The Jim Gavin era as Dublin football manager has heralded a degree of hype and invincibility around the Dublin football team which may or may not be merited. The reality is that the free-flowing-over-the shoulder attacking style of Dublin has struggled at times against the so called blanket defence systems adopted by the Ulster teams and in particular Donegal who masterminded this style of play with their former manager Jim McGuiness at the helm. This was epitomised in Donegal’s famous victory over Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against the Dubs.
As RTE pundit and former All-Ireland winner with Derry, Joe Brolly commented in the lead up to that game “The point generally forgotten is that Jimmy invented the system as the antidote to man v man football. Which is precisely what Dublin play. I wrote in my Sunday morning preview before that game that Donegal had the tactical nous to deliver the knockout blow and that the Dubs would be waking up on the Monday morning wondering what the hell happened.”
Tactics to stifle the Dubs
1. Put pressure on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs: The Cluxton kick-out has been at the core of Dublin’s attacking strategy for the last number of seasons and he has been able to pick out his team mates with unerring accuracy. If you want to stop Dublin you need to force Cluxton into kicking long & straight down the middle. The opposition must go man-for-man on the Dublin kick-out with particular emphasis on the opposition’s forwards checking the runs of the Dublin half-back line towards both touchlines. The opposition’s half-backline also needs to press high up the field so as to eliminate the space between the Dublin midfield and the Dublin half-back line. Its into this zone that Cluxton tends to angle most of his kick-outs. If you pressurise Cluxton’s kick-outs you go some way to disrupting the Dublin game plan.
2. Employ Defensive zones: Basically, create a defensive structure that denies goals, congests the scoring zone and forces the opponents to kick from distance, under pressure. This is exactly the system that Donegal adopted against the Dubs in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. As the above clip illustrates you create a defensive arch around the 45 metre line to stop the opposition from penetrating it, and then you force the opposition to shoot from distance. Eventually as the game progresses this tends to wear the opposition down as what happened Dublin in this game.
3. Counter-attack into the space left behind when the opposing half backs and midfielders get sucked in: Once the defensive arch is established and as soon as the oppostion’s attack is stymied and possession regained then, you counter-attack at pace committing your half-backs as well as the midfield to attack and kick into the space vacated by the opposition’s half-back line. Here is the zone that your most potent attackers should be located in as in this case Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden are for Donegal. Central to this counter-attacking strategy is the role of the sweeper. The sweeper surges up the field to come in at the end of the attacking move in an advanced scoring position. The above clip perfectly illustrates the role that Ryan McHugh played as sweeper against Dublin bagging two goals in the process.
4. Isolate the Dublin full-back line against the opposition’s attackers: If there’s one line in the Dublin team that’s potentially vulnerable, its the Dublin full-back line. This can be accomplished in one of two ways.
Firstly, bombarding the Dublin full-back line with high ball can put them under severe pressure particularly if you have ball winners like Michael Murphy for Donegal or Kieran Donaghy for Kerry. The Dublin full-back line struggles against Donaghy due to his sheer strength and superior aerial ability compared to most full-forwards and bulky full-forwards prove troublesome for this line of the Dublin defence.
Secondly, the Dublin full-back line can be exposed by drawing the Dublin full-back out to the left or right wing by the opposition’s full-forward and leaving a defensive gap in front of the Dublin goalkeeper for opposition attackers to run into. The above you-tube clip shows Monaghan’s full-forwards Conor McManus drawing out the Dublin full-back and kicking a sweet point of the left foot in the recent 2015 Division 1 Allianz-League semi-final.
Summary: If any team is seeking to derail the Dublin football team’s championship ambitions this summer, then, they will have to successfully implement all four strategies outlined above to have any chance against the Dublin roller-coaster. If Donegal can, then, anyone can. Let the battles commence.