Breffni men have the winning of this match if they can edge a couple of key battlegrounds, writes Michael Hannon.
Cavan ran out to play Monaghan in Kingspan Breffni with a very specific game plan, one that was tailor-made for the challenge of taking on Malachy O’Rourke's men.
There was a specific strategy adopted to deal with Rory Beggan's kick-outs that never saw the Monaghan men bypass a Cavan press and get quick ball into Conor McManus, their danger man in the full-forward line.
This approach would have been discussed and considered over the space of many months by Mickey Graham and his management team. The pros and the cons would have been debated - Cavan did, after all, give up a lot of possession on restarts to the Farney - and certainly over the year the team would have worked on their defensive shape after conceding short kick-outs as a consequence of taking this approach.
From a glance at the kick-out stats alone, Monaghan dominated possession but they found themselves trailing on the scoreboard such had been the difficulty they encountered trying to break down Cavan's defence.
So as a tactic, it worked a treat. The question that now arises is this; should Graham stick with what the side executed against Monaghan or should they adjust accordingly for the challenge that Armagh will offer?
Armagh have good forwards, but if I had to call it I’d say Monaghan have better ones. There’s a reason they’ve been holding their own in Division 1 for so many years while Armagh have bounced around from Division 3 to Division 2.
The level of protectionism and the cautious approach to the Monaghan kick-out might not need to be replicated against Armagh. The risk to pushing up on the Armagh kick-out isn’t as big because with the greatest respect to Blaine Hughes, he doesn’t have the same variation or crucially in this instance the same distance to his kick-out as Beggan has. That’s not a slight on Hughes, because currently in Ireland there isn’t another goalkeeper who has what the All-Star 'keeper has.
Cavan could therefore look to ignite their attack by taking a more combative approach on the Armagh restart. Push more men up the field and force Armagh to go long to where Gearoid McKiernan (pictured) and Thomas Galligan can turn the screw in the air. Ball won in these situations is more easily converted into scoring chances.
All through the league, the Roscommon game being the notable exception, Cavan struggled somewhat with the attacking aspect of their game.
There were moments when they hit great heights, like the first half against Kerry, but there were also too many games where the scoring return simply wasn’t high enough.
Admittedly, they were playing against Division 1 defences so the margins are always going to be finer, and the chances created always going to be that little bit tighter, but I felt that if they could routinely go out and kick another three points per game then they’d be elevating themselves up a level in terms of their standing in the game.
They’d be moving away from the bracket of teams that include Kildare and Roscommon, and towards the chasing pack of teams like Monaghan, Donegal, Tyrone and Galway.
If they can hit 17 points against Armagh then I can see them winning the game. With Killian Clarke at centre-back and Padraig Faulkner at full-back the team have their two strongest and most athletic defenders occupying the key positions in the defence.
I’d love to know the number of times these two have actually played together in defence over the years because by my reckoning one or the other is always being moved out to midfield to give the team some running power in that crucial sector.
So, the emergence of Conor Brady has been a bonus for Mickey Graham. He is someone who has that running power if needed to go forward, a physical presence that won’t be lacking on kick-outs, but is also a half-back by trade and can slip back to centre-back if Clarke is looking to act as a sweeper at any point in the game.
Having Clarke and Faulkner in the defence can give others the confidence to go and join the attack. If the move breaks down, a good athletic defender will be able to delay the pass towards his man by covering the first, second, third and fourth movement made by the forward.
This can slow the transition of the ball through the middle third and allows, for example, half backs who ventured forward, the time to get back and into a defensive shape.
Armagh have a lot of young players breaking onto their team and their side will be very different from the one that lined out in 2016 against Cavan in Kingspan Breffni.
Most of the wrestlers and fighters from the 2014 team have also now moved on. That day a mass brawl erupted over who stood where prior to the parade. Judging by the niggle that greeted the end of normal time against Down two weeks ago, when both sets of players had to be separated amid taunting, and jostling, it would appear that the next generation of Armagh players are just as prepared to stand their ground and fight.
That’s not to say Armagh will arrive and look to establish a physical edge but it’s always a funny situation to find yourself in if a team comes with the intention of causing aggravation.
You don’t want to back down but it is in Cavan's best interest not to get involved. Over the past four years these Cavan players have been playing at a level higher than their Armagh counterparts and they have to make sure they go out there and show it.
Keeping 15 men on the field at all times is key. Losing a player for whatever reason makes the task that much easier.
Cavan’s discipline in the league could have been better. Their black card count was higher than the average and they picked up yet another one against Monaghan. These things won’t be going unnoticed by opposition players and managers.
Armagh’s Rian O’Neill looks to be a talent. He’ll take some watching based on his performance the last day when he kicked eight points, four from play. His ball-striking in particular was excellent against Down and the challenge for a young player like that is to go out and back up a big performance with another one.
I imagine Jason McLoughlin will be picking up Jamie Clarke so Graham and his management team will have to decide to whom they give the role of picking up O’Neill.
It depends really on where he lines out because he tends to move between full-forward, midfield and everywhere in between.
Clarke might be the man for the job and my gut feeling is the Shercock man could overwhelm the youngster with his physicality. If he stays closer to goal, Faulkner could do likewise, but should he move constantly between the three positions it will be interesting to see if they pass him off to each other or if one player follows him wherever he goes.
If Cavan get their match-ups right, turn up with the right frame of mind, and go about doing the basics really well, then they should have enough experience and quality to win this game.
The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. Players like Gearoid McKiernan, Martin Reilly and captain Raymond Galligan have never played in an Ulster final after over a decade of service in the blue. This is the moment to change all that.
Verdict: Cavan by three.
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