The 5/1 outsiders for Sam Maguire must challenge the five-in-a-row-chasing champions with imagination and intensity, says Éamonn Fitzmaurice.
WE are finally there. All-Ireland final weekend with the work done and the battle about to begin.
There are a thousand little decisions made by the players that will decide tomorrow’s All-Ireland football final.
Match-ups, replacements’ impacts, the rub of the green, the weather, the unexpected hero stepping up. Discipline will be central also.
As both teams have potent forwards, I feel once more the critical areas are the securing of primary possession to supply those attacking units - whichever team converts that supply into goals will win.
It might sound simple but believe it or not, sometimes it is.
In 2016, when we tried something new with our kick-out press, it was to attack Stephen Cluxton and the Dublin kick-out.
We figured the surprise factor would be huge and cause confusion, which it did. Dublin are now much more comfortable dealing with that challenge but this time around, the surprise could be on the Kerry kick-out.
Dublin are excellent at pressing the opposition kick-outs.
Their forwards go zonal and they line four big men across the middle, usually pairing James McCarthy and Brian Fenton at one side of the pitch and Brian Howard and Michael Dara McCauley assisting each other on the other.
With their forwards on their toes and moving around their zones while waving their hands frantically, they try to force the opposition long and out to their big men.
At times, Fenton, in particular, will field these kick-outs but more often they break the ball back in and hoover up the breaks. Employing this, Dublin can really pin an opposition in and put up a big score in a few short minutes to kill the game. Ask Mayo.
To have any chance, Kerry will need to be able to beat this Dublin press and get the ball up the pitch to their danger men.
How can they do this? There are a number of pretty straightforward methods that will be used during the contest and I am going to suggest one radical way to go at it.
It can come down to Kerry being flexible enough to deal with what they’re being presenting with, where decision-making by Shane Ryan, in particular, and also the out-field players will be central to the success of the strategy.
The easiest way for Kerry to get the ball up the field is to try and get quick kick-outs away before Dublin have time to set their press.
They did this well in the Munster final and got plenty of shots off at the far end directly from short restarts.
Shane Ryan can also look for good movement from his backs and pick little pockets of space between the zones. These kicks can be difficult and one mistake can prove costly, as against Donegal.
The backs will fatigue as the match goes on and it gets harder and harder to get these kicks away. Dublin know this and they are excellent at really squeezing teams in the final 10 minutes, especially from the 65th minute on.
As already stated, Dublin love to break the ball back in on the opposition kick-out.
Mayo coped well with this threat in the first-half of the semi-final by bringing their half-forwards around to their own side of midfield and overloading that area with bodies to pick up the breaks.
Dublin did as Dublin do and found a solution at half-time and they balanced the numbers here in the second half and took over the Mayo kick-out for the critical spell after the break.
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Kerry can also get joy from involving their half-forward line in a similar fashion. The only disadvantage of this is the link to move the ball up the field at pace is gone and a slow build-up can result, allowing Dublin get back in shape.
Finally, Kerry could also elect to overload one side of the pitch with their big men and go long there, ensuring that if they don’t win it in the air, they have sufficient bodies in the right slots to win the breaking ball battle.
It sounds rudimentary but it can be extremely effective. Galway were excellent at this in 2018.
Dublin will have planned for all of these eventualities and Kerry will have to bring something different tomorrow. In the 2014 semi-final, they came unstuck because Donegal kicked long over the press, got flick-ons and converted to goals.
With their big four stationed across the middle, this is more difficult to pull off but is still a solid option. The weakness of any aggressive kick-out press is when the press fails you are quite open at the back. It is a risk-reward situation.
I always felt the reward far outweighed the risk but if Kerry can win long kick-outs and move the ball quickly, there will be goal chances there.
A radical suggestion would be to tweak our 2016 press and flip it to use on the Kerry kick-out rather than the Dublin one. Kerry could station two banks of four across the middle of the pitch, leaving two inside forwards.
This would obviously leave them short at the back so the four defenders could play a bit more central with two in the full-back line and two in the half-back line.
Kerry would be lining up 2-2-4-4-2 for their own kick-out. Dublin would still leave their six up to press, so Kerry straight away have a numerical advantage in the middle sector of the pitch.
Ryan has to go long with the kick-out and Kerry have eight bodies against Dublin’s six or possibly even five if a sweeper holds his position.
This gives Kerry a great chance of winning a long kick-out and a chance to attack Dublin in numbers and go for the jugular with goals.
The reward is huge, but so is the risk.
Lose the kick-out and it is four-v-six at your side of the pitch, and Dublin’s aren’t just any six forwards either. While we are unlikely to see this tomorrow, I do feel it is an approach that could trouble Dublin.
To win, Kerry must get goals. How can they do this against a miserly Dublin defence? We have covered the obvious kick-out win to attack already. I think Kerry can also get goals by running the ball hard through the middle of the Dublin defence.
Macauley has had an excellent season so far but he has been caught a few times going towards his own goal.
He isn’t as quick as he was. Killian O’Hanlon escaped him on a few occasions early in the Cork game and Tyrone definitely targeted him as well.
Kerry have plenty of legs in the middle-third and by playing neat one-twos and driving forward together in twos and threes, they can create overlaps and goal chances.
There is a perceived weakness in the Dublin full-back line, particularly when dealing with an aerial bombardment to a target man.
I disagree. While they can look dodgy at times, I can’t remember them conceding too many goals in this manner over the last few years. In fact, they thrive on those physical, aerial battles. I do think Tommy Walsh winning ball and off-loading to on-coming runners can be seriously dangerous, but I feel more measured ball — and not ball kicked in with snow on it — will be more effective.
Finally, a further avenue towards goal will present itself if a Kerry forward can get a big turnover close to goal. A statement score like that is way more valuable than just the three points.
In the 2006 quarter-final against Armagh, Paul Galvin turned over Kieran McGeaeney at a critical time in the match with the teams level early in the second half and the ball ended up with Kieran Donaghy for a crucial goal. That kind of score drives a team and shows the opposition unbeatable intent.
If the rain comes tomorrow, it could be a slip or a spilled ball that leads to a goal.
Regardless of how it happens, Kerry probably need three.
Outside of the tactical battles, an All-Ireland final will come down to the individual battles. Mano-a-mano. The team that wins most of those battles wins the game.
Kerry will need to bring a madness to bear in Croke Park, a controlled madness but madness nonetheless. The hunger created by the hurt of the last few years can drive that madness.
Against an outstanding and physical Dublin team, they will have to go right to the limit, and occasionally over it, to win those battles.
Win enough of them and Sam will return to the Kingdom for the winter.
Quirke's All-Ireland Final Preview: Kerry's matchups. The Fenton factor. Walsh wildcard. Gough controversy