DONEGAL CLAIMED THEIR second All-Ireland Football title with a four point victory over Mayo in Croke Park. Emmet Ryan looks at the tactical factors that decided this encounter.
Donegal target Murphy early
Scoring in bunches was expected in this game and Donegal set the tone early. Jim McGuinness’ charges targeted Michael Murphy repeatedly early as they sought to take advantage of his match-up with Kevin Keane. First Leo McLoone sent a ball in to Murphy but it was interecepted and Mayo cleared. Neil Gallagher over-hit a pass to Murphy within a minute but the breakthrough wouldn’t take long to come. A high ball from Karl Lacey found the Donegal captain in front of goal. Murphy rounded Keane and powered home on three minutes.
Donegal would continue to press for majors. Mark McHugh was through on goal on 6 minutes before being fouled. Colm McFadden converted the dead ball for a point. The Ulster champions would find the net again within five minutes.
The move began with a free taken by McHugh near Donegal’s own endline. He sent the ball to Murphy who was crossing the 21. Four passes later the ball came back to Murphy just in front of the Mayo D. The Glenswilly man fisted across to an open Aaron McBrearty. His attempt at a point hit the post but came back to McFadden who stepped inside for the finish.
Another Lacey high ball found Murphy on 15 minutes and he set up McFadden for another attempt on goal but David Clarke saved. From four goal chances in the opening quarter hour Donegal had returned 2-1 and put Mayo in a deep hole.
Mayo press higher, get man-isolation game going
James Horan’s charges essentially didn’t compete in the middle third during Donegal’s initial onslaught. Despite the wide margin early, Mayo didn’t lose their shape instead re-organising and implementing their man-isolation strategy in the middle third.
Forcing turnovers, Mayo started to make inroads into Donegal territory where crucially Donegal didn’t have overwhelming numbers. At the start of the game Mayo played so deep it allowed Donegal to use up to three sweepers. Now there was more room for man-to-man play and that lead to dead ball chances for Mayo inside. Having missed their first two chances of the game, Mayo went seven of nine towards half-time as they cut the deficit to a single score.
Donegal re-take control
Mayo however were leaking frees at the other end and in the second half Donegal made them pay. With their passing game back up and running, Donegal won a free on the 21 which McFadden converted on 37 minutes. A pair of long-range frees from Murphy would ensure the Ulster champions stayed more than a score clear. Murphy converted from 44 metres on 47 minutes and 42 metres in the 56th minute.
Defensively Donegal were getting back on top as Mayo missed three of their first four chances after the break. Through the first 30 minutes after the break, Mayo managed just three points compared to Donegal’s six. Dead ball success was at the heart of the difference. Murphy’s final score from a free came after McFadden retrieved possession from what looked a lost cause. McFadden burrowed inside, took a hit and Murphy converted from 13 metres.
Murphy had a chance of a goal on 62 minutes but his fist off a high ball went over.
Mayo rally but run out of options
Mayo started to key on Donegal’s floated passes in the final 10 minutes and once again started forcing turnovers. Mayo would double their second-half tally in the final five minutes plus stoppages. Richie Feeney got open on 65 minutes to kick-start the comeback. A minute later an arcing shot from Lee Keegan split the uprights as the Connacht champions finally got their long-range game going. Jason Gibbons got Mayo within four with a minute of normal time remaining as he hit an uncontested score from the 45.
Goal chances however were few and far between. With time running out Mayo finally got their first real chance for a major. Kevin McLoughlin did a stop and go move before sending the ball in to Feeney who passed inside to Alan Freeman. He offloaded to Seamus O’Shea who stepped inside but fell in the process of shooting and wall of Donegal jerseys in front of goal stopped his shot.
Donegal came out with a plan to hurt Mayo early and it worked. Inside of a quarter-hour there was a sizeable gulf between the sides thanks to two majors. McFadden and Murphy have proven an effective dual-threat and the former must surely be in line for Footballer of the Year honours after Sunday’s display.
After building their lead early, Donegal were intent on not letting Mayo within a score for the remainder of the game. There were a few moments where the Connacht champions cut the gap to three points but Donegal would come back at them to stretch the lead again. When Keegan cut the arrears to four points late on, Donegal responded with their best-worked score of the game. Christy Toye was surrounded by five Mayo defenders on 67 minutes but got it out to David Walsh who sent Gallagher off down the left flank. Gallagher crossed the 45 with a pass to Frank McGlynn who played a one-two with Anthony Thompson before passing back to an open Gallagher for the score.
Mayo should receive significant credit for their adjustments throughout the game. In defeat they became the only team to score more than half their chances against Donegal this summer, finishing 13 of 22 on the day. Much of this was down to their subs.
The problem for the Connacht champions was their inability to inflict the same degree of damage as their opponents. This was a game where scoring came in bunches and when they were down, Mayo stayed down for extended periods. Their purple patches simply could not make up for this.
With a young team Mayo should stay relevant at the top of the table for several years to come. Donegal however will celebrate a hard-earned and well-deserved All-Ireland title.
Tactics not Passion, the book, is now available to order. The book tells the story a year in tactics from Sam to Sam. Order your copy here.