THERE’S always something a little strange about the dynamic around national league games, especially those early season ones where people are coming out of curiosity as much as fervent desire to see their county win two points.
So when Cork football fans looked up to see Mark Collins and Tomás Clancy (the two half-forwards) patrolling their own 45 within maybe five minutes of the Kildare game last Sunday, you could almost hear the moment everyone realised, ok, this is how it’s going to be.
Cork are pinning their 2019 at least on the base of a strong defensive system. It makes sense of course.
Cork’s struggles to keep decent teams below 20 points are well documented, man-marking defenders aren’t jumping out of fields around the county and as much as games with Mayo can offer the opportunity, it’s just not been practical to go toe to toe with teams like Kerry (too much firepower) or Tyrone (too tactically aware).
A few issues though. Results are the key now because it ain’t going to be pretty to watch unless Cork are winning and there were grumbles already after the game which indicate the difficulty here — lose playing defensively and Cork have lost their soul/spark; get ripped apart going man-v-man and Cork are hammered for being naive; people are tough to please.
Ronan McCarthy is hardly for turning and the interesting part here is how this entire system is coached and developed and whether Cork can improve the key aspects of what is obviously a work in progress.
Bare facts were pointed out by the manager after the game where he compared the scores conceded by this time last year to Clare (3-12 in McGrath Cup final) and Tipp (3-16) to this year’s totals of 0-8 and 1-10. Cork will have a target of conceding maybe 12 points or less in most league games.
It was striking certainly to see how frequently Cork fell into what Jose Mourinho might call a low block, where anywhere from 12 to 14 outfield players drifted into their own 45 when Kildare were in possession and were content to fill spaces rather than engage with the ballcarrier.
It was reasonably successful in that Kildare struggled to create clean shooting chances until Cork chased the game a little in the last quarter and found it more difficult to stop one-v-one situations in defence.
Cork’s ability to actually keep scores down as games open up and defenders become more exposed to situations where they’re asked to stop their man getting a shot away from inside the scoring area.
Where Cork set their defensive line and how aggressively Cork seek to turn over ball in different areas.
There were spells, some long ones in fact, where Cork allowed Kildare clean possession around halfway and just shifted bodies across the field as Kildare moved the ball left and right, back and forth, and there were noticeably few occasions where Cork got contact on an opposition player with a tackle or where say a pack of Cork players locked in on a turnover opportunity.
Kildare still got a shot away (a bad one, but still) after several minutes of possession at one stage, even when Cork were set.
Some teams have different target zones where they look to engage the opposition.
Cork will look to find that balance between patient defensive work and actively looking to win the ball back – everyone buying into that shape will be important.
The identity of the sweepers.
Mark Collins has played the role on/off for Cork over the years and is the most natural up and down footballer with the necessary skillset and knowledge.
There was one play where he filled the role perfectly, picking up a loose ball from in front of his full-back line, then moving the ball out and following the move on with a kick-pass into space.
He will probably end up touching more ball than anyone, no bad thing, and can create from deep by default.
Tomás Clancy probably isn’t as natural positionally but has the legs and athleticism to get up and back as necessary.
In some ways how the sweepers play without and with the ball will impact the whole team’s performance and if it might not be the influence of someone like a Ryan McHugh on Donegal, it’s still potentially the most important decision here.
That transition to attack, and here might well be the toughest part to figure.
Cork tried to leave two men up as often as possible on Sunday (Connolly, Michael Hurley) but it puts an awful lot of pressure on these guys to be able to find spaces to receive long passes on the break and then score in an area they’re probably outnumbered and isolated.
It was pretty noticeable that Cork drove out with the ball into midfield plenty times and just didn’t have options to kick-pass to into space or for a runner to take the ball into the scoring zone and the sideline could be seen encouraging faster movement of ball in that middle zone.
Really it’s decision making on who can commit ahead of the ball and finding some form of shape in attack where there is always someone making a move to take the ball from the man in possession or always some forward available for that kick-pass.
Donegal at peak McGuinness used runners like Lacey, McGlynn and McHugh to get ahead of the play to offer penetration and Cork need Deane and Maguire (who both only got a couple of runs) and Powter to break lines a minimum number of times for this to work in an attacking sense.
It’s hard to recall any of Cork’s defensive six getting ahead of the ball at any stage apart from Matthew Taylor who got in on goal down the left at one stage and again, that balance being minding the spaces at the back and players knowing when to make that burst into space will make or break this system.
If Cork do achieve their target of keeping the score down on one side to say 0-11/ 0-12, they’ll still need to find enough scores on the other to win games.
That’s the challenge now, and look it’s a start, a conviction and a plan at least in how Cork are going to take this on.
We warned you already not to expect shootouts. Cork 2019 have chosen their way for now at least.