Jim McGuinness: Rivals must master patience game against Dublin

Engaging champions in key battle areas the only way to psychologically ruffle them

Jonny Cooper claims possession despite the efforts of Tyrone’s Mark Bradley and Niall Sludden at Healy Park. Cooper was immense at the heart of Dublin’s defence. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Jonny Cooper claims possession despite the efforts of Tyrone’s Mark Bradley and Niall Sludden at Healy Park. Cooper was immense at the heart of Dublin’s defence. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Omagh felt like the epicentre of the GAA world on Saturday night and as everyone left Healy Park and the air began to cool after a cracking championship encounter, I kept hearing one question.

Can they be beaten?

Can anyone beat Dublin?

I think it is possible for the other teams still chasing the All-Ireland to at least give themselves a chance to beat this tremendous team. But they will have to be willing to combat Dublin in the key areas. And they are going to have to be brave in their mindset.

The Dublin team we saw in Tyrone at the weekend represented a full evolution from the first Jim Gavin championship team which took the stage in 2013. Remember them? Then, it was all out, flamboyant attack predicated on an expressive kicking game and a clear intent to deliver the ball into the full forwards as directly as possible.

They had runners tearing through looking for avenues to score goals. It was a deluge of attacking football; an exciting brand that seemed to espouse the very best qualities of the game. Their relentlessness became their calling card. It was like a dare: you can’t match this for 70 minutes. We will score more.

Dublin can still keep the game relentless but in possession they are much more conscientious now and just don’t take chances like they used to anymore. Everything is about retaining possession and opening up the pitch at a time of their choosing.

On Saturday, there were times when they pushed 13 and 14 players into the Tyrone half when they had possession of the ball. And Cian O’Sullivan would sit on the halfway line. So there were moments when they actually had nobody in their own half; both teams were squeezed into the Tyrone end.

But a lot of the Dublin players were placed in what I call no-man’s land – that area of the pitch beyond the frontline of Tyrone’s defensive set up, between their 45 and 65m line.

It has become a familiar sight to see Dublin patiently moving and switching the ball and stretching the play across this pressure-free area before finally making the incision inside. And it represents a complete transformation in how they attack. Conversely, they also defend in greater numbers than ever before.

They have more of the best players, they are extremely fit and they are playing the patience game brilliantly. But in many ways, they are doing the same as he other teams out there, only at a higher level. And this is why I think that the other contenders have a chance of beating them.

Stark difference

This weekend was unique: two Ulster championship-type occasions in Omagh and Clones, with the aristocracy of the game visiting both towns. The sense of occasion was brilliant.

Dublin had a point to prove after all that was said and written about the Croke Park comfort blanket. I felt they were up for the game. They weren’t found wanting on the scoreboard. However, I don’t believe the scoreline in either Omagh or Clones on Sunday would have been the same had the games been played in Croke Park.

I think both games reinforced the sense that Croke Park is just very comfortable for Dublin and even Kerry. Here, both teams had to dig in and find a way. Kerry had to fight tooth and nail just to stay in the championship whereas Dublin did enough to retain that aura of invincibility in Healy Park. But they knew they were in a match! It was a stark difference to last summer.

Ronan O’Neill misses a crucial late free at Healy Park which would have reduced the deficit to one point. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ronan O’Neill misses a crucial late free at Healy Park which would have reduced the deficit to one point. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

The key battleground for Tyrone was in pushing up on the Dublin kickout. For me, they didn’t do this quickly enough but nonetheless they did force Stephen Cluxton to kick long and make it some sort of contest around the middle. And they also managed to get bodies around the ball and force turnovers.

But curiously, they weren’t as committed or aggressive in making that transition into attack as they normally are. So as the game developed, Dublin had more options of attack. They always seemed to have two or three players around the ball whereas Tyrone were attacking on a more individual basis.

And they kicked memorable points; Michael McKernan had a brilliant score, Peter Harte and Conor Myler too. But these were glimpses of magic whereas Dublin had these constant attacking patterns to fall back on.

I felt Ronan McNamee was doing very well in breaking forward and his departure with injury was a big loss to Tyrone. But one of the highlights of the game was the tackling from both teams. It was hard and relentless; a bit borderline at times but so committed. And through that, Dublin moved the ball through the hands so well. They simply have excellent players all over the field. Not just the forwards: Jonny Cooper was immense.

When the game was in the melting pot, he just kept coming up with the ball. When Cooper came on the scene first, in theory he wasn’t big enough to play full back at inter-county level. And yet he keeps coming out with the ball or getting a hand in or a block in. He is just teak tough. It’s the same with Philly McMahon. They lose few individual battles. It is as if the ball bounces right for them all the time. But that’s an illusion. They are just extremely good competitive defenders. And when the ball pops up they always seem to snaffle it.

I know the Tyrone supporters were animated by some of the tackling. And the referee let a lot go. It was one of those matches when it seemed as if every challenge might have been a free. It reminded me of Joe Kernan’s Armagh team: they hit hard and early and often. It was nothing wild but it was very, very hard and they set the tone for what was allowable as a tackle.

Key battle

Because the referee can’t blow up everything a lot of the on-the-edge tackles get a pass. And by the 50-minute mark, Tyrone seemed to have a hit a wall while Dublin were making tactical substitutions and going for pace. And we saw Michael McKernan then fouling Kevin McManamon because he was fatigued by this stage and it seemed as if Dublin would coast home.

But somehow Tyrone kept on chipping away and it became a two-point game and by the time of Ronan O’Neill’s free, it felt like Mickey Harte’s team had managed to drag Dublin into a place where they hadn’t been before. Had Tyrone reduced it to a one-point lead, then playing at Healy Park could have become a huge factor.

The first area is taking Dublin on when they are kicking the ball out. I don’t believe a zone press will work

Ronan’s unfortunate wide followed so we didn’t get to see what would happen with Dublin in a partisan venue and the momentum with the home team. They took a breath and steadied themselves with Paul Flynn’s point and that was that.

So it comes back to this question that was floating around on Saturday night: who can stop Dublin?

For me, if any of the teams out there are to truly compete, you have to be willing to engage them in the key battle areas.

The first area is taking Dublin on when they are kicking the ball out. I don’t believe a zone press will work. You need to be 100 per cent locked on with a man press, covering every available Dublin player. You just need to be really fit and really aggressive in your mindset. And that happens as soon as the ball goes over the bar. In fact, that process is starting even as you are attacking.

In soccer, press-minded teams like Liverpool build their attack with a shape that means that if the ball is turned over, they are in a position to cast a net and begin trapping and pressurising the opposition straight away. To do that against Dublin, it means you have to attack in numbers.

You can’t simply have four or five players pushing up on an attack. You need to have eight or nine players in their half of the field so that when the ball goes over the bar, each of those players then only has five or ten metres to cover and lock on to a Dublin player before Cluxton can find him with a kickout.

That’s a massive battleground. And then if you do force Stephen to kick long, you have to be very brave and aggressive and deal with Michael Darragh Macauley, Brian Howard and Brian Fenton in midfield. But listen, it is still much harder to catch a ball than it is to break it. You don’t have to catch it. Just try to make sure they don’t either.

Transition game

The next issue is how to slow Dublin’s transition game. How can you pressure the ball at source? One ploy is to foul as soon as the ball is turned over and then regroup – something that Dublin are not afraid to do themselves. But that merely prevents a quick counterattack and while Dublin can still do this brilliantly, it doesn’t cancel out their preferred mode of attacking now, which is based on infinite patience.

I think it has become obvious that the tactic of placing 15 men between your goalposts and Dublin isn’t going to work. It may keep you close on the scoreboard but it doesn’t present Dublin with anything they aren’t completely comfortable with.

They have become the best team in the country at breaking a team down. So it is extremely difficult to put pressure on them. If they encounter any kind of pressure, they recycle the ball. As it is, the whole field is in front of them. There is nothing to ruffle them physically or psychologically.

I think the other team needs to mirror Dublin’s patience. And it if takes two or three minutes to score, then fine.

I think Ciarán Kilkenny does more running away from the opposition goal now than he does towards it. He is the guy they want to use most to shift the emphasis of play, switching from side to side. Now, Ciarán is an exceptional talent going forward too. But he is a prime architect in what has become the defining feature of Dublin this summer, these prolonged passages of play.

Their days of gung-ho attacking and damn the consequences are over. They are now saying: we aren’t going to gamble. We have endless patience. So they move the ball back and forth across no man’s land. And when they do look to breach the defence and encounter pressure, they know they have a get-out-of-jail card in just passing the ball back, often to Kilkenny, who is the primary outlet pass and who then retreats to the safety area, where the process can begin again.

Other teams have to take that luxury away. My sense is that if a team goes with six defenders and a double sweeper and two extra defenders along the 45m line – a defensive unit of 10 – it should be enough to hold the centre.

That leaves four other players to pressure Dublin out around that no man’s land area, with the forwards hustling and harassing them towards the sideline, where you can then begin to exert serious pressure and force a turnover. It is almost like dogs chasing sheep into a pen. To my mind, it is the only tactic that has yet to be employed against them.

Why can’t other teams mirror Dublin and play keepball themselves? Dublin, as we have repeatedly seen, are not averse to getting 15 behind the ball. So if you can somehow force a wide or turnover on their possession and then on top of that – and I do feel there are a few teams with the capacity to do this – you can flip that dynamic and say: “Well, we are going to do the same thing as you.”

Tyrone, in the first half, went at Dublin and sometimes forced their attacks rather than waiting for the right option. I think the other team needs to mirror Dublin’s patience. And it if takes two or three minutes to score, then fine. It eats the clock. It becomes a lower scoring game. And that gives you a better chance against the best scoring team in the country.

So a team needs to do all of the things that Dublin do but better. Not an easy task.

And finally, what nobody has managed to do is psychologically ruffle them. If you want to beat Dublin, that is the number one requirement. Mayo drew them into contests over the past few All-Ireland finals and I think Tyrone managed to do that also on Saturday night. That should give them – and others – a glimmer of hope.

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