Jim McGuinness: Tactical switch helps Dublin take title
Dublin defence much more difficult to penetrate with O’Sullivan playing a pivotal role
The season ends with the mid-winter adjustments made by Dublin returning them to All-Ireland success. The weather completely dominated the game and in the end disguised the true reflection of the match.
When it rains like that, Croke Park becomes extremely difficult for teams. The surface is very hard and the grass is cut very short so it makes it perfect for slipping and sliding which we saw on Sunday. You can’t wear screw in studs because the surface is so hard that your feet would be in trouble after about 25 minutes. So it looked as if a lot of the players were wearing wrong boots out there but in reality they had little choice and just had to deal with the conditions which they faced. Then the football was like a bar of soap. There were 29 turnovers in the first half alone and they were caused by the rain as much as by player error.
Still, within the setting, Dublin started extremely well and indicated their mood in the very first minute. Diarmuid Connolly flicked the ball up to himself and took his man on and Brian Fenton got that early point. So they were positive and were playing with energy and it seemed to me that they put their fingerprint on the game in that period. Strangely, Kerry actually took the lead by 0-3 to 0-2 but even so, Dublin had begun to establish themselves as the team that was trying to make things happen. And as the game deepened, that became the prevailing factor.
The key contrast lay in the way both teams attacked. I just don’t understand what the Kerry tactic was here. I still haven’t made full sense of it. Against Tyrone in the semi-final, Kerry seemed to say: if we go with this personnel, then we have this game plan. And if we go with the other personnel, then we have a different game plan. They could shift and ask different questions as the game developed. That tactical adaptability was potentially one of their biggest assets going into the final.
Funnily, Dublin didn’t really have that. Their game plan probably stays the same but what they can do is bring different personnel – like Kevin McManamon, Michael Darragh Macauley, Alan Brogan – who can come in and add power, intensity, intelligence, speed and other individual qualities to the overall blueprint.
Kerry have Kieran Donaghy, a guy of 6ft5in trying to win ball in the air and supply runners coming off him. If that didn’t work, they had Paul Geaney to come in and change the approach: a dynamic player with agility and speed who would be in line with James O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper.
These were Kerry’s two chief attacking cards. So Paul Geaney started. They went for dynamism. Fine. But that required a certain type of football – quality passes that he can run onto, interweaving passes and looking to shoot scores. Kerry can play that game. But what we got was Paul Geaney playing the role of Donaghy.
By half-time they had kicked in six balls high on the diagonal. Dublin won five of those possessions and Kerry won one but nothing came of it. Now, they did play another few balls on the diagonal but they were bounced passes – dink balls, as I call them. And James O’Donoghue got a point from one of those and Geaney himself also got a point.
So Kerry were 0-8 to 0-4 down and you think about those six balls which may have meant three points to Kerry if they had played it differently. It could have been a tighter game at the break.
The other issue was that the weather meant it wasn’t a day for the long ball anyhow. And yet when they tried to change things by bringing Donaghy in, it meant they had to persist with that tactic. Every time you kicked the ball yesterday it went 50-50. It was a dream for defenders.
Add into the mix that Dublin have an exceptionally fast full back line and all they had to was get a hand in to knock the ball away and you are facing a very difficult task. So Kerry were locked into a game plan that was not going to be beneficial to them in trying to win this final. Any time Kerry squeezed the Dublin kick out, they seemed to pressure Stephen Cluxton into mistakes but they only did this occasionally. More often, Dublin did as they pleased with their kick out.
Dublin were intent on keeping possession and running the ball and when they did look to kick inside, they were attempting the dink ball. Everything that could happen to Bernard Brogan did in terms of the ball bouncing off him and skidding away as he went to collect it and even ricocheting off him when Brian Fenton’s goal chance hit the post. But the parameters and approach was right. They left three up. They left a huge amount of space in front of their attacking three. Cian O’Sullivan was fit to play and he executed that sweeper role to perfection. I remember at least five or six times when Kerry outfield players looked up for that inlet pass and O’Sullivan was perfectly placed to block their route so they had to turn and recycle the ball.
At the other end, Kerry were going man to man on Brogan, Paddy Andrews and Dean Rock. My sense watching it was that if the day had been dry on Sunday, then Dublin might have scored three or four goals. I still find it hard to fathom that they finished the day without a goal. In addition, they had a plan for Kieran Donaghy when he did make his appearance. Kieran was trying to make his presence felt but the Dublin defenders were not allowing him to dominate that sector and they always had someone there to pick up the breaks. So the defensive system they put in place worked perfectly for the game in which they needed it most. I remember saying after their game against Kildare that Dublin have made themselves harder to beat. Yesterday illustrated that.
Alan Brogan’s introduction was critical. What he did for his point is well worth any young player studying. If you watch it back, he was making decisions during that entire run up the pitch as he carried the ball. Even though the ball never left his hands it is clear he is thinking: will I give it here or not? Give it now or not?
He kept taking the right option the whole way up the pitch – in a crunch moment of the All-Ireland final when Dublin had what was still a precarious lead on a day of treacherous weather. And eventually, he took the perfect decision in kicking the ball over the bar. He also won a break down at the far end when Rory O’Carroll broke a ball away from Kieran Donaghy. So he was involved in a couple of big moments. He showed great patience all season in terms of using whatever game time he was given and it was a classy performance here.
Philly McMahon put in another outstanding hour for Dublin. He did exceptionally well in marking Colm Cooper but in addition, the point he kicked just before half time made it double scores and was a big psychological blow for Kerry. For a forward who is struggling to get into a game, I don’t think there is anything worse than having your marker sticking a point over the bar. I felt that was a significant moment, a real statement by Dublin.
However, it was unfortunate that McMahon was at the centre of another controversial incident which overshadowed his excellent contribution to Dublin’s victory.
As Kerry left the field, I was thinking: that can’t be an easy dressing room now. So many questions: What is going wrong here? Why aren’t we getting scores? Four points even on a wet day is not a good return.
For a long time, Kerry were just about surviving in the game. Darran O’Sullivan did introduce a style of playing that was suitable to the conditions of the game but his impact faded. And the momentum with which Dublin had started the game stayed with them throughout. They found their way into the game from the beginning while Kerry struggled to get any kind of fluidity into their play.
I would have been reluctant to take James O’Donoghue off because during that period of the game they needed the bit of craft and creativity he possesses. In a funny way, starting Kieran Donaghy and then bringing Paul Geaney in at a later stage may have worked better for Kerry.
Once Dublin saw Donaghy arrive, they figured: we just need to contain this now. They knew how it was going to pan out. They had dealt with a similar aerial threat in Aidan O’Shea when they played Mayo. So, if they stayed sharp on the breaking ball, they would be okay. And yet, Kerry had a chance to get a draw.
Dublin deserve great credit. They took the information from last season, reintegrated it into their system and made adjustments which, to many, would not have been imaginable before last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. They were very certain in their approach last year: this is Dublin. This is how we play the game.
You would have to say that the tactical shift they made in employing the sweeper has won the All-Ireland and the management deserves the credit for that. The players have to execute it and they get the medals but that tactical adjustment made by management was crucial.
They clearly worked very hard on making sure that they would not give up the middle sector of their defence. They do not give up one-versus one situations that often now and they very rarely get sucker punched for goals. They have lost little in attacking dynamism and have a new midfielder in Brian Fenton. Jack McCaffrey, Johnny Cooper and Ciarán Kilkenny continue to improve at pace and they have this bench with players to come back next year. Every team is beatable but Dublin are very much out in front of the rest by a bit as the season ends. They are worthy All-Ireland champions and congratulations to everybody involved.