So, it’s finally the off-season for senior inter-county hurling, and as we’re all well aware by now, Galway came away as far and away the most successful team of the year. They won the league, they won Leinster and they won the All-Ireland final. Obviously, their long overdue All-Ireland victory was the culmination of years of hard work, but let’s take a look at what they did, during the final itself, that got them over the line against Waterford.
The table above gives an overview of many of the match statistics. Immediately, there are a few things which stand out: both teams finished with very impressive shooting efficiency, with Galway getting a small edge, scoring 0.81 points per shot versus Waterford’s 0.74 points per shot. Both teams also forced a huge number of turnovers: a combination of two very physical teams, possibly aided to the nerves of playing in an All-Ireland final, failed to convert a possession into a shot roughly 62% of the time. For reference, in the Munster final, Clare and Cork turned over 51% and 54% of possessions, respectively, and Galway only turned the ball over 50% of the time in the Leinster final (Wexford did have 64% of possessions end in turnovers in that match, which likely cost them the game).However, despite the large numbers, Waterford only turned the ball over one more time than Galway in total. A large number of frees were also given to both teams, especially towards the late game, which became scrappy, with a few more frees going to Waterford. All in all, we had expected Waterford and Galway to play a somewhat similar style, with a lot of physicality and long range shooting. What we got was more or less what we expected, with very little between the teams in most categories. This game wasn’t won through one team dominating in one or two areas, but rather was simply Galway performing that little bit better across the board, resulting in lots of small advantages adding up. The most tangible and important difference, of course, is that Galway scored more than Waterford, so let’s take a look at that next:
The shot charts work as they did in previous articles. <Link> Black circles are off-target shots, red are saves, white are points, and green are goals. A blue border indicates a free, a cyan border indicates a 65, a magenta border indicates a sideline cut and a yellow border indicates a penalty.
Galway managed to win this match without a single goal, while Waterford’s goals kept them in the game when it looked like Galway were pulling away from them. In terms of how both teams got their scores, the ratios weren’t massively different; both teams scored the majority from play, Waterford got a couple more points from frees, though perhaps should have scored more, as they were awarded more three more frees than Galway, and had five more within scoring range. Both teams also attempted a shot from a sideline cut, though only Galway succeeded in converting this. Waterford did, however, score a goal from a very unlikely location, due a long pass unintentionally becoming a shot at goal as it missed its original target. Overall, the shot selection doesn’t appear terribly different; Galway trended slightly closer to the centre and closer to the goals, and Waterford may have attempted slightly too many from very long range, but both seem to have a similar mix of shots from all across the pitch. This may indicate why Galway finished with their very slightly higher points per shot statistic, but not by much, and both teams still did well in terms of efficiency. Waterford did fail to find as many shots from play as Galway did, and this may indicate why Waterford took slightly less reliable shots than Galway, in an effort to get something up rather than risk losing possession.
The first chart above displays how the score progressed over the course of the game. The second chart, displays this in the form of the winning margin at any given time. Finally the third chart, in a small preview of a feature of the site’s new rating system, displays how the rating system felt each team’s odds changed over the course of the match. The computer gave Galway the edge before the game even started, seeing them as likely to win the match about 62% of the time, Waterford to win about 35% of the time, and a draw the remainder of the time. The computer also the most likely outcome to be Galway to win by 4 points, so was not terribly far off in its prediction.
As Galway got off to their quick lead in the opening minutes, their odds to win sharply rose to over 75%, though Waterford’s goal brought their odds back down to close to their initial level. Galway’s odds slowly crept upwards again, until Waterford’s second goal, which levelled the match and narrowed Galway’s odds to below their starting value for the first time. This set off a general downward trend for Galway as Waterford failed to go away, and even briefly gained the lead about two-thirds of the way in, bringing Galway’s odds to a low point of just under 50%. Galway rallied, however, and though they couldn’t ever get their lead to more than 4 points, the ever reducing time on the clock meant that Waterford’s odds quickly diminished from this point onward. With a minute to go, Galway were given a nearly 98% chance of winning by the rating system, with Waterford having a 2% chance for a late goal to level things, and less than 0.3% chance to win. Waterford certainly kept it close throughout, but there was a sense that they were always chasing the game. This sense seems to be backed up by the rating system, which never had their odds of winning as being better than Galway’s.
Though the final margin between the teams in this regard was very slim, it’s still worth taking a look at the turnovers, as there were simply so many of them. The above chart shows the turnover difference between the teams. One important note is that, while Waterford only had one more than Galway in total, they had more turnovers than Galway for almost all of the match, and Galway never had more turnovers than Waterford; it was only as the game approached its end that Waterford started to force more Galway turnovers, and this may have been too late for them to make use of these errors, especially as the increased number of fouls slowed the game down. As a result of this, could it be possible that though there wasn’t much difference between the teams overall, Galway’s turnovers were more impactful? Looking into the numbers, this theory seems to be valid: Waterford scored 15 points from possessions which started with Galway turnovers, while Galway scored 19 from Waterford turnovers (possessions here are not considered to be over if interrupted by a foul. For example: if Waterford stole the ball from Galway, and were then fouled by Galway, and then scored from a free, this was considered all to be the same Waterford possession, and a point was scored from a turnover). Any factor which causes a four point difference in a game that was won by three must be considered substantial, and Galway were simply more effective at capitalising on Waterford’s mistakes than the other way around. Both teams got their remaining 8 points from uninterrupted possessions beginning with puckouts. As such, it can be deduced that Galway scored at a much higher rate from turnovers, while Waterford scored in proportion to how many of their possessions were gained from turnovers versus from puckouts. The turnover numbers may have been similar, but they hurt one team far more than the other.
The above table displays how each team’s turnovers came about. One final note on the turnovers, which was less a reflection of which team was better, and more on how both teams play the game, was on how they happened. In a typical hurling match, the vast majority will occur through interceptions: the ball is being passed, and fails to reach its target, instead being picked up by an opposing player. After this, there’ll usually be a handful of balls which are lost when hit out over the sideline, a few instances where the player in possession commits a foul (for example, taking too many steps), and very rarely there are instances of what we’re calling ‘steals’: no pass is involved, an opposing player simply takes the ball off the player in possession. Though the majority of turnovers were interceptions, with a few sideline balls and fouls, there were a total of ten steals counted in this analysis: this is a lot, and both teams had more steals on their own in this game than occurred in both provincial finals combined. Neither team got this far by being passive: they were both highly aggressive, and never gave up on hassling their opponent as long as they had possession.
We’ve gotten used to Galway playing a style of hurling with very few passes per possession. The ideal which Galway have appeared to strive for all year is to win a very long puckout, and to then immediately take a shot. Waterford, however, have gained a reputation for making greater use of short passing, working the ball from the sweeper slowly up to the forwards. This is reflected in the numbers: including puckouts, Waterford attempted 44 more passes than Galway did: in light of the turnover numbers, they didn’t really do any worse than Galway, and so can’t really be accused of overpassing: it was simply a different style of play, working for a different team. Galway favoured long passes and puckouts more than Waterford, with these making up 56% percent of their pass attempts, versus Waterford’s 42%. Both teams had a similar ratio of long versus short puckouts, but Waterford found much greater success in this area of the game: Waterford won just under 60% of their own puckouts, versus Galway’s very poor 42%. Winning less than half your puckouts, and less than a third of your long puckouts, even against a very stifling team like Waterford, is not a good sign, and could be an area for Galway to watch if they want to maintain their status at the top into next year. Having said that, neither team won over half of their long puckouts, which highlights again just how tough both teams made it for the other to hold on to possession.
Both of the provincial finals had very clear cut reasons that one team beat the other when analysed. In Leinster, Galway bullied Wexford by forcing turnovers, giving Galway more wiggle room in weaker areas, such as shooting efficiency. In Munster, Cork simply outshot Clare, gaining a point from roughly 3 out of every 5 shots, versus Clare’s 1 out of every 2. The All-Ireland was less clearcut, and was closer in many areas. This was a game where most of the initial numbers were close, and had to be looked at in more detail before any conclusions could be drawn: The scoring margin was never greater than 4 points in Galway’s favour, and was level on nine occasions, but Waterford only actually led the game for a tiny amount of time, and never by more than a point. Turnovers were roughly even, but Galway made far more use of the ones they forced. Waterford had more shots from set pieces, but Galway managed to avoid missing a single attempt from these situations. Both teams shot very well from play, with almost identical efficiencies, but Galway were simply able to create more shots from these situations. Bit by bit, in a classic ‘game of inches’ scenario, Galway outperformed Waterford in the minor details of the match, and minimised the impact of where Waterford outplayed them, until it added up to an All-Ireland win.