Work-rate will be key as Cavan seek to replicate 2020

Ulster SFC semi-final preview

Damien Donohoe

This coming weekend has a great sense of nostalgia about it. Ulster championship semi-final on a Sunday afternoon in Clones. A sea of Kingspan-emblazoned blue jerseys creating a human river of supporters down and back up the hill again to St Tiernach’s Park. Back in my days as a wide-eyed supporter, it was the double-header of county minors and seniors but with those days gone, I’m delighted that the powers that be facilitated the double-header with the ladies semi-final. What a day’s entertainment we have in store, hopefully taking two wins in the process.

Cavan will go in as underdogs in both but what surprised me was how much of an underdog the bookmakers have Mickey Graham’s lads. One particular bookie have Donegal at 1/5 which is strange considering the last time the sides played was the Ulster final in 2020 and we all know how that ended.

I suppose, though, I can see why Donegal are such overwhelming favourites. They play Division 1 league football and before Cavan beat them in 2020 they had gone nine games in the Ulster Championship unbeaten. After Donegal winning the 2019 final pulling up, the price maybe says Cavan caught Donegal on the hop in 2020.

Personally, I don’t buy it. Tactically Cavan got that final spot on with match-up and opportunity identification superior to the Tír Chonaill lads but most of all Cavan brought the right intensity to the game.

In a preview of the 2020 Ulster final I wrote “This game will most likely be won on the middle third of the field. Both sides possess plenty of big, powerful ball-winners but the ground battle after that could decide the outcome. Cavan’s best chance of beating Donegal is to win primary possession and in doing so they starve the Donegal forwards of the ball. It’s vital that Cavan stay within touching distance throughout so that they can produce another strong finish and hopefully end the wait for the Anglo-Celt Cup to return home.”

Cavan did stay within touching distance even when down to 14 players that day and their finish was too strong for Donegal to handle but the sides have both changed since 2020. Both Cavan and Donegal had 10 players starting their recent quarter finals who started the 2020 final.

Cavan’s five new faces are Cian Madden, Paddy Lynch, Cormac O’Reilly, Conor Moynagh and Conor Brady. Declan Bonner has introduced Caolan Ward, Stephen McMenamin, Shane O’Donnell, Ciaran Thompson and Jason McGee, so who has the edge on the changes? Conor Moynagh, I’d imagine is the most experienced player of the 10, but we saw in the league a few years ago how effective Thompson can be on his day so the jury is out.

A big question hopefully Mickey Graham and co will have to answer is if Ciaran Brady and Oisin Kiernan are back at their best, where do they come into the team? Looking back on the 2020 Ulster final they were both marvellous. Brady’s energy has yet to be replicated by any Cavanman and Kiernan’s point on the 64th minute of the final was the moment I first felt like this was Cavan’s day.

Having watched back Donegal’s win over Armagh in Ballybofey, several things stood out to me. Donegal, in the first half deployed a zonal press for the Armagh kick-outs with three in the full-forward line and two lines of four between the 45 and the far 65-metre lines. This led to them winning eight of Armagh’s 14 kick-outs. Donegal appeared to keep the half-forward line of four very close to the full forward line of three on a lot of occasions. As a result, Orchard goalkeeper Rafferty aimed for the space between the two lines of four. It looked like a trap Donegal were setting which worked well for them.

A zonal press is not an easy thing to win kick-outs against. Like a blanket defence wanting you to shoot from difficult areas, a zonal press is designed to block off the spaces that a keeper is aiming for and hopefully, as a result, the kick-out can be contested or won cleanly. To implement this best, you need to have enough big men to win a contest in the air. Cavan, I’d think, tick that box.

The weakness of a zonal press is if the correct kick can be won by the attacking team, they can take a lot of players out of the play. By kicking over the first two lines, seven players are immediately taken out and the remaining players are scrambling to stop a score while running facing their own goals. Armagh’s second point demonstrated this perfectly as it took 16 seconds from Rafferty’s tee to the ball going over the bar.

In contrast, Armagh gave Donegal their own kick-outs by completely stepping off their full-back line. This allowed Armagh to have extra bodies between the ball and their goals when Donegal won it but unfortunately for them, those bodies didn’t manage to turn over Donegal. The result of this was Donegal having 100% completion rate for Patton’s restarts at half-time and a three-point lead.

When Armagh changed tactics in the second half to force Patton outside the 65 with his kick-outs, Armagh won all four in this area. It also forced Donegal to use the familiar spine formation (start in the centre and break to the wings) kick-out a number of times in the second half and with Armagh going man-for-man, it worked well.

Change of style

Donegal have changed so much in terms of style since the Jim McGuinness era. Now a key component of their game is committing numbers to their attack. It was something that needed to be done but like all changes, there’s a trade-off. Donegal took 31 shots in the Armagh game compared to 28 by Armagh who would be considered an attacking team. To do this, they often had 12 or 13 players inside the Armagh half of the field.

The risk with that is if Donegal are turned over there is an ocean of space to attack into. When the sides were level at three points each in Ballybofey, Armagh turned over Donegal twice and with long kick passes to set up one-on-one attacks. Armagh only managed to capitalise on this with a single point but it exposed the opportunity Cavan can create.

Another major difference in Donegal’s play is with Neil McGee no longer at full-back, they now feel they can play a man-for-man defence largely. They will drop off players ten or 15 metres when their man is a distance from the ball and try to get a ‘plus one’ at the back when possible - but with constant movement, gaps can be found.

Armagh’s fifth point, which gave them the lead, came from their kick-out short to the centre-back position and worked up the field over 22 seconds. In this move, you can see when the ball is moved forward for an entire play, Donegal are completely man-for-man and look slightly vulnerable.

This leads on to another point, how Michael Murphy’s role has changed. I don’t know if it’s as a result of his recent hamstring issues or it’s a tactical idea, but he appeared to be not asked to put pressure on the Armagh players coming out with the ball. In that game it can’t be said that Murphy played mid-ield at any stage. He was always one of Donegal’s most advanced players even if on occasion that meant he was in their end of the field.

At times, Donegal would allow Armagh possession of the ball on their own 20-metre line while McBrearty, Brennan and Murphy would retreat to the ’45. Watching it live, my thought was Donegal are going to apply real pressure on the ball-carrier in the middle third but instead Armagh were allowed to swan up to just outside the Donegal ’45 before pressure was applied. This may have been to attempt to conserve energy for their two top scorers, Murphy and Paddy McBrearty.

In trying to figure out how Cavan can out-score Donegal, let’s look at where Armagh’s scores came from. I’ve broken the scores into four categories: fast break (40 seconds or less from gaining possession to shot), patient attack (slow build-up with ball moving laterally more than once), high press (forwards forcing a turnover inside the Donegal ’45) and high ball (needs no explaining).

Not surprisingly, the top source was fast breaks as Armagh grabbed six points in this way. In second it was patient attack with four points. This can be an effective way to control a game at times, but the situation must be right for it to be used. High press and high ball both yielded a point each but were very rarely used by Armagh.

If we think back to the Ulster final in 2020, Cavan scored 1-1 from high ball to the square. Thomas Galligan gathered a break before hooking over the bar and who can forget Gearoid McKiernan’s free where Martin Reilly forced Shaun Patton to punch the ball, leading to Conor Madden’s goal. It looks like Patton’s scars from dealing with high ball have led to a change in how he and Donegal approach it.

They have now deployed Brendan McCole, who previously played midfield, to the full-back position to help, and Patton appears to remain rooted to his line instead of coming to contest the ball. I think this is a risky play as it’s dependent on McCole being better in the air than his opponent.

In summary, looking at Donegal against Armagh, Cavan shouldn’t fear them but will have to respect them.

There are weaknesses in their game that I’ve no doubt Graham and the management have identified. For me, the area I’d be going after is again work-rate. I don’t think Armagh worked hard enough in the first half. They looked like they lacked intensity and that is always the foundation for victory.

Cavan played with more intensity than Donegal in the 2020 Ulster final and if they can do that again I think they have a great chance of overturning Donegal.