AFTER THE EARLY part of the GAA summer was dominated by hurling, it’s time for Gaelic football to take centre stage.
The inaugural season of the three-year Super 8s – officially known as the All-Ireland quarter-final series – kicks off this weekend with four huge games at Croke Park.
The Super 8s were introduced with the idea of bringing in a more competitive element to the All-Ireland quarter-final stage by having the big guns face one another and that’s what we’ll be treated to this weekend.
On Saturday at headquarters, Tyrone face Roscommon before Donegal take on Dublin. Sunday throws-up Kildare v Monaghan and Kerry v Galway.
Favourable qualifier draws meant the big teams – Mayo aside – were able to safely navigate their way to the last eight. Seven of the eight teams remaining in the hunt for Sam played in Division 1 this spring, while Roscommon will be part of the top flight in 2019.
All of the Super 8s teams are tactically astute with a very defined way of playing the game. Tyrone, Monaghan and Galway are brilliant counter-attacking teams who attempt to run the ball from deep with elite finishers up front.
Roscommon will defend with seven backs but look to kick-pass at every opportunity to a potent attack, Kildare are a powerful, balanced, athletic outfit with a tall midfield – but both leak scores at the back.
Kerry too have question marks defensively but also boast the most formidable full-forward line in the game and have added serious pace in the middle third. Dublin are the three-in-a-row champions, with no tangible weakness and they’ve a sophisticated attack that can unlock even the tightest of defences.
Above all, Dublin boast the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game. Stephen Cluxton makes them tick and provides an attacking platform through the speed and accuracy of his restarts.
The five-time All-Ireland winner set the benchmark for goalkeepers and transformed the way netminders all over the country are judged.
But what’s noticeable when you analyse the teams that made it to Super 8s is how each side have evolved their gameplans to suit their goalkeepers.
After his team beat Fermanagh in round 4 of the qualifiers last weekend, Cian O’Neill described his stopper Mark Donnellan as Kildare’s “quarter-back.” It makes sense and it’s indicative of how most inter-county teams now view their goalkeepers.
No longer there as solely a shot-stopper, the modern day goalkeeper must be able to help his team set-up attacks and retain possession through short, medium and long-distance kicks and even get involved in open play.
Retaining the ball is key and with 54% of all possessions in the inter-county game coming from kick-outs according to GAA statistician DontFoul, restarts are a fundamental part of any gameplan.
Kildare’s kick-out strategy has evolved to a point where Donnellan on occasion can go short to a corner-back and receive the pass back before moving forward with the ball.
In this example against Fermanagh, Kildare made use of their spare defender and retained possession by playing the ball back to Donnellan.
Donnellan was confident enough to carry the ball outfield before finding a free man and launching an attack.
The Lilywhites also worked short kick-outs with a set play where their defenders bunched in the central channel before breaking to the wings.
It left space for Donnellan to clip a ball to a free man – Eoin Doyle in this case. If the players who broke to the wings were not tracked by Fermanagh forwards, Donnellan would have been left with an easy pass to the wing.
“You can only do that if you have a goalkeeper who trusts his own ability with those kicks and Mark was fantastic in that regard today,” said O’Neill after the game.
If Donnellan is forced to go long, he has Kevin Feely, Tommy Moolick, the Cribbin brothers and Fergal Conway to aim for out the field.
The majority of the Super 8s teams will push up on the opposition kick-outs and try to force a 50/50 battle for possession in midfield. There’s a risk to pushing up and some teams, like the more defensively minded Tyrone, Galway and Monaghan, may opt to concede the restarts.
“We played Dublin in 2014 and for weeks and weeks and weeks you are debating that whether you should push up or not,” Jim McGuinness told The42 at recent NOW TV launch.
“We took them on and did well on their kick-out but when I say well we only won a handful of them against Stephen Cluxton but what we won we got a goal and two points off it. In terms of the numbers, the numbers are still incredibly high.”
If you do push up against a goalkeeper like Cluxton, Monaghan’s Rory Beggan or Donegal’s Shaun Patton, they are capable of picking you off with long-range passing and turning defence into attack within seconds.
“The risk is you push everybody up it goes over the top and a big midfielder like a David Moran or somebody wins it and bang one more pass and it is a straight run on goal,” continued McGuinness. “These top teams if they get a straight run on goal, the chances of it being a goal is probably 90%.”
Donegal have been masters at the ‘kick and flick’ tactic since the McGuinness-era, which is very effective when the opposition press high. Former League of Ireland goalkeeper Patton can accurately deliver the ball over a range of distances, so he’s happy to chip it to a corner-back when it’s on, or otherwise launch it into midfield.
Odhrán MacNiallais’s goal against Kerry in the league arrived after a booming kick to the middle was flicked on into his path. Kerry had pressed up on the kick-out leaving MacNiallais with open country to run into.
“It is high risk in that regard,” McGuinness said of the high press. “The lesser teams will say if we get that wrong we are going to concede two or three goals and if we concede two or three goals this game is over.
“So maybe we should just drop off and put everybody along the defensive 65 and give them the kick-out but force them into a situation where they got to break us all down. These are the debates.”
Cluxton has been a master sending an arrow into the path of his wing-forwards into for over a decade now, but Beggan is one of the pretenders to his crown.
On Sunday against Laois the Monaghan keeper kicked two frees and set-up three scores with his long-range kick-outs which cleared the Farney midfield.
In this example, he picked out the run of Ryan McAnespie who didn’t even need to break stride.
McAnespie collected possession, raced forward and fed Jack McCarron for an easy score.
Kerry are another who like to run set plays from Shane Murphy’s restarts. During the second-half of their Munster final victory against Cork, the Kerry defenders and midfielders bunched in the central channel as Murphy stood over a kick-out.
As he took his steps back, Murphy placed both his hands on his hips.
This was the signal to his teammates that the ball was going to the right.
By the time he stepped forward and struck the ball, Kerry had overloaded the right side of the field with players.
Peter Crowley (2) came away with possession and another Kerry attack was launched.
It’s a fascinating part of the game. Cluxton set the bar with Dublin, but the seven other counties left in the All-Ireland race have a goalkeeper with a range of passing and plays in their lockers.
Tyrone meet Roscommon in the Super 8s opener this evening at 5pm and both counties have taken their time before settling on a first-choice goalkeeper this season.
Tyrone rotated Niall Morgan and Michael O’Neill between the sticks this summer, with Morgan starting against Monaghan, Carlow and Cork, while O’Neill was selected against Meath and Cavan. Morgan retains his place for today’s clash.
In March, Diarmuid O’Keeffe stepped down from his role as Roscommon goalkeeping coach after a “difference of opinion” with manager Kevin McStay over the selection of their goalkeeper during the league.
Colm Lavin was between the posts for Roscommon’s opening two Division 2 games, before James Featherstone took over the role and started three games in succession – two league games and the FBD League final.
In between Featherstone’s second and third games, O’Keeffe departed.
“Declan has decided not to carry on with us, which is disappointing,” McStay said at the time. “We had great time and a lot of respect for him. He coaches the goalkeepers. We select the goalkeepers.
“There was a difference of opinion, which happens all the time. Declan was disappointed with our decision and, perhaps, the direction we were going regarding the goalkeeping position.”
O’Keeffe’s preferred choice Colm Lavin has since been restored as the Roscommon number one.
The importance placed on goalkeepers has never been higher, but despite the brilliance of the seven other goalkeepers, Cluxton remains the standard-bearer.
The Super 8s will give a little indication as to how close the others are to his throne.
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