming through the middle having been left free. With some Armagh players filtering forward for a possible counter and others slow to get back, it would seem that a lack of communication in the hand-off maybe let Langan get those few crucial yards.

On the ‘D’, Langan jinks right to take out two covering tackles and takes a simple point.

39th minute:

The crucial score of the game, and the one moment that would have left McGeeney absolutely raging.

Nine Armagh players are inside the Donegal half when Shaun Patton gets the action going again with a quick kick-out after Rian O’Neill posts an uncharacteristic wide. It’s still eight when Langan receives possession in his own half.

Looking up and seeing nothing but unoccupied grass, Langan runs in a straight line for nine seconds without anyone being anywhere close to slowing his progress. His finish past Blaine Hughes was superb, but the fact that there were no hurdles for him to jump was criminal at this level.

There were other examples over the course of the 70 minutes and they were easy scores to give up.

The fluid Armagh defence system has its benefits – watch them flood forward in huge numbers when they turn the ball over – but not having a presence at number six has caused issues.

It’s up to the management now to decide whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze.

McBrearty point Langan goal
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29 May 2021; Jack Grugan of Armagh reacts after the drawn Allianz Football League Division 1 North Round 3 match between Armagh and Donegal at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Piaras Ó MídheachSportsfile

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