At the outset of last year’s championship, Jim McGuinness found himself talking about Donegal’s rigorously organised force, loosely termed “the system”.
Donegal had changed football with their radical tactical approach, but McGuinness didn’t believe they were a lone wolf completely separated from the pack.
When McGuinness spoke about systems he clearly didn’t believe it to be a reference point for a robotic, methodical, and deliberate approach to the game. McGuinness felt that Donegal were no different to any of the top teams in their sport - ranging from Dublin to Kerry to Barcelona.
“Look at Kerry, particularly under Jack O’Connor and what Eamonn Fitzmaurice is doing now . . . it is very systematic,” said McGuinness. “Now, they have a style to what they do. But in terms of how they’re doing things, there is a system. My point is that there is also a style about how Donegal do things.
“Dublin are unbelievably systematic: how they position their full forwards, their centre forward role . . . they churn these things out on the training ground. I firmly believe that the top, top teams are so good at what they do that they actually give other teams an opportunity to beat them. They are so good at what they do, their patterns become clear.”
It was a prescient observation that McGuinness ultimately proved three months later in the All-Ireland semi-final. Donegal knew exactly what Dublin were going to do and they had planned immaculately for it. Against all the odds, against all expectation, Donegal took them down.
Once Donegal got ahead, the game was played on their terms. They retreated deep, Dublin kept trying to run the ball and Donegal kept turning it over. In the second half, Dublin had a massive 30 attacks, but Donegal had eight turnovers in possession. They produced the ultimate counter-attacking display, mining eight scores from just 14 attacks in that period.
Donegal’s training ground work and tactical approach worked perfectly because they knew Dublin would follow their men. Dragging James McCarthy, Johnny Cooper, and Michael Darragh Macauley so high up the field was an organised tactic which left Dublin exposed at the back. On the Donegal kickout, Paul Durcan kicked the ball long and when it was flicked on, or won and laid off, Donegal had runners ahead of the ball, haring into acres of space.
It was unusual to witness so much space being afforded to one team in the modern game, but that had always been Dublin’s core brand. It had been their main style, which McGuinness was able to dissect and find ways around, but two days after the All-Ireland football final in September, Jim Gavin held his hands up. The Dublin manager admitted that a lack of balance between attacking and defensive football from his team cost them against Donegal.
Gavin was still adamant that Dublin wouldn’t stray too far from their attacking philosophy as long as he is the manager. “One result doesn’t affect my resolve or the players resolve,” he said last September. “One result won’t change the core philosophy of how Dublin play football. But it’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure. And it’s about trying to get that balanced approach in the future. The performance wasn’t balanced in relation to the game and we got ruthlessly punished by a very good team who exploited it. That’s for me to go away and learn from.”
For two years, Dublin were were viewed as vanguards of a potential revolution. Attack was their key philosophy. Committing so many players forward did leave gaps in their defence, but having so much pace in the middle eight enabled Dublin to get back and protect the full-back line. Having so many attacking options though, allowed them to throw off the shackles and have a go. That style was governed by Gavin’s attitude and approach. He wanted his players to stay truthful to the traditions of Dublin football, but he also wanted them to always express themselves.
Throughout this spring, Dublin have been seeking to find that correct balance Gavin spoke about last September. They have played huge numbers behind the ball, which the Derry game showed, but in most of their matches, Dublin have still reacted to how the opposition have approached the match. One of the most noticeable alterations though, has been sitting John Small back as extra-cover for the defence, which was really evident against Donegal and in the league semi-final against Monaghan two weeks ago.
Dublin got over the line by one point in that game, but James Horan made some interesting observations afterwards on how Dublin are still trying to find that correct balance. “Their attackers turned back too often for my liking, when they should have been cutting inside and taking on their men,” said Horan.
“They’re thinking safety first so they need to look at the balance between finding solidity and not losing their real threat, which is attacking. Dublin need to go more attacking than they are because they’re almost overdoing the defensive side of it a touch.”
In Sunday’s league final, they meet a Cork team who got smashed to pieces by Dublin when they went toe-to-toe with them in last year’s league semi-final. Both teams have learned had lessons in the meantime, but Dublin are still tweaking, still adjusting, still trying to make themselves harder to read.
And ultimately still searching for that correct balance between attacking and defending.