The eternal question for coaches in Gaelic football – or any sport – is how to get the best out of the players at his or her disposal. How do you set the team up to ensure that the flow of the game brings your quality players to prominence when and where they can be most effective?
This has always been the coaching alchemist’s gold bullion. In simpler times, optimum return from the best players could be achieved with strategic positioning and a tailored supply of the ball but, as with most things, it is much more complicated in today’s game.
Mickey Harte has built a team now that knows and has honed its patterns to a degree that is unmatched by any of the other All-Ireland contenders.
Very few players now have a singular responsibility as roles become more diverse and interchangeable and that fluidity often brings players out of the natural habitat in which they thrive.
Tyrone are the exemplar for matching the talents of the players to a method of playing with and without the ball that maximises their effectiveness in both realms. Mickey Harte has, not for the first time, looked closely at his materials and stitched together a hugely effective game-plan. It can be infuriating to watch at times but it can also be both irresistible and immovable in equal measure.
There were some obvious and predictable lessons from the opening round of the newly formatted All-Ireland quarter-final series, otherwise known as the Super 8s.
Roscommon stood out in advance as the team with neither the defensive personnel nor collective plan to hold any of their potential opponents. Tyrone similarly lack quality at the back but more than make up for the weakness with a comprehensive approach without the ball that virtually eliminates any defender ever having to cope one-on-one with any attacker.
There are four distinct and vital components to the Tyrone game plan. Of course they improvise and play off each element but the game plan dictates clearly everyone’s role with and without the ball. The proper functioning of each determines the effectiveness of the Tyrone team and unpicking them requires any opponent to match their athleticism and to use space smartly.
1. Double sweeper and deep tackling line
Without the ball, the game-plan protects the team’s individual weaknesses at the back. Initially, when they lose the ball, Tyrone immediately drop a deep sweeper in front of the fullback line and a second behind their half-back markers. The first dissuades opponents from kicking early ball. The second organises tacklers in front and meets any initial running danger to double up and repel.
Colm Cavanagh has more often than not been Tyrone’s deep sweeper for some time and for the Roscommon game Frank Burns operated as the half-back policeman. Of course as with all good systems, personnel must be flexible within the dynamics of the game and if either or both are out of position then someone simply assumes the roles. This is essentially a mirror of Donegal’s initial set up.
Tyrone differ from other remaining teams in where their middle third begin their press to turn ball over. Most teams will initiate this organically in the middle third and players will track and attempt to pressurise the ball carriers in a relatively early part of the opposition attack.
Tyrone, however, retreat towards their own 45 before initiating their press. This approach invites the opposition to commit numbers to attacking, condenses space behind their tacklers and creates great prairies of space to counter into – exactly what their attacking approach requires.
Allied to the double sweeper, a deeper tackling line floods their '45' with thirteen or fourteen defending bodies and makes the task of any opponent considerable off a slow build up. It is notable that to further leverage their weight of numbers, Tyrone more than any other team tackle to delay as opposed to dispossess and this bears great fruit in minimising scoreable frees they concede.
2. Strike Runners in attack
There’s no revelation in the news that Tyrone will counter attack through running the ball at pace, switching the point of attack frequently and supporting each other relentlessly.
With the ball, Mickey Harte’s men have adapted a version of the Monaghan’s "phase two" attack as their offensive strategy. While Monaghan’s phase one includes kicking early ball to their inside forwards where possible, that is an option the red hands rarely contemplate.
The approach accentuates the athleticism and smart movement of Tyrone’s best players – all of who are packed into an expanded middle third. If an initial break at pace isn’t successful at opening up their opponent, Tyrone will slow and allow runners ahead of the ball. The support runners will build an arc of second phase runners wide and encircling the scoring zone. As Monaghan do, they will bring ball around the arc and feed explosive runners cutting from outside perpendicular across the ball carrier. If you are familiar with basketball offensive patterns the approach will not be new to you.
3. Kick outs to attack off
The Tyrone kick-out strategy has evolved significantly now to the stage that almost all kick-outs go long and for good reason. Their movement from relatively normal starting positions drags opponents who wish to compete further into the Tyrone 45.
After Niall Morgan allows those decoy runs to develop he is looking at three big targets across the half way line to hit and a lone forward beyond that on the square. With hugely effective runners following the ball to whatever target the keeper chooses, a decent broken ball puts those support runners into unprotected space at the heart of the opponent’s defence. Roscommon presented this space to Tyrone consistently though their eagerness to compete and press every kick-out.
4. Full court press on opposition kick outs
Any opposition keeper, when he steps back to consider his options against this Tyrone team, is faced with a full-court press achieved through a 3-4-4 zoned structure. Three forwards occupy areas across the '21' and work to eliminate a short release.
Behind them inside the '45' is a line of four, who again start in defined zones to eliminate the expected chipped kick out to half-back pockets. Behind that – at full delivery range – is another line of four that will compete for the expected long kick-out. Note that achieving this requires a half back to push into the half forward area and two more into the middle to augment their midfielders. This happens whether opposition forwards move to those areas or not and represents a calculated gamble to tip the balance of probabilities in the break-ball area.
Once the keeper kicks long, the four players starting in half forward zones will flood back under their middle third team mates to maximise the break-ball probability.
Tyrone have been very effective with this approach and, so far, opponents have not recognised or exploited the opportunities that zonal marking and an empty space behind midfield presents.
The frustration that can manifest watching this version of Tyrone is that they sacrifice the chance of any kicking options that present themselves for the sure thing that is their running power and ball handling. The perfect scenario appeared in the opening ten minutes of the second half at the weekend.
Roscommon went for broke in chasing the game and removed the security of their cover player in defence. Consequently, when Tyrone inevitably counter-attacked in this period the lone half forward Niall Sludden was one-on-one just inside the opposition half with fifty yards of space either side of him. As a former defender, my alarm bells were wailing immediately but Sludden never once recognised the opportunity nor did a single Tyrone player even look that far upfield. Sludden would simply drift towards the sideline and wait for the ball to be carried closer before breaking.
This was the type of scenario that a former Tyrone number eleven Brian McGuigan played the game for and in Mickey Harte’s previous gameplan incarnation the sixty yard pass needed to release him would have come instantly. This is a counter attacking weapon that the current Tyrone team don’t hold but it is one that could give their devastating runners a target to support higher up the pitch.
Mickey Harte has built a team now that knows and has honed its patterns to a degree that is unmatched by any of the other All-Ireland contenders. What they do with and without the ball is choreographed and rehearsed in detail and this offers the players great purpose. They know what to do in every scenario and they already know they do those things well.
What they do though is also now predictable and they will face the same problem that overtly structured teams do eventually – what happens when their preferred options are removed? Monaghan have already strangled Tyrone’s default game this year in the first round of the Ulster championship and no improvisation or alternatives were found.
There will have to be alternative answers to the same questions next weekend.