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Analysis: How will Wexford try to shut down Tony Kelly?

Hurling analyst Sean Flynn breaks down how Darragh Egan might plan for Clare’s main man in today’s quarter-final.
Jun 18th 2022, 8:00 AM 13,745 3

WHEN WEXFORD PLAYED Kilkenny in Nolan Park last month, they employed Diarmuid O’Keeffe as a third midfielder.

Wexford’s plan seemed to be two-fold with O’Keeffe. When they were defending the presence of the St Anne’s player meant their half-backs could go with the Kilkenny player and not be worried about leaving huge space in front of their full-back. O’Keeffe slotted in to cover this space. After a Kilkenny possession, he would trundle back into any space created by players running to the ball.

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If Wexford won back possession from Kilkenny, it meant that O’Keeffe could be an option in the pocket for a recycled ball or he could step out of defence into space to look for a pass.

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Wexford’s structure against Kilkenny could provide us with clues as to how they will set up against the Clare attack and more importantly stop Tony Kelly.

Wexford also have experience in dealing with players like Kelly and teams whose game plan revolves around giving freedom to their star player.

Joe Canning in 2017

Wexford played Galway in the 2017 Leinster final. At that time Joe Canning was playing a role for the Tribesmen which saw him drift into midfield or his own half to be an out ball for his defence.

This caused issues for teams at the time as the Portumna man would be positioned at centre-forward and most centre-backs at this time would not venture past their 65-metre line. Teams were reliant on a handover between their centre-back and other players in the middle third of the pitch.

Wexford let Mathew O Hanlon go toe-to-toe with Canning and follow the Galway player wherever he went around the pitch. This took away an easy-out ball for the Galway backs and it forced them to explore other options with their delivery. It also gave Wexford forwards that extra second to try to pressure a clearance.

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This tactic did mean that there was a lot of space across the Wexford half-back line, but they had the buffer of Shaun Murphy back then as an extra player to protect the full-back and step out to the play in the half-back line if needed. For the rest of the Wexford backs, they could play from the front and they had to as there were huge pockets of space in front of the full-back line.

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Wexford may have not won the game, but this tactic did work in terms of shutting down one of Galway’s main scoring threats in Canning. The 2017 Hurler of the Year ended the game with no shot from play. Canning was still an excellent link man despite being followed and it was Galway’s inside forward line which got them over the line in that game.

Man marking still has a place in the game of hurling

Limerick decided to not man-mark Tony Kelly in both their encounters this year. When Kelly was at centre-forward, Declan Hannon was willing to follow the Ballyea man as far as the Clare 65-metre line.

At times it was almost as if John Kiely had a wire across the white line and a shock collar around Hannon’s neck. When Kelly drifted past this part of the pitch, Hannon would turn and try to make his way back to the D or some part of the Limerick defence where he could be of help if a ball was delivered in.

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When Kelly was inside in the Clare full-forward line he was not as much of a threat as the likes of Casey and Finn could be very physical with him. The middle third of the pitch was packed. The perfect ball into space that suited Kelly was never going to come.

Maher following Kelly in 2019

In 2019, Brendan Maher went man for man against Tony Kelly in Cusack Park which saw Padraic Maher drop deep at six and the midfield or half-forwards were there to cover any Clare player left free.

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The 70 minutes was a frustrating one for Kelly which saw Maher hold the Ballyea man to one point from play, two assists and five-shot involvements.

Tipperary did similar this year in the championship and tried to man-mark Kelly. They did limit him on the scoreboard as it saw him generate two points, two assists and six-shot involvements.

However, Clare used Kelly being man-marked to their advantage by creating space for other players. It opened up the Tipperary defence. Kelly did not always set up at centre-forward and would often find himself on the wing being man-marked by Seamus Kennedy. This meant that Kennedy was no longer available to make recovery runs to help his full-back line when Clare attacked Tipperary.

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 Wexford to play with four players in the half-back line but not with the much-maligned sweeper.

Darragh Egan will have analysed the various ways Kelly has been marked over this year’s championship and in the past. He will know that the nature of Clare’s movement in games means that Wexford cannot be rigid in their set-up if they man-mark the Banner’s sharpshooter.

Wexford will trust their full-back line and will not feel that they need the protection with an extra player in their full-back line. Their set-up will likely see them have seven defenders to keep a normal structure of six backs and allow one of their players to follow Kelly for the 70 minutes.

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If Kelly sets up at centre-forward, we can expect Wexford to play with two centre-backs which would see the man marker leave the middle to follow. The second centre-back will be free to cover the space through the middle and when the ball goes into the Clare full-forward line, they will have the ability to help their full-back line without having to worry about a handover of players.

 

If Kelly sets up at wing-forward and David Fitzgerald slots into centre-forward, Wexford will simply allow their extra back to slip into wing-back like Dee O’Keeffe did against Kilkenny.

 

Wexford will set traps for Clare on their puck-out

Darragh Egan may blatantly set up his team in a way that means there will be only two Wexford players in their full-forward line on the Clare puck-out. This will mean that Hayes, Cleary and Flanagan will have a three versus two in their full-back line on the restarts.

I don’t think the Wexford management team will mind this and they will hope that Eibhear Quilligan goes short to his full-back line as they might feel the Banner will have trouble exiting out from their 45-metre line.

People give out about allowing teams to go short and conceding a puck-out, but they sometimes forget that forcing a team to work it out breaks down the structure of a team’s full-back line. If an opponent gets a turnover in the middle third from the short restart, this leaves space to expose in a team’s full-back line.

Wexford did this to Cork in this year’s league and it resulted in Egan’s team scoring a goal from the Rebel’s short restart.

If Kelly sets up at centre forward for Clare’s long puck-outs this will suit Wexford as it will be virtually impossible for the Banner to create space along the yellowbellies’ half-back line as they will be able to hold their structure. This will force Clare to hit puck-outs down to crowded areas which will help the Wexford backs contain. 

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Conclusion

Wexford know they are not a free-scoring team so they will know they will have to batten down the hatches in Thurles. For Clare, if the shackles are put on Kelly it is about who is going to stand up and drive Clare to victory.

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Sean Flynn

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