GAA Football

Analysis: Mattie Donnelly at full-forward could be Tyrone's missing piece

While Tyrone have become renowned for their counter-attacking prowess, they still lack that bit of something extra in the full-forward line. Mattie Donnelly has played their last two games there, to great effect. Cahair O'Kane examines his suitability for the role and asks whether Tyrone get more out of him there or as a sweeper…

Mickey Harte has employed Mattie Donnelly in a variety of roles in recent years, but his last two performances at full-forward suggest that he is the man to cure that ill for Tyrone in the long-term. Picture by Hugh Russell

OVER the past four years, Tyrone’s perception among the reasonable has been altered. No team that consistently scores as highly as they do can be justifiably labelled as defensive.

That, however, doesn’t make their attacking play immune to criticism. There is equally no doubt that when it’s come to the big stage in recent seasons, it’s been that little bit of something lacking in attack that has let them down.

What is it that’s lacking exactly?

In the early part of this campaign, their whole system was failing to function. After they’d picked up just one point in three games, and registered the joint-lowest score from play across those ties (1-10) of any team in the top-flight for a decade, Mattie Donnelly was moved to full-forward.

Across the games against Cavan and Monaghan since, he touched the ball 40 times. The Trillick man’s directly assisted 0-14, either by playing the final pass or drawing a free that was scored. He’s had a hand in another 1-1, as well as creating four goal chances, and scored a single point from a free that was of his own making.

Crucially, he’s won 16 of the 18 kick passes that have been sent his way.

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Mattie Donnelly v Monaghan, 2019 NFL
Position: Full-forward
Touches: 22
Touches in opp half: 21
Carries: 7
Carries at pace: 7
Kick passes received: 10
Kick passes won: 10
Goal chances created: 2
Frees won: 3
Possessions lost: 1
Fouls committed: 1
Scored: 0-0
Direct assists: 0-8
Indirect assists: 1-0

Mattie Donnelly v Cavan | 2019 NFL
Position: Full-forward
Touches: 18
Touches in opp half: 16
Carries: 8
Carries at pace: 8
Kick passes received: 8
Kick passes won: 6
Goal chances created: 2
Frees won: 5
Possessions lost: 0
Fouls committed: 0
Shots taken: 1
Scored: 0-1
Direct assists: 0-6
Indirect assists: 0-1
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That was the role best performed last year by Mark Bradley, who’s since the left panel. Tyrone were at their most fluid as a kicking team when Bradley played.

He seldom went further than 25 yards from goal, instead making his runs side-to-side. His movement across the line would allow Tyrone to get higher up the pitch quicker, and even though Harte didn’t always favour him, Bradley’s was a huge influence over the last two years.

The one thing that he lacked, however, was the physical power to take on defences. Across league and championship last year, his scoring total was 2-6. Teams would keep him on the periphery by forcing him away from goal.

Mattie Donnelly is a different beast. From a physical perspective, he’s exceptionally powerful. And that’s been borne out in his last two games.

When he’s won the ball, his first instinct is to put his head down and take on his man. Defenders don’t appreciate such directness.

That’s resulted in him being fouled eight times, all of them in front of goal.

He, like Bradley, wants to move across the line towards the corners. But unlike Bradley, he’s shown a willingness to use his power to go down the line when he’s received the ball, rather than being shepherded back infield.

Donnelly will scare defences. There’ll be occasions where they have to either foul him or let him go.

And despite his lack of scores so far, lest we forget that he’s one of the best finishers on the Tyrone team, with the ability to kick off left or right.

Compare his impact at full-forward to how he was influencing Tyrone’s play as a sweeper at the business end of last summer.

There’s an element here of comparing apples with oranges. Two early-season National League games against an All-Ireland semi-final and final, you could conceivably argue an unfair comparison.

But when you look at the former, the question is not so much ‘would they have gotten more out of him at full-forward’ as it is ‘did they get enough out of him where he was playing’?

It’s very clear from his defensive positioning and actions that his primary concern in that role is protecting Niall Morgan’s goal.

When Conor McManus skipped through early on in the semi-final, it was Donnelly that got across with Padraig Hampsey to prevent the shot.

When Vinny Corey found the ball come down off a post in Croke Park, it was Donnelly who was on the line with the Tyrone ‘keeper before he got out to block Fintan Kelly’s rebound.

In the final, he was the one that made the legitimate last-ditch tackle on Paul Mannion, turning the ball away only to see Tiernan McCann collide with him and concede a penalty.

That preoccupation with preventing green flags can, at times, make his defensive play look passive.

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Mattie Donnelly v Monaghan | 2018 All-Ireland semi-final
Position: Second sweeper
Touches: 15
Touches in opp half: 5
Carries: 9
Carries at pace: 7
Blocks: 1
Goal chances prevented: 1
Tackles made: 1
Tackles won: 0
Frees won: 2
Fouls committed: 0
Scored: 0-0
Direct assists: 0-1
Indirect assists: 0-2

Mattie Donnelly v Dublin | 2018 All-Ireland final
Position: Second sweeper
Touches: 14
Touches in opp half: 7
Carries: 7
Carries at pace: 5
Blocks: 0
Goal chances prevented: 0
Tackles made: 2
Tackles won: 1
Frees won: 0
Fouls committed: 1
Scored: 0-0
Direct assists: 0-1
Indirect assists: 0-1?
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At times, he can be reticent to engage a forward. It seems less that he doesn’t want to tackle and more that he’s thinking two steps ahead – ‘what if I commit and get rolled, there could be a goal on’. So often, he shadows.

Against Monaghan he was a sporadic but powerful feature in their counter-attacking play, but against Dublin he carried a minimal threat.

And it’s in those big games that the question has to be answered: are Tyrone getting enough out of one of their best players by using him as a sweeper?

In the All-Ireland final, particularly when Tyrone were chasing it, Donnelly was quite often the last man back in front of Niall Morgan.

There will be bigger tests of his suitability at full-forward. If he plays in there on Saturday night and comes up against a Jonny Cooper or Philly McMahon, would his movement be sharp enough, and would they be more a match for his physicality? Time will tell.

But all of the tools at his disposal make him the man that Tyrone can use to truly scare opposition full-back lines.

Unless they carry that real threat, they won’t win an All-Ireland.

That’s why Mattie Donnelly has to stay at full-forward.

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