Nineteen of the 24 players who featured in Jim Gavin’s first championship season still remain as Dublin pursue a third All-Ireland title in a row on Sunday.
Of those 19, 18 have played so far this summer, and the 19th is last year's All-Ireland final hero Cormac Costello, who has had an injury-ravaged 2017. The other five players are Rory O'Carroll, Ger Brennan, Bryan Cullen, Kevin O'Brien and Nicky Devereux.
The likes of Brian Fenton and John Small have become key players, and the age demographic of the squad has dropped significantly, with youngsters such as Con O'Callaghan filtering in from the under-21s. Tactics have been altered after the 2014 Donegal collapse, but much of the core players remain, and the Dublin gameplan still hinges upon one man.
So far this summer Dublin have won 83 of Cluxton's 96 kickouts
Stephen Cluxton made a record 90th championship appearance in the semi-final win over Tyrone; his kickouts set the tempo for a Dublin team who dominate games by dictating the possession and the shape of the two teams. Guaranteeing possession from their own kickout is a key component in achieving this, and although teams have been trying to stop Cluxton's precision kickout plan for the best part of a decade, none have truly succeeded.
So far this summer Dublin have won 83 of Cluxton’s 96 kickouts. The reigning champions have sauntered into another final, but they have still faced various approaches to deal with their much-vaunted restart. In the early stages of the Leinster championship in particular, teams opted to surrender the kickout. Others have pressed it, and some looked to mark zonally.
None have cracked the code, but some clues have been uncovered in the trying.
Cluxton’s timing, cool head under pressure, his vision and most of all the trajectory of his delivery, marks him as a class apart from anything else in his generation. Yet the Dublin restart is also about the movement of the outfield players to create space and their willingness to take possession in tricky and often isolated areas.
The 35-year-old keeper has found 20 different Dublin players with his kickouts so far in the 2017 championship. Top of the list of receivers is Mick Fitzsimons who has successfully claimed 11 out of the 11 restarts sent his way.
Brian Fenton has had 10 kicked to him, but with the midfielder often the last resort as a long contest option, he has won only 50 per cent of them. Jack McCaffrey has won nine and lost one, Eric Lowndes has won seven and lost one. Niall Scully, Jonny Cooper and Cian O'Sullivan have all won seven, Con O'Callaghan has won four and lost two, James McCarthy has won five and lost one, Ciaran Kilkenny has won five and Shane Carthy has won four and lost one. Philly McMahon has won four, John Small and Darren Daly have won two, Kevin McManamon has won one and lost one, and Brian Howard, Paul Flynn, David Byrne, Michael Dara MacAuley and Bernard Brogan have all had kickouts directed to them.
So that’s everything from corner backs to corner forwards receiving Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts.
There have been periods in big games over the past couple of seasons where teams have put Cluxton under serious pressure. The return from winning a Dublin kickout is always amplified, given how rare it is that the five-time All Star does not find his target.
Yet when he misses once, the consensus is that he’s more penetrable to be forced into another error immediately afterwards.
In the final five minutes of the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final draw, Dublin lost three of their four kickouts and conceded 1-2 to Mayo. Prior to that they had won 16 out of 18 restarts.
In last year’s semi-final win over Kerry, Dublin lost four of their five kickouts and conceded 2-2 in the 10 minutes before the half-time whistle; in the second half they won all of their own kickouts.
Only twice so far this summer have Dublin lost two of their own kickouts consecutively; that was late on in their Leinster final win against Kildare and early in the second half against Tyrone. On both occasions the second restart was forced long.
Of the 12 Dublin kickouts which have followed a lost restart, on three occasions Niall Scully has been the man to make himself available to win the next one. Twice Con O’Callaghan has, while Brian Fenton, Cian O’Sullivan, Jack McCaffrey, Shane Carthy, Mick Fitzsimmons, Ciaran Kilkenny and Bernard Brogan have all taken the responsibility once apiece.
Force him long
Press up on Dublin and they can go long, but as effectively? Paul Flynn has featured for only 45 minutes (all off the bench) this summer, so their old get-out-of-jail long kickout infront of him has not seen much airtime.
Dublin have kicked 16 per cent of their restarts long. They have won 10 and lost seven. So the obvious opposition aim remains: force Cluxton to go long. Easier said than done however.
Against Tyrone, when Dublin were zonally pressed and eager to go long and quick before the Ulster champions could get Colm Cavanagh and co back into their defensive slots, Cluxton went long 25 per cent of the time. Twice he implemented a tactic used regularly this year by Meath's Paddy O'Rourke and Monaghan's Rory Beggan wherein he kicked over the midfielders into the space in front of his half forwards. On both occasions Niall Scully won the ball, but for one of them especially, the kickout lacked the legs to make for a comfortable claim.
Dublin have lost four of 11 aerial contests which have come from their own kickout this summer, with only two marks coming from their wins.
Among those forced to contest around the middle have been Kevin McManamon, Shane Carthy and Scully; so when going long perhaps Cluxton is a little too confident in his teammates, or maybe he’s rushing things? Instinct takes over, leaving no time to distinguish between Dublin jersey and Dublin ball winner.
The problem with pushing up on Dublin’s kickouts is that if Cluxton can find a man - more often than not over the top of the offensive press - then the Dubs will exploit the space in behind. That’s why a number of teams only press after a converted (or missed) free, so they have time to set up properly.
The average time for Cluxton to take a kickout this summer has been 13 seconds
Even then, though, the press is a gamble. So teams have begun retreating, conceding the kickout, and creating a defensive wall on the offensive 65. Cluxton, however, is so quick with his kickout that he is getting Dublin under way with a tap restart while the opposition are still retreating. Against Tyrone Cluxton hit nine of his kickouts in under 10 seconds (from when the ball sailed over the bar or out wide); and some were delivered as quickly as four seconds after the shot landed.
The average time for Cluxton to take a kickout this summer has been 13 seconds. The majority of Dublin’s kickouts are short – 84 per cent of them this summer – but Cluxton does vary them across the field. Thirty-four per cent of them have been short and left, and 32 per cent short and right. They have not lost one of their own kickouts inside their 45 so far in the 2017 championship. And against Tyrone, they generated shots from almost 72 per cent of their short kickout wins.
Further to all the kickout stats, Cluxton has also saved three of the four point-blank shots at him during the championship so far, and won all of the 14 high balls/dropped shots into his square (fisting one away).
So it’s clear to see why Dublin have not been threatened so far in this year’s championship. With the majority of teams retreating from them (outside of Kildare, four teams have won only seven Cluxton kickouts between them), Dublin have been allowed to play solely on their own terms. With their No.1 the conductor.
Pushing up and contesting is the best option, but the challenge remains to keep Cluxton pressurised without overcommiting, and when a chink in the armour appears double that pressure and force a contest.
In a game of inches on Sunday, every Dublin kickout decoded is worth a score to Mayo.