PM O'SULLIVAN: More than a sweeper, Colm Galvin the ‘gatekeeper’

Some hurling matches resonate far more than others, with a draw doubly eloquent.

A draw it was between Clare and Galway. Now we must absorb what happened, analysing what the game revealed about these teams and pondering the impact generated by certain kinds of pressure. There is a reason why people see winning in sport as the coordination of a squeeze.

Last week’s column broached this All-Ireland semi-final as a possible audit on hurling in a broader sense than two counties’ health. Resonance transpired in a manner way beyond anything anticipatable. Most matches are simply a contest, a result. Yet some matches become a blueprint for future contests, a storehouse of resources.

Think about it. What we witnessed, nestled within the obvious, was a fresh way of dealing with the threat mounted by forwards heading out the way. A serious amount of 21st-century hurling pivots on this gambit, on exploiting the space vacated by forwards hovering around midfield.

Pushing the gambit, Galway squashed Clare in the first quarter of last weekend’s encounter. The 12th minute saw a long Joe Canning delivery from midfield fetched by Jonathan Glynn on square’s edge. While he did not finish the goal chance, Cathal Mannion pointed for a lead of 0-6 to 0-1.

Commentating for RTÉ, Brendan Cummins observed: “Clare have to work out now whether they’re actually going to follow Galway all over the pitch or whether they’re going to keep the structure.”

Nominally centre-forward, Canning was operating mostly in midfield, causing massive problems through strength in the tight and skill in the open.

Cummins caught the dilemma. Should the Clare defenders push out, man on man? But would this decision not inevitably mean more one- on-one chances near goal, such as Glynn had just enjoyed against Patrick O’Connor?

Canning pointed for a lead of 1-7 to 0-1 in the 16th minute. By then, Clare’s management had rejigged and set about staunching the tactical bleed. They got to half-time four points behind and still alive.

But what was the nature of said rejig?

This week’s narrative settled into Clare resurgence via opting for a sweeper. People liked the supposed ironies, the reversion to a structure quintessentially associated with Davy Fitzgerald. Besides, there are commentators who simply cannot countenance hurling excellence without sweeper presence.

I

reckon this narrative is only a surface skim. Hurling receives an awful lot of superficial analysis. A sweeper, fundamentally, is a figure who stands between two lines of defence. Soccer-wise, he stands between central defenders and the goalkeeper. Hurling wise, he stands between half-back and full-back.

Clare did not deploy Colm Galvin as a sweeper, in that he did not stand between lines. Used in this context, the term lacks nuance. A defender repeatedly gathering possession in space does not necessarily equate to a sweeper.

The truth is that Galvin acted as an unmarked centre-back, a facet with intriguing implications. Dónal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor calculated Galvin would do far more damage as a ball-playing unmarked centre-back than would be the case with Gearóid McInerney, his opposition counterpart. Galvin provided a direct assist for three of Clare’s subsequent eight points in the first half.

Notably, this alteration involved a trio rather than a duo at midfield. Clare wanted Conor Cleary, for reasons of physique, as Joe Canning’s marker. But Cleary could not commit fully, while centre-back, to pursuing him into deep midfield. To do so would have left a prairie of space through the middle.

Meanwhile, Cathal Malone was set as David Burke’s marker, with Galvin on Johnny Coen. This arrangement disintegrated to the tune of that nine-point deficit, an advantage tied to Canning’s impact.

The Banner brainwave involved getting Galvin more on the ball for finesse and Cleary more on Canning for duress. As Galvin and McInerney stood true at 6, Canning and Tony Kelly both operated as a false 11, a de facto midfielder. The rejig meant Cleary fully marking Canning, Malone concentrating on Burke, and Kelly engaging Coen.

The dynamic tilted once Clare mirrored Galway’s false 11. Item: Canning shot wide from midfield in the 22nd minute, pressure by Cleary a contributory factor.

Hurling tactics are evolving, a process in want of new vocabulary. What should we call an unmarked centre-back who appears a sweeper, due to space enjoyed and possessions harvested, but who actually performs a subtler role?

I suggest ‘gatekeeper’. I suggest a sentence: ‘Clare’s management redeployed Colm Galvin as a gatekeeper.’ The attraction lies in applying pressure by sweeper virtues (protection at back) while avoiding sweeper vices (dearth up front).

And yet… a touch of common sense never goes amiss. Clare’s rejig goes down as one of the canniest tactical adjustments. Yet Galway amassed six poor wides between that 22nd-minute effort by Canning and an added-time effort by Joseph Cooney. Their half-time lead could easily have been nine or 10 points and the lauded reset at the bottom of a deep maroon sea.

Although Gearóid McInerney’s injury is this replay’s headline issue, the crux remains which camp learned more. Last weekend, Jamie Shanahan was given a literal runaround by Cathal Mannion. Shanahan needs to improve or Mannion requires a new marker. Séadna Morey might be better fitted to the task (and Shanahan to Joseph Cooney).

There are tactical traps for Clare, new sources of squeeze. What if Galway start Canning as a true midfielder? Does Conor Cleary again move out? If so, Colm Galvin presumably resumes at centre-back.

Spool the thought. What if Galway, in this scenario, put Jonathan Glynn at centre-forward on Galvin, establishing another physical mismatch? But Clare, keeping Galvin at midfield on Canning, would resume much the same dilemma. Equally, Glynn on Cleary is not an obvious glitch for Western prospects.

Another trap could be David Burke at centre back, a position he is well able to fill. This might simultaneously solve McInerney’s absence and muster a ball-playing centre back. Burke as gatekeeper would lessen Galvin’s impact as gatekeeper. Burke has much more to his arsenal than a 15-yard handpass.

Niall Burke and Jason Flynn are first subs in attack. Do Galway possess equivalent talents as subs in defence? Not so much. There would be decent logic in starting Burke or Flynn, making Canning a midfielder and dispatching Burke to centre-back.

Sunday will be Galway’s eighth outing and they might be starting to burn fuel. Even so, they should have learned enough to make their overall unit stronger. Clare return with Aron Shanagher aboard, their source of increased cut. Maybe Limerick, resting up, could end up the real winner. But we have a way to go yet with this celebrated summer, in which hurling, most remarkably of all, has matched heatwave for temperature.


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