RUNNING TO STAND STILL Mayo’s Diarmuid O’Connor is tackled by Galway’s Kieran Molloy during the recent Connacht SFC quarter-final in Castlebar. Pic: Sportsfile
The defeat to Galway has thrown up more questions
NINE days since Mayo’s defeat to Galway and the bear pit that is the first round of the All-Ireland Qualifiers looks even more dangerous. The All-Ireland champions Tyrone and the team they vanquished, Mayo, have both been dumped out in their first championship game by teams who plied their trade in Division 2 this year.
Perhaps both are victims of September.
Tyrone are perhaps finding it hard to motivate themselves while there is a nagging sense that the All-Ireland Final defeat has left more scars than previous finals for Mayo.
Of course, Mayo would love to trade places and have Celtic crosses in their back pockets.
For while it might be motivation Tyrone are lacking, for Mayo it is more about variety.
Just like against the Red Hands last September, against Galway Mayo struggled to unlock a blanket defence.
It is not a new problem but what is frustrating is Mayo’s inability to get to grips with such opposition approaches.
Especially when so many teams employ such tactics.
Especially when a Galway team can rock up without having played this way all spring and come up with a bespoke approach for Mayo and see it working.
It is the template for beating Mayo and this team’s future depends on solving this problem.
In the league there were plenty of warning signs too. The final periods of away games to Kerry and Tyrone saw Mayo really falter from good scoreboard positions when their opponents decided to deploy intense blanket defences.
We won’t include the league final because it never became such a battle, so great was Kerry’s dominance.
Perhaps we ought to look at Mayo’s first four league games retrospectively also.
Mayo got seven points from those games and it appeared they were flying. But while sometimes defeats can hide all you did well, so, too, can victories obscure issues that need addressing.
Mayo were abject in the first half against Donegal and it is still a mystery how they pulled a result out of the bag. It was as much to do with Donegal not controlling the game and seeing out such a great position as it was to do with Mayo’s never-say-die attitude. The fact the game became chaotic suited Mayo down to the ground also.
A late surge against Armagh was invigorating to witness in Hyde Park but, again, questions must be asked of the Orchard County’s game management and opening the door for Mayo.
So that leaves two wins, a solid result away to Monaghan, and Mayo’s best performance of the year in Croke Park against the Dubs.
Given what we’ve seen since, concerns about just how bad Dublin were that night earn even greater validity.
Primacy of approach
THINK back to last year’s epic All-Ireland semi-final.
In the first half Dublin were in supreme control and looked unbeatable. A comfortable half-time lead possibly lead to the game opening up in the final quarter and Mayo took full advantage.
Think back to Mayo’s late surge against Galway. It came about because Mayo were able to throw off the shackles due, in part, to Galway faltering with the line in sight. Mayo sensed blood, they fed off energy from the crowd and damn near pulled off a miraculous comeback.
But for the 32 minutes of the second half before that, Mayo were abject in attack. Out of ideas, they struggled to use the ball as they should against a blanket. They were very good in the second quarter in this regard, even before Galway were reduced to 14 players for Finian O Laoi’s black card.
But after the break, Mayo reverted to type, playing like a team who had never encountered a blanket defence before.
Instead of patiently probing and using the full width of the pitch, Mayo too often were too central and too predictable.
What changed late on? We’d argue it wasn’t that Mayo figured Galway out, more a case of that they wore them down and Galway also wobbled mentally in the closing stages.
Mayo’s comeback was more about the game finally being played on their terms than anything else.
Maybe Galway might have been worn out earlier had Mayo more hard runners in action – Paddy Durcan, Oisín Mullin for the full game, Diarmuid O’Connor with more training time in him, Mattie Ruane in better form.
Tommy Conroy and Jordan Flynn not out for the season.
Maybe those players all playing well would have punched holes in the Galway cover earlier and more often than what we saw.
But this goes back to the primacy of Mayo’s approach. It is more about energy and less about figuring teams out and game intelligence.
When it works, opponents find it hard to stop, but more and more teams can set up to frustrate Mayo in this regard.
Back to that Dublin league game, one of the positives was how good and effective quick, direct kick passes were for Mayo on the night. We noted at the time that it was telling Dublin were the best team to try such an approach out against. Most other Division 1 teams would have a greater defensive presence.
So kicking hasn’t been a massive option since and wasn’t a huge option against Galway either.
Having crafty playmakers is key in playing against such defences and so too is an overall understanding from the players on the field of what the plan is with the ball when attacking.
Too often a Mayo player got a decent ball but was quickly surrounded for lack of support runs. Ergo, there was no telepathy on what was happening around the forward line.
James Horan has been very slow to embrace alternative styles – be it defensive cover or, it would seem, alternative attacking approaches.
Be it lack of preparation or lack of game smarts by players, Mayo rarely look confident having to patiently probe around the fringes of blanket defences.
Perhaps Horan is playing the hand he is dealt, in terms of what skillsets his players have.
As Billy Joe Padden noted in The Mayo News Football Podcast during the week, Mayo have a lot less confident kick-passers around the middle eight now than compared to 2017.
If Mayo have a lack of kick-passers, and a lack of enough cerebral footballers, they become a little bit more predictable to defend.
As we found out in Castlebar, you can have to be able to marry different playing styles for different stages of the game and different opposition tactical set-ups.
That Mayo appeared in the Galway game as unable to play against a blanket as ever is a huge concern.
Because wherever Mayo’s season takes them, it will ultimately end in failure if they cannot adapt.