Analysis: How Tyrone finally wrestled back their Ulster crown from Donegal

GAA analyst Rob Carroll talks us through a tactically-absorbing Ulster SFC final.

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IF THERE WAS any doubt before throw-in as to how these teams were going to line up, it was abundantly clear two minutes in. After the first attack from each team, at least 14 of the opposing players retreated to their own 45.

Both Tyrone and Donegal would prefer to play a counter-attacking style but in the first half, neither team were allowed to do that. Teams conceded the kickouts and this led to slow build-up play, coupled with some long-range shooting.

There really wasn’t much either team could do to work the ball inside and as a result, seven of the first eight shots went wide. However, despite that start, we were treated to some excellent long-range shooting.

As you can see in the image below, both teams were kept well outside the scoring zone kicking points.


Tyrone managed to penetrate the scoring zone a little more than Donegal, who rarely managed to get within 30 metres of goal.

Tyrone Defensive Shape

Tyrone’s general defensive shape is to bring 14 men back, have Colm Cavanagh as a sweeper, with Sean Cavanagh usually playing just in front of the bank of players on the 45.

On Sunday they had Cathal McCarron man marking Michael Murphy.


Tyrone will always have someone whose job is to go and meet the ball carrier. Usually this is Sean Cavanagh but the instruction seems to be that the nearest player needs to go and close down.

For large parts of the first half Donegal played with no man inside. And while it might have been futile kicking balls into a full-forward against this defensive set-up, a full-forward would have perhaps given them more room out the field.

In the example below we see how Colm Cavanagh has nothing to worry about behind him so he can go and join the swarm as Karl Lacey tries to break through.


A full-forward would at least give Colm Cavanagh a decision to make here, to push up or to stay. When we look at a similar scene from the Tyrone v Derry game earlier this year, we can see how deep Cavanagh was playing to protect the Tyrone goal.


An inside man for Donegal might have just left a little more room for penetrating runs. As it was, Cavanagh was free to push up and be one of five Tyrone defenders to go and meet Lacey.


Donegal’s lack of width allowed Tyrone to stay nice and compact. This was especially evident in the second half where Tyrone started to turn Donegal over. Too often everything Donegal tried was down the centre of the pitch.

Donegal Attacking Shape

As Donegal progress down the left-hand side, Ryan McHugh needs to come out and recycle the ball.


Tyrone are very comfortable here defensively. They have a cordon around the scoring zone with Colm Cavanagh directing things from sweeper (again with nobody inside to worry about).

As the ball is worked back it’s obvious how little width is in the Donegal attack. There is nobody on the far side of the pitch, asking questions or trying to create gaps in the Tyrone defence.


Against a packed defence you can’t keep trying to barge through the centre. Dublin are excellent exponents of using width against mass defences.


The ball comes all the way back to the half-way line but Donegal take one more pass before attempting to switch the play. This allows another Tyrone defender to get back and cover the space.


By the time the ball is on the right wing and Donegal try to force the space, it’s clear that Tyrone are set up well. They have 4 v 2 and Colm Cavanagh able to push up and protect if there is any breach on the 45. Eventually Donegal run back inside and are turned over.

Donegal managed just seven shots in the second half (five from play) and while they can be happy with the return of four points from seven shots, they simply didn’t create enough opportunities. Fast counter-attacks were few and far between in this game, so both teams needed to be a bit more imaginative in attack.

Kickouts: Long or Short?

Although short kickouts all but guarantee possession, you do wonder sometimes who they benefit most. Teams that want to play a counter-attacking style seem content to leave the kickouts uncontested and win the ball back in other areas of the field.

Donegal changed tactic in the first half yesterday and pushed up a bit earlier than Tyrone on the kickouts, but in the second half, we saw the game open up a bit with the longer kickouts.

Tyrone have pushed up on this kickout and while they are not quite man-to-man, they do have six bodies in the Donegal 45.

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The kick is a monster and goes over the half-way line. Tyrone have an extra body and manage to win the breaking ball. It’s one of the few times they can attack the space in front of them, and they do.


Peter Harte picks up the ball on the 45 and for the first time can look inside and see some space to run into. Having defenders running towards their own goal is what you want; when Sean Cavanagh arrives on Harte’s shoulder, Tyrone reduce the deficit to one.


Tyrone scored two second-half points from long kickouts and four from turnovers. The turnovers will irk the Donegal team; they will have known how Tyrone will feed on turnover ball.

On 44 minutes we can see great width in the Donegal attack and as a result Tyrone do look a little stretched. Donegal have a player almost hugging both sides of the pitch.


Frank McGlynn turns nicely in the centre of the park and plays a one-two and is perhaps a little unlucky not to win a free in a very scoreable area. It’s the first time Tyrone seem to be lined up one-on-one in the game.


From there, however, Tyrone are so fast to transition from defence to attack. Within just a few seconds they are at the other end with their talisman Sean Cavanagh in possession.


Odhran MacNiallais is doing his best to get back and the sweeper is trying to get out to the danger, but the pace of the attack has caught Donegal and Tyrone level the game

This was a tight game and it can be easy in hindsight to see why one team won, but with the scores level and Michael Murphy standing over, albeit a difficult free, with just three minutes remaining you wouldn’t have banked on a two-point Tyrone win.

Games of fine margins can be won be moments of inspiration and perspiration. Sean Cavanagh’s final point brought the perspiration with Peter Harte showing some inspiration.

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Cork-Donegal and Mayo-Westmeath set for a Croke Park double-header

About the author:

Rob Carroll

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