The most combustible GAA rivalry of this decade gets one more run out this evening at Croke Park and it promises once again to be explosive.
An untested but colossal Dublin coming up against a battle-hardened but unpredictable Mayo. The Connacht men do tend to play to the level of the opposition they are facing and they know they have the tools to trouble Dublin so I am expecting their biggest performance so far this summer.
Mayo have consistently disrupted the Dubs with their athleticism and physicality and they are the only team that can match Dublin in these regards. I would contend that we put them to the pin of their collar in 2013 and 2016 also but our performances were based around our football ability rather than matching them physically.
With that said, under Jim Gavin Dublin have always had the answers and I suspect they will again this evening. Mayo will ask some serious questions though and can win, but will need a perfect performance.
Can this happen? Of course it can. But what must that perfect performance entail? Some of the key elements for Mayo are outlined here.
Primary possession is Dublin’s lifeblood as I have discussed on these pages in the past. They win nearly all of their own kickouts and do well on the opposition’s, often winning up to 50% of them. In that scenario, you have zero chance of beating them.
They are too good, too accurate and so adept at making the right decisions in possession that they will not squander that amount of attacking opportunities. Stephen Cluxton’s kickout has to be disrupted and Mayo have to win 75%-plus of their own kickout. Whoever is in goals for Mayo will have to improve on their recent performances.
They have unsettled Cluxton in the past. They have forced him out and contested well around the middle. Jason Doherty is a huge loss as he is such an important player, but especially today as he is excellent on breaks.
The Mayo forwards are adept at getting themselves ready for a rapid Cluxton restart as the ball is going dead. Rather than making for their own positions with their backs to the ball they fill the nearest forward slot while still facing the ball. This takes away the quick short one.
If Mayo can win enough primary possession they can put Dublin going backwards. Dublin are excellent front foot defenders and love driving up the field but don’t like going the other way as much. Philly McMahon and Mick Fitzsimons haven’t been going as well this year, Jonny Cooper has missed time and Cian O’Sullivan isn’t as quick as he once was. If they have an achilles heel it’s at the back.
Should Mayo get them on the back foot they have to convert most of their scoring chances. This has been a huge issue for them this summer and will need to improve big time. Andy Moran has given them direction and shape when introduced in the last two games and has to start.
I think he has a full game in his legs particularly when playing inside and he always plays well against Dublin. In 2017 his telepathic relationship with Cillian O’Connor was central to their success as they created space and scores for each other. That has been absent so far this year, most likely due to O’Connor’s lengthy absence but it showed signs of being rekindled last weekend. Provided they get that going again they can trouble Dublin’s inside backs. O’Connor will also have to nail all of his frees.
Finally, when attacking they need to attack with width. In the 2016 and 2017 finals, they tried to run through the centre of the Dublin defence with some success but not enough. If they could vary their approach they will make it hard for Dublin to clog that central channel and will get more joy in the long run across the course of the match.
In possession, Mayo must make the ball go dead. Dublin place massive value on turnovers and they are unbelievable at counter-attacking and scoring. Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy and Brian Fenton excel at transitioning them up the field at pace. For the national league final in 2017, we adopted an approach that we were going to put very little ball up for grabs.
We ran the ball more than normally, and every pass either by foot or hand was measured. We didn’t look to force any ambitious balls inside even if they looked like creating a goal. Dublin backs play from the front and if a kick is anyway off in terms of accuracy or pace they pounce on it and tear up the field.
The forward who two seconds earlier was looking to get on a ball and score, or create a score, is suddenly having to chase 80 yards back the field. In the final, it worked for us as we reduced the amount of ball we turned over and made Dublin work more on defence. As a result, their backs didn’t have the same energy to be driving up the field. Significantly it also robbed them of that rapid counter-attack.
To frank the point of the importance of possession, I feel Mayo’s match-ups at the back are not as straightforward as they would like. Last weekend they got their match-ups against Donegal on the money with Lee Keegan limiting Michael Murphy’s influence in the first half and Paddy Durcan blotting Ryan McHugh out of the game completely.
The problem with approaching Dublin is that they have so many options. Blot your direct opponent out of the game and your reward is a fresh sub coming on, with a point to prove as you tire.
A crucial match-up this weekend that could dictate many of the other ones could see Durcan deployed at wing forward once more to mark Jack McCaffrey who has been immense as an attacking weapon this season. Durcan will look to put McCaffrey going the other way just as he did with McHugh, scoring three points.
Colm Boyle will pick Niall Scully and Stephen Coen will go after Brian Howard. Brendan Harrison could pick Dean Rock. If Lee Keegan takes Ciaran Kilkenny as he did successfully in 2017 it leaves Keith Higgins and Chris Barrett for Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan, match-ups which I feel aren’t ideal from a Mayo perspective.
Both of the Dublin players are playing out of their skin and O’Callaghan, in particular, looks like he is going to another level. The solution could be to play Durcan in the half back line but there is an element of robbing Peter to pay Paul with that decision. To win the match they will need to win most of these duels, often in one on one situations. A big ask.
A further component of the perfect performance will be discipline all over the field for Mayo. Discipline with their gameplan, with the referee and with the opposition. One of the central strands of their identity is their workrate and they play on the edge.
They will bring this again today but will need to temper it with restraint as they can’t afford to allow Dean Rock to become the star of the show and kick frees for fun. They will also have to stay out of foul trouble. Lee Keegan’s black card in 2016 and Donie Vaughan’s red card in 2017 were hugely costly. These kind of mental errors need to be avoided at all costs.
Can Mayo surprise Dublin with a personnel or tactical change? They could try Aidan O’Shea at full-forward for a spell but Dublin will have prepared for this and will also have Rory O’Carroll on standby - for this exact detail - should O’Shea start causing problems.
If James Horan is going to spring a surprise, if I was him I would keep it until the second half. The reason I say this is Gavin and Dublin are outstanding (the best I have seen) at adapting at half-time and making the right alterations to influence the second half.
In 2013, Colm Cooper ran the show from centre-forward for us in the first half with one of his most celebrated performances. Ger Brennan couldn’t contain him and Colm went to town. At half-time, Gavin relocated Cian O’Sullivan from midfield to centre-back to quell Colm’s influence and it worked.
In 2016 we surprised them with a new press on the Cluxton kickout and we got two goals and a point off it, to put us in a strong position at half-time. If anything half-time came too soon for us.
Again they adapted during the interval, readjusted and came out and won the second half and the match. If Horan holds an ace up his sleeve until the second half it robs them of their half-time summit and that chance to make telling changes.
There is so much to admire about this Dublin team but the thing I respect most about them is their ability to dig it out when the going gets tough. They coast through so many matches by professionally following their process and more often than not win by a cricket score.
To me, on occasions, they almost look bored in these games. Where we see them come alive is when a team puts it up to them, tests them, rattles them. They relish these challenges and have huge personalities all over the field who excel when the need is greatest.
It’s poking-the-bear syndrome. Mayo will poke, pinch and hit the bear this evening so the subsequent reaction and performance will tell us all exactly where Dublin are at.