It has been a bad couple of weeks for hurling teams playing with extra defenders.
Following a Munster final in which Tipperary rolled over Waterford as if they were nothing more than a speed bump, last Sunday saw Clare brusquely eliminated by Galway.
PM O’Sullivan likened the Munster final to the Brexit vote, with opposing camps disputing the value of sweeper systems.
On the evidence of the Championship to date, the case against sweepers looks to be gathering strength. But it is worth looking closer at that evidence, and considering whether the issue is with the system itself or its implementation.
The sweeper system has been criticised on the grounds that it diminishes the chances of success against the best sides. A persistent theme in this criticism concerns a lack of goals.
Clare managed four against Kilkenny in the league semi-final, but none in their Championship games against Waterford, Limerick and Galway.
Waterford have scored a single goal in their three Championship games.
The diagnosis often offered is that playing with a seventh defender leaves teams a forward short, and this makes it difficult to manufacture chances close to goal. But it is not clear why this should be such a great handicap.
If the opposition sets up with six defenders and six forwards, then each team will in effect have one spare defender – therefore, both sets of forwards will be outnumbered, in which case both teams should struggle to get goals.
In explaining the struggles experienced by Waterford and Clare, a key issue is how teams playing with a sweeper are set up to attack.
Waterford in the Munster final and Clare against Galway each deployed a two-man full-forward line high up the pitch and dropped their half-forwards much deeper. The problem with this deployment is not just that the full-forward line is outnumbered, but that it is in effect cut off from the rest of the team.
In each case, the ball delivered into the full-forwards was invariably high and from distance, which suited the defenders. It was notable that neither Clare nor Waterford made much attempt to use the space opened up in front of their full-forward line by hitting shorter passes for the forwards to run out onto. Nor did either team appear to be using a designated linking player who would station himself ahead of the half-forwards to break into that space when his team had possession (this role might have particularly suited Tony Kelly or Conor McGrath for Clare, by keeping them out of the heavy traffic and getting them into scoring positions with the ball in hand).
The suspicion remains that while playing with a sweeper might limit attacking options, those limitations were exacerbated by specific choices made by Clare and Waterford.
Another aspect of the sweeper system to consider is how opposing teams are counteracting the spare defender. In last year’s Munster final and this year against Cork, Tipperary sought to keep the ball away from the area between the full-back and centre back where the sweeper(s) was stationed; the priority was to find space for their forwards, making runs to the wings to isolate their markers and picking off points as the opportunities arose.
In contrast, in this year’s Munster final, Tipp got goals by directly targeting the Waterford full-back line right in front of their goal.
Against Clare, Galway demonstrated the value of pressuring the spare defender on the opposition’s puck-outs; Cian Dillon was turned over twice early on, forcing Clare to go long with their puck-outs in a way which was always going to reward Galway’s superiority in the air.
It may be that teams have cracked the sweeper system, figuring out ways to nullify it in attack and bypass or overrun the spare man in defence. But it seems just as likely that this is another instance of a familiar pattern of tactical development, in which innovations must be refined to deal with specially tailored responses.
The reasons why teams opt to play with sweepers remain, whatever problems currently plague the system (and regardless of whether it suits Clare or Waterford).
While the details of a rebooted sweeper system remain to be seen, its outline seems reasonably clear. Both Clare and Waterford seek to compress the play around midfield or their own half-back line, for instance on the opposition puck-out.
The gamble is that by flooding that area of the pitch they will have sufficient numbers to win the ball, and they can carry the ball into the space further up the pitch more quickly than the opposition can cover back.
It makes particular sense for a team with a sweeper to play this way, since rather than delivering long passes to outnumbered forwards, the spare man will have options to play short passes and get his team-mates running into space.
A more effective version of the sweeper system would make such transitions as quick and fluid as possible. It would also need to be flexible enough to make adjustments without completely changing the overall shape, for instance by having a wider range of alternative puck-out strategies. Such a system might not be better than any other, but nor is it obviously worse.
In any case, the history of tactical developments in other codes, in particular football, suggests we should expect to see more of it in hurling.