Dublin Kerry : Why the Dubs have Become so Hard to Beat
In reality, come August, nobody will be too concerned about whether Dublin make the record for unbeaten games on Saturday or not. You wouldn’t want to measuring things too seriously based on league games considering the fact that you can expect many teams, Dublin in particular, to field a third or more of players who wouldn’t be first choice championship starters.
Saying that, it is a noteworthy feat. Two championships aside, you don’t go through two league campaigns (and two half campaigns at this point) unbeaten, without being something special.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at what exactly has changed so significantly since this run has begun.
In 2013, far afield, I had to settle for the tv to watch Dublin until the final. I have to admit that in the first half against Kerry, I thought that Dublin had reverted to the tactical dark ages that saw them fail to beat a single serious All-Ireland contender for eight years before 2010. They were leaving more space at the back than they had when they were slaughtered by Kerry in 2009 and individually, the newcomers in the defence weren’t as good at defending as the likes of Paul Griffin and David Henry.
By the midway point in the second half, though still not a hundred percent convinced by defenders following all opponents up field, man on man, I could see that there was, in fact, a visionary game plan. Play fourteen athletic players and the best dead ball delivery man in the game in goal, get the ball out quickly on the kick-out, and score before the opposition can get men behind the ball.
It basically worked on the same premise as the Brazilian soccer teams of old. “No matter how many you score, we’ll score more”. And they did. It was as genius as it was simple.
Still there were flaws, and those two flaws were brutally exposed against Donegal in 2014. Since that game, however, two things have happened.
Firstly, the management teams and players learned a lesson or two the hard way. Noteworthy as their 2013 success was, in 2013 and 2014 they had failed to apply a rule of defending I would consider as a given. If four or less of the opposition forward line remain inside the “65”, one of the defenders whose man has gone up field has to sit in the space and mind the house. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the opposition to exploit space in your defence.
Fail to apply that principle and you run the risk of the opposition deliberately taking defenders out of the defence and creating ample space for their forwards to operate.
Though playing a different attacking tactical system, a failure to apply this rule is actually what led to the thorough dismantling of the Dubs by Tyrone on 2008, Kerry in 2009 and Donegal in 2014. By 2015, a defender sitting, normally Cian O’Sullivan, had and has become routine. It virtually eliminates the possibility of the Dubs being overrun as they were in those three aforementioned matches.
In fact, I think had Jimmy McGuinness stayed on, even he would have failed to make further inroads against the Dubs, such has been their new found defensive structure.
The second problem Dublin faced was that they had a choice between tall slow midfielders, or athletic ones conceding inches to opponents. The cumbersome but superb fielding Éamonn Fennell, standing at six foot five, not even make Jim Gavin’s panel illustrated in its clearest terms which Jim Gavin favoured.
However, Donegal’s aerial dominance that day, is what allowed them to exploit Dublin’s man on man defensive policy. Donegal simply kept winning long kick-outs in the second half. Gavin needed pacey midfielders to play how he wanted, but Cian O’Sullivan and Michael Dara Macauley simply couldn’t cope with Ódhran MacNiallas and Michael Murphy in the air that day.
It’s not a coincidence that Brian Fenton hasn’t lost a game in a Dublin shirt. By the beginning of the 2015 season, Dublin had found the man they needed, a six foot four, athletic midfielder. Not alone that, but he has proven to be amongst the top midfielders of the generation, a player with the ability to turn on the proverbial sixpence and cut defences open with passes consistently.
Now, the two areas where Dublin could previously be exploited, and were against Donegal that day, simply don’t exist. Some side are going to have to do something very special to beat the Dubs as they chase 14 athletically superior players around the field.
The utility manner in which Ciarán Kilkenny has come to play, filling the gap where ever it is needed, from half back to half forward, has also been a massive factor.
Mayo, Donegal, Tyrone and Kerry all have managers good enough to hatch the most efficient of plans with players with enough ability to have some sort of chance. As it stands, however, since August 2014, none have managed it.
Interestingly, however, our analysis of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, which was level entering the final minute, illustrates that potentially, Kerry could be more than good enough.
Kerry hit eighteen long kick-outs on the day. They won six and Dublin won 12. The net outcome on scores was that Kerry scored zero from six and Dublin score six from 12!
Further significant is that from ten slow kicks to the full back line, Kerry managed a stats breaking five points, without conceding anything upon initial turnovers.
It’s something which will be worth far more analysis come summer time, but for now, there are two simple conclusions.
Number one, if Kerry’s defence could get sorted on the breaks on long kick-outs, they could expect to be three points better off per game (based on last year’s semi-final), if they even broke even on their own kick-outs.
Number two, if their keeper was brave enough to hit more short kick outs, which were more than open last August, they could expect to be an Estimated Value of a massive 0.83 points per kick-out, better off (aggregate loss of 0.33 points per long kick-out and average gain of 0.5 points per short one).
If they had hit half of those nine long kick-outs short, which a Stephen Cluxton easily would have, you could expect them to have been between seven and eight points better off.
If they’re going to avoid the travelling Hill 16 army having a great ol’ shindig down in Killarney on Saturday night, they’ll need to get at least one of these two things straight.
The stats in this article were compiled using the newly developed GaaProstats statistical and video analysis program. This program has been specifically designed for Gaelic football and hurling. It is now available for all clubs to download free for a month’s trial.
By Stephen O’Meara