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Monday 20 November 2017

Beating Deise maze is key to Galway glory

Forget the talk that Tribesmen don't do tactics but McGrath system will stress-test their resolve

Darragh Fives may again play a key role for Waterford on Sunday
Darragh Fives may again play a key role for Waterford on Sunday

Derek McGrath can appreciate, better than anyone, how tactical nuance gets buried in a black-and-white headline about sweepers versus man-for-man, structured defence versus 'traditional' hurling.

He has been caught up in that polarised debate all summer, through a roller-coaster campaign that will end in Sunday's All-Ireland SHC final.

And now it boils down to this: Galway against Waterford. What some would dress up as old-style versus newfangled; between a team that sticks to the time-honoured format of six forwards and a rival that prefers to flood midfield and its defence.

Traditionalists might even view it as 'good' versus 'evil' ... but then take a closer look at their summer runs.

* Waterford have scored 11 goals in their five-match journey (incorporating one period of extra-time). Galway, by frugal contrast, have managed just two goals in four outings - and none in their last three. All of which belies the image of a Waterford team with no attacking game plan or ambition.

* If you subtract Kilkenny's seven-point haul in extra-time, Waterford's average concession is 1-17. Relatively impressive, albeit scarcely the most miserly on record. Indeed, Galway have limited their opponents to less than 1-16 per game. They know how to shut out a rival too.

Scratch

Even the above stats only scratch at the surface. Galway have not required many green flags because they are so adept at engineering point-scoring opportunities and willing to have a pop from distances near and far.

It doesn't always bear fruit: they have averaged 13 wides per game, but that has been countered by the 2-28 amassed against Dublin, 0-33 against Offaly, 0-29 against Wexford and 0-22 in that epic semi-final with Tipperary.

Question is: will Galway be able to triumph by points alone on Sunday, or will they have to bag one goal if not a brace against the Deise's formidable defensive wall?

Barring some bizarre tactical U-turn, Derek McGrath will keep faith with the sweeper and congested middle-third strategy that has brought Waterford to within touching distance of the holy grail. Only when they modified that system against Cork last June did the wheels come off.

Tadhg de Búrca, back from his one-match suspension, will obviously resume his sweeping role primarily aimed at goal prevention.

Darragh Fives, who filled the de Búrca brief so expertly against Cork in the semi-final, usually plays a similar covering role further out, around the 65m line ... but the conundrum for Waterford is how they match up on the Galway forwards now that their best man-marker, Conor Gleeson, is suspended for the final.

Whereas Gleeson could have been the one earmarked for Joe Canning, now that baton must pass to someone else - potentially Darragh Fives.

But tracking Galway's attacking talisman is anything but a straight-forward case of manning up at centre-back. Dublin skipper Liam Rushe was tasked with that role in late May - but Canning actually started that day in midfield and generally roamed deep, far and wide from his putative No 11 station.

Rotation

As Rushe remarked in June: "They've a lot of forwards who can win their own ball and score. They're back to the constant rotation that you saw in 2012, wh ich is hard to pin down, and they have a new role for Joe, drifting out to midfield. That's the hardest thing to pin down - what are you going to do there? You're not going to send your centre-back off to m idfield and have four backs.

"They really have developed a style that's very difficult to play against," the Dubliner added. "There were times in the first half when you felt you were playing against Waterford; they just withdrew. There were two and three inside their half, everyone else outside and then they have a three on three in the whole half and they're pucking it in. It's very hard to counter."

It's safe to surmise, though, that Waterford won't allow themselves to be dragged up the field, leaving oceans of space to plunder for Galway runners coming from deep. What transpires could well be a small ball chess game, with Aidan Harte the obvious Galway sweeper given his aptitude for the role.

Harte has plenty of prior experience, given the number of opponents who have played with five forwards against Galway. Waterford, though, do it to a more amplified degree; they are also far better than most.

Their mission will be to suffocate and frustrate Galway's array of prolific score-getters - Canning, Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney especially.

If the game is alive with 15 or 20 minutes to go, it is then that Waterford will expand their approach and seek to go for the kill through their second wave of livewire attackers off the bench.

On paper, Galway have the ball-winning tools to unhinge Waterford but they must also think their way through the Deise maze. Precision, not just in their shooting but in how they locate their outnumbered shooters in the first place, will be key.

Don't expect a shootout. Prepare to be fascinated in other ways instead.

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