GAA Football

Kerry's full-back line was roasted because their middle third didn't work

Mayo were able to break the Kerry line of pressure around the middle third so easily during the first half on Sunday. Picture by Seamus Loughran

HOW exactly are Kerry still in the All-Ireland?

When Mayo look back on the video, they will be sick that they didn't put them away.

The Kingdom's full-back line was ripped to pieces, with the Mayo inside division contributing 1-9 from play between them. Their defending this summer has not been good enough.

But much of Éamonn Fitzmaurice's review will focus further out the pitch and why such good defenders are being made to look so bad.

He has proven himself to be one of the shrewdest managers in the game during his time in charge of Kerry. His mirroring of the Donegal system in the 2014 final was one of the great tactical masterstrokes.

This is also the man that devised the idea of pushing his whole half-back line into the Dublin half to give Stephen Cluxton absolutely nowhere to kick the ball. It was a risk but one worth taking.

He has never been averse to sweepers – see Aidan O'Mahony's positioning against Dublin last year – but Sunday's display straddled the line between belief and arrogance, and it was so nearly costly.

They went without a sweeper because they felt, in a man-for-man battle, they're better than Mayo. And the thing was that they didn't even look it on paper. They certainly weren't that way on the pitch.

Donnchadh Walsh's industry was a big miss but when they look back, Kerry will see a lot of problems that even he wouldn't have been able to solve.

Their full-frontal approach is based around getting serious pressure on the ball in the middle third. That's something that Mayo do exceptionally well in most games. And it was where Kerry fell so badly down on Sunday.

It's actually astonishing watching the tape back. All of Mayo's first half 2-5 was scored with an absolute absence of any kind of pressure from anywhere.

Tadhg Morley couldn't get a tackle in for love nor money, standing too far off Diarmuid O'Connor on the first goal and then falling off trying to tackle Colm Boyle for Andy Moran's first point.

Anthony Maher and David Moran are the best midfield in Ireland at certain things but their lack of legs was exploited at the weekend.

Mayo were able to punch holes around them and while Jack Barry mightn't have brought a great attacking change, his introduction at the break made a major difference in the defensive sense. They will surely put him in for the start on Sunday.

Ironically, the one time they forced a turnover in the middle third, Kerry scored a goal. Stephen O'Brien dislodged the ball from Seamus O'Shea's hands and followed up by supporting Kieran Donaghy and finishing superbly.

That alone might keep him in the team ahead of Mikey Geaney, providing Walsh does recover from injury.

The second Mayo goal was terrible from a Kerry perspective. A half-hearted press on Seamus O'Shea, nothing to dissuade him from another long kick inside.

A bad handpass by Jason Doherty fell behind Colm Boyle and made no difference. He had time to gather the loose ball up and play the first pass before drifting into space and collecting Andy Moran's return to score his first ever Championship goal (stat courtesy of Ger Canning, you'll be surprised to hear).

In the whole move, there wasn't one single hand laid on a Mayo player by a Kerry defender. Not one. The point that followed it saw the ball fall to Cillian O'Connor off a great Mark Griffin tackle. When he picked it up, there were seven blue shirts in the vicinity. O'Connor was on his own. But one bounce dummy and he careered into enough space to kick completely unchallenged off his weaker foot.

Half-time itself didn't change much, with the blue shirts chasing shadows on the counter-attack off Aidan O'Shea's block on Shane Enright. Not a hand laid on again as Mayo worked the ball the full length of the field for O'Connor to swivel Killian Young and kick off his right.

There was a definite increase in the Kerry workrate in the final 25 minutes, with Jack Savage's work in curtailing Keith Higgins of particular importance.

The full-back line was hung out to dry in more ways than one, and the impact of those changes may influence Fitzmaurice's thinking from the start for the replay.

But any repeat of the lack of work in the middle third and they won't still be in it come Saturday night.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Keith Higgins (Mayo)

WHILE Andy Moran was rightly the man of the match in most eyes, his return of 1-5 owed an awful lot to the efforts of Keith Higgins in starting attacks.

The 32-year-old looked boundless in his energy as he constantly broke the line out of defence and created that first incision past a static Kerry midfield third.

They couldn't get a handle on him in the first half and his total of 30 possessions reflects that. But perhaps his biggest contribution of all came at the very death.

With Kerry one up, he found himself on Paul Geaney. A deadly man off either foot, all he was looking was a half yard to finish the game. Right, left, right, Higgins covered every twist and turn and helped force the turnover. Mayo came up the pitch to equalise and salvage a replay. It was the least they, and Higgins, deserved.

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