Lies Damned Lies and Statistics
Homer (the Greek poet not Simpson) told the story of Sisyphus, the King who was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down when it reached the summit.
I have to admit that heading to Tom Semple’s Field on Saturday evening, the realist in me thought the Tipperary Football team faced the same impossible task as Sisyphus did in Hades.
However, by the time I had reached Thurles I had decided to park both the car and the realism in Dr Morris Park. Walking down to the stadium I was telling myself that last November we had pulled off the impossible against Cork so why not dare to dream that we could do the same against Kerry. That’s what sport does to you, it is the last refuge of the hopeless romantic! For the second year in a row the football championship is sudden death. Just when gaelic football is becoming watchable again, the GAA have decided we’ll see less of it.
Saturday’s game couldn’t have had a better setting. The weather came good to remind us we are in mid-summer and the pitch in Thurles was wearing its Saturday best. It was one of those days when you’d love to be out there playing yourself. I took my seat early as I always like looking at the warm ups and judging by the intensity of their warm-up it was clear that Kerry had come to bury the Munster Champions not to praise them.
By now you’ll have read all the wild reports on the game so I’m going to have a look at the “tale of the tape” and see what the stats from the game can tell us:
When devising any sort of a plan in life it’s always advisable to refer the ‘best practice”. So when coming up with a kick- out strategy in gaelic football then it makes sense to look at Stephen Cluxton. One of the main tenets of Cluxton’s success over the years was his insistence on having the ball on the kicking-tee and being ready to restart the game within 10 seconds of the ball going dead. If the quick kick-out is on, he gives it and a study of over 2,200 kick-outs in the championship between 2017 and 2019 showed that 58% of all short kicks outs result in your team getting a shot at goal at the other end of the field. Armed with that information, one can rightly ask the question as to why we slowed down our kick-outs and insisted on going long. Was it fear or were we being pragmatic?
To answer that question, you have to look at the opposition and how they set up on your kick-out. Kerry employ an aggressive high press on the opposition kick-out, setting up zonally with 3 banks of 4 from the half way line up. It limits the space for defenders to move into to receive a short kick- out and increases the chances of a turnover leading to a score, possibly even a goal. I have no doubt that this was foremost in the minds of David Power and his management team when devising the kick-out strategy and hence the decision to ignore the 10 second rule that Cluxton employs, kick long over the press and compete for the 50/50 ball around the middle of the field.
Tipperary had 25 kick-outs in the game. When the stats were totted up at the end of the game they showed that we won 60% of our own kick-outs and scored 1.02 within 30 seconds of winning those kick-outs. Unfortunately those stats don’t tell the full story. For long periods in the first half we were struggling to get our hands on the ball as David Moran plucked ball after ball from low flying clouds. During these moments in the game we desperately needed a “go-to kick- out” that guarantees you possession. Tipp FM analyst, Martin Quinlivan, refers to this type of kick-out as being like a second serve in tennis. Once the first serve has being called ‘out’ you keep the second serve nice and simple to ensure you stay in the point. In the first half last Saturday evening, we were in dire need of a ‘second serve kick-out‘ as Kerry scored 5 points within 30 seconds of winning our kick-out to balance the books on scores from Tipperary kick-outs.
Parity on your own kick-out against one of the top teams in the country can be deemed acceptable but going forward I would like to see us developing a “second serve kick-out”and being a little more adventurous than simply picking a target area and going long to that area. Winning stats show 72% plus on your own kickouts as a factor in a positive result in the game. This has to be our base line target next year regardless of whether its Division 4 opposition in the league or Division 1 opposition in the championship.
The decision to concede the Kerry kick-out must have left our management team feeling like Oisin when he learned that Fionn and the Fianna had passed away. I gave the stat above that 58% of short kick-outs result in a shot at goal. Well Kerry outdone themselves. They had 16 kick-outs in the game of which we conceded 14 to them. It is a measure of their skill that they managed to get 11 shots at goal from collecting those 14 kick-outs and scored 9 points within 30 seconds of the kick-out being taken.
I find it hard to be critical here because once we had decided on a game plan of sitting back and protecting the scoring zone, a tactic that worked very well in general play, it would be very hard to ask players to high press the Kerry kick-out and then expect them to get back to defend if Kerry won possession. We would have been out on our feet after 50 minutes if we had done that and to be fair you can’t legislate for a team getting away shots with 78% of their kick-out possessions especially when the average is 58% and when they to score with 82% of those shots, then sometimes you just have to tip your hat.
But we live and learn and I suspect in the future David and his management team will be very slow to concede kick-outs to the opposition. Kerry scored 1.19 on the day. 14 points of that total came from kick-outs (5 from winning ours, 9 from winning their own). We have some serious housekeeping to do on both our own kick-out and the opposition kick-out. I spoke in the last edition of The Premier about how we need to evolve our game. Starting that evolution by devising a work- able kick-out strategy on our own and the opposition kick- outs would be a good place to start.
David Power and his cabinet came with a game plan to set up defensively and place their trust in the ball carriers to attack Kerry from deep. While some would see it as too conservative, it could also be viewed as a gutsy call by management. Our confidence must have been as low as lino after our performances in the league so setting up so defensively carried the risk of going horribly wrong, but apart from a 3 minute period before the first water break, it didn’t.
This system involves everyone knowing their job, working hard for 70 minutes in an effort to limit the Kerry forays into the scoring zone, then turning over the ball and counter- attacking at pace. Great credit must go to the management team for putting a structure in place that everyone bought into and to the players for carrying out the game plan to a tee. They were asked to work as maintenance men when Kerry had the ball and then become artists when they turned the ball over. They did both superbly but too often found that as they were switching into artistic mode, Kerry robbed their easel. One of the more amazing stats of the game was that despite having the lion’s share of possession, Kerry conceded 25 frees to our 14 but yet we were the ones who had a player sent off and a player sin binned. Knowing when and where to foul is another lesson we could learn from the cute Kerry hoors. Only 7 of those 25 frees Kerry conceded were in scoreable positions (we converted 6 scoring 1.05) while 7 of the 14 frees we conceded to Kerry were in scoreable positions (they converted all 7).
Very seldom does a losing team win the turnover count. In fact the stats show that 82% of winning teams also win the turnover count. It is a measure of our work-rate and indeed our game plan that despite losing the game we won the turnover count 14 to 12. Ultimately it counts for nothing except to show what a spirited bunch we have involved in Tipperary football. It would have been so easy for them to roll over especially after the body blows they took just before the first water break. D.H. Lawrence told us “the only tragedy is loss of heart”. If he had been in Semple Stadium on Saturday evening he would have approved. This Tipperary team never lost heart and battled to the end. With our U20’s winning magnificently last Thursday night (a game I was unable to attend so can’t comment on) the future of Tipperary Football is not as gloomy as some would like to believe!