Tactical Nouse Tightening on Dublin Footballers

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In short, the reason that the Dublin football team are so difficult to beat, apart from probably having the highest amount of raw ability in the country, is the following.

By getting off kick-outs quickly they beat oppositions with a double edge sword.

  1. A) If the opposition attack in numbers quickly and score, Dublin are liable to hit them back immediately on the counter with a quick kick-out. If they leave men at the back, they’re trying to score, outnumbered, against the Dublin defence.
  2. B) If they attack in numbers, and score, even if they manage to get men back behind the ball, typically, they’ve run themselves into the ground by the fiftieth or sixtieth minute while the Dubs empty their bench with players almost as good/as good as the ones who started, and ovrrun them late on.

On top of these two factors

  1. C) If you try to get your own kick-outs off quickly like Dublin do, unless you can match them athletically, like Mayo, you’re only wearing yourselves down earlier than necessary.

There’s no easy answer.

Cluxton gets off a kick quickly

Cluxton’s quick kick-out leads to a point

The new brass of inter-county managers, frankly, are miles ahead of the average ten years ago.  Most of them grasp the conundrum. Most have worked out that to have even a chance to beat Dublin, you have to attack in numbers, at least sometimes, keep your men up front on their kick-out and try to force them long…and crucially, you have to win more than 50/50 on the long kick-outs.

Getting this right was key to Mayo not being overrun late on in either of last year’s finals. Of course, Mayo have an athletic capacity that probably no other contender has.

Cream of the crop tacticians

Two cream of the crop tacticians

Cavan made a more than reasonable job getting around this conundrum. Analysis of Tyrone showed that all of these years on, Mickey Harte is still the master tactician. It’s just that other modern managers have narrowed the tactical gap, Dublin have come along, and he almost certainly has a lesser hand to play with these days.

Cavan made a more than reasonable job of this I say? Yes. Let’s bear in mind that even with less than two thirds of what would be regular championship starters, Dublin are well superior to Cavan man on man.

But Cavan set up their stall reasonably. Zonal Kick-out Analysis showed that they kept Dublin to no more than six quick kick-outs. Typically, Dublin scored points on three of these. The problem for Cavan was that on long kick-outs, they were beaten on slightly more than their fair share.

Excluding quickly hit long kick-outs by both sides, they beat Dublin 3-2 on the Dubs’ kicks and lost 8-6 on their own. Analysis showed, however, that they were bloody unlucky on a number of breaks.

It was quite clear that they had, in fact, done quite a lot of homework on winning the breaks. As illustrated below, they were odds on to win three breaks in the first half, but obscure bounces saw the ball land in Dublin hands.

dublin cavan 1 break

Cavan were in the two key winning break areas 

dublin cavan 2

Fortune went against them to lose this break too

dublin cavan 4

They seemed a sure thing to win this one, but somehow lost the break

dublin cavan 3

Brian Fenton’s fielding deprived them an odds on break here

Our Estimated Value on Zonal Kick-out Analysis would suggest that if the laws of probability had played their hand more evenly, and Cavan had even won these three kick-outs, they’d have conceded a point less and scored a point more. That would have been enough to have given them an outside chance going into the latter stages.

Mickey Harte’s Tyrone, however, were horse of different colour. They only allowed Dublin one quick, short kick-out, choking off this supply line as Mayo did in last year’s finals. In fact, they managed two quick, short ones themselves, and scored a goal on one.

In fact, in total, Tyrone garnered more scores from kick-outs than Dublin did.

Zone by Zone Kick-out Table

Zone by Zone Kick-out table

Key also, was their capacity to launch solid attacks outnumbered. This allowed them to score occasionally, then sit off the Dubs and get men behind the ball without running themselves into the ground.

Tyrone kick a point outnumbered

Tyrone kick a point outnumbered three to six

dublin tyrone 1

Meaning they have numbers at the back so aren’t hard pushed to chace back

Allowing them to crowd the key defensive area

Allowing them to crowd the key defensive area

dublin tyrone 4

And turn over possession with a spare man minding the house

As ever, the thorn in Dublin’s opposition’s side, however, was Stephen Cluxton’s ability to get quick kicks off to the midfield. He managed it four times and Dublin scored two points from this.

However, two elements were noteworthy in Mickey Harte’s tactical master class. Like Cavan, they had their homework done on the breaks, but lady luck didn’t frown on them as it did on Cavan, plus they were better at it, the angles on the breaks being more favourable/increasing their chances on the breaks.

They drew even at 4-4 on Dublin’ long kicks, but won 7-4 on their own, totalling 58/42. On Dublin’s delayed kick-outs to the full back line, they conceded just two points and matched those two points on initial turnovers from the short kicks.

dublin tyrone 5

Tyrone were systematically better positioned to win breaks throughout

That defensive record alludes to their greatest strength. As ever, Mickey Harte’s defence was steadfast.

Frankly, I’m an absolute moaner when it comes to soft points conceded at the top level of Gaelic football. Championships are consistently won by teams who concede over thirty percent of their scores without a single defender having to be taken on and beaten  (what is describes as “Grade 3 Score Concessions” in “Score Concession Analysis”)

In last year’s drawn All-Ireland final for example Mayo conceded 1-4 “Grade 3’s” out of 2-9 and Dublin conceded 0-6 out of 0-15 (see article). That’s a 46% and 40% “Grade 3 Concessions”. How many did “Grade 3’s” did Tyrone concede against Dublin? That’s right. Zero! That’s rare in Gaelic football. Every score was hard earned, as the low score-line illustrates.


Tyrone’s defence was meticulously efficient

To be fair to Dublin, apart from starting without a third of what you’d expect to line up in an All-Ireland final, they hauled back a three point lead with fourteen versus fourteen.

You couldn’t help but wonder, however, how things would have fared, five down, had Mark Bradley not been sent off with Tyrone five points up..

What is clear, however, is this. As good as Dublin are, and they’re obviously bloody good, the tactical nouse is tightening.

Modern, efficient managers are pinpointing Dublin’s strong points and counteracting them. Preventing short and quick kick-outs and winning long ones is key. To that end, the breaks on long kick-outs have become more important than ever, and both Cavan and Tyrone illustrated that teams are working this out and working on it.

If the Dubs are to hit the record 34 unbeaten mark, the last few games could be amongst their toughest.

Zonal Kick-out Analysis and Score Concession Analysis illustrates that if a side who can attack and run like Mayo could defend meticulously like Tyrone, they’d probably be odds on to do it.

If such a side exists, they have yet to prove it, but as Tyrone add pace to their ranks, as a superb Kerry minor side of 2016 come of age and if Mayo can tighten up at the back, things are going to be tougher for Dublin in the season or two ahead.

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. logo-gaaprostats-finished

By Stephen O’Meara