Analysis: Troubled Tribesmen pay for Keegan’s back-three obsession

Alan O’Brien 

This game had it all: goals, nerves, some incredible tactical intransigence, and the inimitable A. Buttimer. Ultimately, a combination of the latter three cost Galway United’s Shane Keegan the victory he so desperately needed.


Back-three? Not so fetch

Keegan is to a back-three as Gretchen Wieners is to the word ‘fetch’. The 35-year-old keeps trying to make this system happen, persisting with it here for the fifth consecutive game. Assistant-manager Johnny Glynn needs to channel his inner Regina George and make it stop.

Of course, taking the Tribesmen’s recent results at face value hinted at a tactical masterstroke. Unbeaten in four, since Keegan reinstituted the 3-5-2 that stunk up the Markets Field in April, Galway had bagged nine goals along the way.

But look closer, specifically at the goals conceded in the past fortnight, and the case against Keegan is damning. Of the four goals shipped in drawing with Bray Wanderers and St Pat’s, three were carbon-copies of each other.

Two right-wing Ryan Brennan crosses, both finished by Jason Marks at the back-post, condemned Galway to two dropped points at the Carlisle Grounds. And one week later, Pat’s striker Christy Fagan was the right-flank provider, with Billy Dennehy aping Marks to cancel out Eoin McCormack’s opener.

In top-level football, a back-three always becomes a back-five at defensive transitions, with the wing-backs shuttling back into full-back positions. Chelsea under Antonio Conte, and copycats Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, all turn 3-4-2-1 into 5-4-1 in the defensive-phase.

Devaney and Ludden

Not Keegan, who is apparently happy to see the opposition continually raid the space in behind his wide-defenders, Marc Ludden and Kevin Devaney.

Devaney, a winger-by-trade, has been particularly culpable, absent at the back-stick for all three of the above concessions. The switch to 3-4-1-2 might have transformed the Sligo native’s attacking fortunes, producing four goals in five, but he was brutally exposed here again from a defensive perspective.

Both of Limerick’s first-half goals, therefore, painted a grimly familiar picture for weary Galway fans. Stephen Kenny raided in behind Ludden, as Chris Mulhall so failed to do back in April, allowing Chiedozie Ogbene to twice profit from Devaney’s absence at the back-post.

Colm Horgan felt compelled to drag Ogbene down in the first instance, conceding Rodrigo Tosi’s penalty-kick. The Galway captain was central to his manager’s only pre-match tactical change here, swapping outside-centre-back berths with Niall Maher.

Perhaps, therefore, Horgan was punished for not adequately covering Ludden in the prior two games. Perhaps Keegan thought Maher would fare better in running out to stop those right-wing crosses. He was wrong. Telling Ludden and Devaney to take up proper defensive positions might have been a better idea, eh?

Loose Limerick

Of course, frustratingly for Galway, both Limerick goals arrived against the run of play. The Tribesmen again looked potent from an attacking perspective, with number-10 Rory Hale handed a free role to drift around and dictate.

Diagonals to Ludden and Devaney resulted in several dangerous crosses and cut-backs that Limerick were lucky to survive. David O’Connor again stepped up with some important defensive headers, while goalkeeper Brendan Clarke executed two stupendous saves to deny Devaney and Gavan Holohan.

Holohan’s effort was one of several that Galway peppered at Clarke from just outside the Limerick area. Holding midfielder Bastien Héry was again swamped in that zone, as both Lee J. Lynch and Shane Duggan failed to regularly tuck in beside him.

Worse still, Tony Whitehead’s now-customary tentativeness also reared its head. The combination of those two familiar Limerick problems meant the likes of Hale, and Galway’s two strikers, were continually free to receive the ball in space between the lines.

Neil McDonald tried to resolve this looseness early in the second-half, by switching to 4-4-1-1 and handing Héry a permanent partner in Joe Crowe.


But by that point the Frenchman had already fallen victim to the same nerves besetting Whitehead, committing the catastrophic error that let Ronan Murray in to halve the deficit.

The Mayo native then blinked himself, missing the dubious 72nd-minute penalty that Mr. Buttimer hilariously allowed his assistant to award from a much less advantageous position. Murray, of course, also missed an injury-time spot-kick to deny his side a 4-3 victory in Bray two weeks prior.

But, by the time Freddy Hall did what Freddy Hall does, rushing off his line in the 81st minute to inadvertently punch Murray in the head, Galway had yet to create a single second-half chance of their own making. Bafflingly, Keegan held the likes of Padraic Cunningham and Gary Shanahan in reserve until the final minute of regulation.

Buttimer criminally allowed Hall to stay on the pitch, mind you, and had McCormack not scored the resultant penalty, one imagines he would have been awarded another for Barry Cotter’s clear injury-time tug on the former Ballinasloe Town man’s jersey!


Reasons, therefore, for Keegan et al to bemoan the officials’ influence. But the former Wexford manager must look within first. Keegan kept his replacements up his, er, sleeve for far too long here. And both of Limerick’s goals stemmed from a failing his obsession with making a back-three happen prevented him from resolving.

The 35-year-old is now staring down the barrel of two consecutive relegations from the top-flight. And he only has himself to blame.

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