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Analysis: Cork's made defensive changes and outsourced their issue

Sean Flynn looks at how Cork have reacted to last year’s All-Ireland final and the unintended consequences.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

FROM WATCHING THEIR set-up in 2022, it is very clear that Cork’s management analysed their All-Ireland final loss to Limerick and prioritised defensive improvements to close the gap. 

It should be said, despite the two losses in the Championship, the changes that Cork implemented to protect their full backline and inside their own 45-metre line have worked.

The issue from the All-Ireland final was how open Cork were in defence and the number of shots they were conceding from inside their 45-metre line. That game saw Limerick hit 35 shots inside the Cork 45. The likes of Peter Casey, Seamus Flanagan and Aaron Gillane had a huge influence in the game with 32 shot involvements.

Flanagan assisted 10 scores, Gillane scored 1-3 (6) from play while Casey registered 0-5 from play before his cruciate ligament injury. Limerick’s starting full-forward line and Cian Lynch’s tour de force in that game left a lasting impression on Cork’s management. They needed to act. 

Some credit for Cork against Limerick in 2022

After conceding 35 shots inside their 45-metre line the previous August, the Cork management and players implemented a strategy which saw them improve their defence inside the 45-metre line and only concede 19 shots in their 2022 Limerick loss. 

What was the issue and what changed?

An example of Cork’s openness inside their 45-metre line was Aaron Gillane’s goal in the 2021 All Ireland final. It started with a Limerick puck-out which saw Niall O Leary follow Peter Casey into the half-forward line. This left a 2 v 2 inside the Cork 45.

Nickie Quaid finds Diarmuid Byrnes with a restart and the half-back immediately deliver’s possession over all the traffic in the middle third of the pitch into the space created. 

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In 2021 Kieran Kingston used Mark Coleman at six in various ways. One of these was allow him to sweep across their half-back line. The Blarney man would allow the opposition centre forward to drift deep down the field. Coleman would then engage the opposition’s 11 if the player came back into the Cork half when the opposition were in possession.

Also, when the play allowed him to, Coleman would place himself inside the Cork 45 as a plus one. However, the time afforded to Limerick in the middle third of the pitch allowed them to bypass the Cork centre-back.

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Sitting deep and handovers in 2022

In 2022, Cork decided that the second the opposition were in possession in their own half of the pitch, Mark Coleman would bolt back into the area of the D and protect his full back-line.

The centre back tried to read what side of the pitch the delivery was going to come from and get in front of Gillane, Hayes and Mulcahy. This meant that a midfielder would have to cover the opposition’s 11 and the half-forward line would need to funnel into the middle to take away any plus one for the opposition in this half of the pitch.

Ger Millerick was the main man to receive the handover of the opposition’s centre forward from Coleman. It also meant huge duress needed to be applied by Cork in the middle third to pressure the deliveries and make them more readable for Coleman.

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This tactic worked

In terms of taking out the influence of the starting Limerick full-forward line in the game, it did have an effect in comparison to the All-Ireland final. 

If we compare the influence of the Limerick full-forward line and Cian Lynch in both games, Cork managed to curb their influence in some way to 19 shot involvements. The previous August the players in this aera of the field generated 49 shot involvements. 

shot involvements

shot involvements 22

Have Cork just outsourced their defensive issues further out the pitch?

Protecting the area around their full-back line and covering the opposition’s centre forward has resulted in Cork outscoring their defensive issue further out the pitch. When analysing Cork’s other games against teams other than Limerick, the concession of shots inside the 45-yard line has not been a major issue.

45 metre line cork

In Cork’s opening two games, the opposition’s half-forward line, midfield and half-back line have had a massive influence. Cork have become passive at times in their half-back line and suffered from the opposition having a plus one in this area.

The passiveness of the Cork half-back line can be seen alone in the score return of the opposition’s starting players who operated in the middle third.

scores from play

Passiveness in the middle third

The easy narrative to roll out is that the Cork backs are soft and do not want to defend. While Kyle Hayes’s goal this year can bolster that narrative, I would challenge anyone to stand behind the goals at a Cork game because what you will see is the Rebels defenders being physical with their opponent before the ball is being pucked out long by the opposition’s goalkeeper.

The issue arrives when individuals in the defence need to push up on their player and go toe to toe when the ball is in play.

An example of this is Gearoid Hegarty’s point against Cork when the Limerick half-forward line overloaded one side of the defence and Tim O’Mahony correctly held the centre so he could cut off any long puck-out to the side where the space was created.

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When the ball is in play, it is time for the Cork defenders to push up tight on the Limerick half-forward and worry about what is going on in front of them. Hegarty can drift across the pitch untouched and be picked out by Finn with an excellent stick pass as there is no aggressive press on his run by the Cork defence.

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Opposition recycling the ball to the extra players

With Cork dropping their centre back into the area in front of their goal during play, the Rebels are leaving teams with an extra player to target which often gives teams a platform to deliver possession or a have a shot at goal.

With Ger Millerick covering huge ground in the Cork half-back line, there is an expectation on the Cork half-forwards to track back and cover the opposition’s spare player. This needs wing forwards reading the play and identifying when the opposition are going to have a spare player. This issue can be seen in the lead up to Cathal Malone’s score in the first half against Clare.

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Cork’s downfall

The Rebels have worked on and are trying to implement a defensive system when they are out of possession, but they also have defensive issues when they have possession in the backline. One issue for Kingston’s team is that they concede a similar type of goal in games.

This stems from the way their backs are trying to show up for each other as an option for a pass. This is an admirable quality and it allows Cork defenders have an option. A lot of teams around the country would like to instil a similar ability into their team.

But the consequence is that at times it occurs at the expense of minding the area in front of the goal. The exact same area they seem obsessed with and try to protect when they are out of possession.

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Aaron Gillane’s goal against Cork highlighted this abandonment of the defensive duties by the Rebels as players bolted out to take possession from Mark Coleman. The Patrickswell man was left on his own at the right edge of the D. A turnover of possession by the Limerick forwards left the Cork defence vulnerable and there was no hope of any effective recovery run to cover the danger.

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Where can Cork go?

For years people have bemoaned Cork’s neglect of their defensive duties. Now they are trying to adjust their frailties and still onlookers complain and criticise. It may take time for Cork to sort their defensive woes but there is hope with players like Niall O’Leary, Seán O’Donoghue and Ciarán Joyce to call on.

In Ger Millerick they have someone not usually associated with a ‘Cork player’. Particularly his off the ball work. How he covers the ground during games and his ability to take handovers of opposition players from his own players are qualities every inter-county manager looks for.

The Myth of Cork’s Lack of Work Rate

I hear pundits and fans on various media platforms bemoan the lack of work rate amongst this Cork team. This is an easy narrative to spout but in their loss to Clare in Semple Stadium, the Rebels generated 2-11 (17) from turnovers, while Clare generated 0-15.

These are not the numbers of a team who were going around Thurles waving the white flag after 15 minutes.

People’s eyes are not deceiving them and there are times that Cork let the opposition teams exit out of their defence at ease or do not stay in the middle third tackle race. However, this can be down to tackle technique and the set-up of their forwards. Teams can hit 100 tackles every game but it’s the technique and timing that matters the most.

The Cork forwards do not generate many scores from turnovers in the opposition’s half of the pitch and this is what people see and pick up on in games. The truth is, not many other teams do.

In Cork’s 2021 championship run they generated 0-7 points from turnovers in the opposition’s half of the pitch. Waterford, who are the being held up as the contenders to this Limerick are no different.

In their 2020 season Liam Cahill’s men generated 1-6 (9) from turnovers in this area and in 2021 they generated 1-7 (10).

These numbers can be misleading too, and it depends on a team’s playing style. But if we look at the last 3 All Ireland winning teams a big feature of their play is their ability to generate scores from turning over the opposition in their half of the pitch.

turnovers (600 × 250 px)

 Trust

The current playing squad has players who were very close to winning an epic All Ireland semi-final against Limerick in 2018. They lost last year’s final. Their underage teams have contested and won All Irelands.

The talent is there in the county. One issue could be trust and how this influences the way Cork play. There is nearly an acceptance that they are unable to win long puck-outs or win 50/50 deliveries from their backline.

This can result in a team losing its edge or the belief that they are tough group of individuals who go to battle every time they take the pitch.

If Cork trust the players and demand that they are able to contest and win breaks, they don’t need to over-elaborate in their defence or on their puck-outs. Forwards also feed off this as they believe their management trusts them to be dogged and secure possession.

Players need to feel like they are trusted to battle within a system that suits the team.

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