Analysis: Down's slow and predictable kickout routine is killing them
IN a game where possession has become a very strict nine-tenths of the law, Down saw their promotion hopes blown apart on Sunday afternoon by their failure to win enough of it.
For the Mournemen, that has been a long-standing problem. Ever since their natural midfielders like Ambrose Rogers, Kalum King etc disappeared from the inter-county scene, they’ve struggled from both ends of the kickout spectrum.
It’s something that Jim McCorry was asked about, something Eamonn Burns was asked about, and now it’s Paddy Tally’s turn.
A significant factor in it all is that they don’t have natural high fielders, or even natural height. Niall Donnelly’s absence has been keenly felt, and it must be remembered that it was his presence at midfield that went a huge way towards arresting the problem briefly during their run to the 2017 Ulster final.
But that doesn’t explain away all their ills. There are other teams who aren’t blessed in the same way, not least the Tyrone team that sets the benchmark still for the rest of Ulster.
On Sunday, Down basically missed out on promotion because of their ineffectiveness off kickouts from both ends.
In terms of their own restarts, it is a huge problem. So much of it is a structural issue.
Rory Burns and Marc Reid are both very capable goalkeepers. The tendency is often to push blame straight on to the man with the ball at his foot, but in this case it’s hard to know whose fault it is.
There are occasionally short options on that they’re not taking. Equally, they’re doing very little to create short options, and so it happens very seldom. Are they told they have to kick it long? Are Down goalkeepers only going long because there is nothing on short? Or is it a two-way breakdown in trust between goalkeeper and defenders?
IT’S blatantly obvious from Down’s setup that they have no interest in working the ball short. For each of their 10 first half kickouts, they loaded the stand side with bodies. Nine of the kicks went long, and the only attempted short effort was intercepted.
There are a handful of major issues. The first is the length of time it takes them to set up. The average time it took them to kick the ball out was 24 seconds. Even a junior club team would get pushed up on them in 24 seconds.
Everything happening in front of Rory Burns suggests that the slower routine was part of the plan. There is no urgency to find position or space, with all the emphasis on getting in around the two midfielders to win breaks.
And yet on six of the 10 kickouts, they had an overload of numbers inside their own 45’ when Rory Burns set the ball on his tee.
But their shape is so incredibly narrow. The two full-backs hug the wider edges of the ‘D’. It’s far too narrow a split, and what that allows is for an opposition forward to step in and cover the short kick down the middle as well.
There is also a complete lack of movement. In ten kickouts, only twice was there any kind of short option offered. That indicates that it isn’t part of the plan.
THIS image is of Down’s defensive position for their first kickout of the game. They had 7v6 in defence, but you could throw a net over six of their defenders, and the seventh is completely isolated on the wrong wing for a right-footed kicker.
Louth have little trouble in splitting it. That forces Burns long. Down actually won the break on that kickout, but the method was haphazard. Once the height of Tommy Durnin and James Califf started to come into play, the whole system began to malfunction.
Down lost six of their last seven kickouts. Louth didn’t punish it as they might have done.
Yet if you look back to what happens when they’re playing a top side, you only need to go to last summer’s meeting with Donegal.
They had similar numerical advantages on seven of their first ten kickouts, five of which were after Neil McGee’s red card left them with a spare man.
Yet they stayed so narrow that they had to kick down the middle. Donegal won eight of the ten and scored 1-3 off it.
When Down finally moved to create a short ball, they worked a score. And then they did the same on their next kickout.
They have the bones of an effective team with the ball, but no team in Ireland can be effective without it.
THIS was Down’s final kickout of the first half, by which stage you can clearly see the impact their disinterest in going short has hand.
In the first image, the white shirts were all touch-tight to their opponents. But by this stage, Louth have only four men inside the Down 45’, compared to seven outfield Down players.
Louth’s players are already dropping off before the ball is kicked, heading for the space beneath the four midfielders on the stand side.
The kickout still went long and, unsurprisingly, Louth won it.
Then there’s the issue of the lack of urgency. To put the 24-second average into context, Stephen Cluxton’s average in the first half of last year’s All-Ireland final was just under 13 seconds. Six times, he got the kick away in under 11.
You can’t compare most other goalkeepers in terms of kicking accuracy, but there’s nothing stopping Down from injecting a bit more pace into their restarts. That would make it harder for the opposition to push up, and therefore offer them more options.
But Rory Burns needs an awful lot more help. He needs the kind of width and, to not put too fine a point on it, interest that Louth showed when Fergal Sheeky was taking his kickouts.
THIS was the perfect contrast. Sheeky was taking his time as well, which was more understandable given they were playing against the wind.
Louth used that time to clear out and get their shape back. On this instance, it took 30 seconds for him to kick out, by which stage it was 6v6 inside their own 65’.
From there, it’s timing and movement. They’re all just dandering until the second Sheeky sets the ball on the tee and then, bang, they all go.
Down didn’t press as well as they should have, on occasions allowing a 4v3 to occur when kickouts took almost a minute, but Louth keeping width in their defence also made life much easier for Sheeky.
In this instance, their movement is orchestrated and organised. There looks to be no space when they line up, but as soon as their ‘keeper sets the ball up, two defenders head for the right wing and another sprints the opposite direction.
Their markers go with them and that creates a massive gap in the centre of the goal, into which Bevan Duffy sprints from the 65’, leaving his marker for dead and picking up the handiest of balls.
All afternoon they kept one of their full-backs on the touchline, and always on the touchline that suited a right-footed goalkeeper to clip the ball out with his instep.
That creation of space, that energy and that organisation was the difference. They made their goalkeeper’s job easy.
Down are making their goalkeeper’s job very hard. Impossible, almost.