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Analysis: What does Joe Canning bring to Galway's game from centre-forward?

Eddie Brennan and David Collins give their views on the Portumna star’s resurgance at 11.

GALWAY OPEN THEIR championship campaign against Dublin in Tullamore on Sunday, but find themsevlves in unfamilar waters.

Micheal Donoghue’s men are 10/3 favourites with the bookies to go all the way in September, even though they haven’t lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1988.

Galway's Joe Canning with captain David Burke celebrate winning the Division 1 trophy Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

On current form, Galway deserve to be ranked as the frontrunners, although must be said this is as open an All-Ireland hurling championship as we’ve had in some time.

The demolition job they did on Tipperary in the league final last month made people sit up and take notice. In his second year in charge, all the evidence suggests Donoghue has this team primed for a tilt at the big one.

A major boost for the Connacht side this season has been the positioning of Joe Canning at centre-forward. One of the most scrutinised players in the country, the knock on Galway in the past has often surrounded Canning’s positioning in their attack.

Perhaps it’s because of their size, but Aidan O’Shea and Michael Murphy are two other inter-county stars who were subject to intense speculation over their best position on the field.

Aidan O'Shea exchanges words with Michael Murphy at the final whistle Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Since he returned to action in the maroon jersey this year, Canning has been shifted to centre-forward and it’s paying dividends so far. Donoghue is blessed with serious firepower in his attack, meaning he can afford to place Canning further out the field.

Inside forwards Jason Flynn and Conor Whelan posted 2-6 between them from play against Tipperary in the league final, while Canning pulled the strings further out the field. He was flanked on the half-forward line by Cathal Mannion and Joseph Cooney, both imposing ball winners with an eye for goal.

Conor Cooney missed the league final with an injury after scoring 1-4 from play in the semi-final. His return will add another major threat to the Tribe attack.

Conor Whelan with James Barry Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Canning has featured at 11 at various points during his career, but this year the Portumna sharpshooter is a permant fixture in the role. He no longer has to shoulder the burden of putting up big scores from play, and appears to be hurling with more freedom and energy.

“I think the pressure is gone off Joe,” explains his former teammate David Collins.

“If you looked at him years ago, everything was, ‘Give it to Joe. Give a long ball to Joe. Find him.’ And now that responsibility is taken off him, he’s free to hurl. And he looks like he’s enjoying it. His conditioning is fantastic. He’s in fantastic physical shape.

“Joe’s ability to read and dictate the game at centre-forward could be the key winning factor.”

But what exactly does he offer Galway from centre-forward?

Joe Canning Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Positioning

“I wouldn’t fancy being a centre-back standing on top of him,” continues Collins. “He drifts out and he plays the game against Ronan Maher the last day perfectly. He drifted out, got the loose ball and distributed.”

Canning loves to drop deep or wide and that leaves the centre-back a major dilemma. Do you follow him out the field and leave a big hole at the back, or let him roam and allow him to pick off scores from deep?

In the league final against Tipperary, we can see how Canning dropped to midfield and caused them problems from deep.

In the clip below, Premier centre-back Ronan Maher isn’t tight enough as Canning collects the sliotar in midfield and slots over a score from distance.

3 Source: TG4

“He has hurling intelligence, and that’s something that I really love to see in a player,” says former Kilkenny poacher Eddie Brennan. “He’s a fella with good on field awareness.

“They see things happening around them. They mightn’t be the biggest or the fastest, but their hurling brain, and if it’s in the wrists as well. That’s what will get them out of trouble.

“Sometimes it’s just that little clever flick out to somebody in space. And Joe Canning has that.”

When the ball is being worked out of the Galway defence, Canning likes to pull wide and give his backs an easy outlet ball. In the example below he collects a short clearance and a dangerous delivery into the full-forward line but it doesn’t quite come off.

4 Source: TG4

“He kind of floats in around the middle as well, and I have seen him a few times pick up ball in his own half back line and pick that pass,” continued Brennan.

“To me sometimes someone that has played in the full forward line and goes out the field knows the type of ball (the forwards want).

“Cha Fitz was the example, played all his career underage in the forward line, and I loved when Cha was midfield. He would know where to put the ball for you, preferably put it across a defence and I think Canning does that.”

It’s very tempting for the centre-back to follow the 27-year-old out the field, which leaves oceans of space in front of the dangerous Galway full-forward line.

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Puck-outs

Galway targetted Canning with nine puckouts against Tipperary at Semple Stadium, and his presence on the half-forward line gives Colm Callanan a major outlet from restarts.

Donoghue’s teamalso pulled out a number of interesting restarts off the training ground.

In the instance below, left-half forward Joseph Cooney runs into the middle channel, leaving a huge gap on the wing for Canning to move into and contest the puck-out.

5 Source: TG4

This may be a tactic we see again before the end of the summer.

Sidelines

He has long been renowned for his ability to curl over sidelines from long distance, but Canning can also set up scoring chances by going short.

Here are examples of two well-worked sidelines in the second-half, the second of which produced a score.

6 Source: TG4

Watch Canning’s head tilt to the left before he hits the ball, clearly indicating to midfielder David Burke to make a run forward.

Canning pops the sideline perfectly into the path of Burke who splits the posts.

7 Source: TG4

“I think it’s experience and getting smarter,” adds Collins. “He’s 27 and when you were a young lad, everything is rosy and it’s all good. Now, he’s going on 28, he has to win an All-Ireland. This is his peak. David Burke is the same way. Those are leaders, those guys are key to it.”

After returning from a hamstring injury which threatened to end his career, Canning has thrived since he made his comeback against Wexford in February.

He scored 3-47 in six games while acting as a creative force from 11. Galway’s young forwards are motoring around him and putting up big scores. It all bodes well for their chances of September glory.

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Kevin O'Brien

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