The Christy O'Connor column: How modern GAA teams create space

The Christy O'Connor column: How modern GAA teams create space
Glen Rovers' Adam O'Donovan in pursuit of Imokilly's Brian Lawton in the county final. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

IN a recent article for the Barcelona Innovation Hub, David Sumpter wrote an excellent piece, titled ‘The Science of Space Creation’.

Sumpter interviewed Javier Fernandez, data scientist for FC Barcelona, who is leading a scientific attempt to understand football, by studying player data.

Last year, Fernandez published a paper, together with Luke Bornn, of the basketball team the Sacramento Kings, about how Barcelona control space. Their method involves painting the pitch a colour that reflects who will get to the ball first.

Barcelona’s philosophy is to use possession of the ball to open up space for attack.

And Fernandez and his colleagues have found a way of measuring how this has been implemented.

They have developed an algorithm that works out how the opposition’s defensive lines are structured and when a team has passed from one line to the next.

“Once we can automatically detect the lines of defensive pressure, we can analyse several other things, such as how much of the pitch we control at the moment a pass is attempted between the lines,” Fernandez told Sumpter.

“We can even look at how pitch control changes in time and whether a pass came at the point the team best-controlled the area between the lines.”

Fernandez and his colleagues have another tool that identifies sequences in the game: counter-attacks, possession-based attacks, set-pieces, and so on. This allows tactical analysts to quickly get the most relevant clips and better organise their analysis.

It will be a while yet before GAA coaches will be able to use such mathematical concepts. Yet basic maths show that creating space automatically provides passing alternatives.

Space creation has never been more important at the elite level in GAA. Defenders have never been faster, more mobile, and more athletic, which makes it harder for forwards to secure clean possession. It’s harder still when the middle third is such a battleground that deliveries are routinely contaminated.

Teams have different styles, but the dominant style should always give that particular team’s forwards the best advantage possible. And that places a high premium on space creation, and the quality of delivery into that space.

In hurling and football now, the goalkeeper is the main quarter-back, but much of the game is heavily defined by American football principles. Players delivering the ball have to be more accurate to hit receivers moving into space.

And forwards receiving the ball have to be able to create that space, and then be able to separate from the defender to win the ball.

Wide-receivers in American football are working off choreographed plays, and intricately designed route-running, but hurling and football forwards create that separation from the same basic principles: timing the run; feigning to go one way, and then pushing off the defender; using a different deceptive move, or an angle adjustment to buy that split second to get away.

Understanding and recognising leverage is basic forward play, but smart timing, intelligent running, and slick movement govern forward play.

Much of this is not new, especially in hurling. When Liam Griffin took over the Wexford hurlers, in 1995, one of his first projects was Martin Storey. The Oulart-the-Ballagh man was one of the best forwards in the game, but Griffin still wanted Storey to see a new way.

Storey’s first instinct, almost every time, in possession, was to try and take on the shot, but Griffin wanted him to let the ball into the full-forward line more; and then, get in after it to make himself available for a potential offload. Storey was an All-Star in 1993, but in Wexford’s sole match of the 1995 championship, against Offaly (Griffin’s first year as manager), Storey scored one point. A year later, he was an All-Star. And a much more rounded player.

Hurling is a far different game now, with systems and sweepers. Short puck-outs are designed to avoid that defensive web and to build the platform of attack through the lines, or with cross-field deliveries on that second ball.

On longer puck-outs, modern receivers have to think like wide-receivers, in order to create those pockets of space to get free from the clutches of sweepers, covering players, or zonal defenders.

In American football terms, those players occupy the safety position. There are two variations of the position in a typical formation: the free safety and strong safety.

The sliotar can travel a lot faster than an American football, but it can also travel a lot further, which gives players more time to get into a position to shut that ball down.

Yet the biggest difference between both games is that, when a hurler or camogie player secures possession, they have to try and do something with it, whereas in American football making the catch is often enough.

Denying players the opportunity to create that separation before the goalkeeper even strikes the ball is the key to shutting down any space creation in the first place.

Every team now is focused on shutting down space. And the only way of getting around those defensive roadblocks, and continuing to create enough space, is by fitting out the system with the players suited to, and capable of, carrying it out.

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