LAST weekend the start of the All-Ireland group stages commenced with holders Kerry opening their account against this year’s league champions and contenders to their crown Mayo.
A lot of discussion has emerged around the new group format and the pointless nature of three group games and the incredible scenario that in some groups, even one single point in three games would qualify you.
The one viewpoint I have on it is quite simple, it’s important that you are motoring well now you are in the reckoning particularly with the condensed nature of the season. You no longer can stutter your way through provincials and hope to grab some momentum through the Qualifiers, and no longer have you four or five weeks between games to right the wrongs and get some valuable work done.
Kerry’s performance last week raised some alarm bells for me, particularly the naivety of their collective and individual defending.
This was a team last year who prided themselves on an unblemished defensive record, their defensive intensity was on a serious level throughout the whole of last year’s championship.
Warning signs were certainly there during the National League. Some of the performances Kerry produced, including defeats to Donegal, a hammering by Mayo and losses to Tyrone Galway, were not of the required standard.
Facile victories over Tipperary and Clare in a defunct Munster Championship have maybe papered over some cracks that were certainly surfacing throughout their league campaign.
Last Saturday though was a proper test to see what vulnerabilities are appearing and it’s worth bearing in mind how difficult it is for any team to retain an All-Ireland title. If you go back to 1990 when Cork won the All Ireland back-to-back, 33 years ago, in over three decades since, only Kerry in 2006/07 and the phenomenal Dublin six in-a-row have managed it.
The other 25 winners couldn’t muster a back-to-back. So perspective is a wonderful thing when we start to critically analyse these teams. Sometimes it’s the emotive angle we should examine and not the tactical: maybe the release valve was let off after winning it, hunger, mental fatigue, other counties much thirstier for success, there are a whole range of issues.
One glaring aspect of Kerry’s game though that is very evident is the flaws that are starting to emerge in their defensive play, and I feel a huge part of this can be down to missing a David Moran in the middle of the field.
Every team needs a midfield general, it’s a crucial position on the field. You can look at any successful side and think yes, there is the cog that keeps the engine running.
Conor Glass plays that role perfectly for Derry. Glass gives Derry that presence around the middle when they are pressing the opposition kick-out, but he also provides a crucial defensive block out of possession and his awareness to cut out opposition attacks and provide a presence is a pivotal part of Derry’s success.
Brian Fenton for Dublin during the six in-a-row was a sensation, nearly unplayable and one of the very first match-ups you looked for when starting an examination on Dublin.
Kerry are now missing that man. When they went after Mayo hard on a zonal press, it meant Mayo had to go long, and when they did, they got serious joy. Kerry spent a large proportion of the game chasing and not facing when defending, and there is only so much of those moments you can sustain without suffering a fatal blow.
Gaelic Football is now coached around two simple philosophies – what do you do when you have possession and what do you do without possession?
When Kerry has possession, given the depth of their talent alone, they have enough to give an opposition a headache. The creativity and guile and their ability to attack off the cuff is better than any side in Ireland, but to win the big prize more is needed.
Mayo on Saturday past came away from ‘Horan Ball’, as it was described during James Horan’s time. James believed in a very man-to-man centred approach where pressing high and hard throughout games was their trademark and it did cause most teams problems, but it also played into the hands of the methodical and systematic Dublin team.
They knew what was coming and that was the key. Their ability to game manage and not allow the Mayo pressure to cause panic was vital. This year Mayo have adopted a completely different approach.
Kevin McStay, during his time with Roscommon, took some awful hammerings. In fact in 2017, he oversaw a 2-29 to 0-14 defeat to Dublin with some seriously naive defending at the forefront of that defeat.
In those few years away from the game though McStay realised that romance and fairytales are for movies, not winning big football matches and he has reinvented himself as a manager.
Mayo’s defensive template without possession of the ball is starting to paint a very clear picture. Mayo’s scrambling defence is outstanding when they lose the ball, and they are clearly coached to run hard when out of possession and get bodies behind the ball as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Unquestionably it is very evident in the games they have put a lot of work into their defensive organisation without the ball. They kept five clean sheets in eight National League games, including a hugely stubborn defensive display in the Division One final against Galway.
Mayo already had the hard part sorted, they have an outstanding and powerful running game coupled with extreme physicality and physical conditioning.
A lot of these players have been down the stretch before, they now have a game tailor made for the big days at Croke Park.
It’s just now a question of can they game manage in those big clutch moments. One thing is for sure though, whoever is left standing in July will undoubtedly be built from a solid foundation and a defensive determination.