Friday, September 16, 2016

How the Sweeper Will Affect Sunday's All-Ireland Final!

Since Armagh arrived on the scene implementing what has now become known as the blanket defence and Tyrone applied it to devastating effect in 2003, Gealic football tactics have evolved significantly. This evolution is now close to the point I had long pontificated was a natural evolution whereby most teams are now applying a sweeper, even the mighty Kingdom. The interesting point to note, however, is that while all sweepers may appear equal, some are more equal than others!

The tactical scenarios which saw a sweeper at both ends for Dublin's semi-final against Kerry and will almost certainly be replicated in this Sunday's final allude to a bigger theoretical, structural set up than may appear to be the case at a glance. The case of Dublin "sweeper" Cian O'Sulivan alludes to the matter at hand.

I have argued, until recent tactical developments at least, that the application of a sweeper was simply a very logical tactical evolution and procedure. The reason is very simple.

By applying a sweeper you had always set the field up in a manner which was tactically favourable to your own team. The reason for this is simple. If you plan to implement a sweeper and the opposition don't (systematically), then you're looking at a scenario whereby your defence is set up from a starting point of seven defenders versus six forwards while theirs is set up with from a starting point of six defenders versus five forwards. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or even a great tactical theoretician to work out that the side defending seven versus six are at an automatic advantage.  

There's a basic principle in football, as well as all field sports with a goal at both ends for that matter, that you want to attack into space and defend in a compact environment. The side defending seven on six are automatically set up  in a more compact  environment and are attacking into a more spacious one. There's less space for the opposition to attack into and more space for their own forwards to operate into. Bring an attacking half back line and midfield into the fray and you're perfectly well set up to overrun the opposition's spacious defence.

It's a tactic which was being used effectively by many counties in the mid to late noughties, went out of vogue, and has come back with a vengeance. I've lost count of how many games I've seen where the simple difference between the two sides was that one were defending seven versus six while the other were defending six versus five. That's not to mention the fact, of course, that by systematically applying a sweeper you're guaranteed that your sweeper is actually trained as a sweeper. The opposition's has generally just happened to find himself as a "sweeper". The most blatant example I ever saw of this was the minor All-Ireland final in 2010. Though Cork almost made a last gasp comeback, a Tyrone side who I considered to be technically inferior outmanoeuvred them with the Tyrone sweeper conducting the orchestra from the back. A spare Cork defender at the far end was just that, a spare defender. With the greatest of respect to him, he had clearly never been instructed to play as a sweeper before and quite possibly had never done so.

So this all begs a question. Do Dublin play a sweeper? Well, they do and they don't. They don't drop a man back from their forward line. They do, however, have a "sweeper" in Cian O'Sullivan. That is to say that he's not a sweeper in the strictest sense. In the strictest sense he's a centre back. That's where he'll line out and that's where he plays. Jim Gavin knows, however, that no opposition that Dublin face will play six textbook forwards so they will always have a spare defender.

This is in stark contrast  to the mid to late noughties when Dublin were the last side in the country to adopt a blanket defence and no plans appeared to have been made for this tactical element and Dublin failed year after year to beat serious opposition outside Leinster. In the 2007 Leinster Final against Laoise in order to stifle this, Pillar Caffrey sent Brian Cullen up to mark the Laoise sweeper. While it actually worked on the day, in theoretical terms it was a terribly flawed tactic. That is to say that they allowed Laoise to attack five on five while they attacked seven on seven. It may well have stifled Laoise's tactical dominance on the day, but can you imagine Dublin applying the same principle against Kerry? Starting to see why they could steamroll Leinster in the noughties but never make an impact outside of that?

Under the current regime Cian O'Sullivan is very much planned to be a centre back come sweeper. That is to say that it doesn't matter whether it's the  opposition's number 11 or not who drops back, the Dublin defence manoeuvre that it's O'Sullivan is sweeper. To that end he is, without inverted commas, a true sweeper.

To that end, the basic tactical structure appears to favour Mayo in numerical/space terms but they don't have the advantage of the opposition utilising a novice sweeper. All things considered, you can expect the performances and defensive marshalling of the respective sweepers, O'Sullivan for Dublin and Kevin McLoughlin or Barry Moran for Mayo, to be crucial come this Sunday's final.

If, however, Dublin being set up six versus five at the back appears to put them on the back foot in a tactical sense from the off, how come they haven't lost a championship match to date in the seasons since they've systematically applied O'Sullivan in this role and how have the evolving tactics changed my views on this matter? Because amongst some subtler details the most significant difference in Dublin's successful strategy under Jim Gavin has been their capacity to get the ball back into play quickly on kick-outs asap and overrun opposition teams before they have the chance to get numbers behind the ball. Though there are other subtler elements, take this factor out of their current tactical set up and they aren't massively ahead of where they were under Pillar Caffrey.

So how does this relate to the six on five at the back being an advantage? Because it allows Dublin a free man in acres of space to receive the quick kick-out and break up field. And this is the crux of Dublin's game plan. To this point, the ability retain possession on quick kick-outs has more than offset the seven on six/six on five dynamic. While applying a sweeper at the back offers security in one sense against the Dubs, on the other hand it could play right into their strategy, making it easier to retain possession quickly on kick-outs.

It's a delicate strategic balance and how much Dublin having the spare man at the back on their own kick-outs is offset by the value of Mayo having a more compact defence will go a long way to deciding who lifts the Sam Maguire Cup on Sunday.

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