This year’s All-Ireland was capped off by a dramatic final between Limerick and Galway. After leading for most of the match, Limerick appeared to have the game wrapped up, but Galway very nearly clawed their way back in the dying minutes; there were panics of a return to 1994, where Limerick lost the final despite leading by 5 point with 5 minutes remaining, but this time they held on to win by a single point, gaining their 8th All-Ireland and their first since 1973.
So how did it all happen? The footage of this match was reviewed and analysed, looking at everything that happened in it: how many, and what kind, of passes were taken? Which team turned the ball over more? Where did both teams shoot from? What lead to Limerick’s controlling the game for large portions of the match, and how did Galway find themselves in a position to steal it in injury time? The chart below captures the strangeness of the game: Limerick leading for almost the entire game, but only winning by the narrowest of margins. How did it come down to so little?
The overall numbers
For a quick overview of the match, the following chart details some of the key figures:
Already, this chart give us an idea of some of the elements that made the match what it was. We can see how Galway did more with the shots they had, and succeeded in drawing far more fouls to keep them in the game. However, on the other side, Limerick clearly did a very good job controlling possession, and forcing turnovers on the Galway side. It appears that the match was the classic quality versus quantity: Limerick created more shots, but Galway’s shots seemed to be more likely to go over when they had them.
Let’s go into further detail on the shooting, to see how this theory holds up:
The following charts outline, roughly, where every shot was taken by both teams in each half.
The colour of the dots indicate the result of the shot, while the borders indicate the origin. White dots indicate points, green dots indicate goals, black dots are shots that were off target, red were shots that were saved. Blue borders are frees, and cyan dots are 65s, In other match analysis articles, magenta borders were used for sideline cuts and yellow for penalties, but no shots originated from sideline cuts in this game, and there were no penalties.
At a glance, the earlier theory that Limerick were firing over any shot they had, while Galway waited for better opportunities no longer appears valid. Limerick repeatedly got shots directly in front of the goals, inside the 45m line. Limerick had 22 shots within the 45m line, while Galway only had 14. Of these, Limerick had 4 shots inside the box, and another 5 directly in front of it, compared to Galway’s 1 in the box, and 3 in front of it. Though regularly lauded over the last couple of years, the Galway full backs appeared to fail in this match. Indeed, all championship they’ve been conceding more goals than average (the average team in this championship has been conceding 1.45 goals per match, Galway have conceded 1.67). In comparison, they only conceded 1 goal per game last year. Whatever has caused this drop-off, it really caught up to them in this year’s final. Moving away from the sitters, even Limerick’s hardest shots were easier. Galway took 6 shots from inside their own half, compared to Limerick’s 3. Any way you cut it, Limerick found better shots, and they found more of them. On average, Galway’s shots came from roughly 54m away, while Limerick’s came from 50m away.
However, distance isn’t the whole picture, as a tight angle at close range is far trickier than a further away shot directly in front of goals. From the shot charts, the ‘target angle size’ was calculated for each shot. This value is how wide an angle the player had to shoot on target. For example, a 65 in front of goals has a target angle size of about 6°. This means that the player could hit the ball 3° left or right of the centre of the crossbar and still score. If the 65 is taken next to the sideline, the target angle size goes down to about 4°. The target angle size gets smaller with distance, but also if the player is on the wing rather than at the centre of the pitch.
Again, Limerick had the advantage: on average, Limerick’s shots had a target angle size of 10.8°: This means that their average shot had about the same difficulty as a shot from 40m out, directly in front of goals. Galway, however, had an average target angle size of 7.2°, putting their average shot at equivalent difficulty to a shot from 50m out, directly in front of goals. The values get skewed a lot by shots in front of goal, as these angles are so large, but even using the median instead of the mean, Limerick had slightly larger target angle sizes than Galway, with a median of 6° to Galway’s 5.4°. All this to say, not only were Galway’s shots further away, on average, but they were also taken from the wings more often.
So, after all this, if Limerick had the easier shots, and more of them, why did Galway only lose by a point? There were two main factors: Limerick wides, and Galway frees.
The above tables show the total count of each shot’s origin and outcome for both teams. Despite their better chances, Limerick failed to convert a lot of their shots, with 20 of their 41 shots going wide, and another 2 saved. Galway were far from perfect themselves, getting 16 wides and having 1 shot saved, but it’s clear that Limerick ended up needing the extra opportunities to make up for the difference in accuracy. Overall, Limerick gained 0.61 points per shot, compared to Galway’s more efficient 0.65 points per shot.
How did this happen, if Limerick supposedly get the easier shots? Well, the target angle size was only part of the story. For one thing, Galway contested the majority of Limerick’s shots, or gave the shooter very little time, making them far more difficult than they appear on paper. Still, Limerick did do the same to Galway and did, in fact, perform better from play. They had 11 more shots than Galway from play, and were more efficient too, with 0.62 points per shot to Galway’s 0.54 points per shot. When the game was flowing, Limerick dominated. However, Galway’s experience made a big difference when it came to drawing fouls without conceding many themselves. Overall, Limerick had 11 more fouls than Galway, with Galway taking 5 more shots from their frees than Limerick did. Galway also had two 65s, both of which they pointed, while Limerick had none. Limerick only generated 0.5 points per shot when not shooting from play. Galway had 0.91 points per shot, despite sending 3 frees wide that were taken well inside their own half. This was a massive difference, especially given how many more fouls Galway were drawing. This was a large part of how Galway stayed in the game, especially with their goal from a close range free towards the end of the match.
However, Limerick weren’t totally careless with their fouls. They didn’t have any more yellow cards than Galway, with two apiece, and many of Galway’s frees were outside of scoring range. Three of those shots were deep into Galway’s own half, well outside the comfort zone of even Joe Canning. Six of Galway’s frees had to be passed instead of shot. As, as we’ll see now, Galway were not able to capitalise on most of those long passes…
The table above shows how each team passed in the All-Ireland final. Immediately, there is a pattern that stands out: Galway struggled massively with any form of long pass in this game.
Galway have built a large part of their reputation on their fielding; their panel is full of very tall, very strong players who are confident of their chances against almost anyone when a high ball drops into them. Many other teams have tried to find ways around this; Clare, for example, reverted to using a sweeper to try to counter Galway’s forwards in the semi final, while using short, low passes to work the sliotar up the pitch. Limerick, however, simply took on Galway at one of their strongest areas of the game, and won.
Through Limerick’s high-energy constant movement and speed, and potentially Galway’s fatigue after playing two semi-final matches in a row (one of which went to extra time), Limerick were able to beat Galway to long balls time and again. Despite the size advantage, Galway’s players were simply unable to reach the ball in time, or were outmaneuvered to the best spots to catch or deflect a dropping ball. Galway retrieved the sliotar from only 39% of their long passes from play, 56% of their long puckouts, and failed to retrieve any of their long free passes (their one successful pass from a free was taken short, then quickly passed back to Joe Canning after he had moved to a better position, and then pointed it). In contrast, Limerick won 60% of their own long passes from play, and an unbelievable 71% of their long puckouts. These are incredible numbers in situations which, for most teams, are only slightly better than 50/50. Galway weren’t totally unable to respond: they were more successful than Limerick when taking short passes or hand passes, and only turned the ball over once from 9 sideline passes, but overall Limerick’s passing was far better, and they succeeded in intercepting far more of Galway’s passes. With Galway’s inability to reliably fire up long balls like they usually do, a huge part of their core game was taken from them. Though it was likely exhausting for Limerick to maintain the movement required to prevent Galway from dominating possession, and this fatigue possibly contributed to their relatively poor shooting efficiency, it more than paid off for them, as they took total control of possession for large portions of the match.
The table below details the total turnover numbers for each team. The ways in which the teams turned the ball over is divided into four categories: Passes that were intercepted, possessions where the sliotar was sent over the sideline, steals, where the player in possession was dispossessed through hooks, blocks or tackles and the opposing team retrieved the sliotar, and fouls, where the team in possession or passing the ball committed a foul.
Overall, as expected from the passing numbers, Limerick turned the ball over less than Galway did. However, Galway did succeed in forcing some mistakes themselves to balance this out a bit. Galway lived up to their physical reputation, stole the ball 5 times to Limerick’s 1. They also forced Limerick to lose possession over the sideline 6 times, while only doing the same twice themselves. It is, however, notable that Limerick, despite giving away far more frees, tended to foul when Galway had possession, whereas most of Galway’s fouls were when they had been in possession themselves; you could argue that many of Limerick’s fouls would have still been points or goals if they had left their opponent go, but Galway’s fouls were possibly sloppier, albeit fewer in number. Despite all this, though, the passing numbers overwhelmed all others, and those 11 extra turnovers from interceptions made a massive difference.
The chart above shows the total number of turnovers as the game progressed. There was never a point where Limerick had more than Galway. Though Galway managed to limit the damage somewhat towards the end of both halves, narrowing the difference, if not actually pulling ahead, it appeared that the damage was done. Though Galway’s shooting was a bit more efficient than Limerick’s, it was not enough to make up for how many of their possessions ended in turnovers instead of shots: Limerick saw 49% of their possessions end with turnovers, compared to Galway’s 56%. Though Galway were more efficient with the shots they had, they only scored 0.28 points per possession, compared to Limerick’s 0.31. Unless there is a large difference in shooting efficiency, a difference in turnovers tend to correlate with a difference in scores, and the chart below shows that this match was no different: the more that Limerick disrupted Galway’s passing without response, the further ahead they pulled.
There seem to be a few reasons why the game finished as it did. Many commented after that it would have been a shame if Limerick had lost, as they had been so dominant throughout. And it is true, that they dominated some very key, very visible aspects of the match. Their movement and speed conveyed their fitness and energy, and it meant that they were far, far better at disrupting Galway’s passes than Galway were at disrupting theirs. It also meant that they were far better at creating chances from play, typically in good positions. However, these visible factors were undermined by some less obvious elements when the play slowed down. Galway repeatedly drew frees. They pushed Limerick over the sidelines. They harassed players in possession, forcing wides despite good positioning, and dispossessing players before they could pass. They may have hit three frees wide, but they were all from extreme distance, where an attempted pass would almost certainly have been intercepted. With their energy and shooting, Limerick dominated the more obvious elements of the game. However, Galway, with their experience and grit, never let the game get away from them entirely. Facing down the younger, better rested team, they did everything they could to slow the game down and prevent the momentum swinging in only one direction for the entire match.
Overall, it does appear that the deserving team won, and Limerick were certainly the more entertaining team on the day. However, it was a strong performance from both sides, and Galway’s superior experience and ability to adjust their tactics nearly stole it. The youth, energy and skill of Limerick was why many had tipped them to go far this year, and for the years to come. However, Galway’s grit, adaptability and experience is why they went so far this year again, as they made full use of all the knowledge they gained by reaching their 4th final in 7 years.