Donegal aim to overcome Derry in this Sunday’s Ulster Senior Football Championship Semi Final.
The task facing Derry on Sunday is a daunting one. Not only will Derry have to defeat a side which has only lost one Ulster Championship fixture since 2011, but one that seem to have improved since Jimmy McGuinness departed. In the two Championship games under Rory Gallagher, Donegal have displayed different aspects to their game. In the Preliminary round, Donegal overcame Tyrone in a attritional encounter and in the quarter final against a fancied Armagh team, inflicted a heavy defeat.
The hall marks of the McGuinness game plan remain.
Donegal have retained their defensive structure, work ethic and eye for detail. Although they continue to counter attack rapidly after turning over possession, in a bid to create overlaps and overload defences, they have now added slight variations to their game. In the 2012 All Ireland Final, Donegal launched a series of early long balls into the heart of the Mayo defence. This deviation seemed to take Mayo by surprise as Donegal scored two early goals and effectively won the game.
While this aspect of their strategy may not have been seen too often, they employed it to devastating effect against Armagh. In this case, using Patrick McBrearty as the target (as opposed to Michael Murphy) seemed to catch Armagh cold.
In last year’s All Ireland Final against Kerry, Donegal found themselves shocked by the system employed by Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Kerry set up ultra defensively, leaving Donegal struggling to find scores from counter attacking. The ability of the Kerry players to retain possession under pressure, effectively neutralised much of Donegal’s threat. The Tír Connail men therefore needed to evolve in order to remain relevant.
This, we imagined, was going to be made more difficult by the departure of McGuinness. Defeats to Dublin, Monaghan and Kerry in the league, fuelled the narrative that Donegal were going to be vulnerable under Rory Gallagher come the summer. While Donegal’s victory over Tyrone was expected, their mauling of Armagh was not and illustrated how their game has evolved under Gallagher.
Like Kerry, Kieran McGeeney put in place a system that would rob Donegal of their counter attack. However, Gallagher had his half back line set up in such a way so as to support the player in possession. On numerous occasions, a line of players could be seen supporting the ball carrier across the field, allowing Donegal to retain possession if they found themselves under pressure. When Donegal broke through Armagh’s cover, the line of players honed in on the ball carrier – offering close support left and right of the man in possession.
Such support lines are more at home on the rugby field, offering a team the opportunity to take full advantage of the initial line break. Once they had created the line breaks, Donegal created the space from which they could display their kick passing game, hitherto mostly unseen, to fully take advantage of the break down in Armagh’s defensive structure.
Given Donegal’s strengths, it is difficult to pin point how Brian McIver and his Derry team can overcome Donegal. They simply do not have the fire power and struggled to put away a Down team who were down to fourteen men. The juggernaut it seems will roll on.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena