Why Kerry are so easy on the eye

Intensity and work-rate are the modern day bedrocks of football success. But finesse must still have a place

Gaelic Football is always changing. While stats are a relatively new phenomenon, trends are now clearly identifiable and deviations spotted.

For example, possession was previously seen as key to winning any game. This no longer seems to be a prerequisite. In last year’s All-Ireland final, Kerry won midfield hands down. The Kingdom won 63% of the kick outs (15 clean catches and 11 breaks) whereas Dublin won only 37% (seven clean catches and eight breaks). It is the efficiency of possession which has taken on a heightened state of importance. Dublin achieved 13 scores from 30 attacks whereas Kerry achieved 12 scores from 31 attacks.

Of course, stats can be interpreted in a number of ways. They can even be denied totally if a reasonable alternative explanation or variable renders them meaningless. Lou Piniella, the baseball coach, once said stats are like bikinis — they show a lot but hide the key bits.

Being that as it may, when you can correctly interpret the “reasons why” behind the stat and take an appropriate corrective action on the training field to address them, then there is no more effective way to progress.

For example, given Dublin’s superior attack efficiency in the All-Ireland, one might jump to the conclusion that Kerry had a problem with their shooting and that this should be addressed immediately. This does not seem to be the case. Shooting efficiency (shots versus scores) was in fact slightly ahead for Kerry. It was attack efficiency that was more relevant. Dublin were able to engineer their scoring chances from possession that bit better than Kerry. Standing in front of a goal all night, practising point-scoring will not make any difference to this build-up play. If the build-up play is right and the chances are created, the elite forwards will score.

In this case, the “reasons why” — much like the reasons behind a lot of stats — are intensity and work rate. Dublin are not as good as Kerry. The fact that they were still in the game with 10 minutes to go was because they had worked harder than Kerry. They then got their chance and, in fairness, they took it. Their superior intensity was further evidenced by the turnover rate. As you would expect at the elite end, both teams had only three unforced errors. However, Kerry were forced into 23 errors whereas Dublin were forced into only 18. More telling again was the fact Kerry had 10 unsuccessful hand passes. Dublin had zero. This stat is a lot harder to deny.

This leads to the inevitable style versus substance argument. Kerry play a fantastic style of football. Dublin are more workmanlike, regimental even. One would have thought that once the score is achieved, then that would be enough. For the Dubs, it certainly was. It would have been hard to find one dissenting voice amongst their 50,000 fans in Croke Park once the final whistle went.

Ironically for the third member of football’s elite, Cork, this is not usually the case. Many Cork supporters continue to bay for long balls and 50:50 hoofs into the full-forward line regardless of the five v two scenario that may be unfolding inside at that time (or 11 v 2 if Donegal were doing the defending!). These protests can be likened to the picking of a scab. The protagonist knows it’s not going to end well but desperately wants it done. They are strangely gratified by the action, regardless of the unfavourable outcome and would do the same thing all over again.

It is in this build up-play — the crucial engineering of the score — that continues to be a source of much frustration for Cork supports. The feeling on the ground appears to be that the Cork team carry it to death, trying to burst holes with power and pace until they eventually grind teams into submission. People seem to find it frustrating to watch. Whenever the topic raises its head, there is the inevitable query as to why they don’t just go toe to toe, man to man, and kick the leather off the ball and let forwards fight and win their own ball. Winning the game itself becomes almost secondary. Demystifying this issue can be tricky and there are probably a whole range of reasons. The aforementioned stats have outlined how crucial efficiency of possession is in the modern game. This is probably a good place to start.

Watching the Division Two final between Kildare and Tyrone, it was amazing how many times both teams kicked and passed the ball away. Unforced errors. Remember the top table last September — only three unforced errors each during the entire game. Zero unsuccessful hand passes for Dublin. This is the difference between hopefuls and champions. The easiest defensive set-up in the world is getting players behind the ball. By kicking the ball long into these 2 v 1 situations also makes it the most effective defensive set up in the world. The alternative is to hold onto the ball and work the opening.

In this scenario, with the intensity and work rate of the modern day tacklers, taking the ball into contact places the ball at risk. No inter-county player can expect to go into contact against any of the other top teams and come out the other side retaining possession. Indeed, if he doesn’t get out of contact in two or three seconds, he will find himself in a swarm situation. Avoiding the contact means that the ball is therefore shifted backwards and sideways out around the middle. The frustration of the supporters continues.

Why then is Kerry’s build up play so much easier to watch? Like Cork, Kerry shift the ball sideways and backwards just as much. However, they are age old masters of using the full width of the pitch. They play smart football. This fast movement of the ball, anticipation of their support runners combined with the languid style of many of their players makes it a lot more graceful. However, Kerry know better than anyone how labour intensive this can be, and have realised that working an occasional cheap score from a long ball can save their legs and take the pressure off. Even better if this long ball, bypassing the melee, can be a percentage ball in their favour to the big man at the back post.

Cork’s blueprint is largely similar. They too prefer to work the opening and not take the ball into possession. True, they are more power-based than probing incisions but if those are the resources available in the squad, then it is the responsibility of the management to make the most of them. The variation of the odd long ball into the full forward line, allowing the support players to take a breather and save energy is clearly something they too have worked. This is evident from Aidan Wash’s placement at the edge of the square for the league. It is unclear whether this will be continued into championship but, at the very least, a clear plan B has been explored. This is more valuable than any league title.

The hope, from my point of view, is it will not now become Plan A.

With Walsh, Cork have the opportunity to build their very own Jack O’Shea/Darragh Ó Sé-type player but it is there where he will need time to develop. Playing to his strengths means relying on his supreme athleticism and ball-winning ability. Timed runs from the full-forward line is a new art form and that could take years to develop.

Cork, Kerry, Dublin. It will be one of these three. Dublin will inevitably find it difficult to match their 2011 hunger and will find it even more difficult to engineer a situation whereby they are allowed to pip a superior team like Kerry with a push in the last 10 minutes. Injury free, and fully resourced, Cork probably have the strongest panel, position for position. Kerry’s system of play remains the most efficient. Corks odds are a justifiably short 10/3. Dublin are 5/1. Kerry are 2/1. The game has changed, the stats are new. The bookie is still calling it right.


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