MIDFIELD BATTLE Donegal's Michael Murphy and Mayo's Aidan O'Shea contest a kick-out during the 2017 League clash between Donegal and Mayo in Castlebar. Mayo will need to impress in the battle for primary possession on Saturday evening. Pic: Sportsfile
Mayo will need to improve their efficiency in front of the posts this weekend if they are to triumph.
And they will need to do all they can to restrict the amount of shots Donegal have at goal.
Donegal's shot conversion rate against Kerry in CrokePark was a very impressive 68 percent (1-20 from 31 shots). It is broadly in line with their returns to date, with them averaging 21.8 points per game. It is higher still if you limit it to their last three games, at an impressive 25 points per game. Their two earlier clashes against defensive teams like Fermanagh, in particular, and Tyrone, are not very reflective of what Saturday evening will be like.
Mayo have averaged 18.8 points per game (not including New York). Their average shot conversion rate is 59 percent. That's not bad but on the basis of the numbers we've seen this year, won't be enough.
It is likely that Saturday's game will be a similarly open game to Donegal's draw against Kerry with both teams going for it.
Therefore, Donegal's shot conversion figures in Croker are a good barometer.
Mayo will hope to be more robust at the back than Kerry in terms of shots conceded. While Kerry had a number of impressive individual displays at the back - Tom O'Sullivan hardly gave Jamie Brennan a sniff while Tadhg Morley broke even, at the least, with Paddy McBrearty - conceding 31 chances to such a capable forward unit relied on Kerry being able to be prolific at the other end. And they were. Can Mayo be as confident at the other end?
In only one game this year have Mayo conceded that amount of shots - against Kerry on a day to forget in Killarney. But in three other games the numbers went close.
Down had 30 shots, but a pitiful return of 12 scores. Meath, too, had 30 shots, only registering 14 points. Mayo cannot claim too much credit for pressure on the shooter or forcing shots from low percentage options in those two games. Poor forward play was a significant contributory factor. They cannot rely on that on Saturday.
Armagh had 28 shots, scoring 16 times.
However in the games against Roscommon and Galway, Mayo's opponents only had 23 and 24 shots respectively.
Restricting the number of shots Donegal have will be crucial because with shooters like McBrearty, if fit, Brennan, Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson, Oisin Gallon, Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh, Declan Bonner has a lot of clinical marksmen.
And if Mayo are to reduce Donegal's shots, they are going to need to improve their own returns in front of the posts.
Finding the target
The 56 percent conversion rate Mayo had against Meath (2-17 from 34 shots) is unlikely to be enough unless Mayo can keep that number of shots and reduce Donegal's.
But in the second half of that game Mayo's shot conversion rate of 80 percent (2-10 from just 15 shots) was incredible and certainly something positive to leave CrokePark with before the two week break.
It's not their highest conversion rate per half this year - recall they scored 1-7 from all eight shots in the second half against Armagh. But only having eight shots in a half will hardly cut it at this stage.
In three consecutive games, Armagh, Galway and Kerry, Mayo had less than 25 shots. That certainly won't cut it either. They will need closer to the 35 they had against Roscommon, the 34 versus Meath or, at a push, the 29 against Down.
And for the conversion rate to be above 60 percent.
With Donegal well able to hit a big score, you get the feeling Mayo will need a similar tally like they struck against Meath, 2-17, if not more.
Press Patton or not?
The amount of shots you have are very dependant on what you do with possession but also dependant on getting possession in the first place.
There are different sources of possession such as turnovers, frees and shots dropping short.
But there's a reason kick-outs are called primary possession.
The kick-out battle in this game is going to be fascinating.
Starting with Donegal, Mayo are faced with a dilemma. Do they press Shaun Patton's kick-outs to try to pin Donegal back? It is a risky strategy with someone like Patton who can hit so long and accurately to clear any press and leave Mayo scampering back to their own goal, with their full-back line exposed. What's new there, you might ask?
Well, against a forward line as good as Donegal, that's a particularly risky approach.
And pressing the kick-out is a high energy strategy. Mayo may have had a much needed two week break from games but we're not too sure if they'll be keen on a full-time press on Patton, for all the reasons outlined.
So, do they simply concede the kick-out short and try and be organised defensively? Or mix and match, pushing up from time to time, particularly when they have a free in and a chance to get organised before the ball goes dead.
One thinks it will all depend on the moving dynamics of the game.
Against Kerry, Patton found a Donegal man with 88 percent of his kick-outs (22/25). It is a higher number than any goalkeeper has hit against Mayo this year. Galway were the highest with 79 percent but we all know their early struggles that day off Bernard Power's kick-outs tipped the balance irrevocably in Mayo's favour. The lowest return was the 52 percent of their own kick-outs Roscommon managed to claim.
Mayo pressed high quite effectively that day but Roscommon are the other end of the extreme to Donegal when it comes to an ability to dominate their own kick-out.
Patton has been hitting high numbers all year and with Donegal having very capable footballers all around the field, their ability to turn such possession into shots and scores is pronounced.
So there's no doubt Mayo will be thinking long and hard about what to do on Patton's kick-outs and what to do if and when Donegal win one of their own kick-outs.
Minding their own
They will be doubtlessly spending as much, if not more, time on their own kick-outs.
Mayo's kick-outs have dipped below 75 percent twice this year. First was against Roscommon (15/21, 71%), when Rob Hennelly struggled in the first half (Mayo winning just 5/11 before half time).
And the second was against Kerry (17/26, 65%), when their first half high press had David Clarke under pressure (Mayo winning just 8/17 in the first half).
What both games have in common is Mayo won 100 percent of the kick outs in both second halves but the damage was done by then.
And what the Kerry game has in common with the Donegal game is the opposition have a coach intimately familiar with how Mayo can struggle when they are hit with a full-court press.
Donie Buckley and Stephen Rochford know Mayo's weaknesses in this regard as well as anyone. And they will know too that it is not just as simple as David Clarke not having the same long range kick as Shaun Patton will have at the other end.
Mayo are short of midfield options and, in Killarney, looked alarmingly short of any strategy to deal with a full-court press. They also were bereft of appetite for the battle for dirty ball.
It seems certain that Donegal will press Mayo on Saturday evening.
How Mayo respond will be crucial. They will need to be smarter and hungrier in the battle for their own kick-out.
Because if Donegal are able to hurt Mayo on their own kick-out, dominate their own, then the stats show that they are too good an attacking team not to win with that possession platform in a shoot-out.