(originally posted on boards.ie)
Waterford’s heavy defeat in the Munster Final came as quite a shock to Waterford’s dumbfounded supporters. The Waterford team which lost by a similar margin in the 2011 final was a shambles of a selection, and the team knew it going out on the field. This year’s team had earned a well-deserved reputation over the last two years as a highly-competitive and skillful outfit with a massive work rate and fighting spirit.
The rubbish spewed out in the aftermath of the game from a wide range of so-called “pundits” says more about their knowledge of hurling than it does about the Waterford team. Clearly last week’s outcome was freakish and, I believe, very unlikely to happen again. At the same time, something obviously went wrong and we need to know what it was.
While playing nowhere near their potential, Waterford were clearly the better team in the first half during which they had 19 shots at goal compared to 12 for Tipperary. However, while their shooting early on was good, their failure to score between the 14th and 35th minute really killed them. During this period they had ten bad misses – three in the 19th minute alone. Had they converted even half of these and not conceded a very soft goal they would have been six points up at half time, which would have given them something to fight for and put some pressure on Tipperary.
In the second half, Tipperary had a simple tactic – play long ball into the Waterford goal area and hope to get enough good ball from this to get a winning score. They bunched four or five forwards in the D outside the large Waterford square and as the ball arrived one forward went up for the ball and the others fanned out hoping for a break. This tactic worked well beyond their expectations due to a combination of good play on their part, poor defending by Waterford (especially bunching and poor match-ups in challenging for incoming ball), and good luck. For example, for their fifth goal, the incoming ball bounced sideways off somebody’s helmet straight into the path of Seamus Callanan who duly finished to the net.
Waterford actually won a lot of ball in the second half. Despite playing into the strong wind and being forced to hit long puckouts due to the Tipperary full forwards pushing up on the Waterford full backs, Waterford won half of their own long puckouts. However, their use of the ball was very poor, either playing it in to double-marked forwards or giving the ball away altogether.
Tipperary were up for a battle in what were very difficult conditions, and Waterford needed to be prepared to at least match this. However, compared with their normal level of performance, Waterford were very flat, lacking in drive and focus. At half time on the Sunday Game, Ger Loughnane remarked that Waterford were “mentally slow”. They were also physically inferior on the day. I counted 13 cases of Waterford players losing possession under pressure (i.e. turnovers) compared with just one for Tipperary. I also counted 19 cases of Waterford giving the ball away to unmarked Tipperary players, either due to playing the ball under pressure or poor shot selection.
There are a lot of stories going around about the Waterford panel being subjected to a very demanding programme of preparation for the Munster Final. I have heard of six training sessions in the week before the week of the Final, of workouts in Colligan Wood and of players waking up extremely tired facing into the day’s work. If these stories are true it raises serious questions about the team’s management. This is the kind of work you do in February and March, with the focus on developing explosive force in the summer months.
This would certainly provide an explanation for Waterford’s flat performance last week. It is also possible that, with most media pundits predicting a Waterford win, and with their own supporters more confident than I have ever seen them before, the team may have gone into the game in more relaxed mood than was warranted.
Of course, there is no guarantee that if Waterford had gone into the game really “up for it”, they would have prevailed against a Tipperary outfit which brought massive focus, determination and physicality to bear in addition to their high skill levels. One wonders in particular if Waterford need to be more flexible in terms of adapting to prevailing physical conditions. The wet conditions alone called for a more direct style of play, all the more so with the very strong wind at their back in the first half. With Maurice Shanahan at full forward and Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett on either side of him, who knows what would have happened if Waterford had adopted the tactics which Tipperary employed in the second half.
In the longer run, questions have to asked about the over-defensive nature of Waterford’s playing formation. This is more about the tactic of flooding midfield and leaving very few forwards up front than it is about using a sweeper (a lot of so-called pundits are unable to make this distinction). On the Sunday Game, both Ger Loughnane and Henry Shefflin were critical of this aspect of the Waterford setup, with Shefflin insisting that you need to be more courageous in order to win championships. Derek McGrath has pointed to Waterford’s good scoring rate over the last two years, but there is evidence that this doesn’t work against the better teams. Waterford only scored 16 points in last year’s Munster Final and only 18 against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Semi-final.
I am inclined to see Derek McGrath’s approach as very similar to that of Jack Charlton when he was in charge of the Irish soccer team. Charlton’s strategy was based on stopping the opposition from scoring, and in this he was very successful. However, when it comes to World Cup and Euro finals, you need more than this. Charlon had an exceptional group of talented players available to him, and I always thought that he could have made better use of them.
Charlton, of course, played for Leeds, a team that was very good at winning leagues but hopeless at winning cups. They ground out their weekly away draws and home wins, but when it came to the bit of magic needed when games had to be won, they were found wanting.
I see a lot of parallels with the current Waterford setup. Waterford currently have upcoming strike forwards with great potential in Patrick Curran and the two Bennetts. Yet, just as Jack Charlton had John Aldridge wearing his feet to stumps (his own words) chasing long balls into the corners, last year Derek McGrath had Stephen Bennett operating far from goal playing a poorly-defined and thankless role. Similarly, Shane Bennett is wandering around the field hoping the ball will come his way.
We all know what Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett are capable of close to goal, and we saw further evidence of it last Wednesday in Walsh Park. I have no problem with Waterford continuing to operate a sweeper. Most counties do it and in Tadhg de Búrca we have the best in the business. But I think we should plant Stephen Bennett and Patrick Curran close to goal and concentrate on delivering good early ball into them. In three plays they could do more damage than six players spending an hour fighting for ruck ball in the midfield area.
On the basis of recent games I am also coming around to the idea of locating Austin Gleeson at centre back. I don’t think the current practice of moving him around makes adequate use of his prodigious talent. I’m not normally a fan of Ger Loughnane, but on that Sunday Game programme he spoke a lot of sense. Of Austin Gleeson he said “he doesn’t know where he is playing and what he is doing.” I accept that the Clare Under-21 team are not the best measuring rod, but Gleeson looked very comfortable and imperious in a fixed half back position last Wednesday night. We need to get him to focus more on delivering early ball to the full forwards rather than running with it, but with Tadhg de Búrca filling in behind him, I would give him his head.
Finally, in relation to de Búrca, a writer in one of the Sunday papers said that a key factor in Tipperary’s win in the Munster Final is that they put men in on de Búrca, thereby stifling him. I have watched a recording of the game several times. De Búrca got possession a lot more than any other player, and I did not note even one occasion where he was stopped, dispossessed or blocked by his markers, while his use of the ball was frequently very good. He was not as good under the high ball as he normally is, but he was still easily Waterford’s best player on the day.