Super 8 focus: Dublin aren't as good as they were - but is anyone else good enough?
READ as much or as little as you like into the first half of the Leinster final. It was untypical and ragged and inaccurate, everything that Dublin aren’t.
Their home province has been a sleepwalking exercise for almost a decade now, and there are no prominent signs that it will change any time in the near future.
However, the last two deciders ought to offer a few grains of hope to the couple of teams that would be of a belief they can test the Dubs properly.
Last year, Kildare ran at them. Ran hard. Created gaps and overlaps and panic. Hit 1-17, something no team had ever done against Dublin in a Leinster final before. It wasn’t enough to win and Kildare’s approach was flawed in the sense of their defensive liabilities, but it’s the same template Mayo have rattled them with.
Mayo have had the defenders for it, but not quite the forwards. Boyle, Keegan, Higgins, et al have been able to front up and back themselves in a man-on-man setting. And now that they’re gone from this year’s race, you’re left wondering if any other team has that in them.
Kerry? They’ll have a cut at it but they mightn’t be able.
Galway? Their new style looks to have been constructed on the knowledge that they had a weakness in the full-back line.
Beyond that, there’s maybe only the Ulster contingent.
Monaghan and Tyrone both went with the same defensive approach last year and suffered death by a thousand cuts. Tyrone watched them gnaw on Monaghan’s carcass and then went out and did the same thing.
Speaking before the start of this year’s championship, Mickey Harte said the following: “I don’t have to keep saying this but many times I’ve been at games Kerry and Dublin have played, and I’ve seen 13 and 14 men in their own half of the field, but it doesn’t seem to be commented on to the same extent as when we’re playing. That’s not some chip on our shoulder; that’s a fact.”
It is indeed a fact. Dublin supplement their defence just as heavily as any other team. But there are two very important differences between how they defend and how Tyrone defend.
The first is that they might have 15 men inside their own half, but instead of sitting inside their own 45’ waiting, they’ll be getting relentless pressure on the ball from halfway, if not before it.
The second is how they attack the opposition kickout. At times against Laois, they had 11 men pushed into the Laois half when Graham Brody was setting the ball down. Now when, in a month of Sundays, would you see Tyrone or Monaghan at that?
And the reality is that what they’ve been doing doesn’t work. It won’t work. Andy Moran hit the nail on the head earlier this year when he said the key to beating the Dubs was wrapped up in reaching the 20-point mark.
That’s exactly what they’ve averaged in the All-Ireland series on their three-in-a-row run, and when Mayo hit 1-16 against them last year, even that wasn’t enough.
The only championship games they’ve lost since the 2011 success, Mayo scored 0-19 against them in the following year’s semi-final to win by three, and Donegal notched 3-14, and they needed it all on a day when Dublin still hit 0-17.
Their attacking structure is so well developed and so sophisticated. It’s defied everything we thought we knew about football.
Most teams would struggle without a focal point to their attack; Dublin don’t want one.
You can see the premises they’ve taken from other sports. The basketball line is well worn and that width is crucial, but note also the false nine approach that gained its wings at Barcelona.
When their full-forward, be it Rock, Mannion, Andrews, whoever is in there on any given attack, makes the first run out, they seldom go back in. If they don’t get the ball, that space remains vacated for a runner from deep, or a drifter.
Ciarán Kilkenny has often been that drifter, and his scoring return of 4-33 this year (2-15 already in the championship) reflects that. He has become an even greater problem for opposition defences to deal with.
And in a way, that’s what keeps Dublin going. You can talk about freshness and hunger and all the rest, but Jim Gavin is always just touching up their make-up. Nothing material changes all that much but every year, subtle elements within are given a fresh lick.
Cian O’Sullivan’s absence for all but 131 minutes this year does have an unnerving impact on their defence, because there simply isn’t a more effective sweeper in Gaelic football. Between them Philly McMahon, Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy will cover it enough to get them to the very latter stages, but an All-Ireland final could expose his absence should it still exist.
Alongside the imperious Brian Fenton at midfield, they’ve gone back to the rejuvenated figure of Michael Darragh Macauley for the first 45-or-so minutes of a game. Paul Flynn has been his replacement in recent weeks but he’s played so little football this year as well that they could end up shifting James McCarthy to the middle for the latter portion of games.
How fit, too, will Jack McCaffrey be for the pace of July and August?
And then there’s Diarmuid Connolly, settling into the green and gold of Donegal Boston. It had been an uneasy year-and-a-bit for him, for Jim Gavin and the entire setup. A clean break looked like the only option, but as he showed with a keen impact in last year’s final, there’s huge potential that Gavin could be fielding the ‘what if Diarmuid had been here?’ questions if they are beaten.
On the plus side, Connolly’s body double Eric Lowndes has been a star turn after serving his apprenticeship, and only four players – Brian Fenton, James McCarthy, Niall Scully and Ciaran Kilkenny – have been given more game time than the versatile Brian Howard.
Young goalkeeper Evan Comerford was a calm championship debut in Leinster but they could do with Stephen Cluxton’s injury settling. The day will come when he’s no longer around but you’re sure Jim Gavin would prefer Comerford at least had the guts of a full National League behind him.
Dublin are not as strong as they once were. Yet most still won’t be able to lay a glove on them.
A couple, most likely Kerry, will be brave enough to go at them.
But there’s a difference in brave enough and being good enough.
Probable starting XV v Donegal: Evan Comerford; Eric Lowndes, Philly McMahon, Michael Fitzsimons; James McCarthy, Jonny Cooper, Brian Howard; Brian Fenton, Michael Darragh Macauley; Niall Scully, Con O’Callaghan, Ciaran Kilkenny; Paul Mannion, Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews
2018 top scorers (Championship scores in brackets)
Dean Rock 3-47 (2-15)
Ciaran Kilkenny 4-33 (2-15)
Brian Fenton 2-17 (1-8)
Colm Basquel 0-18 (0-3)
Niall Scully 2-11 (0-2)
Most minutes played
Brian Fenton 731
James McCarthy 716
Niall Scully 700
Ciaran Kilkenny 698
Brian Howard 690
Super 8 fixtures
July 14, Croke Park, 7pm: Dublin v Donegal
July 21/22: Cork/Tyrone v Dublin
August 4/5: Dublin v Roscommon or Armagh