DEREK KAVANAGH: Have defenders become too reliant on the ‘system’ to do their work?

I doubt the Kerry players spent too much time discussing their Munster final victory over Tipperary as they supped a few pints in Killarney on Sunday night.

The celebrations at full-time were low key, a definite case of ‘job done’. Paul Geaney mentioned after the game that Kerry have their eyes set on a bigger prize – and that certainly appeared to be the case.

I’m sure they were granted a night off on Monday but it will have been very much back down to business since, with an All-Ireland quarter-final looming.

Training sessions will become more intense and the battle for midfield positions is one I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

Kieran Donaghy and Bryan Sheehan started there on Sunday, with David Moran and Anthony Maher coming off the bench. Moran came on for Donaghy with over 20 minutes left last Sunday and Maher replaced Sheehan late on. I can’t see Donaghy lasting a full 70 minutes in Croke Park. Will he mind playing a bit-part role? He may have to be content with that as Eamonn Fitzmaurice has some strong options now at the key time of the year.

I think back to 2010 and it reminds me of the situation when Nicholas Murphy and myself would come into the Cork team for the last 20 or 30 minutes. It’s a great comfort for a manager to know that he has 6ft-plus options coming off the bench with fresh legs. And I think that’s what got us over the line, more than anything else. That Cork team was almost guaranteed 80% possession around the middle in the last ten minutes of games.

Having James O’Donoghue back in the mix is another big plus for Fitzmaurice. He brings flair to the team and he’s a real media darling too. That helps, it creates interest and a buzz around the team. O’Donoghue is well used to dealing with the media too and seems to enjoy it. Kerry as a whole always seem to feed off marquee players, whereas this can often be a burden on other teams.

More importantly, they are getting one of the country’s top forwards back and this will cause major trouble for their next opponents.

As they tucked into those pints in Scotts on Sunday, the month of training ahead would have been uppermost in the thoughts of those Kerry players. All bets are off now. Fitzmaurice will pick his team for the All-Ireland series on form and nobody’s safe. They’re potentially one game away from playing Dublin again and their poor recent record against the Dubs at Croke Park is a monkey that Kerry need to shake. You’ve got to hand it to Kerry in this regard; they’re intelligent players and in Fitzmaurice, they possess one of the shrewdest managers in the country.

Kerry have a great record of learning from big defeats. They came back from the semi-final loss to Tyrone in 2003 with a plan for 2004. They came back from the 2005 All-Ireland final loss more battle-hardened. The same can be said for the 2008 All-Ireland final loss to Tyrone, where yet another All Ireland title was landed the year after when everyone in Kerry thought the world had ended. Each time they suffered a big dent to their pride, they responded with something extra.

That’s why the ‘goldfish bowl’ attention on the Kerry players and management brings out the best in strong personalities. They can’t escape judgment down there. With the Kerry public, a championship loss ruins the summer and they ensure this burden is shared with the Kerry camp. That’s what the late Páidí Ó Sé meant when he said that Kerry’s fans are a different breed of animal — or words to that effect!

In the league final against Dublin they got a right scalding. Usually they would be left with a long dark winter before getting back on the horse after such a defeat but that revenge mission isn’t too far around the corner now, and Kerry know it. Dublin too, I suspect.

By the time an All-Ireland semi-final between the sides rolls around, four months will have passed since the league decider. Short enough not to forget the pain but long enough to make the necessary adjustments.

In Cork, they’re still picking up the pieces following that disastrous Munster semi-final defeat against Tipperary. It’s Limerick in Thurles this afternoon and the qualifiers can be like trying to get up for work with a hangover.

You only have to ask Brian Cuthbert how it felt last year. Cork went toe-to- toe with Kerry in two Munster finals but vanished without trace when they met Kildare in Thurles. The short turnaround can be a step too far for teams defeated in provincial competition but Cork have had time to lick their wounds this time. Still, they have a serious mental battle on their hands to overcome that Tipp defeat – and it can’t be underestimated.

I experienced the qualifiers on more than one occasion. It’s a serious reality check when you lose a big provincial game, but when you have a few weeks of preparation it affords the opportunity to give yourself a break and assess how much the game means to you.

I know it is the manager’s job to not only pick the players up as individuals but also to ensure the team’s tactical make-up gets tweaked also. For better or worse, I always focused first on the player I was to be marking. For me the overall tactical make-up of the team was a distant second, especially when your morale is low after losing a Munster championship game a few weeks previous.

The most important thing for a qualifier game is that you banish as quickly as possible the dark place you woke up the Monday morning after a heavy Munster championship loss. Get a little confidence back and ensure the man you are marking sees you as a superior player.

The rest, such as the tactical element, becomes a lot easier to implement when you remove the question marks in your head from the initial defeat.

I think ‘tactical systems’ can sometimes mislead a player and his priorities can get jumbled up in the heat of a championship game.

Take Cork’s loss to Kildare in last year’s qualifiers. There were many times in that game where you had two Division 1 full-backs marking the one Division 3 full-forward. There was no need for it.

It was the same last weekend in the Ulster semi-final replay between Monaghan and Donegal. On numerous occasions, Monaghan had more than enough players back inside their own half to halt a Donegal scoring attempt. What happens is that when a defending player does not have a direct man to track, his defensive instincts get overridden by a list of instructions in his head. That’s when you often see a packed defence opened up and you are thinking ‘someone did not do their job there’.

Tactical systems have evolved rapidly in the last number of seasons. The narrow-minded view is to quickly label every tactic as ‘blanket defence’. In their victory over Cavan, Tyrone excelled defensively in numbers, swarming opposition players, and it looked brilliant. However it was their attacking strategy that impressed me most, almost a ‘blanket attack’ if you like. Many times in that game, Tyrone had three guys bearing down on goal at full pelt, three different options, like a three-man wave.

Tyrone will end up in an All-Ireland final, given the side of the draw they’re on - and assuming they become Ulster champions in a week’s time. I fancy them to take Donegal and then you’re looking at an All-Ireland semi-final from the Connacht angle, with Dublin and Kerry on the other side of the draw.

Tyrone’s haul of 5-18 last Sunday was the second highest score ever recorded for a winning team in the Ulster Championship. The more interesting statistic though was Cavan’s final tally of 2-17 was the second highest ever recorded by a losing team in Ulster. It made me think. As impressive as Tyrone looked, they still shipped a massive amount of scores. The same can be said for Kerry.

Imagine the damage Dublin could do here. Teams seem to terrified of leaving their full back lines exposed in a man-to-man scenario with a forward. Any defender now playing for one of the top teams is every bit as quick as the top attackers. Ironically, I think it’s the defensive structures of teams that are contributing to these heavy concessions. Players are relying too much on their teammates to drop deep and clog up space — in effect, placing more trust in the ‘system’ than in their own ability to defend.


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