This is a truism, a statement of fact and something that is so applicable to the modern game of Gaelic football. The really good teams over the past decade blurred the lines of defence and attack to such an extent that people wondered if the numbers on your back meant anything at all. Armagh pressurised high up the field, Tyrone had superb attacking half-backs, Kerry had Paul Galvin doing the work of two men while Donegal withdrew players to build the platform to counter-attack at pace.
To date, the football championship has witnessed a laboured mindset to attack football. Teams have decided that possession is king and that the best way to maintain possession is to run it through the hands from defence and (caveat!) at pace if possible.
It is understandable, I guess, to persist with such a strategy, particularly when your training routine may revolve around high intensity, short-sided conditioned games — or worse again 10m x 10m grids with Kalum King, Aidan O’Shea or Michael Murphy beating the last ounce of life from your bruised body.
Innate vision is the biggest loser in this. That ability to look up and spray passes as if you were Trevor Giles is slowly suffocated.
Croke Park promised a respite from the norm.
Both Kildare and Dublin entered yesterday’s Leinster semi-final with impressive scoring potential based on league form.
Close analysis of the systems on display yesterday reveal some truths, but this can only be assessed for the time period when the match was competitive, the first half.
Dublin play with an orthodox forward unit. Three half-forwards. Three full-forwards. Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn attack at pace often from deep and often on the overlap or on the defenders’ blind side. Their pace is a massive trait as is their confidence in taking on the opposing man and drawing frees. Ciarán Kilkenny, strong and smart in possession, holds the middle and supports the full-forward line for second phase play. The entire three-quarter line can break tackles, create overlaps and will pass to the player in a better position.
The full-forward line receives direct, early ball, wins it and deploy both options available to them — i.e. they either take the opposition player on or they lay it off to the oncoming runner. All three are quick, while Bernard Brogan and Paul Mannion are opportunists par excellence. Sometimes they play two up, sometimes three. This depends on the ability of the half-forward line to maintain shape. When you include the off-the-shoulder runs by MD MacAuley and Jack McCaffrey in particular, this is a very slick well-rehearsed deliberate forward unit playing with confidence.
Kildare maintain shape in the full-forward line, though with two up and another in front of the ‘D’. Good, deliberate ball in caused Dublin all sorts of early problems but this was counteracted by a Dublin player dropping off his man to act as a sweeper. Interestingly this wasn’t a fixed person but a result of what appears good communication on the field. The Kildare three-quarter line was where most play broke down. They move the ball at pace, but not early. Over-elaboration of passes, indecision in possession, inaccurate long-range shooting, and poor decision-making their downfall.
This allowed Dublin the opportunity to organise the pseudo-sweeper, resulting in ball after ball, delivered high and hopeful (or ball that fell short from a scoring attempt) to be broken into his arms to start a counter-attacking move.
So is this a complete forward unit? Is there such a thing?
For me, Flynn spends too much time on the same wing. He becomes predictable coming from deep and looking for the overlap.
Predictability means he can be marked.
Connolly, though extremely talented and beautifully balanced off either foot, has a remarkably low work-rate in both his attacking and defensive duties.
Positionally, you could throw a blanket over his playing location for the entire match, save when he wants to get on the ball during attacks either down his own wing or through the centre.
When a full-forward line does not win first-time possession, the support runner is redundant, the play slows down, teams get numbers back and the phases of play become slow.
It’s then difficult to execute pre-rehearsed patterns. This happened a number of times in the first half yesterday.
Hugh McGrillen, in particular, was constantly getting a hand in to break up attacks.
Now consider what will happen when Dublin play a more defence-orientated team. The space isn’t there for the good first-time ball, the runners can’t time their movement, they resort to slow build-up play. McCaffrey and MacAuley making off-the-shoulder runs will meet wall after wall of players.
Connolly gets frustrated. Mannion and Andrews get replaced by O’Gara and McManamon but nothing changes.
What happens then? Will the free-flowing forward unit function when another team sets up to counter it? A team that loves to play that way?
Dublin are indeed impressive but like Donegal, Mayo, Cork and Kerry they have not really had any serious opposition yet.
Hold fire on the applause — Dublin will be asked stiffer questions in time.