IN the 55th minute of last Saturday’s game, Cork forced a cheap turnover off Tyrone down the left flank of their attack and Ruairí Deane was suddenly through on goal.
Deane’s pass didn’t go to hand and Luke Connolly was forced to tap the ball with his foot and set it up soccer-style to try and side-slide the ball past the advancing Niall Morgan.
The shot went outside the post.
A goal at that stage may have completely altered the tone and complexion of the match because even though Micheal Hurley levelled the game just three minutes later, there was still a sense that Cork needed a goal to stop the match going away from them.
Cork still had enjoyed 62% possession up to that point of the game but the massive energy that Cork had already invested was draining away and Tyrone were turning the screw.
Tyrone had got a grip on the Cork kick-out because Tyrone tactically altered their set-up in the second half. They pushed three players into their full-forward line to cut out Mark White’s short options and force him to go long. And Tyrone mined 1-2 off White’s long kick-outs in the second half.
Assessing the shots/scores rates from play of both sides, Cork were more impressive with 10 scores from 16 shots, compared to Tyrone’s 9/19.
Yet when Tyrone really needed to get the job done under massive pressure in the second half, they showed that experience, class and composure; from the 41st to the 70th minute, Tyrone nailed 10 scores from 10 shots (both from play and placed balls).
Cork deserve massive credit for this performance but the statistics still show the gulf between them and the top teams. Cork’s style, especially in the first half, was as much to deny Tyrone possession as to dominate the ball.
A case study between Cork’s first half numbers, and Dublin’s possession stats from their first half against Roscommon, is instructive in the comparative penetration levels – which was highlighted seven days earlier – between both teams.
From a colossal 225 first half possessions, Cork scored 2-4; from 127 possessions in the same period against Roscommon, Dublin bagged 1-15.
There’s no point at this stage comparing Cork’s numbers to Dublin (especially when possessions are often irrelevant unless there is a positive end product) but trying to find that more incisive edge – and that better balance between defence and attack – is what Cork need to develop if they are to really push on and beat the top teams.
This was still another consistent and solid Cork display. The easy assessment to make on the first half is that Tyrone were lethargic and lifeless but Cork were almost faultless, especially in so many areas where Tyrone were expected to swallow Cork up.
Cork held Tyrone to 0-2 in the opening 20 minutes; Tyrone didn’t win a Cork kick-out until the 21st minute; Cork didn’t make an unforced error until the 22nd minute, which led to a Tyrone point; Cork didn’t take the ball into contact, which meant it took Tyrone until the 29th minute to turn Cork over in possession.
It was half an hour before Cork took the wrong shooting option when Thomas Clancy had a wild shot at the target. Despite Cork having so much of the ball, which forced Tyrone to come after them, Cork still made more tackles in the first half.
It was all textbook stuff but Cork also had the edge tactically on Tyrone, especially on shutting down their kick-out. Cork had at least eight bodies between the Tyrone 45-metre line and the Cork 65 for Niall Morgan’s kick-out and they were happy to leave Hugh Pat McGeary free in the left corner, for Morgan to kick to.
Yet Cork had such a good defensive shape that Tyrone repeatedly struggled with their transition on those kick-outs.
Cork’s possession numbers were off the charts in that opening half. Their goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders had more possessions (143) than the entire Tyrone team (115) in that period. Sean White almost had more possessions (30) in that first half than Tyrone’s five best players – Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Colm Cavanagh, Cathal McShane and Niall Sludden – who had a combined 33.
Donnelly, who had averaged 38 possessions in his two previous games, only had eight in the first half, but his influence from just nine second half possessions illustrated that massive difference between having the ball, and making an impact with that possession. From those nine possessions, Donnelly scored two points, won two converted frees and had two assists.
Pushing Donnelly closer to goal and nearer McShane was decisive but Tyrone were far more controlled in everything they did after the break. Cork had conceded more frees (12-5) in the first half but most of those were tactical fouling whereas Tyrone were untypically coughing up frees in the scoring zone.
Tyrone didn’t give Cork those opportunities after the break while – unlike the first half – Tyrone were using their short kick-outs to far greater effect, mining 1-4 off that possession.
Cork were on the back-foot by then and an unanswered 2-2 in four minutes looked to have killed the game. And yet, Cork didn’t allow that to happen, with the fightback led by the outstanding Michael Hurley; from just seven possessions, Hurley scored four points from four shots.
However, Tyrone were consistently able to match that level of efficiency at the other end. They had runners coming from everywhere, Cork were running out of gas, and Tyrone just burned them off in the last ten minutes.
It was a disappointing end to an exciting and entertaining seven days for Cork football. With one game still to play, Cork’s championship is effectively over but all the conditions for a bigger and better season next year and in place now.
And the numbers from Saturday’s game, especially in the second half, and particularly with Cork having 151 more possessions than Tyrone, should be Cork’s starting point, not just for the Roscommon game, but for 2020 and beyond.