herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

Kerry attack holds key to titanic duel

Connacht men must employ strategy to try negate influence of 'Star' Donaghy

Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy holds onto possession despite the efforts of the Galway defence during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy holds onto possession despite the efforts of the Galway defence during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

You hear plenty of people saying how pleasantly surprised they were with Mayo in their replay win over Roscommon and while it was only right to admire them, their attitude and their victory, I'm not sure whether you can class it as a surprise.

Is it a surprise if you expected them to do that the first day?

Mayo, besides being the great survivors of modern football, have become the great enigma.

Capable of the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measures and often in the same week.

For all their struggles prior to the All-Ireland quarter-final, I always felt that once they got to Croke Park, we'd see a truer reflection of their worthiness as All-Ireland contenders.

Mayo’s Keith Higgins scores his side’s third goal in their comprehensive All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay against Roscommon. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Keith Higgins scores his side’s third goal in their comprehensive All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay against Roscommon. Photo: Sportsfile

Which turned out to be half-right. Or belatedly correct, to be more precise.

They've just been very erratic all during this year. Which isn't a criticism necessarily, just an oddity.

Rekindled

They're fascinating. How can a team be capable of two such contrasting performances, eight days apart?

Have they found their form or temporarily rekindled an old flame?

What were the difference between the two games?

There's an awful lot to be said for a good start.

Roscommon had it the first day and it sent a bolt of belief through their team that they could go all the way with Mayo.

Mayo got it the second day and it killed that same confidence in Roscommon.

Actually, if you go back on it, Mayo have struggled badly in all of the games they've gone behind this year; Galway set the tone in Salthill, Derry were brighter in the early stages in Castlebar.

The same with Clare in Ennis and each of those teams teased the demons in the Mayo psyche by starting like that.

But to their eternal credit, Mayo have survived and as of Bank Holiday Monday, thrived.

I've said it before but it's worth saying every week nearly at this stage - you've got to admire their resilience. How much the game was attributable to Roscommon, we won't know until Sunday.

Rightfully, Roscommon were proud of their efforts the previous week and maybe that carried them into the replay on a false cloud whereas Mayo looked like a team who left the pitch the first day and immediately began to right the wrongs for the second.

Of obvious benefit to Mayo was Stephen Rochford's deployment of Keith Higgins in a role where he could do what he does best.

He also liberated his half-backs to attack the ball more and made a change at full-back where Brendan Harrison shored up an area of grave concern. I've heard plenty of clichés all week, that Rochford let them off the leash or had a cut but it was more than that.

Rochford changed Mayo's structure and he altered their modus operandi in attack.

Higgins' influence was huge. He's wasted as a sweeper.

Put some other lesser mortal in there and let Higgins get on the ball and influence things further up the pitch because he's exhilarating when he gets it.

Sunday's dynamic is interesting now.

Mayo perform well as underdogs almost every time they go into a big match with that tag dangling from their necks. It's in their make-up. Though they came within a whisker of an All-Ireland vicotry last year, they actually played better football (and drew with a better Dublin team) in 2015 and there are important lessons to take from their quarter-final victory over Donegal

Tactically, they were immense that day, muting Michael Murphy at the peak of his powers.

And that's an area they'll need to be similarly well-prepared on Sunday.

Barry Moran played a brilliant role that day, contesting kick-outs but then drifting back in front of Murphy if he didn't win it, almost Colm Cavanagh-like.

Kerry's attack didn't exactly thrive against Galway, particularly early on. Galway closed the channels and squeezed the space.

They made it awkward for the Kerry forwards to get free and pick passes and take shots.

It's crucial Mayo learn from that and it's crucial they cut Kieran Donaghy off at source.

With Donaghy's confidence and form so high now, he's lethal.

So there's a lot of sense in playing someone with strength and aggression, like Donal Vaughan, in a marking role and dropping a midfielder in front of Donaghy to contest high balls.

Leaky

At the other end of the pitch, Kerry's defence has looked leaky at times this year.

They were opened up by Galway and Cork and if either team had better finishers Kerry could have endured more inconvenient afternoons in both games.

That notion that when Kerry operate with their forwards pressed up, they're vulnerable at the back has been lingering, particular when the method of taking them on is through the middle with strong, pacey runners.

Tadhg Morley is a great man-marker but he can get pulled out of that central channel and grant space to half-backs coming from from deep.

Mayo looked like the most penetrative running team in Ireland against Roscommon the last day and that's where they have to go at Kerry on Sunday if they're to stand a chance.

Kerry will give them goal chances - 100 per cent. And if Mayo take them, it could be their day.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we'll know if Mayo have that inner belief and if they have that, they're a match for anyone.

I just suspect that in trying to tie down Kerry's big players, Mayo's attacking game will suffer.

And I trust Kerry's forwards more than Mayo's mindset just now.

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