In the middle of the celebrations following Dublin’s All Ireland win in 2011, Alan Brogan showed me a text from Marc Ó Sé which stunned me. It was my first All Ireland and, while most of my emotions were exuberant, there was still a part of me suffering from imposter syndrome.
Marc’s text mentioned to Alan how Kerry had moved Kieran Donaghy out of the full forward line to mark the areas I was dropping in to from Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts. They wanted, Marc said, to “nullify the threat from Flynn” at kickouts.
I had obviously noticed the presence of Donaghy from Cluxton’s kickouts but, maybe naively, it was only with the text that I realised how planned it had been and, with that, I realised that the game was about to change.
When I was growing up, Gaelic football was a straightforward game. “Win your personal battle,” I was told and as a Gaelic footballer, you set out to do just that. It was a 15-man game but those 15 men could be divided into 15 one vs ones. That was how we grew up and for a long time, that was how the game remained. Today it is very different.
What I was doing in 2011 wasn’t that new. Running from wing forward to the half back line for a kickout was standard practice but with everyone primarily marking man to man, our half back’s run – which would be followed for the man marking him – would create space for me to run into. I would be followed by the half back marking me but that was to be expected – Gaelic football was a game of personal battles.
But in 2011, the game was changing and one of the first demonstrations for me was when I found Donaghy, one of the most dominant full forwards the game has seen, standing where I was planning to run into wide open space. Kerry abandoned man to man marking and now had a zonal set-up on kickouts.
The kickout became and continues to be the battleground for the evolution of Gaelic football from a game of the heart to a game of the head.
In 2012, Jim Gavin became the Dublin manager and the evolution of Gaelic football as a tactical game took a massive step forward. While in the initial phase of his tenure, Jim’s approach can only be described as the equivalent of the gegenpress in football, similar to Jurgen Klopp’s approach with Liverpool: press high up the pitch in an aggressive format with the objective of winning the ball back quickly and punishing the opposition.
Jim’s instructions were clear and I loved them: commit to pressing the ball high up the pitch and we will dominate. We might concede more scores but we will create more chances too. It used to be said in soccer that while supporters love a 4-3 or a 5-4, coaches crave a 1-0. I’m not sure if that’s true of Klopp and in those years, it wasn’t true of Jim either.
This plan was working well until Donegal sucker punched us in 2014, catching us on the counter attack and exposing our overly attacking style of play.
What followed the 2014 loss for Dublin was an in depth analysis of our kickout strategy, our defensive structure and a more balanced approach to how we transition with the ball in attack but more importantly how we transition without the ball into our defensive structure – ensuring we didn’t leave ourselves exposed like we did against Donegel.
This led to our infatuation with our kickouts, but the opposition goalkeeper’s also. We would aim to win 80 per cent of Cluxton’s kickouts and we had a KPI – which was always optimistic – of winning 50 per cent of our opponent’s. Delivering on these metrics were fundamental and directly correlated with our overall performance. By the end of my career, the most intense component of preparation was not what we did on the pitch but what we did in preparation for games. The video analysis and tactical sessions would consume most of the weeks building up to a game to ensure you understood kickout strategy, the patterns of play and identifying opportunities to expose oppositions own weaknesses on their kickout.
The four provincial finals taking place this weekend will, in very different ways, demonstrate how a further evolution has taken place. Kickouts will absolutely be a defining phase of each of these finals. These are undoubtedly important platforms for teams to gain control of the game. But for me the most interesting dynamic in these games is what happens after the kickout. While so much emphasis is now placed on the kickout, what comes next is as important, if not more important.
If you secure your own kickout short you need to be prepared to transition into attack quickly to prevent having to break down a packed defensive structure. This defensive tactic was first adopted by the northern teams in the noughties with Tyrone and Armagh and built on by Donegal under Jim McGuinness. The purest would admonish this as unsavoury and ‘puke football’, but it was purely a new approach by teams that were setting up their game plan to suit the resources they had. Nowadays if teams don’t have this structure at the back it would be deemed naive and ill advised.
For a long kickout, defending teams have a decision to make, do we press up and compete or do we drop off and get our defensive structure set? It is a risk/reward situation. If you win the opposing team’s kickout you have a great chance of creating what every forward wants: It was once the norm but is now uncommon – the chance to be one vs one with your opposing man. If you lose the kick out you need to work hard to get bodies behind the ball to protect your own goal.
These transitions are going to play a critical role in this weekend’s action. I am keen to see if Derry can transition at pace like they did against Monaghan and Tyrone to create chaos in the Donegal defence. The runs their players make off the ball are fascinating, pre-planned drills with the aim of exploiting any weaknesses. If it isn’t on, they’ll recycle the ball and build up slowly.
A set defence, like Donegal’s, doesn’t want to be running back towards its own goal – they prefer to be set and absorb any attack with their back to their goal. Will Donegal maintain defensive structure at all time to prevent these Derry assaults?
In the Leinster final, I predict there will be a few more risks taken and more balls played with the foot. If Kildare can win their own long kickouts, I think they will attempt to transition quickly to expose the Dublin full back line before they get their structure set. These are the important phases of the game that will dictate the winning and losing.
The Dublin set up from an opponent’s kickout is very aggressive with all six forwards playing a zonal formation, the two midfielders holding a zone in the midfield area and the wing backs shifting up to make a line of four across the middle with the midfielders. This is an aggressive formation and makes it hard for opponents to maintain possession of their kickout, whether they go long or short. But if they do hold onto the ball, and transition quickly over the bank of Dublin players they can create one vs ones in the full forward line. Meath exposed it on two occasions so I am assuming Kildare will have their analysis done and target this potential opportunity.
The ‘origin of play’ of many of our scores were from kickouts (ours or the oppositions). In many of the games this weekend kickouts will be the origin of play for most scores but there is another origin of play that will have a big impact on the outcome..turnovers.
We used to have a saying ‘good offence leads to good defence’, essentially meaning that if we attacked and it led to a good shot, even if it went wide, it was a good play because it meant we could set up our defensive structure from the opposition kickout.
Bad offence plays, i.e. turnovers or balls dropped short led to the opposition being able to counter attack and, if we over committed or didn’t have structure at the back, they would lead to a scramble defence, chasing back towards our goal. No team wants that. Every opposition attack wants that. Because they have created chaos in your defence.
The long high ball booted into the area in front of goal is something traditionalists still pine for but it is a way of losing control, the equivalent in football of taking a long range/low percentage shot, something the most progressive coaches wince at. You might win the odd game that way, but you won’t win championships.
Back in the day, Gaelic football was essentially a game of chaos, a game where it was virtually an unpatriotic act to refuse to kick a hopeful ball 50 feet in the air and 30 yards forward in order to see what would happen.
But the game has evolved. The good teams are setting themselves up to bring order to their defensive set-ups and create chaos in the opposition. All the good teams want chaos on their terms, rather than the anarchy which might have been the hallmark of the good old days.