Tyrone and Dublin have two All-Ireland games to play over the next fortnight. The main one will, of course, take place in Croke Park on Sunday week in front of a national and worldwide audience.
But the first one is occurring right now and that’s the psychological battle which will, in turn, dictate the tactical outcome on the field. For me, the key to this match is about control over style. It is very simple. If Dublin retain control, then they will feel no pressure. And they will win.
The Dublin model is about controlling the terms of engagement; they will seek to play the game on their terms and won’t be budged on that. Tyrone can choose to accept those terms – which will result in a 5-6 point defeat.
Or they can show a defiance and an absolute determination to play the game as they wish to. And they have an advantage in knowing that Dublin only want to play the game along a clearly defined set of terms. What I mean by advantage is that Mickey Harte can, right now, plan with absolute conviction for what Dublin will bring to the table.
If this final runs along expected lines, how will the game develop from a Dublin perspective?
Well, there is no risk in their game plan any more. They do not takes risk. The big transformation in how they play is in the infinitely patient approach up front. It is a staggering departure from the bravado style of Jim Gavin’s first year, which was breathtaking at times.
They are looking to achieve something different now. Against Roscommon, for instance, they had 28 scores. 23 of those originated in possessions that were ran or fisted over the 45-metre line. They have shifted from primarily being a foot-passing team to a hand-passing team. They are hugely disciplined and conscientious and they look to hand the ball or use a little dink pass to their inside forwards.
Against Roscommon, only five balls were kicked inside – one of which led to Eoghan O’Gara’s first goal. But they are using the hand pass because it is a higher percentage return. It is the same with the kick-out; they will take the short option every time if it is on. If not, they have runners peeling down the flank between the 45 and 21 metre lines, always in front of their man and they will take that option.
If those are closed down, then they will have a runner in the middle going from right to left or vice versa. If that is not on, they will kick long. In every instance, they are favouring the highest percentage; the safest option. If you look at how Dublin have attacked this season, all of their attacks are premised on fist passing their way through a congested defence.
But before they decide to do that, they set their attack up as they want. And if it’s not on, then they recycle the ball again and again. This is what I mean by setting the terms of engagement; by establishing this crucial thing: control.
If they aren’t happy with how their attack is developing, then they come back out with the ball and look to switch the play and start over again. Central to this is Ciarán Kilkenny. When they come back out, they look to hand the ball to him and he decides where to go to next. He is as close to a basketball point guard as we have seen on the football field.
They repeatedly say: we are not engaging in low-percentage attacks. If the opposition team sits in defence, then Dublin won’t go in. That’s because they don’t want to get dragged into the trenches or into a game where the control is up for grabs. Their semi-final win over Galway suggested to me that they are conditioned to keep the ball now because they did actually kick the ball a few times in the first half and when they did that, they coughed up possession quite a lot. And that allowed Galway to get their transition game moving.
So in the second half, Dublin returned to their very deliberate, conscientious and percentage squeezing hand-passing game. They re-established control. They won by nine points. If if you think of where they are now, in 2018 compared to 2013, the aesthetics have completely changed. To clarify: this is not a criticism. It is completely within their right to play the game as they see it. But it is interesting to ask why they have done this? Is it because they feel it is the best way of achieving the five-in-a-row? Or are they reluctant to get dragged into the trenches and become psychologically ruffled?
That is probably what happened the last time they lost a championship match, when their decision-making was off and they were forced to fire some wild, uncharacteristic wides. Their decision-making has not been an issue this year because no team has had the capacity to force them to do what they didn’t want to do. And equally, Dublin have denied teams the opportunity to do this – to force them off track – by keeping the ball and drawing the opposition out.
They are the best team in Ireland and three-time All-Ireland champions and are favourites to retain that title. And their influence is spreading in that we are seeing Tyrone and Monaghan and others go through long passages of play where they don't particularly care if they score; they just don't want to cough the ball up and give the other side a platform.
And I think we are going to see these extended passages of play where nothing much happens more and more next season. I have no problem with it as a policy or tactic but there is no denying that is boring for the spectators, particularly in comparison to Dublin’s previous model or philosophy. But I believe people can expect more of it.
I will be honest; in Donegal, when we were trying to win the All-Ireland, we didn’t particularly care about aesthetics. We only cared about winning. And Dublin are also entitled just to pursue that goal. But you can’t shy away from the reality of what is happening. They are still an excellent football team but their system has moved from the absolute flamboyance of 2013 to the absolute conscientious, possession-based approach of 2018. It is a different game they play now. It is highly coached. It asks huge questions of the opposition. And if opponents are not prepared to ask questions back: Then. They. Will. Lose.
So Tyrone have some thinking to do. They cannot walk into Croke Park and be at the behest of Dublin for 70 minutes. They need do something in the extreme or be very innovative. And Mickey Harte is one of the best coaches out there at doing something lateral. The same old same old – let’s try and push up on Cluxton; let’s get behind the ball etc – won’t work. They need a specific game plan and they need to have their transition game in fifth gear.
But there is a dilemma here. How do you get your transition game working if you can’t get pressure on the ball? This is the crux of the issue. Tyrone have to concoct something that creates that pressure and drags Dublin into a contest where the control is up for grabs.
For me, there are only two ways of doing this. The first is a tactic I’ve spoken of here before and have yet to see tried. I really believe that teams need to trap Dublin: 11 players behind the ball inside their own 45 but four along the defensive 65 seeking to pressure and harry the Dublin ball-carriers from both sides. Central to this is that the 11 defenders must hold the middle and push the Dublin attack to the flanks; this in when the two groups work in unison.
In essence, once Dublin initiate an attack you don’t allow them the opportunity to recycle the ball and start again. The four guys who are sitting along the defensive 65 have the job stopping Dublin from dictating the terms of possession in this area of the field. Currently, there is nobody there to force their decision -making off track. The opposition is always behind the ball and the game is in front of the Dublin players. One of those four could even man-mark Kilkenny and just deny him those unbelievable number of possessions he has clocked up over the summer. And that, at least, disrupts the Dublin model and forces them into playing a different way. This is one approach.
The other approach – and one we may well see –is to take 15 men and get them behind the ball on defence. I think this tactic has become redundant in its current format. It no longer overwhelms the opposition or forces turnovers because teams no longer bring the ball into the heart of it. Still, it could have a place in this All-Ireland final.
Imagine Tyrone set up as following: three full backs, three sweepers, three half backs and then the rest along the 45. So: we know Dublin have steadfastly refused to attack a 15-man defensive block. They keep recycling the ball, slowly drawing the opposition out, slowly creating the pockets of space and then someone – usually Kilkenny or sometimes James McCarthy or Jack McCaffrey – will give and go.
But what if the other team – in this instance Tyrone – refuses to be drawn out past their 45 in the same way that Dublin refuse to go in? Then, straight away you are asking a question of Dublin; do you want to play the game or do you only want to play the game on your terms? And this is where the psychological battle becomes reality.
Dublin have been told – under no circumstances do you go in there and take chances and attempt pot-shots. But what if Mickey Harte issues the following edict to his 15; under no circumstances do you advance beyond that 45. Let them have the ball for as long as they want. It could become very ugly and farcical; a situation where you have the best team in the land refusing to attack.
It would take nerve. Tyrone’s message would be: ‘we aren’t allowing you to draw us out. But see when you do attack, we will be here, we will be waiting, we will turn you over. And we will transition’. They proved they can do that in Omagh. So it becomes a game of chicken and I am sure would bring about a deluge of criticism. But that’s irrelevant. It changes the engagement into one of who blinks first?
At the very least, it gives Tyrone a shot at parity. Then, they need to be solid on their kick-out and be brave in challenging Dublin on Stephen Cluxton’s restart. There are variations on what they do here as well.
Imagine Niall Morgan is restarting after a wide or a Dublin point. Tyrone set up with three full backs, three half backs along the 45, then two further lines of three and finally, at the top of this alignment, the two midfielders, all positioned in the central plank of the pitch. Dublin will push up on that. It gives Niall Morgan the option of a short kick out or to kick long over the press. But even if you lose the ball, you are in your defensive formation excluding the two midfielders. I would suggest that it gives a platform to attack without leaving Tyrone too exposed if they can't win their kick-out.
The other thing they need to do, more basically, is get their match-ups right. Limiting Kilkenny is critical. But also whenever James McCarthy or Jack McCaffrey make their run, then the fastest Tyrone player must be close by and ready to pick those runners up. Finally, they need to match Dublin's strategy of bringing on their cast of finishers – Paul Flynn and Cormac Costello and Kevin McManamon. Tyrone did that against Donegal and they need to do it again.
Conventional thinking is that Tyrone need to do as Mayo did: go man for man against Dublin; come out and play and have a go. Fine – if you are Mayo. But for Tyrone, that approach could not be more wrong. Tyrone don't have the capacity to match Dublin in that kind of contest. If they do that: They. Will. Lose. I don't believe Mickey Harte is too interested in losing a final and being praised for playing open football.
All of the above would represent an extreme tweak on Tyrone’s natural system. And it is predicated on the refusal to bow to Dublin’s terms. They apply this law: You want to draw us out. We will not be drawn out.
You have to remember Dublin are extremists in their possession-based approach now. You have to meet extremism with extremism or you will lose. There is every chance that even if Tyrone do opt for something radical, they could be beaten anyway.
But I believe if they wander into this game with the same wait-and-see approach as every other team, then the result is a foregone conclusion. We don’t yet know how extreme Dublin are. My hunch is: very. We don’t yet know how far they are willing to go with this patience-game they have crafted. But my sense is that they will be unyielding. Tyrone must be willing to be equally unbending and unyielding in their approach. It might lead to a farcical and even notorious All-Ireland final. It might also lead to one which Tyrone could win.