Knowing what Dublin are going to do is one thing, stopping them doing it is quite another
Brian Cuthbert, Jason Ryan and Dessie Dolan on what makes Jim Gavin’s side so hard to beat
Goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs form an important part of Dublin’s game plan. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Brian Cuthbert had a fair idea of what would be on the menu when Cork and Dublin came out for the second half a fortnight ago. The question was how it would be served. Cork’s 2-9 to 0-7 lead was most likely not long for this world but forewarned in this case didn’t necessarily amount to being forearmed. When you’re playing Dublin, you’ll need a lot of shields if you’re going to match all those swords.
Straight from the start, Cuthbert saw something he hadn’t planned for. As Ciarán Branagan bent to pick up the ball for the throw-in, Michael Darragh Macauley had a new partner standing beside him in midfield, with Declan O’Mahony having been substituted at the break.
Hardly earth-shattering in and of itself – over the course of the league Macauley has been variously paired with O’Mahony, Cian O’Sullivan, James McCarthy, Shane Carthy, Davy Byrne and Tomás Brady. Yet none of them was alongside him now. Paul Flynn was.
“They have massive flexibility in moving guys around,” says Cuthbert. “For the second half the last day, we came out and saw Flynn had moved to midfield alongside Macauley. We hadn’t seen that before at any stage. That was totally new. And Flynn went on to have a huge influence on the game in the second half.”
It wasn’t the winning or losing of the game. That’s not the point. When Cuthbert has gone back through the tape, his eye has been drawn far more critically to what his own side did wrong in coughing up a 17-point turnaround than to Dublin’s myriad abundances.
Yet in a small but significant way, it lays bare the difficulty of working out a way to defeat Jim Gavin’s side. You can clean them out for a full half, you can lead by 10 points with half an hour to go, you can make them try out their eighth midfielder in eight games. And you can still end up on the wrong side of the result.
“Somebody asked me afterwards would any other team in the league have come back from 10 points down with 30 minutes left and my answer was, emphatically, no. That’s what I believe. Nobody else would have.
“As a team, they are very, very sure of what they are capable of doing and I think they’re quite ambitious and they don’t want to stop at what they have. They have a belief probably that they can win any match regardless of how it’s going and they just keep coming at you. It’s just very, very difficult to stop them.”
They are the Rubik’s Cube with 10 blue squares, the Sudoku with a rogue zero. They haven’t sailed through the league by any means, for three games in a row other teams have had their chances to end their league campaign but the All-Ireland champions are back in the final. First Mayo, then Tyrone and latterly Cork have all made it to the top row of the board only to land on a snake with their last throw of the dice.
On the face it, there’s no particular mystery here. Dublin have the deepest squad, an expert manager, a winning mentality built up through years of success in Leinster, at college level and at underage. What we are seeing is the tip of a spear that has huge heft behind it when it comes to all the crucial factors – pure talent, playing numbers, coaching structures, finance, sheer weight of effort in the city.
There’s an argument that says they should always be the best team in the country and it’s only lack of proper organisation that has meant it’s taken them this long to get there. But those are idle thoughts for a different article.
This one is about what damage the spear can cause and what, if anything, can be done to blunt it. Jason Ryan has faced them with Kildare and previously with Wexford, having yet to win with either side, albeit that he ran them closer with Wexford than Kildare. His first description of them is a ruthless side who will never beat you by five if they think they can beat you by 12. Kildare missed six goal chances against them on a Saturday in early March and finished on the wrong side of a 10-point trimming. The two previous times the margins were 20 and 13. Dublin tramp the dirt down.
“With Dublin,” says Ryan, “the reality is you’re not probably going to end up with a weaker team on the pitch than the one that started. With the depth of their squad they can finish with a team that’s physically stronger or one that’s more tenacious in the tackle or one that’s filled with substitute forwards that would get on a lot of other teams . . . . They can impose their own dynamic according to the situation.
“Losing Ciarán Kilkenny doesn’t seem to have had any effect whatsoever. . . In that environment, I would assume that the players themselves are unsure of their own position. They must realise that every day they go out, failing to perform will mean a good chance that you will be taken off and not get picked the next day.”
The strength of Dublin’s bench is the one outlier everyone points to, bringing with it such a wide safety net for Gavin should any of his chosen performers topple off the wire. For scoring power alone, it’s phenomenal. Dublin have scored 2-25 off the bench in eight league games, an average of almost four points a game. Derry have scored 1-7 off the bench in the same period. It’s some club to be able to pull out of the bag.
One of Dublin’s hairier afternoons in the league came in Mullingar on a long-sleeves day in February when they trailed Westmeath with 15 minutes left before scoring seven of the last nine points. Dessie Dolan came off the bench to ping a goal past Stephen Cluxton and, though they didn’t hold out, it was the first chink of light he’s seen come though a heavy spell of cloud.
“I think they’re beatable outside of Croke Park. Inside it, I don’t know how you’d go about it. We had them in Mullingar and with five minutes to go, there was only a kick of a ball in it. In Celtic Park, Derry beat them. In Omagh, Tyrone only lost with the last kick of the game. In Mullingar, Stephen Cluxton put three kick-outs out over the sideline. It’s just small things, uncharacteristic things that almost never happen to them in Croke Park. But it’s a chance to rattle them and get them out of their comfort zone. In Croke Park, they’re always in their comfort zone.
“We lifted it a bit because it was the Dubs coming to Mullingar. We dropped a man back and that disrupted them for long periods. But the main thing you’d have to say is that they played us without a load of their marquee players and as the league has gone on, you’ve gradually seen them feed back in. The last day against Cork, they were under pressure and could bring in Bernard Brogan to score five points. They could bring in Eoghan O’Gara to score three. They have the answers at the right time, with the squad that they have.”
Cork did manage to beat them in Croke Park, coming out 1-17 to 0-18 ahead in the third round of the league. More and more it seems obvious that the only teams that will match them stride for stride will be the like of Cork, who were able to source 1-11 from their full-forward line that night as well as four points off the bench. Cuthbert doesn’t quite buy it though, or at least he doesn’t buy the approach it might imply.
“You can’t go into a game thinking that Dublin are going to score 20 points. I don’t think any team does that. Everyone goes in with the knowledge that to beat them you are going to have to keep them to an acceptable level of scoring. I think everybody going to play them would be hoping that they cut out the mistakes and cut out the fouling and make Dublin shoot under pressure and make them keep the score down.
“If you go into a game with them and say, ‘if they score 19, we’ll score 20’, I don’t think you’re going to beat them. You have to subdue them, you have to really do your best to keep that total down because at the other end they are very formidable too.”
Easier said than done, of course. Stopping Dublin has to be done at source if you’re going to manage it at all. As the excellent football analysis blog Dontfoul calculated after the Cork game, in the 30 minutes after going 10 points down, Dublin took 28 shots at goal from 31 attacking possessions. In the same period, Cork had six shots from 10 attacking possessions. For Ryan, nothing will work against Dublin if it isn’t based on hobbling them a distance away from your own goal.
“People talk about Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs – and they are very important – but on top of that it’s Dublin’s counter-attacking play that is so damaging. The effectiveness of Michael Darragh, of James McCarthy, of Paul Flynn is immense. The speed at which they’re able to carry the ball at you is so hard to deal with. The reason their forwards are in space so often is that the ball is transferred through those middle guys so quickly.
“They’re very direct. There’s very little lateral passing. If you compare them to a team like the Donegal team of 1992 – one of the best possession teams of the last 30 years who had no problem going backwards, sideways, wherever as long as they held onto the ball and waited for an opening – Dublin don’t do any of that. It’s very direct, it’s fast and they don’t mess about.”
Can they be stopped, then? Of course they can. Only myths are invincible, only ghosts can take a punch without feeling it. Ryan reckons that of all the teams to meet Dublin so far, tomorrow’s opponents are probably best configured to take a swing.
“I think the way Derry set up will make life difficult for Dublin at different stages of the game. Seán Leo McGoldrick being out is a huge blow to Derry because he’s very important to them. But the way they congest the middle of the field and get a lot of bodies in there working from deep is going to make it very hard for Dublin when they try to counter.
“Even if Dublin increase the speed with which they come out of the back, Derry don’t commit a huge amount of runners. They’ll play with two in the full-forward line and they’ll maybe commit with two or three other runners. So at most they’ll usually have five in attack and a lot of the rest of the players are set up in a good defensive formation.
“Gerard O’Kane is playing centre-back but he hasn’t been exposed defensively even though he counter-attacks every single time he gets on the ball. The reason for that is that the rest of the players are so comfortable with what he’s doing that they’re able to cover for each other very well. That’s a different style to what Dublin have had to face so far in the league.”
Whether it will be enough, only tomorrow will tell. Come summer, everyone else will dip their arrows in their chosen poison and take aim. How the year pans out will depend on whether or not Dublin can fend them off. If they can or if they can’t, it will be a sight to see either way.