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Dublin: 19 °C Saturday 24 August, 2019

Why Crossmaglen are like Ottmar Hitzfeld's Bayern Munich...

The Armagh outfit take on Leinster kingpins Garrycastle in the All-Ireland decider on Saturday. Here’s the tactical run-down.

Jamie Clarke: unique role in the side.
Jamie Clarke: unique role in the side.
Image: INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

Reproduced with permission from Action81

DEFENDING ALL-IRELAND champions Crossmaglen Rangers return to Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day to take on Leinster kings Garrycastle. Emmet Ryan breaks down the key tactical battles ahead of Saturday’s decider.

Crossmaglen’s swarm attack

This column has discussed Crossmaglen’s unique twist on the swarm a few times already this season.

Fundamentally the Ulster champions play a swarm game but one built around their attack. Opponents struggle to stop Crossmaglen from attacking in waves. The confusion this causes amongst defences, particularly at club level where teams are not as regimented as in the inter-county game, enables overlaps and allows Cross to pick and choose their scoring opportunities. By forcing the game largely down the far end of the field, Crossmaglen have the time to get back in numbers when possession is turned over.

Jamie Clarke as Roy Makaay

Almost every outfield player on the Crossmaglen team is relied on to play an end-to-end game. With a deep bench that ensures a fresh infusion of energy throughout the game, the Ulster champions have the manpower to maintain a furious tempo. There are two exceptions to this box-to-box and with good cause. Oisín McConville has enough miles on the clock that forcing him into such a heavy cardio role would severely reduce his minutes. Jamie Clarke’s role however has nothing to do with age or athleticism.

Most readers of this column will be of the vintage to remember the Bayern Munich squad led by Ottmar Hitzfeld in the late 90s and early 2000s. One of the last key signings of Hitzfeld’s reign was Roy Makaay. The Dutch striker’s addition forced a radical change from Hitzfeld. Much like Crossmaglen, that Bayern team relied on every forward to contribute to defence. Das Phantom, as Makaay would become known, was a massive deviation from this as he was exclusively an attacker. The Dutchman’s ability to create chances out of nothing made him a priceless part of Bayern’s attack.

Clarke’s role with Crossmaglen mirrors Makaay’s at Bayern. His goal against St Gall’s in the Ulster championship was the best individual example of his creative nous. With the ball loose at his feet and multiple defenders between him and goal inside the St Gall’s box, Clarke calmly trapped the ball on the ground rolled it to his right as defenders slipped trying to adjust their footing and calmly slotted, without a great deal of power, into the goal to open the scoring.

Sean O’Donoghue’s creative role

Not that Garrycastle are lacking in attacking outlets. Despite primarily occupying a holding midfield position, Seanie O’Donoghue plays a vital role to the Leinster champions in attack. O’Donoghue’s accurate long-range passing has proven a significant creative outlet for Garrycastle. While much of his afternoon on Saturday will be spent trying to contain Crossmaglen’s waves of attackers, he will be a danger every time he has possession.

On Saturday, pay attention to how O’Donoghue kicks the ball. The big man uses his frame to shield himself from pressure. This allows him to deliver more accurate balls down-field. A nice by-product of this for Garrycastle is that it means O’Donoghue doesn’t need too much ball to make a difference. He can occupy a largely covering role while still proving a key factor in attack.

The Crossmaglen squad before their semi-final clash against Dr Crokes. Pic: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

Counter-punching crucial to Garrycastle

Ballinderry, Dr Crokes, and St Gall’s all proved that it is possible to break free from Crossmaglen’s shackles for at least part of the game. All three were able to score in bunches through quick counter-attacking play. Efficiency in attack was a big reason why the former pair were able to stay competitive with Cross.

Garrycastle’s efficiency has varied wildly but there has been one constant, when Dessie Dolan has the ball and time he will deliver. Cross will look to contain Dolan from the start but the Westmeath side are used to adapting to teams with greater depth at this stage of the season. The patience Cross typically show in their pressing game must be reflected in the counter-attacks of Garrycastle. If they do that, they have a shot in this fight.

The verdict

If you include the prediction I made for their Leinster club semi-final with Athy, which was done on Raidio na Life but not in this column, I have picked against Garrycastle in three games straight now and I have thrice been wrong. Essentially the Leinster champions have shown an ability to adjust to the challenge before them in every game to date. Adapting to Crossmaglen is a whole other challenge. The spread of -4.0 seems a little excessive, -2.0 or -3.0 would probably be a fairer reflection, but Crossmaglen are deservedly favourites. Garrycastle should do enough to stay in the fight into the second half but Crossmaglen’s bench should wear them down and eventually secure a second straight All-Ireland title.

Read more at Action81

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Emmet Ryan

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