This was a fascinating tactical battle and Cavan can shade it in the replay, writes Michael Hannon.
Last Sunday’s game between Cavan and Armagh was enthralling for many reasons. It was close throughout. Until the goal went in, no team could put any sort of run together on the scoreboard.
It was hard-hitting and the referee was forced to make a lot of marginal calls, the majority of which I felt went against Cavan. Both sides really expended every last bit of energy in the battle which was very much attritional in its nature.
But it was also enthralling for the different approaches the teams took. Sometimes when you watch a modern game of football it can appear like both teams are playing the same way. Each team gets loads of men back behind the ball.
This is true for every team, whether you’re Dublin, Kerry, Fermanagh or Donegal. However, that’s often a result of players having to track a runner. For example, a defender decides to support the play.
If the forward doesn’t track that defender, he’ll be whipped off and replaced by someone who will. So the defensive shape a team ends up in, from time to time, no matter the teams and no matter the game, can look quite similar.
This is true of every sport, from basketball to soccer to hurling to football. However the defensive shape a team starts in is of far more relevance to their overall strategy and mindset.
Last Sunday we saw Armagh copy the Cavan approach from the Monaghan game while Cavan tried something very different by trying to press, when the opportunity arose, high up the field.
Against Monaghan, Cavan wanted to negate the impact that Rory Beggan might bring to the game. Pressing his kick-out, and having that effort bypassed with a monster restart, is one of the quickest ways to ensure quality ball ends up in the hands of Conor McManus.
Were Armagh to push up on the Cavan kick-out, I’m sure Raymond Galligan would have gladly gone long to Gearoid McKiernan who would have arrived from deep, floating into the midfield area very late.
And in that scenario, especially if he marked the kick-out then the ball would have ended up in the hands of Dara McVeety three to four seconds later in the Cavan full-forward line. Goal opportunities would have been created. This was exactly what Armagh were concerned about.
And to their credit it worked as Cavan never created a goal chance of note. Raymond Galligan ended up going short to medium with the majority of his kick-outs and always found a man. Cavan were then left with the conundrum of trying to pick holes in the Armagh team.
McGeeney’s men offered up quasi pressure from the 45-metre line to the midfield area, and then ratcheted things up a few levels once Cavan crossed the halfway line.
Cavan may not have anticipated this approach and in such a situation the concept of attacking shape has to be firmly embedded in the players' minds if they’re going to make the most of the possession they’ll be enjoying.
Cavan have tried under Mickey Graham to kick the ball as frequently as teams will allow them to, based on the opposition's defensive set-up, and to their credit they tried to repeat that approach last Sunday. However, what we saw was how difficult this can be when faced with a retreating team. Crossfield foot passes were plentiful but the medium length 35-metre foot passes being threaded into a full-forward line were much harder to execute.
A number of them were intercepted that were millimetres away from being successful. A number of them made it through.
Sometimes, when faced with a defensive set-up like Armagh adopted, it can be better to play with a four-man full-forward line spread out along the 13-metre line rather than the traditional three or often favoured two men inside.
Four men inside makes it easier to work the ball across the 45-metre line to hit shots from the edge of the scoring zone. Four men inside, spread across the full forward line, can’t be so easily covered by just the one sweeper.
That too always increases your ability to thread a foot pass inside. Dublin will often revert to this attacking shape when faced with a defensive set-up like Armagh used, but like I alluded to earlier, Dublin anticipate teams dropping off them, Cavan quite possibly weren’t anticipating Armagh to drop quite so much.
From Cavan’s point of view, they really went after the Armagh kick-out. They flooded men high up the field, sometimes getting four men into the full-forward line in what looked like a fluid zonal press, three men behind those, and another line of four men behind those.
Armagh players started to move to give Blaine Hughes options on his kick-out and on one occasion I counted five Cavanmen in the Armagh full-back line, two men in the half-back line, and then another five spread right across the midfield line, such was their commitment to put the squeeze on his restarts.
When the team found themselves a man down and trailing by two points, they were quite comfortable with the idea of winning the ball back high up the field.
That mindset was there from the start so when Armagh tried to play keep-ball, you felt that if we saw any sign of weakness from them, Cavan could pounce and win a turnover.
Pressing isn’t just about pressure on the man in possession. It’s about pressing the spaces between men looking to receive the next pass, and when the ball goes backwards closing down the space to the next player higher up the field.
It’s a collective effort as it doesn’t really work unless everybody commits to doing it. The goal is to out-number the opposition in a certain area of the field.
The principles cavan worked on for their zonal press on the Armagh kick-out translated into open play during the last ten minutes of normal time and into the last five minutes of extra time.
Prior to Cian Mackey's third equaliser, which came off a turnover from a high press Cavan executed in open play, we had Paul Graham almost winning a turn over out on the sideline and, and Stephen Murray almost forcing a turnover for Gearoid Mckiernan to pick up in front of the stand.
When Conor Madden ran back on to the field for Oisin Kiernan, the first thing he did from open play was look around him to see where he should go to apply pressure high up the field.
And it wasn’t towards the ball which was played back to the hands of goalkeeper Blaine Hughes. But once Hughes tried to change the direction of the attack with his next pass to a defender, everyone flooded up the field to close down space.
Next thing a sloppy pass gets thrown to corner-back James Morgan and Cavan were ready to pounce. I’ll be honest, I absolutely loved it.
I find pressing to be the most enthralling aspect of Gaelic football, and it’s completely in its infancy as a tactic and strategy.
Sides are barely scratching the surface of what is possible when you have a well worked plan to coherently press the opposition.
For the most part it is sporadic but that could all be about to change over the next few years. As for the next day out, well the two management teams will have to decide whether to stick or twist.
Both sides will have liked parts of what they saw from their respective camps but it wasn’t enough to get the job done.
More than likely the side who can evolve their game plan ever so slightly will emerge as winner, but you never know, maybe one team will completely change their approach to catch the other one out. Whoever eventually emerges will be well prepared for what lies ahead in the Ulster final.
I still think Cavan will prevail if they can keep their discipline, and if they can avoid red and black cards. So with that in mind I’m going to stick with my prediction from last week.
Verdict: Cavan by 3