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Analysis: Waterford's attacking threat, war in the skies and spare man dilemma against Kilkenny

All-Ireland winning captain Tommy Dunne dissects Waterford and Kilkenny’s thrilling All-Ireland semi-final stalemate at Croke Park.

Overview

This was worth waiting for. An outstanding game of hurling that delivered in so many ways.

It was full of quality from start to finish, from both teams. For Waterford to have a chance, they really couldn’t stay with what they were doing up to now, using that ultra-defensive style.

What I liked about them, and I’ll go into this in more detail, is that they committed to attacking the game from the very word go. In fact, they showed absolute commitment to attacking Kilkenny.

They started with three players in the inside line and played the majority of the game with two in there, bar the last seven or eight minutes.

When they did that, they had Kilkenny in all sorts of trouble and if Waterford had won this game by a point, I don’t think you would have found too many people saying that they didn’t deserve it, including fans of Kilkenny.

Waterford probably played the better hurling throughout the match and were very convincing in terms of what they were doing. Some of their individual performances were remarkable – Austin Gleeson, Pauric Mahony, Kevin Moran, Tadhg de Búrca, Stephen O’Keeffe, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, Jamie Barron.

And still, there’s that niggle in the minds of observers that their chance has passed.

They played so well on the day and couldn’t beat Kilkenny so where exactly does that leave them? We will have to wait and see but I do think the replay venue, Semple Stadium, is a plus for Waterford.

They have shown remarkable skill and character to bounce back from the heavy Tipp defeat to come with a performance like this and I suspect they’re utterly of the belief that they can beat Kilkenny, provided they can come with another huge performance.

Of course, the question is, can they in such a short space of time? The reality is that Kilkenny are the ones who will feel they have a second chance and have more scope for improvement.

Waterford’s commitment to attack

As stated in my introduction, Waterford committed to genuinely posing an attacking threat from the word go.

I’ve pinpointed a couple of early examples where they have a serious presence close to the Kilkenny goal.

Here, in the 14th minute of the game, you can see five Waterford forwards in and around the Kilkenny D:

This came from a long Stephen O’Keeffe free, and the breaking ball led to an Austin Gleeson point.

Less than a minute later, Waterford have four players committed to attack around the D, when Shane Bennett breaks through:

A score didn’t come from this, as Jake Dillon shot wide, but you could see from very early in the game that Waterford had a significant presence in this area of the pitch, which identified to me that they were going with a policy of getting players there as often as possible.

I was standing on Hill 16 watching the game and I can vouch for this. My vantage point offered me a great view of the field and Waterford’s movement was excellent in dangerous positions.

Their off-the-ball work was good, they were constantly probing and looking for ways to attack Kilkenny and crucially, they had enough numbers to do it.

Later in the half, in the 21st minute, I felt that Waterford had legitimate claims for a penalty, something that hasn’t been picked up on in the post-match analysis I’ve seen to date.

In the Nally Stand corner, Joey Holden went to the ball but it was stolen away from the Kilkenny man.

Shane Bennett moved in along the end-line towards goal and while some people may wonder why he didn’t improvise by batting the ball or kicking it, Holden actually fouls him with his right hand.

Have a look here at the incident from the regular camera angle first:

Holden’s offence might not be clear to the naked eye on first viewing but when we zoom in on the incident in the replay, it’s far more apparent:

It was a crucial moment because when Kilkenny clear the ball, Richie Hogan finds himself in acres of space inside his own half on the Cusack Stand side of the field, and fires over his fourth point of the game.

Still, this was another example of Waterford’s commitment to attack and a higher goal threat.

In general terms, I must tip my hat to manager Derek McGrath and his Waterford players to have the skill and courage to go for it. A lot of people, myself included, felt they wouldn’t change from what they were doing all year but they did, and in mid-season in a huge game.

Even into the second half, Waterford continued to attack. How many times this year have we seen when a ball goes inside the 45m line, maybe just one of their players in there?

But this time, there are three Waterford players in and around the dropping ball:

The break led to Kevin Moran’s goal chance but above, we saw three Waterford forwards in a significantly advanced area of the field, 35-40m from the Kilkenny goal, with intent.

They were there to do something and a goal opportunity came from it.

Waterford’s aerial ability

Waterford were excellent under the high ball throughout the game, and that’s a facet of the game that’s so important against Kilkenny.

The Cats were really strong too but Waterford did some really good work under dropping balls and puck-outs – and I’ve highlighted a few examples to illustrate my point.

Here, we see ‘Brick’ Walsh rising above Shane Prendergast to touch the ball down from a Stephen O’Keeffe puck-out:

In this next picture, I’ve taken the same screenshot to illustrate what happens next.

From Walsh’s knockdown, Colin Dunford (blue circle) picked up possession and played a pass to the eventual point-scorer, Pauric Mahony (purple circle).

Simple but very effective from Waterford:

In the 23rd minute of the game, Austin Gleeson rises highest to execute a clean catch against Padraig Walsh, no slouch in the aerial stakes himself:

The end result is a point for Waterford and in the next picture to follow, Gleeson (blue circle) is involved again early in the second half, profiting from the break and scoring the point after Shane Bennett (white circle) contested another aerial ball:

I could go on and on here. Kevin Moran catches a Stephen O’Keeffe clearance over Cillian Buckley in the 29th minute:

Moran was fouled and Pauric Mahony pointed the resultant free but not content with that, Moran pulls off another spectacular fetch from Eoin Murphy’s re-start:

Kilkenny generally dominate teams in the air and they’re superb at winning the ball but Waterford were their equal yesterday.

Kilkenny themselves enjoyed good periods of aerial dominance and Padraig Walsh caught some serious ball and was one of their most influential players as the game wore on but the general point is that Waterford, successfully, went toe-to-toe with Kilkenny in the skies.

Another quick point to make is that Waterford had only two wides in the first half and that’s a serious improvement on their previous games. They also enjoyed huge midfield dominance in the first half, with Moran and Jamie Barron having the better of their duels with Michael Fennelly, a strangely subdued figure, and Conor Fogarty.

The Déise duo completely ran the show.

Stick or twist?

Tadhg de Búrca had a super game for Waterford but the issue when you’re playing at centre back, and this is a big part of the reason why teams look for that extra defensive cover, is that players like Richie Hogan, Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony, when they occupy the number 11 position, drop into very deep areas in the middle of the field.

They force the centre back to make a decision, and Richie is brilliant at it, as to whether their marker should track him or sit back. Clearly, Tadhg didn’t follow Richie and he hit four points from play in the first half. It was carbon copy stuff at the opposite end of the pitch, with Kieran Joyce and Gleeson.

The reason a centre back doesn’t go with his man is that he’s wary of leaving a big pocket of space in front of the full-back line. That becomes a very dangerous situation when you have sharp inside forwards latching onto ball coming into the right areas and at pace.

It’s almost impossible to defend and so you’ll see centre backs sitting deep in the pocket rather than marking their men out around the middle.

My view on it, as a coach, is that you have two choices, and in truth, probably just one.

My preference is that you detail somebody to actually pick up the likes of Richie, Pauric or Austin. Then, you have to decide who is your best option to pick up that guy outside of the centre back position.

Often, you might withdraw a corner forward to the middle of the field, put him in place of a midfielder and ask an original midfielder to track the floating player.

Of else you can leave it a bit more vague and ask one of the midfielders to keep an eye on his own man while also sticking close to the roving players as well. But that’s nearly impossible because you can’t mark two men.

Yesterday, none of that happened and the players I’ve referenced were left loose to roam, pick up ball and shoot and score from all angles and all distances.

The game was a bit loose in this regard but it’s a difficult one for a coach and a team to adapt to.

When the likes of Richie comes out the field and hits a point from distance, it’s almost forcing you to do something even though you don’t want to.

The conundrum for Waterford is that they were playing well and if you’re on the sideline, you’re watching your team going point for point and better and you’re thinking that it’s perhaps best to leave things alone and hope that a period arrives when Richie is not on the ball. Or do you make one or two positional changes to mark Richie? It’s a real dilemma.

From that Waterford goal chance, when I felt Shane Bennett was fouled, the ball is cleared and Richie Hogan finds himself in acres of space on the Cusack Stand side, from Paul Murphy’s pass:

As Richie’s point floats towards the goal, I’ve picked out de Búrca’s position, his direct marker, who’s on his own 20m line, maybe 60 yards from where Richie was:

It’s a real catch 22 situation for Waterford because while Richie has the ball inside his own half, there’s not a goal opportunity on from there.

Of course, he’s capable of putting the ball over the bar and that’s damage in itself but Tadhg, at this stage, is operating as a shield in front of the Waterford full-back line.

So, if Richie doesn’t put the ball over the bar, it’s going into an area where Waterford have the extra man, with Tadhg sitting deep. From a Waterford viewpoint, it’s the lesser of two evils but still not ideal.

Waterford’s relentless pressure

As early as the sixth minute, Waterford forced a turnover from Walter Walsh, and the end result was a point.

In the first picture, Walsh has a bit of room to work with as he picks up possession:

But he decides to venture across the pitch and is soon swallowed up by Shane Bennett (11) and Austin Gleeson, leading to the turnover and a Mahony score:

This was a good example of Waterford working extremely hard up front but defensively, they were all over Kilkenny too.

Here’s Noel Connors in the 34th minute, perfectly positioned against Jonjo Farrell to chase back and mop up:

Waterford were tight on their men and another good example was in the 32nd minute when TJ Reid gets out in front of Barry Coughlan initially:

But Waterford commit to the exchange, make things messy and eventually will clear their lines:

Overall, the Waterford defenders ensured that John Power and Jonjo Farrell’s influences on the game were minimal.

TJ didn’t score from play and while Walter Walsh and Colin Fennelly had fair games, Waterford’s defending was very good and Kilkenny had to work hard for many of their scores.

There’s phenomenal pressure here from three Waterford players as John Power is grounded:

Seconds later, Richie Hogan comes in for similar treatment:

Another lovely example here as Pauric Mahony hooks Kieran Joyce:

That passage of play led to an Austin Gleeson point and another critical one was when ‘Brick’ Walsh knocked TJ Reid out over the line in the 47th minute.

First, Brick lines up TJ with a legitimate, crunching tackle:

The end result is TJ being forced out over the line:

The result of that turnover was another Pauric Mahony point – and another score worked from savage pressure and intensity on Waterford’s behalf.

Conclusion

The vast majority of pundits will probably feel now that Kilkenny will dismiss Waterford at the second time of asking.

Can Waterford recapture those manic levels again, and quickly? And I’ve already mentioned that Kilkenny have the greater scope for improvement – and that’s not meant in a disrespectful way to Waterford. That’s just reality.

I just think that Waterford came with a performance that many people felt they weren’t capable of – and I believe they have the ability to surprise again.

Replays are different animals, we know that, and while Tipp played out of their skins in the 2014 All-Ireland final, we know what Kilkenny did at the second time of asking.

If you’re in the Waterford camp, you’ll know all about this and so you’re forewarned to a certain extent. But Waterford will have gained unbelievable confidence and belief from this performance.

They’re young and if they recover well during the week, they’ll be well ready to go again with the same energy levels. I don’t think they’re finished just yet.

People have spoken about the closing minutes of the game and one theory put forward is that Waterford didn’t have the belief to close the game out.

It’s hard to know what prompted them into bringing so many numbers back. That could well be an instinctive thing that can happen and I wouldn’t be overly critical of them but by doing that, it diminished their scoring threat up front.

One or two more points would probably have been enough to get them over the line and Kevin Moran’s point that was disallowed by HawkEye was probably the difference between victory and having to do it all over again.

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