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Peter Canavan: Tactical dilemmas for Tyrone and Donegal show change is in the air

No quarter: Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh and Paddy McGrath of Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final clash
No quarter: Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh and Paddy McGrath of Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final clash

By Peter Canavan

Tomorrow in Kingspan Breffni, Tyrone take on Donegal in what will be the stern­est test yet of just how much football has evolved.

Tyrone, the team who for too long were wedded to a predictable, risk-averse style of foot­ball, take on the county that perfected the blanket defence in 2012.

The reverberations of that Donegal All-Ireland win under Jim McGuinness are still being felt around the Gaelic football world today.

However, the winds of change have been blowing for some time now, and the game is in its next stage of evo­lution. It will be fascinating to see if Mickey Harte and Declan Bonner fol­low that trend when the province's two heavyweights clash tomorrow evening (5pm).

To my mind, Bonner has the biggest decision to make with regards to how he sets his team up to approach this game.

His philosophy is to play on the front foot. And I've written before about how he is blessed with the talent to do that.

Those Donegal boys want to play largely orthodox, attacking football. It suits the nature of the new wave of talent.

They started to move away from the style of football they played under McGuinness last year.

However, when Tyrone visited Bal­lybofey in the Super8s last year, they reverted to type and packed their defence.

This group aren't as comfortable doing that as the previous generation were. It didn't work for them and they paid the price.

So Bonner has a decision to make. Does he do what he did last year or does he play to his team's strengths and cut them loose on the Red Hands?

It will be tempting for him as their NFL Division 2 final demonstrated how good they can be going forward, hitting 1-16 in the final three quarters of the game.

But that game-plan comes at a price. In the opening 13 minutes on the same night, they showed they can be vulner­able at the other end, with Meath hit­ting a quick-fire 1-6.

Neil McGee's introduction helped steady things but for Bonner it's about weighing up the options. Does robbing Peter to pay Paul leave his side in profit in the long run?

His tactics were decided for him in the Fermanagh game. He knew how Rory Gallagher's side would play and Bonner was forced to mirror them.

That was a patient, mature display by Donegal and it will be interesting to see if Bonner believes in his players enough to cover their opposite number and if he trusts his midfielders and half-forwards to funnel back.

To some extent, his approach will be dictated by how Harte sets up. There's been plenty of talk about how they have kicked the ball more this year and it seems to suit them.

The players are flourishing but they too will be wary of leaving the back-door open. If it turns into a battle along the lines of last year, I don't think Tyrone will be too put out.

We shouldn't expect to see six-on-six football. Players are too tactically aware and too physically fit for the game to go back to that again, so I think we'll see a mix of everything. Things are changing but we shouldn't expect teams to be gung-ho all day, every day.

This is just another evolution of the game in the same way McGuinness's style sent football in a different direc­tion while he was at the helm.

That game-plan was effective at the time but players have learned how to play against it and managers and coaches know how to prepare for it.

In its infancy, the blanket often left teams flummoxed, but how often now do you see a ball kicked loosely into the arms of a sweeper?

And even outside of tactics, I think there's little to choose between the two sets of players.

Tyrone won by seven points last year but there was nothing like that between the teams.

Last year, Tyrone's bench proved the difference.

Harte's replacements hit 2-5, while Donegal got just a point from their subs. There will be small margins again, with the prospect of an Ulster final and direct passage to the Super8s at stake.

Tyrone can just scrape home but don't be surprised to see a third game in Ulster go to extra-time.

It's a bumper weekend for Ulster football with a double-header in Clones between Monaghan and Fermanagh, and the replay between Cavan and Armagh.

The Ulster Council made the smart move of lowering the ticket price for the replay after a great game where both sides brought the best out of each other.

Judging by the work being put in at underage and schools level, both counties look to have some good years ahead of them. There's not much between these sides.

What are the odds that this will be the first Cham­pionship game to be decided on pen­alties?

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