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Analysis: How Austin Gleeson and Waterford finally broke down Clare

All-Ireland winning captain Tommy Dunne dissects Waterford’s impressive victory over Clare in Thurles.

AS PART OF our 2016 Hurling championship coverage, we’ve enlisted the expertise of Tipperary’s 2001 All-Ireland winning captain and former team coach Tommy Dunne. 

Tommy has joined The42 for the summer and in his second column, he takes a closer look at Waterford’s victory over Clare in yesterday’s Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium.

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WHY DO YOU think Waterford were on a recent training camp at Fota Island? They holed themselves up in the Cork resort to put together a plan that ultimately proved successful yesterday. Sometimes, when you’re analysing another team, there’s a danger that you can place too much emphasis on them.

But Waterford showed a brilliant ability to analyse the league final defeat and how effective Clare were on the day.

Not only did they absorb those lessons, they came up with their own game-plan to counteract Clare, while at the same time making themselves better.

They weren’t just interested in cancelling out Clare’s influential players, they also came up with something to better themselves.

The Austin Gleeson influence

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Austin Gleeson is an incredible player. Yesterday’s performance highlighted his all-round ability.

How many players do you know of that can start in the full-forward line and end up in the half-back line, having played almost everywhere in between, and hit five points from play in a championship encounter?

You’re looking at a unique player here; even when he’s in a defensive position, he’s not asked to play as an out-and-out defender.

Of course, Gleeson will be one of the first to acknowledge the contribution of his team-mates to the overall cause and a brilliant early example of Waterford’s work-rate was Pauric Mahony’s brilliant flick to dispossess David Fitzgerald, which led to Gleeson’s opening point of the game.

Mahony flick Pauric Mahony flicks the ball away from David Fitzgerald, allowing Austin Gleeson to point in the first minute.

In that passage of play, the tone was set right from the start.

How Waterford dealt with Clare’s danger men

For Clare to be really effective, they rely heavily on Tony Kelly, Conor McGrath, Shane O’Donnell, and even Darach Honan, to fire.

John Conlon is slightly different in that they use him as an out-and-out ball-winner and he doesn’t penetrate from deep.

But Kelly and McGrath, particularly, are most effective when probing from deeper positions.

Waterford kept them at bay all afternoon and when they got inside, there was so much pressure applied that they couldn’t really affect the game.

Despite his tour de force in the league final replay, Kelly only managed a point from play yesterday.

Even then, he was under so much pressure to get it.

In this first picture below, Kelly gains possession around midfield in plenty of space.

kelly fives

As he moves forward, Darragh Fives hassles Kelly and forces him towards the right touchline.

Kelly manages to get a shot away off his right side. It wasn’t his cleanest strike either, due to the pressure being applied by Fives.

Here, in this cameo moment, we saw how Waterford had learned from the league final replay. Remember the winning point that Kelly scored, from an almost identical position?

Back then, Kelly had more room in which to operate but that space was brilliantly shut down by Waterford four weeks on. Kelly did score the point but it scraped over the bar via Stephen O’Keeffe’s hurl, a real contrast to the beautiful score he lofted over to settle the league decider.

Waterford’s key men

There are plenty of them — Gleeson, Kevin Moran, Darragh Fives and Philip Mahony were the pick of the bunch yesterday.

Gleeson, who I’ve already discussed, was the difference between winning and losing the game and his influence on the game was critical.

He started in the full-forward line and this was a crucial Waterford move which threw Clare completely from the start.

In the picture below, you can see the three-man inside line when Tadhg de Búrca’s long ball is launched towards the Clare goalmouth.

Waterford are still outnumbered by three players to five, when you include Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly, but their will is greater and within seconds, the ball is in the back of the net via Maurice Shanahan, who applied pressure on Fitzgerald.

From a Clare perspective, it should have been an easy ball to defend but Waterford had three men in there and that made it more difficult.

As the game developed, Gleeson dropped deeper into the half-forward line, midfield, and the half-back line. His role was so hard to pin down and that made it difficult for Clare to dedicate one man to pick him, even if they wanted to.

Waterford set a trend early on, letting Clare know that they were going to keep them guessing.

Five points from play, and that crucial sideline cut in the second half, was a phenomenal haul from Gleeson. The interesting point about him is that not every player can operate in almost any position.

Austin Gleeson takes a sideline cut Austin Gleeson was the difference between winning and losing. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

You’ll see some players who can play wing-back and centre-back, maybe wing-back and midfield, or midfield and half-forward. But it’s very unusual to see a guy playing in so many different areas of the pitch — and being so effective. To score five points from play while doing that is incredible.

Gleeson is Waterford’s ace in the pack in that regard and his performance mirrored that of Kelly in the league final replay.

Some had predicted that Waterford would man-mark Kelly but they didn’t. Instead, Waterford opted to mark Kelly zonally. In other words, whichever Waterford player was operating in the zone that Kelly entered at any particular time picked him up.

In hindsight, I wonder if Clare feel they should have man-marked Gleeson. If Davy Fitzgerald opted for somebody to track him all over the pitch, I don’t think Gleeson would have had as many shots at goal as he did.

Moran was brilliant, too. In the second half, he made 11 plays, scored two points and created two more, according to journalist Christy O’Connor’s stats. And what about Shanahan? He scored 1-2 from nine plays, won three frees and set up a point for Moran.

How Clare’s shape broke down in the second half

Clare midfielder Colm Galvin admitted after the game that they lost their shape completely in the second half.

Your shape is determined by how much ball you’re winning around the pitch, for a start.

So if you look at Clare’s main players — Kelly, McGrath, Honan, O’Donnell and Conlon up front — they had very little influence on the game.

Between them, Kelly and McGrath contributed 10 wides but as the game wore on, their influence diminished completely.

Shane O'Donnell and Barry Coughlan Shane O'Donnell attempts to wriggle clear of Barry Coughlan. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Therefore, it’s very difficult to have any sort of shape or pattern to your play when your main players are not influencing the game.

Kelly played very deep yesterday. I know he plays deep a lot and comes with those runs from deep but he was too far back to be effective.

He did make some tremendous runs in the first half but it’s very hard to stay doing that for the full 70 minutes.

Because Waterford got the lead early on, the game was played completely on their terms and Clare had no room or time to manoeuvre.

Clare opted to go with much shorter puck-outs in the second half, as their first-half stats indicated that they were struggling on the long ones, but even with primary possession, they still couldn’t work the ball through any sort of space in midfield.

They were launching 60 or 70-yard deliveries into the clouds and hoping that Conlon would get his hands on them. That’s what they were reduced to and there wasn’t any sort of effective alternative.

They didn’t revert to a conventional shape and as a result, they had no shape whatsoever.

Clare’s shooting woes

Clare had some bad misses from placed balls, frees and 65s, but they were also forced into hurried shots.

Waterford were applying maximum pressure on the shooter and I took a closer look at the last 12 minutes of normal time, and four minutes added on for stoppages, to explain how they managed to close out the game.

In that time, Clare had just four shots on goal, an average of one every four minutes at a time when they were chasing the match. Conor Cleary boomed one wide from inside his own half, Cathal O’Connell shot two points (one a free) and David McInerney went for goal late on with a 20m free.

Breaking that down further, in the last 16 minutes of playing time, Clare had two shots at goal from play.

That’s brilliant work from a Waterford perspective as they comfortably kept their opponents at bay.

In that period, the game got very scrappy and it suited Waterford perfectly. There was time wasted when Gleeson went down off the ball, there were four sideline balls and it was also noticeable that Waterford players came out of three big rucks in that time with clean possession.

In this particular example, it’s anybody’s ball as four Clare and four Waterford players compete for possession.

But here, as you can see, it’s one of Waterford’s unsung heroes, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, who emerges with the ball.

This was a feature of their game, that desire to win those rucks, but the key point that I want to make here too is that Waterford’s game is absolutely brilliant in the area where the opposition is posing a threat to their goal.

The further away from goal the opposition is, the less pressure Waterford exert. But the moment the ball comes into a danger area, from midfield up, it’s almost as if the Waterford antennae go up. They’re all over their opponents then, flooding into tackles and putting massive pressure on the man in possession.

Here, we see McGrath, just a split second after losing possession, with three Waterford players on hand to hoover up the loose ball.

And here’s another example, when O’Donnell (grounded) is surrounded by four Waterford players close to the Killinan End goal-line.

The ball eventually dribbles wide for a Waterford puck-out and the danger is averted.

Here, we see O’Donnell coming under intense pressure again from three Waterford defenders.

o'donnell 2

David Reidy had that early goal chance for Clare but how many clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities did they create after that? Not one.

That’s not a fluke either with Waterford, it’s happening most days. They’re top class defensively and while they’re playing with plenty of men behind the ball, their first guy into the tackle is very strong.

Going back to that final 16 minutes of playing time, Waterford outscored Clare by 0-4 to 0-2. Waterford were still playing with only Shanahan inside the 45m line but still managed to close the game out comfortably.

What was so good about Waterford yesterday, and what was different from that league final replay defeat, was that when they got their noses in front this time, they didn’t let up.

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