Kicking Out: Can't beat the press? Can't beat the Dubs
IN the summer of 2016, Éamonn Fitzmaurice devised one of the components of the gameplan that he thought could take down Dublin.
For two solid months in training, with their own goalkeepers knowing what was going on, Kerry worked on laying a trap into which Stephen Cluxton would step.
They pushed 12 men into the opposition half, but left enough of a gap that they might just suck Cluxton in and score a goal.
Nights in training, it was a disaster. Brendan Kealy would drive it right out over the top of the 12 men into the other half and his team would score a goal off it. That was the absolute worst case scenario for trying it in Croke Park against Dublin.
But the plan was so specific and so well-rehearsed that they banked on the Dublin goalkeeper doing what they wanted him to do.
So when they got a tap-over free (it had to be after a dead-ball) at 0-9 to 0-5 down after 29 minutes, it was all systems go.
Kerry pushed 12 men up. They had profiled the Dublin ‘keeper and felt they knew how he ticked. They left just enough of a gap in his favourite position, out by the right corner-back, for him to find John Small.
Paul Geaney wasn’t to let on he was looking, wasn’t to make eye-contact with anything or anyone. He had to look disinterested and lazy. Cluxton would back himself then.
Kerry could only try this once. If Geaney stepped too soon, Cluxton would smell a rat and go long. If he stepped too late, the interception would be missed and the alarm would have been set off for a future attempt.
They nailed it. Geaney stepped at exactly the right time and cut the ball out. Popped it in for Donnchadh Walsh to lay-off for Darran O’Sullivan to net.
And not only did they get their goal, but they created such a sense of panic within the Dublin ranks that they’d turn a four-point deficit into a five-point lead in nine minutes.
Of course, that wasn’t enough to win the game. Part of that was because the Dubs themselves were already so well versed in how to win Kerry’s kickouts.
Brian Kelly that day had Anthony Maher on one wing and David Moran on the other, but Dublin destroyed them in the air all day. The Dubs didn’t try to catch the ball. They aimed to break it, and for Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Flynn and others to get in around it.
The problem for Kerry now, heading for an All-Ireland final against them with a largely new team, is that Dublin have learned even more.
You only had to look at the 2017 semi-final, when Tyrone tried the same thing on Cluxton’s first kickout. They pushed everyone up, and the experienced stopper drove the ball 80 yards over the top to Niall Scully. They almost made a goal out of it.
Dublin learn better than anyone else. So not only did they figure out how to deal with it, but they adopted the plan themselves in an even more aggressive, ruthless fashion.
For a half on Saturday, Mayo seemed to have a template. They kept the ball off the Dubs, running up frequent spells of between 50 and 88 seconds in possession. They played with a dummy full-forward line and displayed exceptional patience.
Against a team that has such a demonic thirst to get it back as Dublin, that was not insignificant. Mayo relied on lining up in the middle third, being patient and their runners probing for gaps.
Just like Eamonn Fitzmaurice, James Horan had a plan. And like in 2016, it worked for a half, and then Dublin figured the game out.
The difference in Jim Gavin’s side and everyone else is that if you won’t give Dublin the ball, they’ll eventually just go and take it off you.
When the second half started, they went what they call the “44” press.
They put a line of four right across the full-forward line to cut off any handy short ball. Then a staggered line, almost like a diamond, in the half-forward line, that splits a man into each of the bigger spaces.
The key, though, is the identity of the four across the middle of the middle of the park.
Brian Fenton and James McCarthy take the right wing. Brian Howard and Michael Darragh Macauley take the left. They cover the entire width of the field between them.
You will not find a more fearsome foursome in the air.
It’s effectively a midfield quad, and it’s proving almost impassable. They won’t always win the kickout clean, but they’ll very seldom let the opposition win it. And when it falls, no team is better set up to scavenge.
As soon as the kickout leaves the tee, you can see them all making their way in the direction of the ball. They’ll make you kick it long, and then they’ll beat you to the break when they do.
We saw at the cold-bloodedness of them against Mayo. That spell of 2-5 after half-time was based completely off it.
It was the football equivalent of waterboarding.
Kerry’s current team still has David Moran playing great stuff, but the number 9 jersey has been hard for them to fill since Maher’s retirement.
Especially in light of his impact against Tyrone, there has to be a case for Kerry starting Tommy Walsh at midfield in the decider.
The only thing that’s really left to try is for Peter Keane to take a leaf from Fitzmaurice’s book and try something completely brazen, in whatever form it takes.
There might be no point in disguise at this stage. If Kerry committed eight or nine men into a 30-metre square, they’d given themselves a fighting chance.
Because despite their fielders being as good as they are, so much of the Dublin possession won on opposition kickouts is because of their commitment of numbers around the break.
But sure if it was that simple, someone would’ve done it by now.