I have been meaning to write this since the end of the league, but various other priorities intervened. Now with the run up to Sunday week cranking up, it is worthwhile looking at what we have learned so far this year and looking forward into the summer.
Stephen Rochford did a number of things in a similar way to last year, experimented more in other ways and left us scratching our heads in even more ways.
Let’s look at the similarities first.
In 2016, Lee Keegan spent most of the league as a man marker in the full-back line. He had a cracker of a season thereafter. I suspect that Paddy Durcan (who spent a similar stint in the 2017 league in the full-back line) is being groomed to follow a similar track, possibly releasing Lee to push forward a bit more or to take up the centre-back position.
Like Brendan Harrison last year, Fergal Boland started in the first fifteen in every match. This is clearly designed to give him familiarity with all of the defensive systems of the top teams and to show him where he has to work to hold a regular championship slot. It worked brilliantly for Brendan last year, particularly the way he put former Footballer of the Year Bernard Brogan in his pocket in the drawn All-Ireland last September. Will it work for Fergal this year? I certainly hope so but I suspect that it might be a year too soon. What I love about his play is his foot-passing. It is top notch.
On the experiments, Clarke has worked hard on his kickouts but we have made little or no use of the Mark. We have used a sweeper in some matches but not in others, making us adaptable but unpredictable. (A good thing in my view – keep them guessing!)
We have used several different midfield combinations and all of them have given us options going into the summer but there is a stronger argument than ever for Aidan O’Shea to revert to centrefield. We control the sector when he is there and partnered with Tom Parsons we will be hard to beat in that zone. We have experimented with the concept of finishing stronger and I think that this allowed us to close out matches that were drifting from us. I expect that to become a feature of the way we approach the summer battles.
In general, the foot-passing throughout the team is better and clearly a lot of work has been done on this.
There has been good reason for head scratching.
Firstly, we really have not used the sweeper correctly. We play the sweeper between the two back lines, which is totally ineffective in dealing with the long ball. That is why Clarke is constantly called upon to make the save that keeps us in the game. A sweeper should play 15 metres behind the forward closest to goal, in line with the goal and the outfield position of the ball. If the ball comes in long, the sweeper can then immediately shut down the space and prevent the shot on goal.
Secondly, many of us cannot work out the role of some players. Why is Keith Higgins playing full-back? What is the role of Conor O’Shea?
Thirdly, why is our build-up so slow when we transition from defence to attack? What is causing the problem concerning the rotation of the inside forwards? Sometimes it works but sometimes there is just one in there with three defenders for company. That simply doesn’t work.
Fourthly, an issue that is not changed is the way the ball is received from a pass. In most cases a Mayo forward receives the ball with his back to goal. Every back knows that a forward has to do three things to score, namely: position yourself facing goal, make space, shoot. Prevent any one of these things and you generally stop the score. Consequently, giving a ball to a forward facing goal, with a bit of space, gives the back only one chance, often resulting in a foul. Look at the videos on YouTube of good forwards. It should be essential watching for coaches.
So what’s the prognosis?
I don’t think that there will be any complacency this year in the Connacht campaign. Galway have their tails up and will be planning a warm reception for whoever tries to take their title away. The Rossies are stinging after a very poor league campaign. However, as always (with a large dose of 2016 egg still on my face) I expect to a strong performance from us in Connacht. After that, we need a bit less of the issues that cause the head scratching and evidence of progress to assess how long the season will last. But with everyone saying that we are a top three team the money in Paddy Power is suggesting that we might get as far as meeting Kerry.
Will we? Could we go further? Could this be the year?
Saddle up folks and enjoy the ride.
Keep the Faith!