The jury remains out on the success or otherwise of Kevin McLoughlin’s deployment as a sweeper for Mayo.
However the need for it is abundantly clear.
Mayo have been within touching distance of an All-Ireland title in each of the last four years. After losing finals in 2012 and 2013, they lost semi-final replays to the eventual winners in 2014 and 2015.
In each of the four games Mayo lost in those years, the concession of goals were critical factors in defeats.
They’ve conceded 10 goals in those four games, only scoring five themselves.
And the timing of those concessions has often been devastating.
With that in mind trying to find a system where Mayo can tighten up at the back is not only a good move, it is imperative.
In Mayo’s last three championship games Kevin McLoughlin has played as the designated ‘sweeper’, a role he looks set to fill again this evening in Croke Park against Westmeath
Mayo utilise McLoughlin as an out and out sweeper. Compare this to the likes of Dublin who often free up Cian O’Sullivan to sweep but they enable this by fluidly dropping back players line by line to release O’Sullivan from centre-half back as often as possible.
By comparison, McLoughlin tends to start in the half-back line and is freed up as soon as the opposition release a half-forward back to sweep at the other end.
While there have been questions asked of his positioning, it appears McLoughlin is being asked to play the role with a view to Mayo’s Achilles heel in recent years: the concession of goals.
The tactic certainly was not a success in their Connacht semi-final defeat to Galway, Mayo’s fifth championship defeat in five years was, again, down to the concession of a crucial, game changing green flags.
In general play against Galway, McLoughlin looked somewhat ill at ease in the position.
However, Mayo manager Stephen Rochford stuck to his guns and McLoughlin has performed well in the All-Ireland Qualifier wins over Fermanagh and Kildare.
Mayo conceded one goal in those 140 plus minutes of football and Seán Quigley’s effort came not from an overlap but from a poor turnover in their own half with most of the defenders on the front foot seeking to support the attack.
But, it is also true to say that it is only now, back in Croke Park, that Mayo will get a full test of their sweeper system. That starts today against a Westmeath team who provide a very strong goal threat with the likes of John Heslin and Ciarán Martin moving in and out of the full-forward line. A season-ending injury to Mayo’s first choice fullback Ger Cafferkey and injury concerns over his replacement, Kevin Keane, certainly leaves the full-back line vulnerable.
Despite such concerns, McLoughlin’s role is likely to be as deep lying as it has been all season. In what is being described as the transitional sweeper role, McLoughlin runs at speed to support the man in possession when Mayo turnover the ball deep in their own half. Because his runs are often unchecked — and due to his often excellent kickpassing off his left foot — McLoughlin can be a creative hub for Mayo attacks.
He can also push up when the need arises too. We saw this too when Mayo trailed by six points at half-time against Fermanagh. McLoughlin pushed up on Fermanagh’s kick-outs in the second half and had a hand in 15 of the 17 Mayo scores thereafter.
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