SCIENCE and sport make an unlikely alliance.
Scientists try to make sense of the unknown.
But it’s the unknown dimension of football which makes it so compelling.
Much of the appeal lies in the mystery. Every game provides a new plot. No-one really knows what’s going to happen. Events unfold of their own accord.
There will be tactics and ploys and moments of brilliance. But in the end, random incidents can dictate the final outcome. It could be an injury (Henry Shefflin in last year’s All-Ireland hurling final), a bad decision (the Leinster football final), or the width of a crossbar (last year’s U21 football final).
The job of the modern football coach is to take maximum advantage of the known variables and minimise the effect of the unknown variables. In this respect, they are a bit like scientists, and Jim McGuinness is a modern football coach.
It was no surprise at all that Sunday’s game against Antrim was such a dire spectacle. Indeed, calling it a game is being generous.
What we really witnessed was an experiment. The only thing missing were the lab coats. The formula was engineered by McGuinness and his players followed his detailed instructions.
Having analysed his squad and Antrim’s, the Donegal manager drew on previous experiences and formed the following conclusions.
1: To post a match-winning tally, Antrim would need to win scoreable free-kicks.
2: Antrim would employ seven defenders to negate the influence of Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy
3: Due to their more physical players, Donegal would dominate possession.
From those deductions, McGuinness designed his game plan. His players were told:
1: Do not concede free-kicks in the scoring zone.
2: Do not relinquish possession by taking pot-shots from long range or kicking hopeful balls into a crowded Antrim defence.
3: Create opportunities by making overlapping runs or running at defenders and forcing free-kicks.
Unlike in the old days, when managers developed their masterplan on the week of the game, Donegal meticulously rehearsed their system of play. They were methodical in the extreme. They only conceded three frees in the scoring zone. They never kicked long balls into Colm McFadden. Having smothered the Saffrons attack, they created scores by playing a laboured possession game.
Because the Saffrons couldn’t score, Donegal won.
Donegal’s display was totally uninspiring. It was utterly devoid of creativity and adventure. But Jim McGuinness’ calculations were absolutely correct. He’s not in the entertainment business. A manager’s job is to win games. He devised a game plan where Donegal didn’t have to take any gambles.
Donegal employed a risk-free strategy. It was football-by-formula — and it worked.
Let’s not forget that Sunday’s win over Antrim was the first time Donegal had won an Ulster championship match in Ballybofey since 2007.
In 2008, they kept fouling Paddy Bradley. In 2009, they panicked when Antrim played a sweeper and kicked 18 wides.
Last year, they scored two early goals but were snuffed out by Down’s defence thereafter.
McGuinness could argue his team’s victory was achieved by learning from the mistakes of previous years.
However, it’s still hard to avoid the conclusion that Donegal’s conservative brand of football will only take them so far.
While McGuinness has done a remarkable job, he could be a victim of his own success. The key failing is that they are predictable.
A good manager with good players could concoct a plan to beat Donegal safe in the knowledge that the Tir Chonaill men will spring no surprises.
There is a robotic quality to Donegal’s play and it’s unnecessary.
The real irony is that Donegal are steadfastly avoiding the very tactics their opponents fear.
Michael Murphy was being marked by Ricky Johnston, a 20-year-old who was making only his third start for the Antrim senior team. Imagine the terror that would have been generated in the Antrim defence in those wet conditions if Murphy had been stationed on the edge of the square and Donegal peppered the rookie full-back with high balls.
Or think about Dermot Molloy, a player whose chief asset is an explosive left foot. Yet, Molloy’s best attribute isn’t being exploited because he spends so much time in Donegal’s defence.
When Donegal dismantled Tyrone in the league, Molloy scored 1-2. He poses no threat in his half-back line.
There is no doubt that McGuinness will devise fresh tactics for every new game.
He will realise that he can’t always afford to be so defensive. But judging from the evidence so far, the Glenties clubman has a tendency to be cautious.
He prefers the certainty of possession and distrusts boom-or-bust dividends. In short, he fears what he can’t control.
But McGuinness must learn that it’s not all science.
And only one team stands to suffer more if Donegal enter into the realm of the unknown — the opposition.
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