Jim McGuinness: Tactically astute Dublin still hold plenty of aces

Donegal couldn’t quite solve the puzzle while Mayo showed guile to pass Tyrone test

The importance of the occasion and the gravity of the matches at the weekend in a full Croke Park made it feel more like semi-finals than quarter-finals.

So much has already been written about Dublin but allowing for all that, there are very few teams in the modern game who could start with seven forwards.

In a way I was disappointed that Ciarán Kilkenny was selected to play at half back having witnessed his performances to date at the other end.

But his performance was really, really top drawer and it showed how good he is and the flexibility he gives the team. He had 52 possessions, which to my mind must be some kind of record.


He kicked a point at one stage and the patience Dublin showed in that passage of play was really smart.

It was a very tough ask for Donegal. They tried to do as much as they could. They utilised Michael Murphy by having him alternate between full forward and coming out to midfield for kick-outs.

There the loss of Neil Gallagher was very significant. When Dublin pushed up on the Donegal kick-out you didn't have that absolute go-to man in terms of fetching, which forced Michael Murphy to fill that void as well.

I feel Michael could do with a rest to let the body heal in the coming months, as he’s been carrying a few knocks all the way through the championship and trying to manage himself between games.

It was a positive move to play Patrick McBrearty and Murphy together inside but I felt there were times when Donegal needed to pick their moments more carefully when letting the ball in.

Dublin will give you chances and there were times when the ball could have gone a bit earlier on the diagonal but there were also times when it was five-against-two in Dublin’s favour, which meant that there two or three Dublin players under the breaking ball.

Overall this was a very good defensive display by Dublin. Conceding just 1-10 though they were down to 14 men for most of the second half is not a massive number and again I thought their kick-outs were excellent.

I also thought Mark Anthony McGinley did well on his restarts and he’s improved significantly throughout the championship.

Before the game I raised the importance of kick-outs and when Donegal pushed up on Stephen Cluxton he sent a couple out over the sideline and you thought, that's working. But on the next one he finds a brilliant pass down the middle, they turn, they're at you and the ball is over the bar. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Dublin looked really well-coached. They were intent on keeping the ball moving, stretching the pitch, not taking the ball into contact and keeping the tempo of their passing really high all the time. When however the opportunity to penetrate or kick long presented itself they took advantage and interestingly when they got as far as the ‘45’ and were shut down they weren’t afraid to go backwards or laterally, which is unusual for them.

The tactic here was to draw Donegal out in order to create more space between the lines and they were able to pick a bounce pass or a diagonal ball away from the sweepers and get the runners coming off that.

Then they had players, McManamon, Connolly and Mannion when he came on looking to punch holes in the half spaces. Before he was sent off I felt Connolly was the best player on the pitch.

On the point of whether players like Connolly and Seán Cavanagh, who were both sent off, deserve more protection, I think it’s up to the officials to protect everybody. In a way it’s a back-handed compliment to players that opposing teams have to try to get at them physically and psychologically but for Connolly it’s another lesson in the need to retain composure.

I remember watching Anthony Tohill in an Ulster championship match getting punched in the jaw and he turned around and just stared at the guy who'd hit him.

I remember thinking, that’s why he’s the best midfielder around. He knows how important he is to the team and that he can’t retaliate because of the impact it would have on them.

Up front Dublin played with unbelievable width in the full forward line, stretching the Donegal full backs 25 metres to the right-hand side of the post and 25 metres to the left and then a third man at the top of the D. Where do you play the sweeper in that situation?

Each of the three forwards is as dangerous as the next.

It's one thing if you're playing Kerry and you want your sweeper under the feet of Kieran Donaghy because that's the aerial threat but if you've three equally good players and they're stretching themselves out so much into a triangle of space where do you go?

Donegal had good defensive shape but on occasion lacked intensity. It’s a tough one. When playing a team like Dublin somehow you have to turn the screw and generate a situation where their decision making is being forced under pressure. Intensity is critical here.

I felt the Donegal goal was exceptional the way they ran the ball with really quick hands. In many respects it was similar to the goal against Fermanagh in June.

To their credit they did stick to the task until the very end even though leg-weary and I think that wasn’t lost on the Donegal supporters. I’ve said on many occasions that it’s quite a young team, average age of 25 but there probably will be departures and Colm Anthony McFadden and Eamon McGee have already announced their retirements.

It was incredible to share a dressing-room with them as players and later to manage them and to see them developing and fulfilling a lot of their dreams. Everyone in Donegal will be proud of them in terms of what they’ve achieved.

Go back to 2010 to where they were and how they were perceived and look at them now leaving as iconic figures.

Without Colm and Eamon I don’t think we could have won what we did.

In the first quarter-final it was interesting the focus Mayo brought to the game, as if on a mission to prove people wrong.

If you go back to the second last league game when Mayo were in danger of relegation and they were being written off locally as well as nationally, they into Hyde Park and absolutely blew away Roscommon.

I felt something similar happened on Saturday. ‘Why are we being written off: we’re the ones who narrowly lost two All-Ireland finals and got beaten in two semi-finals after replays by teams who went on to win the title.’

I thought their mentality was very strong. And, to be fair to them they got a lot of things right on the line. It looked to me as if Tyrone went in with their normal game plan whereas Mayo went in switched on to their opponents.

Tactically it was impressive.

In the first 10 minutes they matched Tyrone’s game plan in every department, mirroring Tyrone in everything they did: 14, sometimes 15 men behind the ball.

They were disciplined in defence and making Tyrone play through them as opposed to running through them on the transition. That completely defused the threat early on and made it hard for them to build up momentum.

So the game ended up as stalemate in the first 10 minutes – exactly what Mayo wanted. It was interesting to watch because you had come expecting a clash of styles.

Then there was a tactical switch.

Aidan O'Shea was sent in to join Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran in the full forward line. The very first ball in caused mayhem. O'Shea was almost through on goal and was only stopped by a fantastic tackle by Colm Cavanagh.

The fact that they had first pre-empted what Tyrone were going to do until the dust had settled and they had a good read on the game was also interesting.

They knew that Colm Cavanagh and Justin McMahon would be dropping back to cover the men inside and they used that on their own kick-out.

One tactic was to go short to a corner back or half back. The players being marked by Cavanagh and McMahon then presented themselves out on the wing to be the second receivers.

So you had the Tyrone sweepers rushing back to the defence and the men they were marking peeling away to provide an outlet for the clearance.

It meant that Mayo were getting into the Tyrone half very quickly and were able at times to get diagonal ball into O’Shea and Moran before the sweepers got back.

As the game pushed on Tyrone had to respond. On 20 minutes they took off McMahon and brought on Rory Brennan, presumably because he could cover the ground better.

Still it wasn’t working for them so Mayo’s plan was really paying off and Tyrone had to react.

They did this by pushing up on the Mayo kick-out to try and shut down this tactic but this meant the sweepers couldn’t drop off too quickly. That resulted in Tyrone edging their way back into the game by winning the odd ball off the Mayo kick-out but the downside for them was that it actually left them three-on-three in their own full-back line.

Mayo were then really smart in terms of the ball they did kick in. Some of it went diagonally to O’Shea but some of it was down the wings to Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran – 20 and 25 metres away from the sweepers. There had been a question mark before the game about the Tyrone full-back line and they took that on. Tyrone tried to do what they always do – get bodies back and turn the ball over and were quite successful in doing that. Their game plan this season has been very much about the transition. In the first half it wasn’t really there for them. We’ve become used to this really aggressive, off-the-shoulder support and people getting ahead of the ball.

Mattie Donnelly did manage it in flashes – a couple of points in a couple of minutes – but the fluency and support wasn't there and as a result Tyrone never really hit fifth gear.

They did play it smart otherwise, working the ball intelligently through the Mayo defence, kicking a few scores and drawing a few frees.

To be fair to Tyrone for all that Mayo did right, the match was level at half-time. After that it was Mayo’s experience over the past few years that came to the fore. Another notable aspect was Lee Keegan playing at full back.

He’s one of the Mayo defenders who has been traditionally given licence to attack and that’s something I thought would come against Mayo but he was very effective and when Tyrone moved Seán Cavanagh to midfield Keegan pushed up on him and as a result kicked two points.

Tyrone will be disappointed with their performance. They came to Dublin with a young team and champions of Ulster.

However they came up against battle- hardened opponents who over the course of the 70 minutes showed more composure and who knew their way around Croke Park.

It may have felt like semi-finals on Saturday but for the four teams left there’s a bit of ground to travel yet.