DECLAN McCOY: Breaking down the low block

WE are currently slap-bang in the middle of the GAA jargon evolution. Terms like ‘move the ball quickly,’ ‘keep your width’ and ‘get men behind the ball’ have been replaced by ‘transitions,’ ‘tips’ and ‘low block.’

I have even found myself using such terminology and I die a little inside each time I do. The simple game is being over-complicated with buzz words and bullshit tactical jargon. The most prevalent term currently is that aforementioned ‘low block.’ I guarantee most of you have heard of it, and mark my words, if it hasn’t already done so, it will filter down to u-12 level very soon.

In old money, the low block, means a packed defence. It has been hyped up from 20 behind the ball to a low block, speedy transition counter-attack system.

Terms like this make me sicker than a last-minute defeat in Old Trafford. That said, such terminology is here to stay.

What is the premise? Basically, the low block is an out of possession formation, where the entire team retreats into their own half or even to their own 45.

Watch any game this weekend and you will see it, or a version of it. The team is attempting to limit space for the opposition and, indeed, trying to draw them high up the pitch to leave oceans of space for the counter-attack. It has been around for quite a while; however, we are now seeing concerted efforts and standard approaches to counteract it.

I will discuss a few options here that teams are employing. A lot of teams are trying to copy Derry in their approach.


This is where the team will attack down one wing and transfer the ball to the other side, several times, through a pivot player hanging out at the centre of the 45. This is often referred to as ‘the swing’, in that you are swinging the ball from one side to the other. The idea is that if you shift the defence over and back enough that eventually gaps will appear.

Pros: A team that can quickly transfer the ball from one side to the other and will often draw fouls or create gaps for a runner or an easy mark.

Cons: Most teams are equally well conditioned and can match the transfers of the ball from side to side. This now makes it as likely for the attacking team to gift possession away as not.

Match their numbers aka, the Derry approach:

Teams will put four or five players right in on the end-line. Often these players aren’t shooters and have no interest in the ball.

They are forcing the opposition to mark them and in going to the end-line, they are dragging defenders with them. This creates space in the packed defence for holes to be punched.

Pros: It asks questions of the opposition defence and moves them out of their shape. It also frees up space in the shooting zone to get a shot off.

Cons: If you lose the ball the house is completely down behind you. You may have your ’keeper up on the halfway line, but my own captain Sam Mulroy showed the dangers with this when he scored a goal from 400 metres – or so he claims – against Fermanagh.


Position several key players to one side of the play for two reasons. Firstly, to outnumber opposition in one area and kick the ball there. Secondly, to isolate a key player on the other side for a one-on-one. Again, Derry will sometimes overload the end line with fielders for a long ball kicked in.

Pros: If you drag opposition to one side you can create space on the other to get a shot off. The long ball into five or six fielders on the end-line can lead to absolute carnage.

Cons: If you lose the ball in the overload the opposition now have both the ball and numbers in position. Often balls pumped into a packed defence are easily gobbled up.

Move the ball quickly:

This strategy is my preferred option. Move the ball quickly before the opposition have time to filter back. In this instance, it’s preferable to keep a player or players ahead of the ball for a quick kick-pass out.

Pros: Opposition often have no time to get set and you have space and time to launch an attack.

Cons: If you leave a player or players ahead of the ball for a quick counter, you run the risk of being outnumbered by the opposition when they attack.

​​​​​​​Mirror the opposition:

So basically, if the opposition are playing a low block your team mirrors their system. You are essentially saying we can do it better than you so bring it on.

Pros: Teams often play a low block to leave space for their forwards up top when you push up. If you employ the same system, you are taking this space away.

Cons: You have reacted to the opposition, who are quite content and often well-versed in playing their system, instead of implementing your own style of play best suited to your team.

So, what’s the correct option? The answer is, well, it depends.

Multiple factors will dictate the approach you adopt.

How do the opposition set up? What are your own team’s strengths and weaknesses? What strategy works on a given day? Can you employ a mixed approach?

Luckily in Donal O’Hare and Hugh Lyons, I have two coaches with Naomh Mairtin in Louth that have a first class understanding of the modern game.

I would also encourage the empowerment of players in the formation of strategies. They are the ones that see things on the pitch and they are the ones that must find solutions.

A top team, in my opinion, must be player-led. The manager and coaches must act as facilitators and create the optimal environment for the players and team to flourish.

Also, if it doesn’t work out you can always blame the players, or the coaches. Sorry lads.

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