MOSTLY FOOTBALL: Cavan's defensive system is not fit for purpose

Monday, 14th May, 2018 10:10am

MOSTLY FOOTBALL: Cavan's defensive system is not fit for purpose

Gearoid McKiernan in action against Donegal.

Michael Hannon

If you had told me for the best part of last Sunday's meeting between Cavan and Donegal that the visitors would manage to reduce Patrick McBrearty's influence to no more than a bit part, certainly for the opening 55 minutes, then I'd have said Cavan would have been well in the game. 

However, they found themselves trailing sufficiently by the time McBrearty started adding on a few scores in the final quarter that the game was at that stage effectively out of reach for Mattie McGleenan's men. 
Throw in the fact Ryan McHugh had one of his quieter games, his flicked first half goal aside, and you must come to the realisation that Cavan were beaten by a Donegal side whose star players didn't even have to play well. So where then do you begin analysing this game? 

Well the first thing you would have to look at is the respective number of wides that Cavan hit. They managed 12 in total. 

So a bad day at the office, perhaps? Well, kicking that number of wides is always going to be a problem but there are other more fundamental issues that have plagued McGleenan's side all year and came to the fore once again last Sunday. There are issues with this Cavan side defensively. 

A tally of 2-20 was conceded last Sunday and that fairly easily have been 5-25. So, rather than get bogged down on all those wides, some of which from shots which players were well within their rights to take on, the management team should start to give serious thought as to why the team is giving up so many scoring chances at the other end. 

In my view, this is not an individual issue but rather a consequence of the way the team sets up when they don't have the ball. I wrote last week about the pressure or lack of it that Cavan are able to exert on the ball-carrier in most of their games. 

It seems at times that unless you're 30 metres or less from Raymond Galligan's goal then there is no other area of the field in which Cavan threaten to put you under pressure from multiple directions. 
That's far too small of a defensive zone to be creating if you're trying to stop a team from scoring points. If you consider that McGleenan more or less tries to play with four forwards at all times, even if that can sometimes seem like there are only two up there, you have to ask yourself what are the roles of the other 10 or 11 players. 

Given that the six defenders are responsible for marking their men, the two midfielders and two or three forwards who drop back need to become accountable for performing defensive duties that go beyond just tracking their runners.

Galway for example, despite being labelled a defensive team are still managing to win more turnovers slightly higher up the field than Cavan have been doing under McGleenan. 

You cannot continue to allow teams advance the ball so high up the field under no pressure. The worst thing in Gaelic football is to see a team running the ball at 95pc because at 95pc, no-one makes a mistake. 
At 95pc, your skill set won't begin to crumble but if you force a guy to go at his absolute max, to move at 100pc because he's under fear of being chased down and tackled from behind, then that's when the cracks begin to show. 

That's when the 15-yard fist pass doesn't go to hand, or is slightly behind a player, or the solo goes slightly higher in the air and out of control. 

The teams needs to first decide whose job it is to create that pressure, and then figure out a way for them to do it. Are there issues at the other end of the field? Yeah, a few, but when Mackey, McKiernan, McVeety and Caoimhin O’Reilly are all on the field together then there is enough talent to manufacture scoring chances. 

Getting them all on the field at once might be tricky given the nature of some of McGleenan's changes this year. Last Sunday, I felt there were a number of questionable calls made in terms of substitutions. 
Killian Brady was missed from a defensive point of view as soon as he left the field. He may have picked up a yellow card early on but Killian has been picking up yellow cards since he was an U12. The point being he's a physically forceful player and doesn’t usually pick up too many red ones - and he had been playing well. 

Caoimhin O’Reilly had been looking very threatening when he was also pulled ashore but perhaps that was to protect him from fatigue given how he had a hamstring injury in the past five weeks and had been very active in the opening 40 minutes. Then again, to the best of my knowledge, O'Reilly has never finished a match on McGleenan's watch.

Niall Murray, too, came off at the break just as he was looking like he was about to hit his stride so perhaps he had picked up an injury in the first half. It can be a dangerous game to question line-ups and substitutions given how we aren’t privy to the full picture. 

One thing I would question is the effort made by the team to disrupt the Donegal kick-out. The instinct from too many Cavan players is to drop back as soon as a shot is taken by a team-mate rather than to push forward to create difficulty for the opposition keeper on his restart. 

The more I look at the way Gaelic football is evolving, the more I think that a zonal press on a kick-out for the first six or seven seconds followed by a man-to-man press once players come into your zone might be a good approach to adopt in order to put a goalkeeper's kick-out under pressure. 

When Donegal went long with their restarts, they were only mediocre at securing posession. Yet Cavan didn’t force them to go long because they failed to commit enough players forward quickly enough to prevent the short restart. This was a missed opportunity. 

The biggest positive from a Cavan point of view is that McVeety and Martin Reilly didn’t injure themselves by playing small cameo parts last Sunday. There are four weeks to the qualifiers and that’s plenty of time to practise a defensive strategy that is more than just getting 11 men behind the ball. 

A kind draw in round one wouldn’t hurt too, I suppose. 2013 and 2005 have been the only two seasons in which the county has made any inroads in the qualifiers reaching the quarter-finals and last 12 respectively. 
Let's hope 2018 runs along those lines. 

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