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Analysis: How Down can get at Tyrone, the Red Hand's speedy counter-attack and the kick-out battle

3 key tactical questions ahead of today’s Ulster final showdown between Tyrone and Down.

1. How can Down hurt Tyrone?

TYRONE’S RAPIDLY IMPROVING attack garnered much of the attention in the wake of their semi-final win over Donegal, but breaking down their stifling defence remains Down’s biggest obstacle today.

The Tyrone team huddle Source: James Crombie/INPHO

55 minutes into their win over Rory Gallagher’s side, Tyrone had Donegal held to a miserly 0-6. By that stage the game was out of sight and the Red Hand let their foot off the accelerator. Donegal ran in 1-6 in the final 15 minutes to put some respectibility on their scoreline.

Tyrone shipped an average of 13.7 points per game during the league, while their average concession rate in the championship stands at 13. If Down are to win today, they’ll need to score far more than that.

The Mournesiders play an attractive brand of attacking football, with a particular focus on kick-passing. Tyrone will make that more difficult to do. Mickey Harte’s men make the pitch smaller by dropping 13 or 14 men inside their own half, forcing their opponents to play laterally in front of them.

In the image below, we can see how they typically protected the scoring zone against Donegal.


The presence of Colm Cavanagh in front of the full-back line will cut out the threat of a long ball into the Down full-forward line. For Down to break down Tyrone’s packed defence, they’ll need to run the ball at pace and pitch holes with angled runs in attack.

In Kevin McKernan and Caolon Mooney they have athletes capable of hurting the Red Hand from deep.

Donegal did cut Tyrone open for goal chances on a number of occasions, particularly when they went long from kick-outs. Attacking straight from a kick-out meant Colm Cavanagh didn’t have the time to get set-up in his sweeper role.


Down will need to be clinical with their scoring chances, as they were against Monaghan. In Darragh O’Hanlon they have a reliable free-taker. They’ve also got shooters who are capable of scoring from outside the scoring zone.

Connaire Harrison (below), Conor Maginn, Shay Millar and McKernan all kicked impressive efforts from tight angles or deep, and they’ll need to do the same against Tyrone’s defensive blanket.


2. How will Down deal with Tyrone’s rapid counter-attack?

There’s a reason Tyrone can put up such big scores despite dropping so many bodies back. Their rapid transition from defence to attack is arguably the best in the country.

Harte’s men will drop men behind their own 65 and entice the opposition to bring the ball into contact. They’re masters at stripping possession and counter-attacking at pace, with Niall Sludden, Peter Harte, Tiernan McCann, Mattie Donnelly and Kieran McGeary flooding forward to support speedy counter-attacks.


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In the example below they turn Donegal over on the 65, and within 17 seconds Harte kicks the ball between the posts.


It’s a well-polished system Tyrone have been honing for the last few years under Harte. They’re finely tuned athletes who have an excellent understanding of their gameplan.

Down need to avoid taking the ball into the tackle, but if they do lose possession they must dilgently track the Tyrone runners. If Down are to get close today, their attitude, energy and enthuisiasm for work has to be greater than Tyrone’s.

Down have been known as a ‘nice’ team in recent seasons but they well and truly shed that tag with some excellent physicality against Monaghan. The turned the Farney over on 14 occassions as they rediscovered an edge that had been absent of late.


“We play the game as it is played, it’s physical and hitting hard,” said skipper Darren O’Hagan this week. “It’s the way Down used to play football, they were physical and in teams’ faces. They hit hard and they play football.”

More of the same is required today.

Michael Cunningham Down stopper Michael Cunningham Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

3. Who’ll win the kick-out battle?

An interesting feature of Tyrone’s win over Donegal was the amount of scoring chances they created when Niall Morgan went long with kick-outs. The introduction of the ‘mark’ has seen an increase in teams pushing on opposition restarts to cut out short kick-outs.

On multiple occasions Morgan was able to clear the Tyrone midfield and set-up attacks with oceans of space to run into.

In this example from the first-half, Sean Cavanagh had the goal at his mercy against Donegal but shot straight into the body of Michael Anthony McGinley.


Down went long against Monaghan 41% of the time (per the Irish Times’ Eamon Donoghue), but did allow Kieran Hughes win two ‘marks’ during the 70 minutes.

It’s possible Tyrone will retreat and allow Michael Cunningham go short to a corner-back, but with Mattie Donnelly, and the Cavanagh brothers in the middle third they’re likely to press up and back themselves to win the battle at midfield.

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Kevin O'Brien

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