Heading into Croke Park for yesterday’s league semi-finals, the majority of form watchers would be very familiar with the three heavyweights on show — Dublin, Kerry and Donegal — and more looking forward to getting a closer look at Roscommon.
The Rossies had started the year with such energy and confidence, they had the swagger of a Division One veteran, one of the established ‘big’ teams.
One key question persisted though: Had Roscommon developed enough over the course of the league to play a game against Kerry on their own terms in Croke Park. And what does play a game on their own terms mean to me?
Being in command of key parts of the game you can control. Two of the primary areas that are fundamental in how a game usually plays out are your own kicks-outs and your team shape and structure.
On Roscommon’s kick outs yesterday, it initially looked like there was a planned strategy where all six backs came within a 10 yard radius in the middle of the pitch at the top of their D. While it is common to use this bunch formation as a method of allowing backs to burst into the space towards the side lines to give the goalkeeper a low risk chipped option, there was little or no movement in front of Geoffrey Claffey in the Roscommon goal.
Claffey was forced to go long and the surprising aspect of when he did look long to his midfielders, none of the back six made a significant effort to get out and contest the breaking ball. A formation like this can be used to lull a half forward into thinking his defender isn’t interested in the break and allow that defender to try get a step on him to help outnumber the opposition —but this didn’t appear to be in the Roscommon defenders thoughts.
Going long and trusting your midfielders to win the aerial shows a lot of confidence in them and while Niall Daly and Cathal Shine competed admirably, it is tough task to come out with a high percentage against the likes of Donaghy, David Moran and Bryan Sheehan, particularly if you are slow to help them when it breaks.
In fairness to Claffey, he recognised the difficulties and while Fintan Cregg lined up a free in the 18th minute the Roscommon shot stopper was out from his goal talking to multiple members of his back line and midfield. They improved slightly as the game wore on but it is certainly an area they will review in detail ahead of the championship.
The other key aspect was how Roscommon allowed Kerry to dictate the shape of the game with the Kingdom forward movement and spatial awareness causing them major difficulty. While defenders may be assigned a particular player to mark, they must be aware where the biggest point of danger is coming from — rather than blindly following their direct opponent.
Too many times the movement of Colm Cooper and Darran O’Sullivan had the Roscommon full back line in no man’s land. Cooper and O’Sullivan rotated in and out at various stages with their men following diligently, which often left oceans of room for Kerry to operate their slick popped-kick passing in front of full forwards and getting runners coming at pace.
Too often members of the Roscommon full back line were found over 50 yards from their goal without cover behind them and when they analyse the one-on-one situations that allowed Donnchadh Walsh and O’Sullivan to goal, they will realise how they were constantly reacting to Kerry’s movement, rather than having any clear defensive structure.
This certainly isn’t the first time Kerry forwards have done this to a defence, and Roscommon are better served learning these lessons in April to allow them time to attempt to rectify before the summer. They have had a challenging couple of weeks with defeats to Mayo, Dublin and now Kerry but the fact they were in yesterday’s semi-final highlights the potential and talent within their group.
Last year they came off a positive league campaign with promotion to Division 1 and underperformed in championship. This year it still goes down as another positive campaign — now the real challenge begins to join the heavyweights.
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