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Mayo take first steps forward

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MEET AND GREET Mayo manager James Horan shakes hands with referee Barry Cassidy before last Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC Qualifier. Pic: Conor McKeown


Talking Tactics
Billy Joe Padden

VERY rarely do you ever see a team go out in the first round of the Qualifiers and show a dramatic improvement on their previous defeat.
But last Saturday we saw some areas where improvements were made by Mayo.
Behind closed doors, James Horan might say that there wasn’t much improvement as he’d like to see. But there was enough evidence for me to say there were some encouraging signs.
There was some clear evidence there of good coaching and good preparation.
Now, some issues do remain, but I want to talk, firstly, about those areas where I think Mayo did well against Monaghan.
It was very noticeable (particularly in the first 15 minutes) that the spacing of the Mayo attack, and the patience of the attack when Monaghan had everyone back was good.
I thought that Jack Carney (playing in a position unfamiliar to him) showed good discipline in those early stages to keep his depth.
What I mean by that is he stayed really close to goal, inside the 14-yard line, inside the 21, and that helped to spread out the whole pitch against a team like Monaghan, which had practically everyone back clogging things up.
I thought Mayo were moving the ball from left to right really effectively. Aidan O’Shea was very good in that. Sometimes I’d be critical of Aidan when he stands up on the ball and look to go left and then maybe goes back and goes right. But on Saturday, he was very clear in what he wanted to do. He wasn’t hitting any big raking crossfield passes.
But when he was taking the ball from the left-hand sideline, he was moving it immediately to the centre to be moved on to the other sideline, to create that width, and that was obviously something Mayo had worked on.
Now, towards the end of the first half, and in the second half, that kind of fell apart a bit.
And Mayo were probably only effective at doing that in the opening 20 minutes of the game. But the roots of better play in that regard were visible. That’s a positive.
It’s no surprise when you show that patience, when you show that awareness of space and good ability on the ball, and you marry that to a really high conversion rate (as we had in the first half), that’s good football. You’d want to be creating more scoring chances, but to nail 80 per cent of them in that first half was huge.
Second, it was also very noticeable that Mayo had worked on the urgency of ball-carriers running off the shoulder after they won the ball back. There was a real emphasis on change of pace. Often, you saw ball-carriers win the ball and somebody just went past them at pace as hard as they could. And this happened all over the field, not just in the middle third.
McLaughlin, Hession, Durcan and Ruane all really tried to inject pace into Mayo’s ball-carrying, and that’s what James Horan’s Mayo teams have been all about.
It was something they didn’t do effectively against Galway or in the latter rounds of the National League; conditioning may have been a factor in that.
But I definitely think there was an emphasis and an improvement there last Saturday.
The third thing it was evident that Mayo had worked on was trying to play vertically with kick-passing. There were some great examples of that throughout.
The obvious one came in the second half, when another great kick-out from Robbie Hennelly where Aidan Orme did really well to get to the ball before Darren Hughes, and then he went again – vertically, straight. Not diagonal, vertical, straight into Cillian O’Connor.
Eoghan McLaughlin had a great goal chance. Rory Beggan was in no man’s land, back-pedalling, but the shot was straight at him. McLaughlin was having a really good game up to that point, and I think that miss affected his confidence.
But again, that move was evidence of the kind of thing Mayo have been working on, and that sort of vertical, direct football when the opportunity arose.

Areas to improve
DESPITE all the positives, there are many things that Mayo can improve on.
I think we saw the same issues in the third quarter on Saturday as we had seen against Galway, where Mayo went totally ragged and made errors – poor finishing, poor shot selection. That’s something they’ll have to address.
The lucky thing for Mayo is that in those key stages when things could have got very nervy – I think the gap was down to two points at one stage – a player like Lee Keegan, who played very well again, came up with an inspirational score, showing that absolute leadership that all teams need when they’re unsure of themselves.
Looking at that second-half performance, you take moments like Lee Keegan’s intervention and Paddy Durcan’s last-minute point to ice the game out of the equation, and there are an awful lot of things to work on from the second half.
So I think there will be elements there that James Horan can point to immediately and work on, because that ragged third quarter has happened in a couple of games in a row now.
I think the decision-making in injury time is also worth examining. When you see the board reading six minutes of injury time, you’re thinking: that’s a long time to see out.
Robbie Hennelly and the outfield players decided to go short. I know in those situations, possession is key, and teams always feel that by going short, you’re more likely to keep the ball. But sometimes you end up giving possession to a player who’s not in a good situation, and that’s what happened on Saturday. Facing a full-court press, a player may have no other players to play the ball to, and you’re asking him to basically win a one-on-one battle. Sometimes in that situation, I think you are much better off going long and contesting the ball. If you don’t win it, you can still get people behind the ball and be difficult to break down.
After all the messing and the bad hand-passing and Monaghan’s penalty shout, Mayo went long with the next kick-out to Aidan O’Shea, and he won a free on it. That should be our go-to move when they find themselves in that situation, trying to close out a game.
I was also thinking about something Paul Earley said on the Mayo News Podcast on Saturday. Whether you’re four points up or one point up, you should continue playing your normal game.
I imagine that’s very much James Horan’s mantra.
Whereas the team went into protection mode, and it nearly cost them.

 

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