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Donegal v Down: where the Ulster SFC final will be won and lost

Donegal have a shot at their first ever back to back Ulster titles on Sunday but they’ll have to beat Down to do it. Emmet Ryan looks at the strategic factors that will decide the outcome.

Reproduced with permission from Action81

Down’s identity issues

Down’s blanket defence has evolved since 2010 but it remains worryingly suspect. Much like Wexford, this is a team with its core strengths up front. Down however have tried to build their game around a defensive system, looking to break from there. The problem is that the system simply doesn’t suit the resources at their disposal.

Down can drop deep but suffered significant issues against Cork and Monaghan when they did so. It was only in the second half of the Monaghan game that we truly saw where the Mourne men’s strategic strengths lay.

The Mourne Men were forced into going after Monaghan in the second half, they had no choice to commit to attack. When they did it turned out they were rather good at it. While they may not have moved in waves, Down’s backs looked far more comfortable joining the attack than their forwards did dropping back.

The concern for Down is that a switch to such a cavalier approach could see them punished severely by Donegal on the counter but this ignores a larger point. Does anyone believe Down can out-defend Jim McGuinness’ unit? If Down are to stand any chance of springing an upset, they must press high early and challenge Donegal’s defence to dominate them in numbers.

Donegal’s controlled attack

The evolved role enjoyed by Michael Murphy was first witnessed in the league tie with Cork back in March. Sitting just in front of midfield, with the option to move closer to goal where appropriate, Murphy conducts Donegal’s attack. With 44 of 75 chances converted over three games according to stats site Dontfoul, a scoring rate of 59 percent, Donegal are efficient on paper albeit not outstandingly so. More impressive is the number of quality chances they create. McGuinness’ charges are 16 of 21 from dead balls, largely because they win frees in advantageous positions. Against Tyrone, Donegal’s frees were 19m from goal on average compared to 43m for Mickey Harte’s charges.

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The middle third

Donegal’s improved passing game at the back has enabled the likes of Frank McGlynn to get involved in the attack. The quick hand-passing game inside Donegal’s territory tends to give way to a more mixed approach as they transition into attack. Down’s challenge will be to slow the transition from defence into the middle third. Tyrone’s decision to use their forwards in tackling-first roles likely won’t work for a Down side looking to create chances at speed. Instead they will need to challenge Donegal with defenders further up-field. The impact of the loss of Neil Gallagher, through injury, and his contribution in transition can’t be understated. Aside from being an effective ball-winner, Gallagher has shown solid positioning at the back and has created several scores already this season.

Donegal’s 45-45 game adapted well in the second half against Tyrone by playing deeper. This saw Tyrone kept scoreless for 31 minutes. Down’s challenge in avoiding a similar fate will require quick ball-movement in order to find some space to exploit, a rare commodity in the modern game. This will present a difficult balancing act as on one hand ball will need to be played at speed but, as we saw in the first half of Sunday’s Connacht Final, over-cooking quick ball favours the defence almost every time.

The verdict

Donegal enter this game as favourites with good reason. Down have blown hot and cold in attack this season. When faced with physically intimidating opposition, such as Cork, they have been at a substantial disadvantage. Defensively Donegal look as sharp as the unit that tormented all before them in 2011. Up front they have honed their game to become more effective at creating high percentage chances. Down on the other hand have substantial depth issues and rely on scoring flurries a little too much to sustain them over a single summer. The bookies have set the handicap at 4 points, Donegal look good for that.

Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.

Read more at Action81

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Emmet Ryan

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