Where are Dublin? The immediate reference point is the Meath game. So much has been spoken and written about the absence of Stephen Cluxton over the summer.
But Evan Comerford was almost flawless. He made some excellent saves. His execution from restarts and his ball retention was of the highest quality. You could see him organising everyone and a lot of Dublin's scores came from his kick outs. He looked assured. He looked like Stephen Cluxton in disguise. But, of course, he is not.
Even at the end of the game, there was a focus on Cluxton’s not being there. But it should be acknowledged that his replacement was excellent.
For all that has been said about Dublin they remain process driven. The word machine still applies. Take the passage between 10th and 12th minute when they took possession from a Meath kick out. Fifteen passes were involved in a period of one minute and 20 seconds and no Meath player was able to get close to them until Matthew Costello fouled Brian Fenton and Dublin had a penalty.
Here was a snapshot of their strengths - ball retention, patiently dragging the opposition defence out of shape until the moment to make that incision presents itself. I spotted Niall Scully put his arm up a few times to set the offence.
They move the ball at pace and don’t take it into contact and look for that moment. The other glaring strength is their physical presence. They look bigger, faster and more agile than any other team in Ireland. They are tailor made for that stop-start moment of incision. From the penalty score, Meath restarted and Jonny Cooper went full throttle for a 40-60 ball and hurt himself in the resulting clash.
Those passages summed up Dublin at their best. They aren't afraid of that physical hard work. And up front, Ciaran Kilkenny, John Small, Con O'Callaghan and Dean Rock are bigger than most defenders. That is a serious conundrum for anyone. Their capacity to put pressure on the opposition kick out is outstanding. They force the long ball and then exploit their physical advantage by making it a battle for possession. And when they do win it they have those few seconds when the opposition defence is not yet organised. And they are expert at exploiting that too.
They used the fisted pass a lot, the dink ball is a huge part of their game and they are constantly looking to back-door. Then you have the full on direct running - McCarthy, Small, Scully and Kilkenny are prime exponents but half the team can go direct. Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne was caught in possession a few times so they just replaced him with Tom Lahiffe at half time. It is ruthless but they have the players.
In my opinion Fenton is such a physical specimen and his head and shoulders above others in terms of athleticism and skill and tactical sense. He is without doubt the best there is as a midfielder and just running the game. He is in his prime.
So you have ask the question: what happened to Dublin in the second half? Not a lot, is the intriguing answer. It is not as if Meath were piling on big pressure in the second. Yes they got the goal through hard running. But it was still 2-11 to 1-6 after that. It was hardly a nuclear strike. Meath just kept chipping away. .
This was more Dublin’s own doing. I felt they dragged themselves into the trenches. They laboured heavily under steady consistent pressure, nothing more. We haven’t seen this happening in a long, long time. The Dublin bench is clearly not what it was. That helped to create that firewall of invincibility in seasons past. They could bring in those game-changing reserves to shift the dynamic of a game.
But here, they looked vulnerable. They looked unsure. You could see it in their faces and body language. Unfortunately for Meath they didn’t have enough to capitalise on that. So where does that come from? I feel it can be something small - a block or a wide and a sense travels through the field.
Dean Rock wasn't up to speed and missed a few chances. Cormac Costello kicked the ball away a few times. Decision making comes to look frayed. Their first score of the second half came in the 50th minute. They scored 0-2 in 37 minutes of the second half until Fenton kicked a score in the 73rd minute. A row broke out late in the game. All of this was alien to the Dublin we know.
So I took a pause and tried to look at the big picture. What is the make-up of the team now that Cluxton is gone? Well. Inexperience is part of it. A different goalkeeper and players like Sean McMahon. Lahiffe, Bugler and Ó Cofaigh Byrne are all new to this. And against that: fatigue.
How many times can you go to the well? Fitzsimons. Cooper. Rock. McCarthy. Fenton, Kilkenny have been there a long time. So you have contrasting dynamics on the field. This wasn’t an implosion. But it was a change. You could see something happening for Meath. They smelled blood. The crowd sensed blood. You could sense it on the television too.
Processes become challenged and fractured. A top team can look ordinary
It won’t be lost on Mayo and Kerry - or on Jack O’Connor and Kildare.
What are Dublin's strengths? They are still process driven and can still execute at a very high level. They have the best goalkeeper left in the championship. They have better defenders than Mayo or Kerry. If I was picking their team I would have Brian Howard at midfield rather than centre back if John Small is fit for centre back. Then they have the best midfield pairing left in the championship.
Their forwards are exceptional. So I think they still have the balance of power. They still have this absolute control of knowing what they want to do with the ball in, say, three minutes time.
They have defenders who want to put their body on the line. And I believe they were in second gear in the first half. Did they take Meath for granted? That is irrelevant: they imploded and ended up in a different place where they were questioning themselves and they were beginning to doubt.
What I would suggest is this: the key to beating Dublin is to drag them into the trenches. Teams have tried to do that for years and failed. But it happened against Meath without any real design or intent. There is a cohort who believe Dublin are now there for the taking. I would be cautious about that school of thought.
However, this is the most intriguing moment the football championship has offered in a number of seasons. Processes become challenged and fractured. A top team can look ordinary. And for the first time in many years, Dublin have looked ordinary in the Leinster championship. The aura and mask of invincibility slipped.
The key to beating Dublin is not simply about beating them at football. It is to move them into a different room in their minds. And then beating them at football.
I feel they have exposed something about themselves in the Meath game. But this could have a contrary effect on Dublin. Maybe this is the moment they have been waiting for: questioned on a national level and doubted and having to steel themselves. It can become a really galvanizing moment in the evolution of their team.
They will have to play both Mayo and Kerry to get there for the seventh time. It’s a special challenge for them. It is easy to win when everything is going well. It is a different proposition when challenged. For me, this is their opportunity to underline their brilliance.