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Croke Park staff prepare the stands ahead of the weekend's game.
Croke Park staff prepare the stands ahead of the weekend's game.
Image: INPHO/Donall Farmer

Donegal v Mayo: where the game will be won and lost this Sunday

Emmet Ryan breaks down the key areas that will decide the Sam Maguire’s destination this Sunday afternoon.
Sep 21st 2012, 2:01 PM 2,069 0

Reproduced with permission from Action 81

A JOURNEY THAT began in May ends in Croke Park this Sunday. Donegal and Mayo clash for the Sam Maguire. Emmet Ryan breaks down the tactical factors that will affect this game.

The 45-45 v man-isolation

These are two combatants built around their play in the middle third but with rather different ways of going about their business. The only real commonality is that neither prioritises primary ball-winning.

That aside, the battle is complicated.

Mayo’s man-isolation game is built around closing down opposing ball-carriers. This slows the momentum of attack while enabling James Horan’s side to force turnovers and counter quickly. Once ball is won, Mayo will face the challenge of getting through Donegal’s defence en route to the final third. The 45-45 established by Jim McGuinness initially gave the Ulster champions substantial cover at the back. In 2012 it has grown into also being an effective form of attack. By dictating the terms with which the ball enters either scoring zone, Donegal can dictate the tempo of the game. Against Mayo they face a side built around disrupting the flow of play and this could slow their breaks forward. Mayo’s half-forwards in particular will aim to slow Donegal’s moves into the middle third.

There is no more important contest in this game than that between the 45s. The diversity of the strategies means we can expect momentum to swing on several occasions over the course of the 70 minutes. Scoring for both sides is likely to come in bunches with little in the way of tit-for-tat.

Donegal’s attacking plan

The key evolution to Donegal’s game has been finding a way to increase their attacking potency without sacrificing their defensive strengths. A blended attack is key to this operation.

Michael Murphy will occupy a dual role of play-maker, just in front of midfield, and target man closer to goal. In the latter role he and Colm McFadden will look to draw fouls in favourable scoring range. This has aided Donegal in developing impressive rates of return, converting 59 percent of their shots this summer. To date only Kerry have been able to stop this strategy by playing off the man but this left the Kingdom open to Donegal’s other key threat; runs from deep. Much like Crossmaglen, McGuinness’ charges look to attack in waves with the priority being on getting a man open. With Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn capable of charging from deep, Donegal can open holes in organised back-lines for easy finishes. Add in the long range free-taking threats of McFadden and Murphy and you have one of the most unpredictable machines in the game.

Mayo must show variety up front

The most encouraging aspect of Mayo’s victory over Dublin was their ability to score without key men. The notable absentees were Andy Moran and Conor Mortimer. There were however key moments in attack where big-time contributors, most notably Aidan O’Shea, were off-key but the Connacht champions still found a way to score.

The success of Cillian O’Connor from long range against Dublin was vital to their progress. O’Connor must show the same efficiency again on Sunday as Mayo are unlikely to win many frees closer to goal. With creative forces such as Kevin McLoughlin and Alan Dillon on hand, Mayo have the potency in their starting XV to cause Donegal problems. It is imperative that Horan’s side use all of their options to press Donegal. The Ulster champions have the best organised defensive unit on the island, mixing single and double sweeper strategies to great effect. Only Down have managed to convert half their scoring attempts against Donegal, with opponents averaging returns of just 44 percent.

The verdict

Depth will play a huge factor in this game. Donegal’s strategy is built around maintaining their tempo for the full course of a contest. In 2011 they lacked the man-power to pull that off against Dublin. This year’s edition has notable strength on the bench, with David Walsh turning a couple of excellent displays in reserve. Critically McGuinness can substantially alter the way Donegal play by bringing out key men.

Neil Gallagher and Ryan Bradley have both been withdrawn during games so Donegal could adapt to the task at hand. Mayo for their part are not shallow but don’t have comparable talent on the bench. This year has seen the Connacht champions make significant strides forward but they still look a year behind Donegal in terms of refinement. They haven’t faced a defence of this calibre this season and their previous biggest test on this front,against Cork in the League Final, saw them out-muscled.

Those finishing touches should make the difference on Sunday. Donegal to win.

Tactics not Passion: The book

Tactics not Passion, the book, is now available to order. The book tells the story a year in tactics from Sam to Sam. Order your copy here.

Read more at Action 81

Michael Murphy: ‘Whatever perception people have of Donegal footballers, it is not something that bothers us’

Photos: Donegal fans show their colours ahead of All-Ireland decider

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Emmet Ryan

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