Cavan’s defensive system, pioneered in mid-championship, was counter-productive and arguably cost them a win last Saturday, writes Michael Hannon.
Last weekend was a frustrating one to be a Cavan supporter. For too long, we’ve suffered at the red hands of Tyrone, whether it was in McKenna Cup, league football or championship action.
Before the match there was a suspicion, subsequently confirmed by the events of the game, that if ever there was an opportunity to get one over Mickey Harte's men, then now is as good a time as any to be meeting them.
Not since the Jim McGuinness era from 2011 to 2014, when his Donegal team made them question their style of play and modus operandi, have we seen a Tyrone side look as lost as to what their footballing philosophy and footballing identity actually is under Mickey Harte.
The only problem for Cavan supporters is that their own side is undergoing an identity crisis of their own and ultimately, while still finding their rhythm in their new shape and thus they were unable to take advantage of the distress in the opposition’s camp.
Tyrone were the better of the two teams, creating more attacks, more shots, and ultimately taking five more scores, to win it by three points, yet Cavan will have to rue a first half when they looked decidedly unsure of how to attack, counter-attack, and even at times how to defend, all the while employing a system and shape that saw them have 14 men back inside their own 45-metre line.
And that right there just about sums up the second half of their season. Let's not pretend that the idea to take so many men back has been to improve the team from an attacking or even counter-attacking point of view.
It's been done because the team has been leaking scores and scoring chances at an alarming frequency and they didn’t know how to stop it. The thing is, the negative impact it has had on the team, as an attacking unit, has been greater than the positive impact on them from a defensive point of view, and as such it might be worth a rethink from all involved for the 2019 season.
In the context of this game, the decision to allow Seanie Johnston to drop deep to get on ball looked at times inspired only for the forward to turn and have no-one to pass the ball forward to.
We got enough glimpses of weighted and measured passes from the Cavan Gaels player to see how the tactic might potentially work, but handicapping him by eliminating completely the team's half-forward line and therefore only outlet foot pass resulted in any positive gain being negated.
So while Johnston was floating in the middle of the field to play delicate weighted and expertly measured foot passes, too often those only came after Tyrone had their mass defence set up because when he’d first receive the ball, he’d have no one ahead of him within passing range.
Had Johnston a half-forward to hit, then his passing ability could’ve been used to beat the transitioning mass defence and not just try to unpick one that’s already set up.
So... This change in style has all been instigated because of problems at the back so let's start by looking at the nature of the turnovers Cavan won in that first half.
By and large in that first half, when Cavan were taking the ball back off Tyrone, it was the result of an interception and not a tackle. This contrasted with Tyrone taking the ball off Cavan, as they were forcing Cavan players to carry the ball through their 45-metre line and in doing so won the ball back repeatedly in the tackle.
Why, you might ask, were these two things happening so differently for either side, and are they even relevant? Well, the manner in which the turnovers were won spoke volumes about the attacking strategies that each side was implementing rather than the execution of a defensive strategy.
Cavan, in particular, should take note if they do ever go back to the drawing board under McGleenan in 2019. Tyrone wanted to run the ball to the 45-metre line and then try and dink passes into their full-forward line.
When not in possession, they would station their full-forward line on the halfway line and their job, as soon as possession was won back, was to sprint all the way back into the full-forward line to give them that outlet foot pass once the rest of the team had ran the ball up to the 45-metre line.
As an attacking strategy, it’s not a great one. How much energy will your full forward line have after tracking back to the halfway line (run one), resting for a bit, before sprinting back into the full forward line (run two) at the first sign of turnover to then sprint back out looking to get on the end of a foot pass (run three)?
They’d have been better holding their position out around the middle to facilitate a much earlier foot pass and then run the ball from there into a scoring zone. Basically, get the kick in earlier, and run the ball later. Less energy is required which would allow them operate at higher speeds.
Mind you, if the turnover happens higher up the field, it does allow for them get the ball on their way back into the full-forward line (during run two), looking for an over-the-top pass which is exactly what nearly happened with Mattie Donnelly in that first half only for Fergal Reilly to intercept, or for McAliskey in the second half only for Killian Brady to save things with a last ditch tackle.
So by and large Cavan were intercepting ball being sent in to a jaded full-forward line running out the field. Cavan, on the other hand ,were unable to kick the ball as much as they wanted to when they were counter-attacking because they simply did not have enough men ahead of the ball.
In basketball a team will have a transition offense, also called a fast break offense when they counter-attack after winning a turnover. But they will also have a half court offense, an attacking shape they will fall into if the fast break hasn’t yielded an opening, and from which they will run a set play.
Cavan couldn’t string together enough high quality fast breaks to create easy scoring chances in the first half against Tyrone, so there was a need to fall back into an attacking shape that would allow them to break Tyrone in a slower, more methodical manner.
And interestingly they had all the elements on the field to break down Tyrone's mass defence except one, shape.
Between McVeety, Clarke and McKiernan’s athleticism, and Johnston and Mackeys passing ability, they would have been able to isolate weaknesses in Tyrone's defence and pick off scores, but the thing they were vitally missing was attacking shape.
These players needed their team-mates to bring more width and to hold positions higher up the field once the recycling of the ball out around the middle began. Too many Cavan players congregated on the 45-metre line from all directions and it meant McVeety, for example, was often being marked by three or four men in the full-forward line.
Send in a spare Cavan player and he is either marked by one of those guys picking up McVeety or else picked up by one of those guys out around the 45. If the former happens it will make getting the ball to McVeety easier. If the latter occurs, it will make running the ball from the 45-metre line easier. Slight change
The second half saw things change slightly. Ado Cole was positioned in at full-forward and unlike McVeety, who wants to make runs out, Cole held his line, looking for that high crossfield ball to the far post.
Martin Reilly made huge efforts to get into the full-forward line and his goal was a reflection of that, but it needed more people getting into those sorts of positions to give the team shape which would allow them to get a few easier scores against Tyrone's defence.
The Tyrone kick-out, which had been retained, more or less, unchallenged in the first half came under much more pressure and that too helped Cavan's efforts.
But go back and look at the nature of the turnovers; in the second half, the number of turnovers won in the tackle was way up. The team was no longer just reliant on interceptions.
Sean McCormack, Killian Brady, Padraig Faulkner and Gearoid McKiernan all forced multiple turnovers and, crucially, some of them happened higher up the field, not just in the full-back line.
That’s what happens when your mindset is to chase the ball a little bit more.
The free count was wildly in favour of Tyrone at 20 to eight and justifiably will rankle with the Cavan camp but that only further emphasises the point, this was not a good Tyrone performance, from a side who relied on soft frees and have yet to find their mojo in the 2018 championship.
One that got away, then, without a doubt.