Jim McGuinness: Five key battlegrounds that will decide Mayo’s fate against Dublin
Dublin well placed to extend Mayo’s cycle of hurt but pain of losing is a powerful driver
Key men: Aidan O’Shea offers Mayo a new attacking dimension while Cian O’Sullivan is Dublin’s designated sweeper. Photograph: Inpho
Watching the images of Galway’s victory in the hurling semi-final brought to mind the similarities between their perennial quest for All-Ireland fulfilment and that of their Western neighbours, the Mayo footballers – especially the manner in which the win came with the last puck of the ball at the end of a performance of hunger and desire.
The weight of expectation and the wait to bridge a long gap in both cases with around half a dozen All-Ireland finals lost: teams need extraordinary drive to say, “we’re going to be the ones to break that cycle of hurt”.
For Mayo it appears even more intense, almost a crusade. Regardless of everything that happens, the focus is on that one positive outcome – winning an All-Ireland. Before their 2013 final against Dublin, I was listening to interviews with Mayo players and management and they were saying they had refocused on winning the All-Ireland in the dressingroom in Croke Park, minutes after we had beaten them in the 2012 final. As a collective, they came together after that defeat.
I was really impressed by that. For me that’s a really difficult thing to do in those circumstances. I know when we lost a big game in Ulster or the All-Ireland it’s difficult to think of anything for a number of weeks so that mindset in Mayo is very interesting.
In both squads there seems to a collective power, a single-mindedness, a conviction and a serious intent. These for me are the attributes of elite winning teams. It’s a tribute to both sets of management teams for building squads to such a high level of mental readiness.
The problems though arise for both Galway and Mayo in the teams they meet next, Kilkenny and Dublin, who are also of a very high calibre and with a lot of the same qualities. Can they do it; liberate their counties from this cycle of hurt?
I’m not about to attempt an analysis of the hurling final but the football contest between Dublin and Mayo is very interesting. What separates these teams with very similar systems of play? In general, both are very offensive-oriented teams. Players are very fit, strong and powerful. Both are good kickers and like to get the ball in early and ask questions of opposing full-back lines.
The adjustment of Aidan O’Shea inside for Mayo means that both teams have a serious point to their attack. The average age of both teams is optimal. Then look at the personnel: Philly McMahon is one of the best corner backs in the country; on the other side you’ve got Keith Higgins; James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey in the half backs against Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan.
They’re well matched around the middle of the park also, with players who can get up and down the field and they both have exceptional free takers.
Both management teams have also shown tactical flexibility, which is so important in the modern game. With all of that said, we’re down to very fine margins and it’s almost like trying to split hairs but there are five considerations I think could tilt the balance.
Full-back linesI’ve already mentioned I think the half-back lines will ask serious questions of each other but I’ve a reservation about the Mayo full-back line. The question is will they adjust their defensive structure to counter Dublin? Barry Moran played the sweeper role to perfection the last day but he really suited Donegal in that Michael Murphy’s a very big guy and you had a situation where he was being marked from behind and in front, where Moran was stationed. If they went for the same tactic I’d be worried because the Dublin full-forward line is very dynamic both in how they play and how they get the ball in and that mightn’t suit Moran as comfortably.
Kick-outsI’ve watched Mayo very closely this year and they look to have a lot of work done on their kick-outs and retained the ball really well in the championship games to date. They also have a good variety of kick-out strategies but Stephen Cluxton on his day can be in a different stratosphere and gives Dublin a platform to attack consistently. I did specify Cluxton “on his day” because he can get agitated as well and Mayo did that to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2012. You had a situation where Mayo were being very effective in their strategy of pushing up and Cluxton’s hand movements were becoming more erratic, as he was gazing out the field looking for options.
For Mayo this is going to be a huge part of their game-plan and will define the contest in many respects. If they can push up and squeeze the Dublin kick-outs it’s going to be very significant. My experience of Cluxton would be that if he steps up to the plate and is successful, it will give Dublin a major platform for attack. In the run-up to last year’s semi-final we put a huge amount of work into pushing up on the Dublin kick-outs in training and did that with constant repetition.
By the time we finished we were at a very, very high level but we won only three of 23 kick-outs from the Dublin perspective. That said, we did push up and get some joy on the breaking ball and we got 1-2 off the three we did win, so it was significant in the winning of the game.
If, however, Mayo can repeat the frustration they caused to Cluxton three years ago and win the kick-out contest that potentially could give them the edge in the midfield sector.
Defensive structureMayo showed flexibility the last day and showed they can shift the goalposts to suit themselves and negate the opposition. The word coming out of Dublin is that they have been working on their system since last October and I just wonder have Mayo been doing the same with a defensive structure or did they just come up with a tactic to stop Michael Murphy?
I’m not so sure about that but I do feel that Dublin unveiled a system in the Leinster semi-final against Kildare and it was obvious they’d an awful lot of work done over a long period. We know they’ve engaged a basketball coach, Mark Ingle, with a view to developing their structure – how you pass people on, pushing up on your man, dropping off your man and defending the D. You’ve got to conclude that Dublin have more work done on this than Mayo. Then again I’m not in the Mayo dressing-room.
Cian O’SullivanWithin that defensive structure is the question of Cian O’Sullivan. He is Dublin’s designated sweeper, as has been identified from early on in the year, and was unveiled against Kildare in the championship. He has now done it successfully in a Leinster semi-final and final and an All-Ireland quarter-final. He looks very comfortable, as you’d expect from someone who’s won All-Irelands at midfield and corner back. He’s dynamic, which gives him an advantage because if the ball is played to the left or right corner he’s got the pace and power to sprint across to wherever he’s needed to double up. He has the intelligence to hold the middle because he’s played centre back and can also get forward because he’s played midfield. So that’s a very important cog in the Dublin machine. That doesn’t mean other people can’t slip in and do the job because I’m sure they have cover, but he’s the guy who’s been tasked with taking charge in that area of the pitch and making sure that the centre is secure and that everyone else works within the structure.
ForwardsMayo’s attack has never been in better shape. They’ve got workrate, a fantastic attitude, energy, skills and, now, physicality in the full-forward line. They’ve got a running game in the half-forward line with Diarmuid O’Connor and Kevin McLaughlin, who can really cover the ground and good ball winners inside.
They can run the ball but also have the outlet option and you can see they’re working on the diagonal ball. The ball for Aidan O’Shea’s goal against Donegal may have been straight but in the Connacht final they played a lot of diagonal balls and scored goals off that as well. They’re bringing a lot to the table.
Looking at both forward lines, though, you’d say that Dublin have six scoring forwards and maybe Mayo have four and two workers, so if Dublin can up the ante by matching Mayo’s workrate that could tilt it in their favour.
I see the potential for one of the best championship games in quite a while if both teams play to capacity. It could be high scoring and could really light up the season. Based on the above analysis and sticking with what I have said about them previously, I could see a two- or three-point victory for Dublin.
However, when all of the technical analysis is done there still remains the intangible but powerful consideration of the cycle of hurt and the desire to break it that continues to drive both Galway and Mayo.
I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.