Ways around the massed defence

How to overcome football’s swarm defence?

It is a help if you have a creative player like a Colm Cooper, a Martin Clarke or a Ciarán McDonald in your side. Beat an opponent, draw in another defender and with their vision, slip a pass to a colleague in an open channel.

For those without a Gooch, the conundrum remains because the packed defence is here to stay. I see at club level in Meath more and more, and with some success. Generally, it’s employed by teams who have been unsuccessful and haven’t good enough players to win games in a conventional manner. From a coaching perspective, it is much easier to set your team up defensively, drop men back, have one or two good forwards and get a trainer to have your squad aerobically fit enough to play the system.

For a new manager taking charge of a struggling team, he can quickly make them competitive instead of having to spend time coaching foot passing, the creation of space and good angles of running.

If there is an advantage to being confronted with such a system, these teams let you win the ball from your kick-out. So at least you have opportunity. However a varied approach is needed, mixing the long ball to a target man and putting it through the hands to draw out the defence. Bernard Brogan took 35 minutes but figured out that a couple of deft flicks and throwing the ball around with good vision eventually opened up Donegal last year. It also helps if you can get ahead of these teams early on and force them to come out and play. Good strength and conditioning is required to break tackles and punch holes, and you need to be patient and vary the point of attack. An ability to kick points from distance will beat any defence, and a forward or two who knows how to buy a free is no harm either.

It is important to remember that the swarm defence is not a 70 minute option and only falls into shape when that team loses the ball in the opposition’s half. Space will appear at times and you need to capitalise on these occasions. For kick-outs landing at midfield, teams will line out man-for-man in a conventional formation and the team that can get a clean catch or win a break and quickly get it out of the ‘ruck’ has an opportunity to deliver fast, quality ball into their full-forward line for a 2v2 or 3v3 situation. Wicklow, under Mick O’Dwyer and beyond, are a breath of fresh air in this regard.

Unfortunately the modern statistician will read out the number of times the team gave away the ball and this discourages players from trying this. This is your best chance to create goals and hardly the end of the world for you if it doesn’t work out and you give the ball away on your opponents 14-yard line.

Teams need to be clever and exploit the occasions when the space opens up. I am thinking of games where the team on the counter-attack get fouled, and as happens far too much nowadays, the player requires “attention” from the physio giving the opposition time to re-group and the chance is gone. Unless you have a broken leg, better for your team to get up on your feet quickly and let a team-mate take the free when you have the space to exploit. Attention can wait until after your team gets the score.

The GAA games administration boffins have a key role to play in how this defending evolves. Nothing is more frustrating than being on the counter-attack with space and support, the attacker gets fouled and is in a position to take a quick free but the referee stops the play to book the defender, giving time to the defence to set up. The attacking team need to be allowed take their free before the swarm defence sets up and let the referee book the player when the ball goes out of play. Easily enough implemented if the GAA are keen to promote good attacking play. The GAA also need to have a think about the interpretation of two or three defenders tackling one forward who has nowhere to go and gets blown for over-carrying. If you want to encourage the swarm defence, then blow for over-carrying. If you want the opposite, interpret it as fouling.

In terms of producing a modern gaelic footballer to handle the massed defence, a combination of basketball (for peripheral vision), athletics and gaelic football in their youth is hard to beat.

Recently in these pages, Paul Galvin suggested another route around the smother defence — a sort of Barcelona tiki-taka style. It has merit. We are already half-way down the road of all players needing to be comfortable on the ball and not giving it away, giving the ball and going for the return. The middle eight positions have similar job descriptions — defenders are now scoring as much as forwards. The big midfielder is almost obsolete with kick-outs going short. I have no doubt there is some teenage GAA coach who has grown up studying the Barcelona style and will attempt to bring it to bear on a GAA pitch some day soon. Certainly a team of 13 Brian McGuigans, passing and moving, and a couple of tall lads at either end could be the new swarm defence. But with the extra physicality of gaelic over soccer and the fact you can catch a ball in the air, I am not so sure the game is ready yet to be overtaken by a swarm of small, neat, skilful Iniestas.


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