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Tactical breakdown: How Mickey Harte’s side have evolved into Derry 2.0

The Oak Leaf county have developed a detailed game plan that looks equipped to rival the very best in this year’s championship

Goalscoring threats

Derry have been scoring more goals over the past 15 months. Their 2023 NFL average was 1.0 goal per game, in Division Two. This figure rose to 1.38 per game for the 2023 championship and grew again under Mickey Harte for the 2024 league, up to 2.0 goals per game. They managed to score 16 goals over the course of the league – interestingly, eight of these goals (50%) have been scored by defenders. All three goals against Monaghan in the league came from defenders – Conor McCluskey said afterwards that Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin had challenged the Derry backs to increase their scoring rate. They certainly have done so.

Attacking capability

The league final produced some quality in terms of possession-to-shot efficiency for both teams. Derry managed to get 39 shots off from 48 team possessions (81%), and with more accuracy they could have got several more goals. Dublin boss Dessie Farrell said Derry are so efficient in attack that even when a team plays with a plus-one in defence, Derry can work their way around it. Therefore, it possibly requires a man-on-man approach, which led to the above high attacking metrics. Derry were masters in 2023 of controlled and deliberate attacks.

But they have brought this attacking strategy to another level this season, managing to unhinge opposition defences and create wide open swathes, which led to their goals against Dublin.

Young guns

It was levelled at Derry in 2023 that they lacked panel depth and this is something they seem to have addressed during their NFL success. Lachlan Murray has been a noted addition in the forward line and added a real scoring threat. His 1-4 against Roscommon caught the eye, as did his 0-3 when the stakes were higher in the league final against Dublin.


Donnacha Gilmore has added great ball-carrying ability to the defence. The manner in which the Derry team are embracing these young players was evident following Gilmore’s late loss of possession which led to extra time against Dublin. Conor Glass was straight over as Gilmore had his head in his hands and gave him some encouragement. Gilmore went on to excel in extra time. Diarmuid Baker has also put on several defensive master classes. In attack, Cormac Murphy is showing maturity beyond his years. He impressed in the tricky closing stages of the opening win in Kerry before giving a man-of-the-match display against Tyrone.

Role clarity and role acceptance

Cormac Murphy illustrated his game intelligence with his positioning, both in width and depth, against Tyrone. This role understanding and clarity is evident among the players. Another standout in this regard is Ethan Doherty who is a huge creative influence in the Derry attack. He assisted 7-14 during the league.

This assist tally included 2-3 in the league final despite being tightly marked by John Small for long periods of the game. His game understanding in the final, knowing when to stay away from the play and thus take Small out his central defensive role, was impressive. Derry managed to stretch the Dublin defence throughout the game and the Doherty/Small match-up was a vital element of this.


A look at goalkeepers’ outfield possessions in the latter stages of the 2023 championship highlighted that Odhrán Lynch and Ethan Rafferty are the two who were attacking furthest up the field. Lynch has become a crucial attacking threat for Derry as he attacks channels just outside the D, getting shots off himself and also creating gaps for others to exploit. He has certainly added to his kick-outs as well – his length to midfield contests was a factor in two of Derry’s goals against Dublin in Croke Park.


So what of Derry’s opening round opponents Donegal and the return of manager Jim McGuinness? There has been lots of talk about what new tactical strategies he will introduce but it is unlikely that we will get the full picture this weekend either.

There has been talk of him adopting a high-energy, high-press game similar to what is currently in vogue in soccer. But we have only seen sporadic signs of this in the league. He has shown that quick use of the foot pass will be part of his attacking strategy. Donegal have a serious weapon in Shaun Patton who has one of the longest kick-outs in the game and the trajectory and ball speed of these kick-outs will be used to good effect at stages.

At the other end of the field they have two ball-winning and free-scoring forwards in Oisín Gallen and Paddy McBrearty. Injury has curtailed Gallen’s progress in recent seasons but he has shown his class throughout the league and at stages last season. His partnership with the proven McBrearty was put on hold after the opening games of the league as the Kilcar man also got injured. Feeding ball to these men and utilisation of the mark will be key to Donegal’s attacking game plan.

Jim McGuinness and Donegal unleashed a type of football in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in 2011 that shocked the GAA community. Maybe Jim has a master plan again up his sleeve but the likelihood is what we will see in Celtic Park this weekend will be a work in progress. It could be a while yet before we see the full implementation of the manager’s tactical plan.

Paul O’Brien is a performance analyst with The Performance Process (