Jim McGuinness: Dublin still struggle to break down an established defence
Jim Gavin has yet to fully solve coaching conundrum
Diarmuid Connolly holds off Paul Sharry and John Gilligan. He was the best Dublin forward in terms of dealing with the pressure Westmeath exerted. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Instead of people despairing over Dublin’s decade-long domination of the Leinster championship, maybe we should look at the attitude which Westmeath brought on Sunday.
Dublin were comfortable at the end but, despite losing the match, Westmeath established a platform from which to plan a future. The average age of their squad is 24 and if they can get the attacking side of their game in motion, they will feel they can further challenge Dublin and the top teams when they meet again.
Westmeath are the first team this summer who asked questions of Dublin. It now depends on how they develop.
What we saw from them on Sunday was the result of a major and quick shift in approach in order to try and create a game plan suited to coping with Dublin – if not actually beating them. Obviously, it was predicated on making Dublin work for absolutely everything. Conceding the short kick-out to Dublin was a prerequisite of Westmeath’s game plan. There are pros and cons to that policy. It does invite an onslaught – however Dublin were uncharacteristically poor in their score conversion.
That was partly because of Westmeath’s collective effort. What they did was force Dublin to move the ball laterally all the time. Dublin are at their best going directly but Westmeath wanted to force Dublin to think their way through them.
Even on Westmeath’s own kick-out, if Dublin won it, they weren’t in a position to make the transition to attack as swiftly as they would have liked. So Westmeath were squeezing the percentages in their own favour. They were doing their best to make themselves competitive.
For instance, Ger Egan had a shot for a point at one stage in the first half and then sprinted the whole way back to his half of the field. He wasn’t thinking about his man or shutting down the kick-out, just about the overall defensive shape which Tom Cribbin had decided upon.
But in attack, things became unstuck. Westmeath had numerous attacks where they kicked for a point and the ball dropped short and there was nobody inside to contest the ball or to put pressure on Stephen Cluxton. Dublin will give that opportunity for two-on-two or two-on-one inside – if you have somebody in there. That wasn’t the case for Westmeath and it was a major problem for them.
When they did turn the ball over, the desired pace and power was not there as they sought to run at Dublin. It was this transition to attack that was letting them down. That was my fear for them ahead of the game. It is a massive challenge in terms of coaching.
It is one thing getting back, and in an occasion like a Leinster final, the desire and intensity will be there so you will find the energy required to defend in numbers.
But you have to go the other way as well and put the scores on the board. Westmeath reminded me of ourselves in 2011 against Dublin. They just didn’t have a detailed enough plan in terms of asking the questions when they attacked.
Monaghan failed as well in that way last year in the championship when they played Dublin. Something similar happened with Derry in the league game against Dublin this year. Defence is only half of the equation. The other half is equally important. Westmeath did get a huge number of turnovers. How you use those is the key thing.
There were a few seconds of Jim Gavin on camera watching the first half. It wasn’t as if he looked under pressure; he knew they were going to win the game. However I think he saw that questions were being asked by Westmeath that will probably become bigger and more critical later in the championship.
If you look at Dublin you ask: where will they get scores? They will get scores off their own kicks-outs. But we saw again that their pushing up on the opposition kick-out is a formidable tactic. Both their goals came from that on Sunday – and a couple of points as well. Dublin will get scores on the transition, hitting you on the counter. We saw that that their defensive system was intact again on Sunday. They didn’t concede a goal. Not one goal chance. The way Cian O’Sullivan is playing the sweeping role is interesting too as he looks very comfortable and formidable in that role.
What Sunday’s match exposed was the fact that they still struggle to break down an established defence. That is the coaching conundrum Jim Gavin faces now. But in my opinion it is the last piece of the jigsaw for them. There didn’t seem to be a coherent plan in breaking Westmeath down, even though it was flagged during the week that they would probably go with a heavily defensive game plan.
The other interesting thing is Dublin missed a lot of free kicks. I have always felt frees are a good barometer of what is going on in open play. In other words, when teams are psychologically ruffled due to pressure and are thinking their way through things, it can be difficult for a player to drop down mentally and relax when he is kicking a free. In order to kick frees, you need two things: uninterrupted thoughts and you need to be relaxed.
Diarmuid Connolly was the best player on the pitch in terms of dealing with that pressure – playing with confidence and kicking scores under pressure. I was impressed with him and Dublin will probably require a similar mentality from the other players in terms of what is coming down the tracks. Should Westmeath have dedicated a marker to Connolly? You could make a case for Paul Flynn or Ciarán Kilkenny requiring the same attention also. To pick one player out of the Dublin team.....I can see why Westmeath didn’t do that. The Dublin front six are all of a very high quality.
But they were disturbed, to varying degrees, by what Westmeath presented. The 16 wides were another reflection of the pressure Dublin faced. Westmeath created a situation at every possible opportunity to deny Dublin the chance to score. The trouble was they didn’t have the work done for their own counterattack: the power or fluency or the width.
So there were two very different things going on in the game. One team has that transition game down to a fine art but weren’t allowed to play it. The other team doesn’t know how to play it yet.
But the important thing is other teams will take heart from this because they will feel as if they could do damage in that regard. For instance, we have yet to see what direction Cork go when they match up to Kerry again for the Munster final replay. But if Cork meet Dublin at some point and decide to play as Westmeath did, it is possible to imagine a scenario in which their players in the middle of the park and their forward line, who are of a high calibre, could trouble Dublin with a swift counterattacking game.
Other teams are planning for this on a regular basis. I heard during the week that Monaghan were playing 15 versus 20 in training matches and were filming it so they could study it afterwards. Malachy O’Rourke knows what is coming down the track in the Ulster final next Sunday and needs to know that his players are practiced in coping with it. Being able to think and play your way through extreme pressure – which Monaghan will expect in the Ulster final against Donegal – is something you have to work on.
One peripheral element of Sunday’s final caught my eye. I rarely mention referees. But Diarmuid Connolly stood in front to block a Westmeath player as he was about to take a free kick at Dublin’s defensive 65 metre line. The referee ran in, pointed to the posts and then stood two metres off the 45. It was fine to punish Connolly for the infraction. But it was as if the referee went way beyond the specified distance to warn the player. Referees are there to implement the rules. He created a situation where the lines were blurred. Instead of blurring the lines, referees should be going out of their way to make those lines clear.
When John Heslin took the free, he was on the 45 metre line. So it was a difference of 20 metres. There can’t be a double standard where you are enforcing the law on one hand and ignoring it on the other. It wasn’t significant in terms of the game yesterday but it could be in a bigger game.
I feel that there is an element of authority in it. If you are the person in charge, you need to uphold the rules to an extremely high level rather than interpret them.
I still feel what I said about Dublin after the Kildare game remains true. They have made themselves very difficult to beat. I think they are better-placed for a dogfight now than they have ever been. If they can get a handle on why they were ruffled against Westmeath, I feel they are well placed.
They still held their composure in the game and retained their Leinster championship more than comfortably. But – and there is a but – bigger challenges lie ahead. And, in order to win the All-Ireland, Dublin will probably have to deal with an enhanced version of that pressure.