Donegal got their first win of the GAA Football League with a home win over Down - Emmet Ryan breaks down the tactical factors that decided this game.
Down’s size disadvantage in this match-up was made worse by the absence of Dan Gordon and Ambrose Rogers. For a team lacking in bigs, losing two of their more imposing presences hardly helped matters.
Meat wasn’t the only issue facing the Mourne Men, movement was as much a problem. Down and Donegal like to play behind the ball, albeit in different ways, but the reigning All-Ireland champions are far better at transitioning from defence to attack.
With more fluid movement, Donegal had a plan to get supporting players up from the back to ensure they had adequate numbers at both ends.
Donegal looked to exploit their size advantage early by using high balls but it was their ability to draw frees near goal that proved more effective. Though their passing was markedly improved from last week’s loss to Kildare, the final play with high balls suffered throughout the first half.
Donegal could get the ball across the field and create one-on-ones up front but too often the man on the end of high passes failed to claim cleanly. This was why Donegal failed to make the most of their substantial dominance in the opening quarter, despite having seven scoring opportunities to Down’s 3.
Laverty drops back, gives Down space
James McCartan’s charges were forced wide by Donegal’s dominant defence for most of the early going.
With no room inside, Down were forced to adjust. Conor Laverty came out-field, much like he had for Kilcoo in the Ulster Club Championship, and brought an immediate improvement. With room to run up from the back, Laverty was involved in a move that saw Brendan McArdle draw a few on 17 minutes that Donal O’Hare converted.
Laverty drew a free in front of the uprights in the 25th minute that O’Hare once again slotted over.
The opportunities however were limited, even with this brief surge, Down couldn’t match Donegal for chances from play.
The home side had nine chances to Down’s five in the second quarter, mostly down to how Donegal prevented chances from play. The Mourne Men were forced out to the wings into pressurised shots.
Keith Quinn got closest to goal but even his effort near the end-line on 23 minutes was from way out on the right wing, leaving a near impossible angle for his shot.
Donegal fix their high ball game
Having cut the deficit to one by the break, Donegal came out in shut-down mode after the break. Down were held scoreless for 38 minutes plus first half stoppage time as the hosts went on a 9-0 scoring run.
Having committed to bring more players deep towards the end of the first half, Down couldn’t get the ball to their forwards in favourable positions. Donegal’s attack meanwhile was starting to find its rhythm.
Rory Kavanagh and Mark McHugh ran the high ball game for Jim McGuinness’s charges. Using diagonal balls, Donegal were able to capitalise on their height advantage in space. Michael Murphy set the tone for the rest of the half on 41 minutes as he caught and finished from short range.
The pressure being applied via this route made it easier to draw frees in scoring range. Murphy padded his personal tally with a pair of gimmies in the 48th and 49th minutes. Fundamentally the difference was in execution.
In the first half Donegal couldn’t claim primary possession, once they fixed that Down had to respect the high ball threat more.
This opened up avenues for Donegal to charge up the middle. This gun and run approach led to another Murphy score on 56 minutes. Three straight hand passes led to Ross Wherity finding Murphy open and he fisted over the score.
McFadden’s back-to-goal play
The on-going injury issues plaguing Colm McFadden from the previous week were obvious, with his mobility severely limited. McFadden however played a big role in creating goal chances for Donegal.
The first of these, on six minutes, followed a soccer pass to McBrearty but the bulk of McFadden’s work in attack came with his back to the goal. A minute later McFadden put Murphy open and he created a goal chance for Neil McGee.
The resultant 45 was put wide by Murphy. It was McFadden again facing away from goal who put Murphy open on 28 minutes. Murphy’s shot was blocked but Donegal’s intent was clear. Despite his inability to get open with pace, McFadden’s ball-handling was able to get players open.
After the break McFadden was less of a factor but with more room to work, Donegal still managed to create two more goal chances, neither of which were converted, and a third potential chance was put over by Leo McLoone.
This was a dominant yet unrefined performance from Donegal. With 36 scoring chances to Down’s 16, Donegal were far more effective at creating up front. Much of the difference was due to their ability to get more players involved in attack.
Eamon and Neil McGee were both involved in goal chances despite spending most of the evening as committed defenders. Ross Wherity, a nominal 14 playing just in front of midfield, also proved adept at getting forward.
In addition to setting up Murphy, he landed the score of the match on 14 minutes to finish off a great passing move. With Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn still to return to the line-up, Donegal are using the league as an opportunity to get more men involved in end-to-end play.
For Down the problems are obvious and difficult to fix. They lacked the manpower to compete with Donegal physically and their strategy hampers their strengths. While dropping deep curbed Donegal’s control of the game for a brief period, it handicapped Down’s attack for the rest of the game.
Despite playing up to 12 men inside their half at some points, they still couldn’t stop Donegal creating chances.
Up the other end the lack of support, an on-going issue from last season, makes them an easy match-up for any top tier unit.
Until Down find a way to fix their transitions or wholly redraw their game-plan, neither of which is likely in spring, they will continue to be vulnerable.
Emmet Ryan’s book, Tactics not Passion, charts Donegal’s surge to Sam in 2012 and is available online from Original Writing - see the link on the right of this page - and in Eason’s Letterkenny.
You can also follow Emmet on Twitter - @action81