Ahead of Cavan's Ulster championship opener against Donegal in Ballybofey this Sunday, columist MICHAEL HANNON identifies four key areas which may define the Cavan v Donegal match.
1: Donegal's changed style
A lot has been made about Donegal's style of play since 2011. Lets face it, they changed forever the way the game of Gaelic football is played with their defensive structure.
Even if you didn’t copy them you had to radically alter your mindset and also the way you attacked in order to defeat them. Last year against Tyrone in the Ulster semi final, and then against Galway in the qualifiers they set up defensively but still managed to concede huge scores, 1-21 and 4-17 respectively.
Those were not the type of score lines you would associate with a well-oiled defensive unit. Players and supporters were quite willing to put up with the defensive football as long as the results were coming but when you’re getting obliterated by two sides who would then proceed to get thrashed by Dublin and Kerry respectively you have to ask the question is it all worth it.
This year's Division 1 campaign promised to bring a different style of football from Declan Bonner's men and the initial signs were quite hopeful. Big scores were notched against quality sides but on the flip side big scores were also conceded.
Donegal were becoming more exciting to watch but were prone to losing close games. Bonner's U21 side which won the Ulster Championship last year had a shoot on sight approach. Sometimes it worked out spectacularly for them, and sometimes it would backfire, just like it did in their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
The senior team now under Bonner's management seem to have adopted this shoot-on-sight approach. According to statistics gleaned from the televised Division 1 National League games this year, Donegal led the division in terms of shots taken per game. They were averaging four more shots a game than any other county. That’s significant.
However, their conversion rate was among the lowest, 13pc behind the division's top two of Dublin and Galway. So perhaps Bonner, who was fond of the spectacular score in his own playing days, is telling his team if they have half a chance of shooting, take it on.
Does this constitute a change in style from the McGuinness/Gallagher days? Perhaps given how Donegal would shoot so many scores from inside the scoring zone on the end of yet another fast break. But their overall style of play? I’m not so sure.
They’re still going to get loads of men back, they’ll look to run the ball a lot, and if Murphy is out around the middle and see’s an opportunity to land a high crossfield ball inside he’ll do so. Likewise if McNiallais sees Murphy inside and thinks it’s on. They just might not have as much patience to work quality openings if Cavan have a solid defensive set up in place. Which leads us nicely on to point number 2 - Cavan’s defensive pressure...
02: Cavan’s Defensive pressure
Note, this does not say Cavans defensive game plan. This is more than just a game plan. This is about a game plan and a mindset coming together. Cavan have been trying to implement a defensive structure into their game play all throughout the league but I would question how effective they have been at doing that.
At times there has been a concerted effort to get men back but too often the defensive structure they lapse into hasn’t allowed them to do the most important thing of all; apply pressure on the player in possession.
Pressure is what forces the mistakes. If you’re not applying pressure then all you’re doing is hoping that the opposition screws up. The two Roscommon games stand out in my mind for being examples of how little pressure Cavan were able to manufacture at the defensive end of the field. Roscommon threw the ball around at times in Croke Park inside the Cavan half of the field, all the while the player receiving the ball was never under pressure from a Cavan jersey.
That pressure only came after he received possession by which time he had begun to move the ball on to another Roscommon player and the sequence continued.
Eventually the last Roscommon player to receive the ball was also under no pressure and in a position to shoot which duly resulted in a score. In other words Cavan pressure was always coming too late to make any bit of a difference.
They chipped away at the Cavan lead in that first half, moving the ball so well to avoid contact that it was hard to find an actual Cavan tackle on a Roscommon player with the ball inside the attacking 45m line.
Part of rectifying this is having the aggressive mindset that you’re going to make it more difficult for the guy trying to receive the ball, thus making it more difficult for the guy in possession to find a safe pass, which then makes it easier for your team mate trying to get a tackle on whoever is in possession.
The other aspect to this is that you’ve also got to be given the defensive freedom to leave a certain part of the field and not just stand in a designated zone like a robot because you’ve been told to do so.
Given Donegal’s preference for shooting on sight, Cavan have to make sure there’s as much pressure as possible on the kicker at all times.
3: Paddy McBrearty vs AN Other
The big question for McGleenan is who does he designate to mark McBrearty. It comes down to a choice between Padraig Faulkner and Killian Clarke. If one is marking McBrearty then the other is probably marking Murphy so it really is a case of six of one and half a dozen on the other.
From what we’ve sene from Cavan in this years league I reckon McGleenan will go with Faulkner on McBrearty. The Donegal forward took 16 shots over the course of their three televised national league games - 15 were with his left foot. That’s an unbelievable record of predictive behaviour.
He’s not about to change. He makes the same run over and over again out to the same wing so that when he gets the ball and turns to shoot it is his left foot that is closer to the sideline. This makes it difficult for a defender to get close enough to block his shots.
I’d be marking him on his right shoulder forcing him to run out to the other side of the field to get on the ball. Then when he goes to come back on to his left foot he’ll have to come through traffic. The problem is once he gets the ball he’s so strong and powerful it can take two men to stop him.
So if McGleenan, as part of his defensive plan, designates another player to help with stopping McBreaty, how well those two guys work in tandem will go a long way to determining the result of this game.
4: The kick-out battle
Donegal played Mayo in a recent challenge game and came under severe pressure on their kick-out when Mayo forced them to go long.
Mayo are arguably the best team at contesting opposition kick-outs so it might be wrong to assume that midfield is a weakness for Declan Bonners men. However Donegal’s Jason McGee was thrown into the midfield engine room last year as a 6 foot 6 inch 18 year old.
McGee played more or less very game last year for the county who were missing regular midfielder Odhran MacNiallais for the 2017 campagin. McGee has opted to stay away from the panel this year owing to the fact that he wants to play U20 football in this his final year at that grade while MacNaillais hs returned to the fold.
MacNiallais is fabulous footballer but he is not renowned as a combative high fielder. In that game against Mayo, Donegal were forced to play Hugh McFadden with MacNiallais in the middle of the park.
Donegal went through stretches of the game when they couldn’t win their own kick-out forcing them to relocate Michael Murphy out there. Eventually they changed tact and went short with the majority of their kick-outs, freeing up the centre-back position and chipping balls out to the players moving into that pocket. It meant they had to run the ball for the entire second half.
That’s not ideal but if Cavan can force them to do the same it may just reap dividends for them in the final 15 minutes of the game as bodies tire and gaps appear.
My head is telling me that the disruption caused by a large number of key players missing training due to injuries will be Cavan’s downfall in this game. When players are out injured you simply cannot be doing the work on the field that is required to knit together all the aspects of a peak performance. Its one thing to talk in a team meeting about what you’re going to do, but it’s a completely different thing to experience it on a field. I fail to see how Cavan could’ve done that given the injury news from the camp since the Roscommon final. Donegal are no world beaters but playing in fortress Ballybofey should see them win.