Tactics Talk: A deep dive into Doherty's re-design as Drogs draw with Derry

Let me begin this by saying that while I am into my fourth decade of watching the League of Ireland and have watched many many games over the years where, aside from being able to state the basics regarding the number of defenders, midfielders or attackers on show, tactics remain somewhat of a mystery to me.

In my youth and teens I spent countless hours engrossed in Championship Manager (now rebranded as Football Manager for over a decade but old habits die hard) and FIFA video games (2004-2008 a specific specialist subject) so I have a fair idea of what is involved in different systems.

I devoured Jonathan Wilson's excellent encyclopaedia of the evolution of football tactics (Inverting the Pyramid) and would strongly recommend it for anyone of a similar persuasion. 

However, despite knowing the theory, deciphering the codes on show is often quite a challenge - is that right back coming infield just picking up a loose ball or is he now tasked as an inverted fullback? When the centre half stays up after a corner is he taking a chance or is part of a rotation? The centre forward is dropping into midfield for a while - is he leading the pressing? Is he a false 9? Or is he simply bored and just looking to get involved in the play?

Thankfully, at Weaver's Park on Friday night, tactics took centre stage and there was no need for a whole pile of head scratching to take place. 

The home side had right back Luke Heeney still suspended and right winger Adam Foley was married during the week so the versatile Andy Quinn retained his place in defence and Steve Bawa took up the right wing post ahead of him.

Thus, South African Jethren Barr lined up in goal with the uncompromising duo of Keaney and Cann at centre half and set piece specialist Evan Weir at left back and the aforementioned Quinn on the right.

In the engine room, the snarling commander Gary Deegan patrolled in front of his penalty area with the leggy Oisín Gallagher his more mobile foil. The attacking trio of Darragh Markey (centre), Warren Davis (left) and Bawa (right) supported the combative and bustling Ryan Brennan stationed at centre forward.

The visitors Derry City arrived in Louth on the back of a 4-1 victory over Dundalk the previous week so, unsurprisingly, they remained unchanged. 

Brian Maher, as he has for the past two league campaigns, manned the goal with the swashbuckling Ronan Boyce at right back. In the centre was the experienced and warrior like Mark Connolly alongside the left footed skipper Cameron McJannet with Ciarán Coll on the left.

The energetic Adam O’Reilly and creative Will Patching sat behind the centrally stationed Paul McMullan with wingers Michael Duffy and Daniel Kelly lining up on the left and right touchlines respectively. Danny Mullen occupied the central striking role.

With the fluid attacking trio of Davis, Markey and Bawa all capable of operating in multiple attacking positions, the Drogs took advantage of this versatility to net the opener within the opening five minutes. 

Davis drifted from left to right with the ball to create overloads in the Derry City left back area and win a throw in down the right hand side. A quick throw from Quinn to Markey, Gallagher pushed into a space between defenders to pull the ball across the six yard box where Davis stole in at the back post between Boyce and Connolly to tap the ball to the net.

Despite this great start to proceedings, the home side had a first half to forget. Twenty minutes in and Quinn had to be replaced. In came Conor Kane, generally a left back, to play on the right.

While, at first glance, it may have seemed unorthodox the logic of playing a left footed right back. However, when faced with Michael Duffy, a right footed left winger who has a penchant for cutting infield, it made sense.

As such, despite Kane (and the retreating Bawa) being faced with Duffy as well as the regularly overlapping Coll, Drogheda defended well on the right despite the change. Derry City were gaining a foothold in the midfield with Patching dropping deep to try and get onto the ball and orchestrate proceedings.

The Englishman was linking up with the roving McMullen but Barr's goal wasn't really threatened. That was until injury number two struck Drogheda United just ahead of the half hour mark. With left back Evan Weir receiving attention on the far sideline, McMullen exposed the space to lift a cross into the area for the unmarked Michael Duffy to head the equaliser.

Aaron McNally, more often used as a winger, replaced the stricken Weir immediately after the goal with Kane going to his more customary left back position and McNally as right back.

Unsurprisingly, given the changes suffered by their opponents, Derry City continued to dominate proceedings and they took the lead in injury time of the first half. 

The centre half pairing of Connolly and McJannet usually favoured a contrasting style of passing with Clones man Connolly a fan of the long diagonal pass to the left hand side while his English counterpart generally passed shorter and stepped forward with the ball.

However, when Connolly switched tactic and gave a short ball into the midfield for Patching he found himself in space. Deegan, who regularly patrolled the area in front of the penalty area, was blocked off by Paul McMullan- an occurrence referenced by Kevin Doherty in his post match interview- and Derry City took advantage of the space to find Barr's top corner and take the lead.

At half time, Drogheda United rejigged their defence with the experienced Dave Webster making his league debut for The Boynesiders as part of a three man central defence. Bawa making way for the ex Shamrock Rovers defender as Kevin Doherty looked to crowd out that midfield in which Patching and O’Reilly were starting to exert control.

From the very start of the game, whenever Barr had the ball in his hands, he looked to pick out Brennan or Bawa and even with the winger replaced they didn't change their style and Brennan became the primary focus with Davis and Markey looking to pick up the second balls.

Tasked with such a physical role, Brennan and Davis were unlikely to last the 90 minutes and were replaced by Frantz Pierrot and Killian Cailloce with a quarter of an hour remaining. 

Despite the change in formation giving the home side the front foot for most of the second half, Derry weren't without their chances to extend the lead and Danny Mullen's header cracked the post- an effort which would have put the visitors 3-1 up.

Pierrot’s introduction meant another physical presence for Connolly and McJannet to deal with - the Haitian’s powerful frame and uncompromising play will be given further airing throughout the 2024 campaign as he gets used to the Premier Division. However, it was more brains than brawn which caused the home side’s equaliser.

With Derry City Head Coach Ruaidhrí Higgins having witnessed his side being dominated in the second half thanks to a change of shape, he decided to follow suit with a quarter hour left to play- replacing right winger Dan Kelly with centre half Shane McEleney.

However, the change failed to stifle the Drogheda pressure and substitutes McNally and Cailloce combined on their right hand side to swing in a low cross which the advanced Conor Kane bundled to Darragh Markey who touched it to Pierrot and the frontman curled a delicious equaliser in off the post to open his account for his new club.

On 80 minutes, Aaron McNally found the ball at his feet on the edge of the Derry City penalty area and, faced by Ciarán Coll, he crossed first time and Drogheda were crowded out- 5 City defenders in the box meant the 4 attackers could only produce a tame effort on goal.

5 minutes later and McNally is in the same position and this time has help beside him in the shape of Killian Cailloce and Jack Keaney - from whom he receives the pass. 

The Derry City defence are drawn to both Cailloce and McNally and when McNally swings in the next cross it's a 3v3 in the penalty area where Conor Kane has taken a chance to go into the box off his left wing, he wins a break and Darragh Markey skips ahead of the covering defender to poke it to Pierrot who uses the third defender as a shield to curl the ball around to score.

As witnessed from the earlier cross, City had been dropping back deeper and Drogheda recognised that so could take the risks in moving forward to such an extent that centre half Keaney and the two wing backs (McNally and Kane) were well advanced in the Derry City half but in such a manner as not to restrict the space needed to allow Pierrot an opportunity to shoot.

An interesting match to observe a contrast in playing styles and one in which Kevin Doherty can be immensely proud of how his injury hit outfit clawed their way back into a game where at half time it was the visitors’ game to lose.