Jim McGuinness: New system makes Dubs tougher proposition

Jim Gavin’s side’s central tenet this summer is they will not be exposed down the middle

I got a wee stroke of luck at the weekend because I was meant to be training on Saturday but the schedule was changed, which allowed me to go home to the championship. So I got a flight into Donegal on Friday night and then it was away to Clones on Saturday. It was my first time there as a supporter in a good few years and it was really enjoyable. Everyone was very friendly and it was lovely to talk and mix with the Donegal supporters.

Then it was on to Dublin on Saturday night. I was asked to deliver a talk for Celtic on Sunday morning. Celtic have 25 partner clubs in Ireland and the club invited the best young prospects up for a camp. Eight or nine Celtic coaches came over to give coaching sessions where the event was being held in Palmerstown.

I gave a presentation to around 180 young players and parents on what was expected of an academy player and what it took to make it to the first team and how a full-time athlete was expected to live their life. Then it was off to Croke Park and I arrived there at 1.50pm for a fairly breathtaking championship afternoon. So it was a hectic and really enjoyable 24 hours.

The Westmeath –Meath game was, as they say in Donegal, just mental and terrific entertainment. But I left Croke Park with Dublin on my mind. I feel it was a very important day for the future direction of Gaelic football yesterday.


I was surprised there wasn’t more made of what Dublin did against Kildare. A subtle but significant change took place in Dublin’s approach and their football philosophy. They have made themselves more difficult to beat after a performance which contained so much to admire and which made me slightly fearful of what is to come.

The first thing that struck me was that MD Macauley and Rory O’Carroll were listed among the substitutes but started the game, which was a new departure for Dublin. They tend not to play games like that and it suggested to me that they felt this was an important game for them. It looked like they went with their strongest 15. In the taxi on the way to Croke Park, I was excited to see what might be different since we played them last August.

My gut feeling was that I would see the same system from all four teams. Dublin played man-to-man with a sweeper dropping back in some national league games and as it turned out, Meath, Kildare and Westmeath replicated that.

Cover space

For Dublin, Cian O’Sullivan was the sweeper dropping back to cover space in front of the Kildare full forward line. Nothing radical in that. But it was the Dublin defensive system that fascinated me. They had spoken a lot about core values and man to man defence and the principles of Dublin football. But there has been a definite paradigm shift which I feel will make them very hard to beat.

So Dublin went man to man with O’Sullivan sweeping – and occasionally Jack McCaffrey. But the interesting thing was that when Kildare attacked them, they left their men and stepped off them and drifted from that into protecting the D, like an arc which is a zonal system. If the ball was pushed out to the wing, they sometimes stepped up again and went man to man. The other thing they were doing defensively is they were passing players on. If someone ran across the D and, say, the ball was on the left wing, they would pass that player on and keep the pressure on the ball in a zone format.

So in doing that, they have taken control back again. We had control last year when we played them because we could take the Dublin players where we wanted them. Because they stayed man to man we could dictate their movement.

I remember Paddy McGrath asking: ‘what if that doesn’t happen’. But we were 100 per cent sure they would go man-to-man on us. So this year Dublin have said: we are good enough to go man to man in the front and middle thirds of the pitch. But we are not going to concede the last third and allow teams to go straight down the middle. So they are playing smart and know when to drop off their man and when to defend the central area.

I recalled hearing they had spent some time in the winter working with Mark Ingle, the basketball coach. That was interesting because they looked very fluid against Kildare, as if they have a very high level of understanding of what they are doing. I feel they have a lot of work done on it. So here is the significant thing: if they aren’t giving up the middle and their mantra is not to concede goals, what do you do? Donegal’s performance against Dublin was one of the best we delivered in my time in charge and we still could only hold them to 0-16. So chances are you will have to score at least 0-17 to beat them – and that is not allowing for their potency in scoring goals.

Defensive shape

The other significant thing in terms of their defensive shape was that on the opposition kick-out they pushed everyone up except for O’Sullivan and their full back line. So you had 11 Dublin players spread out inside the Kildare half. Some were man marking, some were zonal/splitting and they forced Kildare to kick long which worked really well for them. But once the game was done and dusted on the scoreboard, they then pushed everybody up to conceal Cian O’Sullivan’s role. That tells me that we can be guaranteed Dublin’s central tenet this summer is they will not give up the middle.

They are phenomenal on the transition. Their pace and power and movement is just incredible and they get from one end of the pitch to the other so quickly. I think three Dublin goals came off Stephen Cluxton’s kick out. Cluxton creates a quandary for all teams. If you try to beat Dublin by pushing up, Cluxton has radar-like precision and is able to cause major damage by going over the top. But if you give them the kick out, it is inviting an onslaught. You end up handing them 40 possessions in a match. It is difficult to see how a team can do that and still concede less than 17 points because Dublin’s conversion rate is so high.

So that philosophical shift they have made – and the defensive adjustment they have made – are massive changes. The other thing is – bad news for all full backs – they appear to have become even better inside. They had three men inside – rotating between Dean Rock, Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon.

Normally two full forwards would play inside the large square and the other on the D in a conventional triangle. But they were stretched 50 metres apart and the other near the ‘45’. That creates a horrible problem for the sweeper. So where does he position himself? He cannot cover that ground. Even with a double sweeper, the space is incredible. Then what impressed me was the aggression and length of the runs made by the inside men. Forty metre sprints to win the ball and winning the ball at full speed: the Dubs were doing this again and again. That ability to win the ball at full speed is very difficult to coach – and to defend against.

Then you had Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly coming from deep. They fist the ball inside a lot, which increases the pass-completion percentage. Then their ability to kick long-range points comes into it. I am listing all these things as an example of the number of questions they are now asking. They have retained all the threats they carried last year but they have become much more difficult to break down.

The scary thing is I felt they were flicking between second and third gear and it made me feel apprehensive for my own county and for all other counties. Because if they are just in third gear and have all these new processes in place: whenever they run out the tunnel with the focus and the attitude and the fire in their belly to play a top team and if they then hit fifth gear, well, that force that could be very hard to hold. The other aspect of their play that is significant is that all their goals and many of their points reflected a new-found unselfishness.

I don’t believe that was there previously in other years. And then – finally – there is the matter of their bench. Alan Brogan, Michael Fitzsimons, Paddy Andrews, James McCarthy; All-Ireland-winning players coming onto the field of play. The overall age profile is probably mid-20s and they have a group of U-21 All-Ireland winners waiting just to get into the squad.

So Dublin have reflected and have done a huge amount of work. They have created a new system for themselves. They put that in motion yesterday.

This has wider repercussions for the game. Most teams take their lead from the top teams – and Dublin are the most frequently imitated. So I think the other teams in Leinster will bite the bullet and go down this road now also. Dublin have been absolutely dominant in Leinster because it was man to man all over the pitch and other counties followed suit. If Dublin have bitten the bullet, I think Mayo may do the same and then perhaps the other Connacht teams will follow that. Most managers take their lead from the top teams.

I have a problem with that. Managers need to be more original and come up with their own strategies. Now Dublin are moving to this system and people will copy that. The challenge is not to copy them but to come up with a system to beat them.

Which could be easier said than done. For me, there are not many boxes left to tick for Dublin going on Sunday’s performance. They have made themselves much more difficult to beat.

New system

I am not saying Dublin are invincible. But I am honestly not sure right now how they can be beaten with what they can bring to the table. What we did last year clearly won’t work this time around.

They have taken zero away from their strategy but have devised a new system. They looked more like a team on Sunday too. You could see the communication and the passing on and that they were working in concert. You can argue there was a gulf in standard on Sunday. But what could Kildare have done differently? How do you take that athleticism on? How do you stop Cluxton’s precision? How do you break them down? The list of questions they pose for all teams is very, very long now.

Dublin cast a very long shadow before the championship started but, at times on Sunday, it looked more like an eclipse.