Driving away from Kilkenny on Saturday night, it seemed to me the game held a few rays of light for the teams aspiring to beat Dublin this summer. It was, as anticipated, another emphatic Leinster win for the All-Ireland champions and while they were formidable for long stretches they couldn't quite disguise the fact that they, like all teams, have vulnerabilities.
Will the other contenders set about exploiting them?
Over the past few years of watching Dublin play in Leinster, what strikes me all the time is that opposition teams always seem to set up the same way as the Dubs. In this instance, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Before throw-in at Nowlan Park, I wondered how Laois would set up. And I figured they would mirror Dublin, with one sweeper and everyone else trying to man-mark the other players.
It is a pattern that has evolved in Gaelic football: this is the blueprint for success so let’s adopt it. And I don’t get it. There has to be other ways of approaching the task of beating Dublin.
And once the game started, that’s how it turned out. Laois lined out as Dublin did. All the best plans were thrown out the window after 10 seconds anyway with Dean Rock’s goal. I was watching the body language of the Laois players and it was a devastating blow for them.
They conceded a second goal a few minutes later and, well, it was going to be extremely difficult after that for them to win the match.
Colm Begley was the designated Laois sweeper. One or other of the Laois midfielders dropped deep as well but Begley ended up playing at the top of the D trying to stop the long ball in. And it didn't really work because Dublin just ran the ball very aggressively. The system was null and void for Laois.
The other problem was that the sweeper was dropping off even on Dublin’s kick-outs. So the reality was, by having that extra man in their defence, Laois were conceding the kick-out to Dublin, even if that wasn’t the intention.
You have to really commit to pressing on Dublin's kick-out and even when you do push everyone up, it is a very difficult task to shut down Stephen Cluxton because of the precision of his deliveries and because the trajectory with which he kicks the ball is so unusual. It doesn't go in a soaring arc like most goalkeepers' kick-outs. It travels like an arrow to the target player's chest and gives competing players very little opportunity to break the ball. It is top-quality play and it gives his team a platform to attack over and over again.
There were plenty of times in the first half when Dublin were running the ball and Laois had five or six players still in attack. Consequently, Dublin just cut through them. But overall Dublin are so impressive as a sports team: irrespective of Gaelic football, they are at a very high level in how they operate. I don’t think people fully realise the complexity of their game plan and what is required to execute it as smoothly as they do.
They have all the different facets of play nailed down. They introduced a defensive system that worked for them last year. They obviously have an unbelievably talented attack and have a kicking game and a running game. They do serious damage off their own kick-outs and always had that serious transition to attack.
On the Laois kick-out, they occasionally had three full forwards not marking their men but rather holding position 15 metres apart and three half forwards doing the same thing. James McCarthy then pushed up to play on the right side of the middle of the park so they had three full forwards, three half forwards and three midfielders.
The corner back pushed up into the half-back position so they went 3-3-3-3 and then two at the back. That meant no short kick-out for Laois; they had to go long and McCarthy, Brian Fenton and Michael Darragh Macauley dominated across the line. So they have added that to their repertoire as well.
Interestingly, once Laois lost John O’Loughlin, Dublin stopped setting up like that on the Laois kick-out. They went man to man. My gut feeling was they were trying to keep the other formation under wraps.
And, of course, Dublin used the third- man runner all the time. It’s a facet of their play I’ve mentioned here before because it is so deadly. It’s not the kicker you need to worry about, or the receiver; it is the third man off the shoulder coming through at speed. It is incredibly difficult to mark even if you have trained for it because people are naturally drawn towards the ball. The instinct is, that’s the fire that needs to be put out. And once the ball is transferred to the third-man runner, it is too late for the defender.
As a spectator looking in from the stands, the difference in size, speed, power, skill, technical ability and the game plan complexity was conspicuous. So in the first half Dublin looked machine-like: 2-12 to 0-10, 20 shots in the first half and 2-08 from play: a lot of teams would be happy with those numbers in a full game but Dublin had chalked it up by half time.
Diarmuid Connolly ran the show once Laois reduced the lead to six points. Rock and Ciarán Kilkenny were highly impressive and Dublin's capacity for long-range point-scoring seems to be improving all the time. There was a terrific atmosphere and the Laois crowd were really willing their team on and, in fairness, Laois responded with courage to their catastrophic start.
Laois’s problems were compounded by O’Loughlin’s red card. I know he is not a dirty player but still . . . championship football is about discipline. To lift your hand and get sent off, it should not happen under any circumstances. It just derails the team effort. And interestingly, once Laois lost their player, they basically played 13 behind the ball and one up. And Dublin weren’t as fluid then trying to play through Laois. Their scoring ratio slowed.
For Laois's first goal, Davy Byrne, who was left corner back, was dispossessed up the field and Laois counter-attacked and he had an issue recovering ground. Then Johnny Cooper lost the critical one-on-one battle at the edge of the D. And I feel that area will be the talking point as the Dublin project moves through the summer. Other teams will be concentrating on Dublin's full-back line and the number three position, specifically, to see if it can be stress-tested. How do you best do that?
Looking at the game the last day, I would see Dublin's likely full-back line as Cooper, Philly McMahon and Michael Fitzsimons later in the championship. These are quality defenders but they are not all that tall as a unit.
I mentioned last year I felt Mayo missed a trick by not playing Aidan O'Shea and Barry Moran inside against Dublin. That option is open if they meet later this year. Other teams have similar options. Donegal could play Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher and Patrick McBrearty or Colm McFadden on the loop.
Kerry could play Kieran Donaghy and David Moran as a unit with Colm Cooper in the corner. How would Johnny Cooper deal with Barry Moran or Kieran Donaghy if Philly McMahon was busy with the other big player? So it seems to me that any team with designs on beating Dublin will have to play three up front and that two of those attacking players should carry a significant threat in the air.
You have to be mindful of what happened last year. Dublin won the All-Ireland last year on the back of the sweeper system and so they are going to be emotionally attached to that game plan. On Saturday evening I couldn’t see any evidence they are going to move away from it this year. So other teams can plan to play against Dublin with a reasonable degree of certainty of what they will be facing.
To beat Dublin will involve practising a specific game plan for a couple of months at least. What Dublin do now, as everyone knows, is have Cian O’Sullivan playing as a sweeper and have the other players go man-to-man, shutting down the edge of their D insofar as possible. How do you get around that system? What kind of ball might hurt Dublin inside?
I feel that having two big men inside and another forward coming around on the loop could cause the Dublin full-back line problems. But the delivery is crucial. It is not a ball kicked in hope or a ball looking to find the inside men with a pinpoint pass: it is a ball deep lying sent in on the diagonal and about 25 yards over the sweeper so it can ask questions of the inside three defenders.
In addition, you need a number 11 who will keep the sweeper pre-occupied; a player who has the ability to get on the ball and attack his player directly and kick a point. Otherwise, O’Sullivan can just hang deep and pick the diagonal ball off. But if you have a direct, attacking number 11, he also has to contend with that. O’Sullivan plays the position masterfully but no sweeper can be two places at once.
Laois scored a few good points when they just went at their markers – O’Loughlin, in particular, in the first half. If you beat a Dublin defender, there is a good chance the space will open up for you. But that is not enough over 70 minutes to actually defeat Dublin as a team. You can only do that with a cohesive game plan which involves the collective.
So you need that quality diagonal ball coming in on their full backs. You need a creative, attacking number 11. Then, once the ball is turned over, the team needs an aggressive collective running game with four and five men breaking at pace coming through at angles to support the ball, and all the time playing with their heads up.
The advantage of playing a big man inside is that for your own kick-out, you can bring him out to midfield. It means you have maximum options for your kick- out – which you will need against Dublin. And the last thing is that you have to try, at least, to contest Dublin on their kick-out.
So when you put all that together, you can see the level of coaching required; the complexity and concentration and patience. It requires a lot because it is five game plans running simultaneously and, in order to succeed, they will have to be executed in synchronicity. All players must know what they are doing. And that will not happen in a three-week gap between a provincial final and an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final.
So I firmly believe the team that beats Dublin will be planning for it now – this week. Tonight!
My basic belief is Dublin are vulnerable in the full-back line if they are posed a specific set of problems. And I do think they would struggle against the formation laid out here. It is something for other teams, particularly Mayo, Kerry, Monaghan, Donegal and Tyrone to think about – although Tyrone don’t have the options of big men inside.
Of course, all of this is simply my opinion on how they could be beaten. If another team manages to beat them through different means, I’ll be very interested to see it because I can’t think of an alternative way.
But how many teams can afford to be thinking about Dublin this early in the summer? Donegal, for instance, are not in a position to do that right now. They have to try to win Ulster. Ditto Monaghan and Tyrone. But I would suggest Mayo and Kerry both have the luxury of planning now for a potential meeting with the All-Ireland champions.
Any team entertaining the remotest hope of beating Dublin will have to go into that game with absolute clarity about what they want to do and the knowledge that they have practised it to the point that it is a flawless routine. And, of course, even if a team can do all that there is no guarantee Dublin will be beaten. But at the very least, it would force them to adapt. It is early June but the contenders should use their time wisely.