BEFORE Clare played Derry in the All-Ireland quarter-final in June, Colm Collins was asked in an interview on Sky Sports about his team’s main focus against a side that had been so impressive in winning the Ulster title.
“Protecting the ball,” said Collins. “We can’t give it away against this team.” Clare didn’t protect it enough, especially in comparison to their opponents. Derry destroyed Clare on kick-outs, mining a colossal 4-7 off their own kick-out and 1-3 off Clare restarts.
Derry only turned over the ball on six occasions but three of those were coughed up in the last quarter. Those turnover numbers offered further proof of how Derry had taken protecting the ball to a whole new level – prior to the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, Derry had only turned over the ball a miserly 28 times in four matches, an average of just seven per game.
They only turned over the ball seven times in nearly 100 minutes of the Ulster final, but conceded nothing off that possession. Donegal only turned over the ball a handful of times too but Derry mined 0-4 from that possession.
Turnovers, especially the speed of their transition, had been a huge Derry weapon but Galway deactivated it after the first quarter when they pressed Derry’s short kick-out and slowed down the transition. And unlike Donegal, Galway kicked the ball when they won it back.
Galway also cut loose on the possession that Derry did turn over. The Ulster side had only conceded two scores off turnovers in their two previous games but Galway hit them for 2-4 from that source.
The modern game has been continually making evolutionary steps which has constantly challenged how football is viewed. Instinct has been overridden by a more clinical thought process. Results are governed by percentages and precision. And making up those percentages with the quest for greater precision.
The two standout stats from last year’s championship was how Kerry and Dublin both turned over the ball 35 times (albeit after extra-time) in their All-Ireland semi-final defeats to Tyrone and Mayo. The biggest difference between both figures though, was that 30 of those Kerry turnovers were forced in their attacking third.
Tyrone scored 2-9 from turnovers, which had to be Kerry’s starting point under Jack O’Connor. It was one of the reasons he recruited Paddy Tally as defensive coach because Kerry needed that solid foundation to limit the damage on turnovers and counter-attacks.
Kerry’s redesigned structural organisation rectified that risk of being hammered on turnovers. In the final against Galway, they only turned over the ball 10 times and coughed up just 0-2 off that possession. Yet that final also showed how devastating Kerry could be off opposition turnovers, mining 0-8 from that source.
The quality and slickness of the top teams is governed by how they marry transition play with defensive stability. Protecting the ball was one of the reasons Dublin got so close to Kerry because they coughed up so little off turnovers, conceding just 0-5 from that source. In their previous game, Kerry had hit Mayo for 1-11 off turnovers.
Dublin turned over the ball against Dublin 18 times, with Kerry turning it over 20 times in the same match. Prior to this year, the magic number on turnovers amongst the top teams was deemed to be 16. Some of those teams though included their own lost kick-outs in that figure. Still, the turnover numbers largely came down this year, which was another reflection of how well teams are being coached, and the direction football is taking.
Derry were the ultimate exemplars of that new style, even if they were heavily punished for how they shoved so many men forward, including their goalkeeper Odhran Lynch, against Galway. They just couldn’t slow Galway’s transition down quickly enough, which was also probably down to their reduced levels of conditioning compared to the top teams.
That conditioning was a factor in Cork fourth-quarter fade-outs against Kerry and Dublin.
When Dublin stepped on the gas in the second half, their tackling and turnover rate went through the roof; Dublin forced seven turnovers in that half.
Dublin’s overall execution, especially their shooting, was at a completely different standard. Yet one of the main reasons Dublin only had two more shots than Cork was because of how well Cork protected the ball in the circumstances – Cork only gave the ball away 11 times in that match. Still they coughed up 0-5 from that possession, which underlines how ruthless the top teams are on turnovers.
In the same game, Dublin only turned over the ball ten times, but Cork manufactured 0-4 off that possession, which offered further proof of Cork’s impressive numbers on turnovers in the championship.
In four championship matches, Cork’s average number of turnovers was 13. Cork conceded an average of a shade below 0-6 from that possession but that figure was skewed from the 0-8 Kerry conceded from turnovers against Kerry.
Football is more high scoring than it’s ever been. Yet it’s not just how the game is played in terms of style, but at what temperature, which has added to football often feeling more sterile. The counter-argument is that football has never required more imagination and creativity to unlock the protective gates set up by the opposition.
The top teams have the skill-set to execute the required skills in incredibly pressurised situations, especially in the attacking third. It may seem robotic but there is a skill in protecting possession and not turning over the ball.
Cork showed they were pretty decent at it this year. And they just need to build on that aspect of their play going forward under John Cleary.