The 2017 Munster final in detail

Following on from the previous in depth look at the Leinster final, it's only right that an equivalent look at the Munster final is taken. Though the result wasn’t as one-sided as the other provincial final, Cork’s five point margin over Clare did seem appropriate to those watching. It was clear to many that Clare weren’t quite at their best, and Cork seemed able to keep them at a comfortable distance throughout the match. Though plenty of theories were put forward as to what separated the teams, it's hoped that this analysis can give us specifics on what it was that Cork really did better.

For information on the methodology, take a look back at the aforementioned Leinster final analysis, as it was largely the same for this article, albeit with a few minor tweaks to the software used, and a few more breaks taken to yell in frustration (for those unaware, I am a Clare native). For those who’ve already read it, or don’t care how it was done, let’s move ahead to the actual analysis…

The short puck outs

Something I wanted to address straight away in this analysis was Cork’s short puck outs. This tactic was blamed by many, many pundits as one of the key reasons for Clare’s loss. Short puck outs are relatively rare, and seeing Clare allow Cork to take so many uncontested was extremely unusual and confusing. Though the motive was understandable (packing the centre of the pitch to improve their odds at gaining possession later on, as well as banking on the full backs’ passes being less accurate than Anthony Nash’s), most felt that it was still massively detrimental overall.

First of all, let’s take a look at the raw numbers: How many puck outs did each team take, how many were short, how many were long, and how many were won or lost?

At a glance, this tactic by Clare does seem absolutely insane. Short puck outs nearly always meet their target, and in Cork’s case they always did so. In using this tactic, Clare actually allowed Cork to take more short puck outs than long ones, and so in total Cork won a whopping 86% of their puck outs! By contrast, Clare won a very good, but totally inferior, 69% of their puck outs, the vast majority of which were long.

However, it isn’t really fair to compare the percentages of short versus long puck outs. A successful long puck out is considerably more valuable, as a short puck out still has to be worked up the pitch. A player can’t shoot immediately after catching a short puck out, whereas this is often the case with longer passes. Therefore, let’s look into how each possession continued, beyond just the first completed pass:

The tables above indicate how each possession, started by a puck out, concluded for both teams. It breaks it down into four options: A goal was scored, a point was scored, a shot was taken but missed (either through wides, saves, or hitting the post or crossbar), or the ball was turned over. Suddenly, the answer becomes far less clear on how much the short puck outs benefited Cork. Depending on how you look at it, the advantages become less and less clear:

If you value avoiding turnovers and getting a shot off, whether or not it actually succeeds, then yes, there does seem to be  a bit of an advantage. However, Clare’s numbers are better than Cork’s in both categories, which might hint that this difference for Cork was because their own long puck outs were made so difficult by Clare’s shift to the centre of the pitch. If this is the case, then the conclusion is that Clare’s tactic worked, rather than being an advantage to Cork.

If, instead, you value points, and don’t care about missed shots, then the results go even more in Clare’s favour. Cork scored 7 from 16 long puck outs (0.44 points per puck out), versus 6 from 19 short puck outs (0.32 points per puck out). Both in absolute terms, and as a percentage of the total, the long puck outs performed better. Now, three of the long puck out points came from a goal, which skews the results, but even with only 4 points from the 16 long puck outs (0.25 points per puck out), the difference between short and long is just not very different for Cork.

Being frank, when I started this analysis, I fully expected to find that the short puck outs were what caused the damage to Clare. However, this was simply not the case. Depending on how much you read into the numbers, Clare’s decision to not contest the short puck outs had either a negligible or slightly positive impact. Either way, based on this data, it cannot be concluded, that this was a bad strategy. Certainly, you can argue that the psychological impact of being shouted at by your own fans for trying something so unorthodox was not very good, but the raw numbers paint a very different picture.

So, if not the puck outs, what was it? Going back to the table above, I mentioned that Clare got more shots out of their puck outs than Cork did. However, the number of these that Clare converted was far, far lower. The puck outs themselves may not have been the smoking gun we expected, but this seems like it could be a much more promising lead...

Clare’s misses

As in the previous article on the Leinster final, here is a general breakdown of a wide variety of events which occurred during the match:

Full Match
Event Clare Cork Difference
Points 20 25 -5
Goals 1 1 0
Frees 9 11 -2
Penalties 1 0 1
Shot attempts 43 38 5
Points per shot 0.53 0.74 -0.21
Turnovers 44 45 -1
Possessions 87 83 4
Turnovers per possession 0.51 0.54 -0.03
Points per possession 0.26 0.34 -0.08
Total passes 140 148 -8
Passes completed 96 103 -7
Pass % 0.69 0.7 -0.01
Fouls 11 11 0
Yellow Cards 2 5 -3
Red Cards 0 0 0

All in all, there doesn’t seem to be a lot between the teams in most categories. Clare had one less turnover, but also had more possessions (likely due to gaining possession following saved shots, or shots which hit the post or crossbar), so there’s nothing much between the teams here. Both teams had similar numbers of shots, passes, turnovers, shots per possession, fouls, sideline cuts and 65s. Based on all these, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the game had 1 point between them, rather than 5. However, there is one glaring difference: The shooting. Clare took 43 shot attempts, scoring 21 times, for a total of 0.53 points per shot. Cork, however, took only 38 shot attempts, but scored 26 times from these, for a total of 0.74 points per shot.

This is a very large difference. To pull ahead, without any increase in efficiency, would have required an extra 11-12 shots from Clare. In a match where the turnover totals were already very similar, with only one more for Cork than Clare, this was always going to be unlikely. It’s clear that the difference in this match was almost entirely on each team's’ ability to convert shots into points. While the Leinster final saw two teams with very similar shooting efficiency, but widely different shot totals, this match saw some very similar shot totals, but wildly different shooting efficiency. Now, it’s of course very easy, but not very useful, to conclude that the reason a team won is because they scored more points, so let’s get further into this and see why Cork were able to squeeze 5 extra points out of 5 fewer shots.

Shooting quality

Below are charts displaying shot charts for both teams, in total and broken down by half. For more information, see this article or the previous Leinster final analysis. For a quick refresher on how they work: each dot indicates the location of a shot. White dots are points, green dots are goals, red dots are saves, black dots are off-target (wide, hit the crossbar or hit the post). Blue borders indicate shots from frees, cyan borders indicate shots from 65s, yellow borders indicate shots from penalties and magenta borders indicate shots from sideline cuts. For reasons of consistency, all wides, saves, crossbar or post hits, points and goals are recorded, regardless of intention (there are a few extremely long-range wides for Cork, for example, which were most likely intended to be long passes but overshot). Finally, all positioning is based on how it appears from the television footage: there could be errors in judgement, or errors because shots were obscured. This match specifically had a couple of instances where replays were still being played when shots were taken, and so the positioning could only be guessed at.

It’s clear from these that Clare simply failed to find good shooting opportunities, while Cork found them in abundance. In the second half in particular, Clare took a huge number of shots from extremely far away, while Cork took almost all of their shots from within the 45m line. One of the main criticisms made of Clare, aside from allowing the short puck outs, was their shot selection, and this criticism appears to hold up far better under scrutiny. This decision to take lots of long range shots, or shots from difficult angles, appears to be an attempt to minimise turnovers by over-passing; similar to the decision to push up the field to make long puck outs difficult for Cork,  Clare seemed to be fixated on trying to ensure they didn’t end up with more turnovers than their opponents. This decision was far more destructive, however, than the puck out strategy. Had Clare been able to successfully create a large turnover margin, they may well have been able to be looser about their shot selection, similar to Galway in the Leinster final. However, as they failed to create this margin, and as Cork continued to find great shots of their own, Clare found themselves further and further behind. Despite the turnover risk, Clare would almost certainly have benefited from working the ball up the pitch in order to take lower-risk shots, as Cork had done.

Breaking down how Clare’s misses happened, it’s clear that there are factors other wides at play: Though the wides accounted for the majority of their failed attempts, they also had a large number of shots saved. There were many complaints made of Clare failing to feed their full forwards for goal attempts, but it’s clear from the large number of saves (some of which were simply long passes, meant for the forwards but caught by the goalkeeper) why Clare may have become dissuaded from doing this; it simply wasn’t working for them.

While much of this section has focused on where Clare went wrong, some attention must go to how much Cork did right. Cork managed to get the ball extremely close very often, and Clare were forced to foul them at very close range to avoid the risk of conceding more goals. They very rarely settled for poor shots, and some of their long range misses were simply long range passes which were overshot in an attempt to get more close range shots.

The above charts show how many shots each team took, and how many points per shot each team got, from various sections of the pitch. They highlight exactly how much better Cork were at picking their shots in this match, as well as how much better their efficiency was overall. Excluding the near range areas where both teams got their goals, the most efficient shooting for both teams happened between the 20m and 45m lines; this is probably as close as most teams can hope to get on a regular basis before they get marked too tightly to get a shot off. Cork took 24 shots (63% of their total) from this area, Managing such a large number of shots from this high-efficiency area was outstanding, and Cork were rewarded for their efforts; they scored 0.8 points per shot (roughly 4 points for every 5 shots) in this part of the pitch. If you excluded wides which were the result of long passes which overshot, Cork rarely had any shots outside of the 65m line. In contrast, Clare only took 12 shots (28% of their total) from the high-efficiency area between the 20m and 45m lines. Though they couldn't shoot as efficiently as Cork did in almost any area, and though perhaps their shooting efficiency should have been better still, once goals are removed they shot more efficiently from here than anywhere else, managing 0.58 points per shot. You would think that more teams would try to get most of their shots from here as a result, but instead Clare took the majority of their shots from between the 45m and 65m lines, from which they only managed 0.53 points per shot. Clare's shooting overall was less disciplined, and they spread more of their shooting much further out, taking 6 more shots from outside the 65m line. Cork's shooting efficiency was so great that Clare likely would have probably required more goals to win this match, and though sending high balls into the full forwards very often ends in a turnover, it's very hard to argue that Clare's high-risk shooting from way out was a better idea.

Conclusions

Though the conclusion that Cork were more just accurate seems anticlimactic, it also shows why these kind of analyses are valuable. Too many people had become fixated on the short puck outs because of how unusual it was. However, once looked at in more depth, it becomes clear that this was not the real issue. Instead, a more boring, simple answer was really to blame. Though shooting efficiency seems too obvious and traditional to be the main sticking point for an in-depth look at the match (and certainly far too dull to be the topic of pundits’ columns about the match), it’s important to remember that the reason this answer becomes boring is because it’s constantly relevant. Unusual tactics can be distracting and confusing, especially to traditionalists, and come under heavy criticism when the teams who attempt them fail, but they can distract from deeper, more important and more basic flaws in how a team plays. As we saw later on in the quarter final, it was Clare’s wides and inconsistent shot selection that caused their downfall against Tipperary, not any strange defensive strategies. Similarly for Cork, much of their praise comes for their traditional style of hurling, but few other teams, even those who don’t focus on innovative tactics or unusual formations, would have matched their ability to work the ball up the pitch to create low-risk shooting opportunities. Sometimes, a team just plays better, and there's no tactical manipulation that can overcome that.

Cork’s real advantage was knowing where their own strengths lie, and steering the game in that direction. Clare, however, appeared to aim for a style of play not suited to their skills. Trying to create a turnover difference, at the expense of high-quality shots, works well for physical teams like Galway, who can win 50/50 balls easily and who also have several long-range shooting options. Clare, however, only really broke even in turns of possession, and they paid a heavy price in the damage it did to their own shots. Though Clare have good shot-takers of their own, they weren’t able to put them to their best use, whereas Cork gave their own forwards as easy a job as possible.