"On a single team, every individual needs to know every other individual in order to build trust, and they need to maintain comprehensive awareness at all times in order to maintain common purpose." - General Stanley McChrystal (Team of Teams)
As the Allianz National Football League rouses itself this weekend, pre-season greyness gives way to the excitement of new possibilities. Supporters, players, coaches and support staff will all have varying goals, but all will be linked to results.
The win is ultimately what matters to people emotionally invested in the team and the crest. For managers, it isn't quite as simple.
There are now so many moving parts to building a team to compete at any level in county football that the process is all-consuming.
In recent years, the science of preparation around gaelic football teams has frequently broken new ground. Serious competitors for honours plan every aspect of conditioning, invest in the best practitioners and incorporate sports science practices that are on a par with professional environments.
The last piece of that particular jigsaw is adequate recovery – particularly from training sessions – that only the very privileged can achieve.
Greater understanding of how to control the emotional aspect of games and individual performance has been developed and taught, and skill development and execution is far beyond what previous generations achieved.
The evolution of strategy is also well documented and, underpinned by game analysis, teams have developed gameplans that emphasise their own strengths and endeavour to mask their weaknesses. It is an accepted truth - for now - that Gaelic football is a game most effectively played through counter-attack and the overwhelming majority of tactical set ups reflect that understanding.
In summary, the building blocks for a team are well established and the expertise to construct the individual elements is available in most serious county set-ups.
So aside from individual talent, where then is the substance that can set teams apart to be found? The answer is why a manager has to sit outside on construction of at least some parts of the machine.
Mixing the Mortar
With all of these elements of performance scrambling to find percentage points, the substance that connects everything is the fundamental to the end product. Essentially, this connection becomes the team’s identity and reflects the culture within.
Senior players and coaches have an important role to play in finding the right mix of ingredients but ultimately the manager is the chief designer in the team’s connectivity.
When General Stanley McChrystal attempted to define the elements that created the greatest team functionality, he assumed that his soldiers were meeting the very highest standards in every facet of their preparation. What set a team apart, he felt, were the bonds of the team’s individuals and awareness of the collective purpose.
This has immediate implications for team construction in our game given the dynamism that now epitomises how Gaelic football at the very highest level is played. With tactical approaches invariably matching, the key performance advantages are found in the execution of roles.
In particular, teams that can interchange players between roles as required and fluidly switch from one mindset to another are the functioning a level above the majority. A comprehensive awareness of the common purpose – and how to contribute to it – is inherent in the performance of winning teams.
Jim Gavin’s Dublin of the last five years represent this concept perfectly.
Most managers’ pre-occupation running into the first competitive fixture of the season will be on honing their team’s understanding of their place in the collective and the responsibilities that entails.
The opening round of the league will be a tracking test for so many aspects of what every team are trying to build but, fundamentally, management teams will be assessing collective performance seriously for the first time.
Another New Beginning
The implementation of new rules again for the Allianz League this year brings a layer of the unknown to some aspects of the game. Of course, teams will have played and practiced under the new rules and will be familiar with the practical application of changes.
With limited time to build thorough strategies related to the rule changes though, it is likely we will see more innovation around them as the league progresses.
However, there are obvious aspects that teams will look to exploit from the outset.
The Sin Bin
The widespread welcoming of a sin-bin punishment for black card offences has been sold a little short by the detail of how this rule will work in practice.
That time in the bin will not be extended by breaks in play means that teams will have clear plans to eat up sin-bin time while they are a man down. Those plans will include head injuries, substitutions, yellow cards and general schmozzles that have no leading culprit and no particular harm within.
There is also an opportunity presented to the teams with a 'power play' for 10 minutes. It will be intriguing to see if coaching teams have prepared patterns that will enable their team to take advantage of an extra player – or even two.
The employment of a high press seems like the most obvious adaption to employ and there are implications for restarts also.
Perhaps the rule change that has attracted the most criticism, the advanced mark, has the potential to bring the most change to the game.
The immediate hope is that teams will develop forward movement patterns designed to create kicking / mark opportunities in attack.
It is unlikely that this evolution will have taken much root on team play by the early stages of the league, but for teams with good kickers and ball winners we can expect to see more development in the second half of the competition.
Specifically on the kicking in attack, a punt kick will be the most accurate and 'markable' delivery. It is a test of coaching capacity to maximise player effectiveness in those situations. This work may naturally bring back the dying art of a longer, flatter trajectory pass that is uncomfortable for defenders and opens up opportunities for attackers in behind defences.
The natural fear for unintended consequences of this rule is that coaches will become more focused on removing 'mark' opportunities and may construct zone defences inside the 45 to remove space.
Moving the kick out to the 20m line has two immediate advantages. Firstly, it brings underage goalkeepers seven metres further up the field to restart, which could have long-term impact on confidence.
The move also lengthens the area that keepers can reach and therefore widens the space on the dancefloor for imaginative coaches to develop kick-out patterns on.
What Lies Beneath
While some of the focus this weekend will naturally remain on the functioning and implications of the newest rule changes, the more important points of learning are under the surface and hidden in patterns of play.
All of these teams are on a journey to build or expand a group mentality on the foundations of physical preparation. Each of the seven rounds offer opportunity to evolve and insight into the soul of each team.
Building trust in each other’s play and developing a collective outlook are the key components empowering any team towards its potential.
While results remain paramount, management teams will be looking closely at the process that lies beneath.