DUBLIN in Croke Park on big days has always been associated with relentless attacking football, hammering away at the goal all afternoon like a woodpecker going to war on the bark of a tree.
They rarely dropped down the gears from top speed because they didn’t have the patience or the inclination but when they got ahead with ten minutes to go in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo, the Dubs gave an exhibition in cruise control.
There were three sequences of play when they strung the guts of 70 passes together over a timeframe of over three minutes to suck the life out of the game and drain the energy from Mayo.
One of those sequences concluded with Kevin McManamon’s goal after Dublin had toyed with and tormented Mayo around the middle before dragging their defence out of shape and nailing them in the vacated space.
It was the perfect illustration of how Dublin have altered their style this season, of how they have developed their overall structure, and combined it with greater tactical fluidity and adaptability. A reviewed attacking style was also critical to finding that right balance, and in trying to break down a massed defence.
Failing to break down Donegal’s massed defence last year forced Dublin to become more measured and controlled. In the Leinster final against Westmeath, they were clearly road-testing a more deliberate way of playing against a massed defence.
Trying to remain unpredictable, while still retaining their attacking identity, and most natural instincts, has been the key challenge. Yet what makes Sunday’s All-Ireland final even more intriguing is that Kerry have long since embraced that philosophy.
When the teams met in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, the match was a classic. Six goals were scored but it could have been ten. Yet in the meantime, both teams have altered their styles to become more defensively minded.
In last year’s All-Ireland final against Donegal, Kerry’s last score came at the end of a sequence of 24 passes. In the last seven minutes, Kerry made 44 plays to Donegal’s eight, guarding possession at all costs.
The lessons of past defeats to Ulster teams have clearly been absorbed by both teams. It’s more cat and mouse now than all out attack. And the big question now is who will blink first? The tactical battle will be huge.
Kerry largely shut down Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts in 2011 and 2013 and they will force Cluxton to kick long, unlike Mayo on both days. With David Moran and Anthony Maher in such good form, they will want to deny Dublin the attacking platform they built from kickouts on both days against Mayo.
Still Brian Fenton has been in great form for Dublin at midfield, making more plays (32) than anyone else in the Mayo replay. Michael Dara Macauley has also found form at the right time. After making just 18 plays in the drawn semi-final, in the 28 minutes Macauley was on the pitch for the replay, he made 17 plays.
It was interesting too to see Kerry leave Kieran Donaghy on the bench, the team captain. In the semi-final against Tyrone, Donaghy won four of the six balls kicked into him but he’d been turned over for three of those possessions. He was only able to get off two shots. He had no scoring assists. Despite scoring a great point just on half-time, Donaghy never appeared for the second half.
Similar to the second half of the Munster final replay, Kerry’s depth is critical to their tactical fluidity. Paul Geaney, Donaghy’s replacement, had a massive 35 minutes. Geaney’s brilliant movement alone facilitated Kerry’s change in style, which allowed them to play shorter passes and pick holes in Tyrone’s defence.
The game opened up more but Geaney kicked three points from play from four shots, while he set up one more point. And Kerry’s overall attack/shot ratio was far more efficient when Kerry were trying to probe their way around a massed defence, as opposed to trying to bomb their way through it with Donaghy.
With Philly McMahon and Cian O’Sullivan having done such a good job on screening Mayo’s target man, Aidan O’Shea (albeit helped by poor deliveries into O’Shea), Kerry may not use Donaghy and go as direct.
Harvesting six points from Donnchadh Walsh, Johnny Buckley and Stephen O’Brien against Tyrone also further underlined the breadth of Kerry’s attacking quality and options. Yet Dublin’s attacking options are just as impressive, especially now that Paddy Andrews and Ciaran Kilkenny have stepped up to take the load off Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly.
Kerry will be more streetwise than they were against Tyrone but Dublin will also see opportunity in the numbers Tyrone clocked that day. Four good goalscoring opportunities came from hard running down the centre of the defence, a trend which also surfaced in the drawn and replayed Munster finals.
If Dublin can open up those corridors, that could be the clearest route to the title.