GAA Football

All-Ireland SFC final: Dublin v Mayo: Ciaran Kilkenny

Dublin will look to Ciaran Kilkenny to pull the strings, while Mayo must find the right position for Aidan O'Shea in Sunday's All-Ireland final Picture by Seamus Loughran
Paul Keane

Dublin forward Alan Brogan kicked four wides in the first-half of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal but one in particular sticks in the memory.

Dublin still hadn't scored from play - they wouldn't manage that feat until 10 minutes from full-time - and Brogan simply lost his composure and blasted the ball wide from long range.

It was out of character for a player who'd never relied on power or physicality but rather his patience and cunning.

But Dublin had never come across a team prepared to withdraw everyone inside their own 45-metre line like Donegal did that day and Brogan's wild kick came at the end of a frustrating series of lateral passes that had gained them no yardage.

Six years on, they are entirely comfortable engaging blanket defensive strategies and have drawn favourable comparisons to the great Barcelona team that Pep Guardiola managed between 2008 and 2012.

Getting to this point hasn't been easy. Under Jim Gavin, they've had input from the likes of basketball coach Mark Ingle on how to better penetrate massed defences and, generally, they have worked tirelessly at being patient and, crucially, productive.

Dublin don't lose their cool or get frustrated anymore when forced to pass from side to side for long spells. Like Guardiola's team, they are prepared to, as Livepool legend Graeme Sounness once put it, 'wait for the dummy' to present an opportunity.

Sounness observed that while teams may happily sit back and defend against Barcelona, there'd always be one 'dummy' that would lower his guard and present an opening.

When that happened, Barcelona, like Dublin now, had quality forwards to take full advantage.

Dublin also observe many of the same defensive principles that marked that Barcelona side out as arguably football's greatest ever.

"Barcelona started pressing the instant they lost possession," wrote Tomas Quinn, the former Dublin forward, in an Irish Examiner column about the All-Ireland holders last year.

That statement could just as easily have applied to the ferocious work-rate of the Dublin forwards against Tyrone at Croke Park last month when, out of possession, they worked remarkably hard to win the ball back.

Once they had it again, they were happy to hold onto it and wait for the dummy.

It's why after 28 minutes of the game, a stat popped up on TV informing viewers that Dublin had enjoyed 62 per cent possession.

"If Pep's Barca hadn't won the ball back within five seconds of losing it, they retreated and built a compact 10-man wall," Quinn noted in that analysis piece. "It's hard for any opponent to pass their way through such a small space.

"Similarly, if Dublin lose possession in the opposition half and don't win it back quickly, the forwards look to drop to the 45 to compact themselves before looking to make contact."

Ciaran Kilkenny is Dublin's equivalent of the Xavi and Iniesta figures that poked and probed for openings in Guardiola's Barca midfield.

Comfortable on the ball, they would rack up huge 'possessions' and 'passes completed' figures as they patiently passed back and forward, waiting for openings.

Kilkenny's stats have gone through the roof in recent times.

When he enjoyed 35 possessions in the 2013 Leinster final against Meath - the same as Brian McGuigan had for Tyrone in the 2005 All-Ireland final - it was remarked upon as a particularly excellent figure.

Yet as Dublin have developed their style, and as teams have sat back more and more against them, he has emerged as the equivalent of a quarterback, dictating the play and sending his possession statistics into orbit.

Kilkenny enjoyed over 60 possessions against Tyrone last month and 53 in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final win over Donegal who set up similarly to Tyrone.

Kilkenny, speaking at last week's Dublin press briefing for the All-Ireland, ironically gave an excellent impression of a blanket defence himself when quizzed about his spiralling possession counts, giving little away.

"You are just so out there in that bubble, it is the heat of battle, you are in Croke Park and the adrenaline is going, you're not keeping track of numbers," offered Kilkenny.

"I love that feeling of going out there and giving it your all and just going play by play. Any given time that I'm on the ball I just have to make the right decision for the team, find the man in the better position so that he can make the right decision after that.

"When you are playing against a defensive team as well, their whole attacking impetus is counter-attacking so it is important that you make the right decision and that you're very patient on the ball."

In more open games, the 4-29 to 0-10 drubbing of Westmeath in June, for example, Kilkenny isn't required to recycle possession as often and his stats come tumbling down, to 35 in that game.

Given how Mayo play, he's unlikely to see 60 possessions in the All-Ireland final though, like Barcelona again, if it comes to a straight shoot-out then Dublin will happily play it that way too, confident they have the superior players. They feel they can win an arm wrestle or a sprint.

And Kilkenny will have no problem adapting to that sort of game.

Against Westmeath, he used his 35 possessions in a different sort of way. Sure, 54 per cent of the 28 passes he made went sideways but he also scored 1-3 and assisted in 0-4.

"That's the beauty of the game, it is constantly evolving and changing," said Kilkenny.

"The personal challenge as a player is to learn different plays and different drills. It has evolved so much since I started in 2012.

"The last two games we've played have been against two defensive teams but Mayo bring a different challenge and they play a different style so it could possibly be different the next day, you just never know."

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