IT’S rarely been more topical or relevant, the difference in levels between a team that’s playing with freedom and one that plainly is not and this ongoing search for the right balance.
It’s been fascinating for instance to watch Man Utd’s attacking players and play this past month especially, where they’ve managed to unlock all their creative spirit with trust and room to express themselves and it came to mind last Saturday evening as we watched Cork footballers again struggle with the weight of recent history and the negativity that’s been so difficult to shift.
Cork are playing for some time like a team that isn’t quite sure how to win, with this constant nagging fear of something about to go wrong.
If the defensive structure might take care of itself with coaching time and games, there’s no getting away from the idea now that the attacking gameplan simply can’t function unless they can find that release, both individually and as a group.
The bare facts tell their own story of a team that hasn’t found any fluency as an attacking unit.
Cork haven’t scored more than 13 points in a game (1-5, 0-10, 1-10, 1-9 isn’t a list of scores that’ll win many games at this or any level) and are the third lowest scorers across the four divisions, and Fermanagh are lowest but have managed to only concede seven scores or less in three of the game.
There’s something in the stilted play though and it was striking certainly to look at the sideline for the last 10 minutes last weekend and see their two most talented attacking players, Luke Connolly and Michael Hurley, having been taken off.
Connolly comes across at times as something of a free-spirited flair kind of forward, the sort of player that divides opinion depending on where you stand on the whole talent-vs-work-rate argument and I’ve heard well-regarded coaches make cases both ways this past year.
On the one side you’ll get tutting about crossfield passes going out of play and over-elaboration and if there’s no suggestion that Connolly won’t put in a shift as necessary, it’s hardly his natural instinct to be shoving defenders to the ground for turnover ball.
And yet, there’s so much to gain and truth is, it’s really hard to find anybody who’s worked with Connolly who’ll do anything other than shout about his talents and express (forcefully) the need to show trust and confidence to get most from his talents.
On a quiet day last week he still managed to kick across a ball 40 yards out for a point probably nobody else in the Cork squad could have kicked, assisted with another long kick-pass and there’s the sense that something is always possible when he’s in possession.
If we’re going all out on the Man Utd comparison then Connolly is probably the Pogba on the field, where it’s just not clicking for him at the moment and questions are being asked and still there’s just this feeling that getting him to click into the rhythm of late 2017/spring '18 is possibly the key element of any Cork attacking force.
Like with Pogba, you’re going to have to take the things that don’t come off as part of the unpredictable package that can win games when focused and trusted.
When he got the hook last Sunday there was this moment’s hesitation and then realisation and it looked like it hurt as he walked off; Cork won’t want an inhibited Connolly on the field, on the edge of wondering if any stray pass might lead to being subbed.
Similarly with Michael Hurley, a player who does his best work off the cuff and without restrictions, who needs a flow of combinations and runners and natural movement to take advantage of that burst of speed and ability to create spaces to work scores.
Hurley won’t thrive receiving ball in isolation and Connolly’s moments of magic are simply harder to conjure if outnumbered and receiving the ball outside the 45 with nobody to spark little combinations and one-twos with.
Sean Powter’s the joker in the pack here, the one who might just kick things off, and there was genuinely this buzz when he came on and made an impression against Meath.
There was a goal chance, where he gathered possession with a horde of Meath defenders around and still managed to sneak a shot away that almost nicked top corner.
There was the goal, all explosiveness and positivity to attack a punched assist across the goal, more like a hefty full-forward than the little magician.
Mostly it was a shift in feeling with Powter on the field that something might happen, that there was a purpose on the ball and that he wasn’t going to be overawed by the overall lack of conviction in the team.
Powter’s got that kind of devastation in him and both Connolly and Hurley have plenty history of scores and matchwinning in big games, so there is the base of an attack to build around here given the right environment.
There are other aspects around that trio that need work of course.
It will happen in the chaotic positional movements of modern football games that creatives will end back in their defence and less creative players ahead of the ball but Cork do need to find a way to link of the ball through that middle third that doesn’t involve their scorers having to drift outside the scoring zone.
There were times where Cork’s two main scoring threats were closest to each other outside the Meath forty-five with no option ahead of the ball.
Ruairí Deane as a target-man will only be usable if the ball is kicked into one-v-one situations and he has scoring forwards buzzing around for breaks and handy handpasses.
The use of Paul Kerrigan as a sort of deep-lying link player didn’t function as Cork needed to open spaces and move the ball further up the field and there were times when it wasn’t clear exactly where on the field that extra link was meant to be happening.
One standout was the lack of combinations in the attacking third, the amount of times a Cork player in the Meath half lacked a support runner or option ahead of the ball especially and ended up coughing up a turnover by taking the ball into contact. This is recurring from Clare and Kildare games and right through from Tyrone and Kerry last summer.
It all strikes as much of a mentality as a tactical shift that’s needed here, where the management must find that spot where the team can flow and isn’t afraid to make mistakes, where the creative players are given the licence and the necessary bodies in attacking areas to go and make scores happen.
Cork need enough scores for a win this weekend.