The burning question is can the Cork forwards match the Kingdom's firepower

The burning question is can the Cork forwards match the Kingdom's firepower
Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A moment in last year’s Munster final had a familiar feeling.

It was a score for Kerry. Paul Geaney and David Clifford combined as they pleased, with a blitz of movement and technical skills. Cork football fans realised that it was going to be another long night. It was, to the tune of 3-18, and 3-20 would follow some weeks later. It might not be any harm to recall these atrocities, before we get too carried away with the positivity of brave, man-to-man football against a non-functional Limerick attack.

Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

This weekend will tell us more about where we are on this road to recovery and how exactly Ronan McCarthy wants to take on the better teams.

Sometimes, the numbers tell you everything you need to know. In recent games with Kerry, Cork have conceded 3-18, 1-23, 1-11, 2-15, and 0-24. That’s four times over the twenty-point mark and the other was the replay in the Killarney rain, in 2015, which Kerry won anyway.

James O’Donoghue has destroyed Cork twice, in 2014 and 2017 (racking up 1-23), while Paul Geaney has 4-17 in rattling Cork’s defence. That’s an awful lot of damage and Cork have never found a way of properly holding this Kerry attacking rhythm.

One-to-one match-ups have been inappropriate or just not good enough.

Defending as a unit hasn’t been effective. For example, in Killarney in 2017 several Cork defenders rushed Kieran Donaghy and were taken out by one handpass to a free Kerry forward; also, James O’Donoghue found room to kick a score even with twelve Cork players inside the 45.

Of course, football analysis tends to criticise whatever doesn’t work. When teams push up and leave one-v-ones in the full-back line, it’s brave until a goal gets conceded; then it’s incredibly naive.

Think the stick Kerry got for Conor McManus’s goal last summer, or the talk of Tyrone now being too open, after years of being too defensive. Their damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

These are the questions facing Ronan McCarthy: does he push up and make it a man-v-man contest, trusting his defenders to contest everything and handle their individual battles? Or does he try and get a couple of half-forwards to spend more time in their own half, to cut off spaces in front of that lethal inside-forward line?

There are risks to both. We recall a terrible lesson down the Páirc, in 2014, when Kerry hopped ball after ball into the spaces for James O’Donoghue, isolated against his man. It was a day that altered Brian Cuthbert’s attacking philosophy. Cork haven’t had a man-marker to do the O’Donoghue job when he’s been on fire.

Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Not many defenders have gotten a handle on Paul Geaney, given the right ball.

Add the athleticism and skills of David Clifford to that inside line and there are three players who are capable of hitting eight points from play, through various combinations of green and white flags. Add the pace and ability to find spaces off Sean O’Shea and that’s four scoring forwards who need four specific man-marking jobs.

It’d seem a huge ask to go toe-to-toe with this Kerry attack, for a defence still learning, with newcomers who are untested. And it could become an awfully long evening, if Kerry are given the time to pick out long kick-passes into the spaces in front of Cork’s full-back line.

Remember, Kerry took Dublin for 1-18 in an all-out attacking game in the league. Remember, this Cork have had desperate trouble this year from the likes of Meath and Clare, where anyone watching couldn’t but wonder what might happen against a fully-at-it Kerry.

And don’t forget, Kerry did struggle with Galway’s defensive block in the super eights, only hitting 1-10 in Croker. Nathan Walsh and Kevin Flahive are pacy, aggressive defenders, but it’s a massive ask.

Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

And still, it can’t be so simple as parking the bus, Fermanagh-style, a game plan that never looks quite comfortable for Cork. The attempt at implementation of sweepers and getting serious numbers behind the ball wasn’t fluent at all in the league: the defence looked disorganised and still open to runners, while the play on the ball broke down completely.

Any kind of high press needs physicality in the tackle and intensive work-rate, which Cork haven’t shown yet. If Cork push on Kerry’s kick-outs, they’ll have to commit to breaks.

Kerry were far more aware of numbers in last year’s game. They managed to create a one-v-one situation from their first kick-out of the game.

Their first goal came from a Cork kick-out, where Steven O’Brien drifted to the spaces on the wings and his man was caught between holding the centre and staying with his man.

It was remarkable to watch the kick-outs afterwards and note every single Kerry player ahead of his marker.

Cork will have to be more streetwise and tuned-in here.

Individual decision-making will be key, but it’ll be interesting to see if Cork defenders are instructed to take one man and follow or defend more zonally.

In the end, it comes down to Cork’s ability to carry out whatever game plan with the aggression and skills required; we’d expect a 2015 level of tempo to test Kerry early on.

Do Cork have it in them to make this a shootout and win a 3-15 to 2-16 sort of game? Can they control a more defensive game, with less possession, at this stage of development?

It’s been the same question for several years now and it’s still so difficult for Cork to win this kind of game, if Kerry can score whenever they want.

The feeling is Cork aren’t quite there yet to properly sustain either. We are about to find out how close they are, in a proper test of the defence.

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