Is Mayo’s midfield last of a dying art?

I’m 37 years old. As such I consider myself not far removed from the present generation of players and I am of a similar vintage to the growing pool of ‘young’ managers, such as Kieran McGeeney, Jason Ryan, James Horan, Jim McGuinness and Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

Is Mayo’s midfield last of a dying art?

My management pedigree, I willingly concede, is somewhat below those listed though I have painfully learned the first fundamental law of management, which is ‘be careful not to comment on something in which you have no experience’. This I suspect is a fault of most analysts when we criticise a passage of play, a team selection, a positional switch or substitution.

For example, people will this morning query the decision not to start Donncha O’Connor when he scored a goal and three points in 22 minutes. Or why would you take off your free taker and marquee forward, Cillian O’Connor after 65 minutes when Cork were gathering momentum and a crucial free might swing the result in your favour.

In both circumstances the players were carrying injuries and decisions had to be made. Where analysts fall down is that we make decisions based on the information to hand regardless of the depth or reliability of this information. This is based on the concept ‘what you see is all there is’ and it is flawed. Brian Cuthbert and James Horan made informed decisions, the rest of us were simply ignorant to the missing information.

However one fundamental area of Gaelic games which I can make an informed comment on is the kick-out strategy.

Kildare players create a longitudinal line which transects the field from goalmouth to goalmouth. By taking this format they create space on both wings to make sharp intelligent runs to receive a simple pass from the keeper. Strangely opposition teams, including Monaghan on Saturday, opted to tightly mark the Kildare players instead of the space into which they were running.

Armagh and Monaghan prefer the short kick-out for primary possession but have favoured longer passing to the wings if a player finds himself in space. It’s a similar story for Dublin, and Donegal.

Mayo may indeed be the exception to the norm. They prefer to kick long and only use the short option on occasion, in a 4:1 ratio yesterday. Commonsense you may say when you have the O’Shea brothers, Barry Moran or Donal Vaughan ready to field. However take a step back and see who they were matched against — Ian Maguire, Aidan Walsh and Fintan Goold — yet Cork keeper Ken O’Halloran kicked 50% of his kick-outs short. The ability to fetch clean ball and win secondary possession is clearly something Mayo work on and should be encouraged, even admired.

But this is not the interesting part. It is the strategy for opposition kick-outs that is worth review.

Donegal completely concede opposition kick-outs. They retreat to their pre-programmed chess position and set up the half court press strategy. It’s a ‘bring it on, we don’t care’ approach to winning primary possession. Their attitude is that in 15 seconds you are going to run into a proverbial wall and they will take it back off you like sweets from a child. This works for Donegal partly due to the way they are conditioned, partly due to the ability of opposition thus far to capitalise on the concession of possession, and partly because Donegal do not have enough aerial fielding ability to compete with the better teams.

It is likely that Armagh will have thought this through before Saturday but if unsuccessful surely Jim Gavin will have time to study it after they account for Monaghan.

Looking at Cork’s success in retaining possession from short kick-outs it could be construed that Mayo were happy to concede possession but this would be unfair to the Mayo forwards as asking five forwards to mark six defenders meant that the short option was always attractive to Cork, especially considering the dominance of Mayo in the middle sector.

Of those remaining in the championship Dublin are the only team that pressurise the opposition kick-outs by ensuring that everyone is marked. The part that I can’t figure out (with the exception of Donegal) is why?

If Dublin didn’t have the option for a short kick out would they be able to gain majority possession through McAuley and O’Sullivan or Flynn and Connolly? Would Hughes and Clerkin for Monaghan? Findon and Harold for Armagh? Mayo have a platform for midfield dominance which has arguably only once fallen short — the 2013 All-Ireland final.

Midfielders have always had a role in Gaelic games for high fielding and retention of primary possession. Are Mayo the only genuine exponents of this game left?

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