Kerry manager Jack O'Connor gives instructions to Seán O'Shea before the 2022 GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin.
Kerry manager Jack O'Connor gives instructions to Seán O'Shea before the 2022 GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin.

Gaelic football is now a game of possession


By John Harrington

Your eyes don’t lie, Gaelic football has evolved into a team-sport where possession is increasingly coveted.

A statistical analysis of four All-Ireland Finals across four decades – 1992, 2002, 2012, and 2022 – highlights how the tactical strategy of being as careful with possession as possible has impacted the game.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many GAA fans don’t like this emphasis on keep-ball because it reduces the number of contests for possession that have always animated supporters in the stands as much as a great score.

But from a coaching perspective it makes perfect sense to prioritise being careful with possession.

If your team has the ball, then the opposition can’t score. And as the Dublin six-in-a-row All-Ireland winning team proved, holding onto possession and patiently probing using the full width of the field rather than carrying the ball into traffic or kicking long is the best way to pull apart a team that packs their own half of the field with a ‘blanket defence’.

In 1992, the GAA’s Games Development Research Unit produced a statistical analysis of 1992 All-Ireland Football Final between Donegal and Dublin.

How the 1992, 2002, 2012, and 2022 All-Ireland Football Finals compare statistically. 
How the 1992, 2002, 2012, and 2022 All-Ireland Football Finals compare statistically. 

Using the same template, Darragh Culleton in GaelicStats conducted a similar piece of analysis for the GAA on the 2002 All-Ireland Final between Armagh and Kerry, the 2012 All-Ireland Final between Donegal and Mayo, and this year’s All-Ireland Final between Kerry and Galway.

When you compare and contrast the same statistics from these four finals, the biggest take away is how a greater focus on possession has changed the game over the course of the past 40 years.

That’s most evident in the percentage of the game that the ball is in actual play. Back in 1992, the ball was in play for just 25 minutes and two seconds of the All-Ireland Final, which equated to 35.18% of the match.

There was very little between the 2002 and 2012 All-Ireland Finals in this regard. The ball was in play for 32 minutes and 29 seconds of the 2002 Final, and 32 minutes and 44 seconds of the 2012 Final.

The extent to which possession has become the most prized match metric in the eye’s of coaches and managers is obvious from the huge leap the ball in play time increased from 2012 to 2022.

In this year’s All-Ireland Final it was in play for 43 minutes and 53 which equates to 55.30% of the total match time.

Because teams are now much more focused on retaining possession they’re not carrying the ball into tackles or delivering contestable kick-passes nearly as much. And because there are now much less contests for possession, there’s much less stoppages due to fouling.

How the 1992, 2002, 2012, and 2022 All-Ireland Football Finals compare statistically. 
How the 1992, 2002, 2012, and 2022 All-Ireland Football Finals compare statistically. 

In the 1992 All-Ireland Final there was a foul every 1 minute 16 seconds, whereas in this year’s Final there was one every 3 minutes 10 seconds. There was a stoppage of play ever 39 seconds in 1992, and every 60 seconds this year.

Because teams are no longer kicking the ball as much for fear of losing possession, the game has been impacted in other ways too.

There were 14 high catches in the 1992 Final and just half that number in this year’s Final, while there were 10 sideline kicks in the 1992 Final and just three in this year’s Final.

The reduction of contests for possession might not be to everyone’s liking, but the increase in scoring averages is surely a positive in most people’s eyes.

Vinny Murphy, Dublin, is tackled by Matt Gallagher, Donegal. All Ireland Football Championship Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. 
Vinny Murphy, Dublin, is tackled by Matt Gallagher, Donegal. All Ireland Football Championship Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. 

The 1992 All-Ireland Final was a relatively high-scoring match for the era with 32 scores, but as the era of blanket-defences took hold those numbers fell to 26 in the 2002 Final and 24 in the 2012 Final.

Dublin’s dominance of the game in recent years has forced other teams to start thinking more offensively rather than base their game-plan on to stopping the opposition first and foremost, and this year’s All-Ireland Final underlined that tactical shift with a total of 36 scores.

Teams are taking less risks to generate those scores than they did in previous eras, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. Gaelic football is now a game of possession, first and foremost.