ANY team that has gone toe-to-toe with Dublin in the past 13 months has actually been very close. In fact, it’s happened five times.
Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final last year, Mayo in both finals last year, Kerry in the league in Tralee last February and again in winning the League final in April.
This is easy to forget in the hype that now surrounds Dublin. Mayo have never been afraid to do this against Dublin. They are a serious team and have the players to put it up to Dublin in a 15-on-15 battle.
They are better now than at any other stage in the last six years of their evolution and the make-up of their team poses a challenge that Dublin have not faced since the All Ireland finals this time last year.
Mayo will also ask some new questions of this Dublin team. If Dublin can come up with the answers yet again, they really will have legitimate claims on being the best team of all time.
Aidan O’Shea at 11: Shut him down or let him wander into midfield?
There is a school of thought in Mayo that Aidan O’Shea has cost them in the All-Ireland finals he has played. Sometimes it has appeared he simply wasn’t fit enough to match the opposition legs in midfield.
On other occasions - such as the drawn final last year - it has been alleged that his misplaced efforts at heroics hurt the collective. This year, the Mayo management and the player himself appear to have got the balance right. Apart from both Kerry games, he has been stationed at midfield for the throw-in but then at centre forward for the majority of the game itself. From this position, he has roamed out to midfield and then back into centre-forward as he wishes, without ever appearing to run out of gas. He is also making better use of possession and isn’t trying to do it all himself. This creates a dilemma for Dublin. They are at their best defensively when Cian O’Sullivan plays a holding role at centre-back, tagging his man when he comes into the danger zone but also dropping off his man to cover his full back line when danger presents itself. O’Sullivan’s brilliance lies mainly in his positional sense and his decision-making. He knows when he needs to latch onto his man but also recognises when his man is gone too far from goal and is no longer a threat, allowing him to drop off. O’Sullivan’s team-mates are also plugged into his role and they look to free him up where they can by picking up his man.
The problem with Aidan O’Shea is that he can be at his destructive best when wandering out from centre forward to midfield and it’s not just any player who can handle him out there. If O’Shea gets free around the middle, he becomes a huge outlet and is brilliant in possession, drawing fouls and sucking in opposition players before releasing team-mates into space. Cian O’Sullivan has the ability to shut O’Shea down by following him out to the middle of the field but to do that he has to leave the centre back position vacant.
That would leave Dublin wide open down the middle of their defence. O’Sullivan could try to do both, as he usually does, by marking tightly on O’Shea when he feels he is a threat but then retreating to cover his defence when he feels O’Shea is out of the play.
This would require O’Sullivan to make some really good decisions as to when to leave O’Shea go, when to pass him on to a team-mate and when to drop off to protect his full back line. Doing this with a player like Aidan O’Shea, in the form he is in, is a high wire act and complicates things when it might be much simpler for Dublin to just detail a man on O’Shea for the full 70 minutes.
The smart bet for Dublin might be to get John Small or James McCarthy to do this tagging job on O’Shea, driving forward where they can themselves and keeping O’Shea on the back foot. This would allow Cian O’Sullivan to move to wing back so that he might try to drop off the less dangerous, deeper-lying Diarmuid O’Connor as need be.
The drawback is that this takes O’Sullivan out of his preferred centre-back position and would allow Diarmuid O’Connor a real opportunity to influence the game from deep as he becomes freer.
The deep-lying Andy Moran: Cut off his space or leave him man-on-man?
There has been so much talk of width being the answer to unlocking defences that people forget just how much of an effect depth can also have. Andy Moran recognises this more than any other player. He starts his runs so close to the opposition goal that there is an inevitable expanse of space in front of him.
He rarely makes a straight line run out to the ball and this also helps him stay close to goal. He runs diagonally across the space and even doubles back into it if he has gone too far, pointing to the space where he wants it before he has even turned to face the play again. Intelligent runs that are extremely difficult to mark - no great pace but honed with years of experience. Cillian O’Connor tends to play a little bit outside Moran and they now have an almost telepathic understanding with their kickers out the field.
This is why so many teams play a sweeper against Mayo. It is why Cian O’Sullivan’s ability to hold down the D will be required in this game more than ever. Dublin won’t want this gulf of space in front of Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor.
If Dublin don’t get a man back in there, then they are essentially backing their full back line in one-on-one combat against the movement of Moran and Cillian O’Connor. Shane Enright is a top class defender but Moran’s movement scorched him in the drawn semi-final when that space was opened up in front of the Kerry full back line.
It was the more or less the same in the replay even when Kerry tried to put a sweeper on the edge of their D. Dublin’s back three of Cooper, Fitzsimons and McMahon are quality defenders but are they that far ahead of the pack such that they can afford to go man on man against what is now a really clever Mayo inside line that can create such space?
David Clarke’s kick-outs: Push up or concede?
This isn’t something Dublin will really consider a choice. They always push up on the opposition kick-outs. However, with Mayo, it’s not that easy because often there just isn’t enough time. Much like Cluxton, Clarke is the ultimate pro. While the flight of his kick and his range are nowhere near as precise as Cluxton’s, he is top class at all the basics of kick-out strategy.
He gets the ball back on the tee within five seconds from a point scored or a wide from open play. He appears almost metronomic in how well-drilled he is with his routine.
For example, Clarke always makes sure he has a ball and a tee ready to go at each goalpost. If you watch him as the ball sails wide or over his bar, he is already in the process of retrieving a new ball from the post he is guarding. Then, he is scanning the horizon as he comes out to place the ball back on the tee for a quick restart.
At the same time, his defenders are already in synch, rushing short and to the sides giving him every chance of getting a kick-out away quickly.
The challenge for the Dublin attackers is that, on those occasions, they will have only five seconds to mark up on those Mayo defenders or else set up zonally to defend the Mayo kick-out. This isn’t so easy for attacking players who will have been inevitably scattered in the course of an attack that has just finished. Of course, the Dublin forwards are better than most at clicking into gear and will pressurise Clarke on all of his kickouts early in the game.
But as Kerry found out in the semi final, it will be difficult to sustain this quick press for the full game. Come the second half, as players tire, Clarke will be getting the ball down just as fast but the Dublin forwards might not be able to mark up as quickly.
As this happens, the only occasions Dublin will be able to prevent Clarke’s rapid fire kick-out will be when they are afforded the time to do so - from scorable frees for Dublin or when there are subs being made on the Mayo kick-out.
In an effort to manipulate the situation, Dublin may even try to make the majority of their substitutions on the Mayo kick-outs, or some other ‘rinky dink’. But Clarke has another much under-rated quality: Common sense under pressure. He recognises when a team has squeezed him.
He doesn’t even bother to rush for the ball off an opposition free-kick close to goal as he recognizes that the press is coming.
In fact, it appears as if he almost waits for them to squeeze up and then he turns this squeeze into an opportunity by going long to Aidan O’Shea, and into an opposition defence that is now one-on-one with their men.
You will recognise when Clarke is playing this card because you see him slow down his routine and then put two arms in the air before sending a long ball down to O’Shea who comes deep from centre forward to field it.
Both John Small and Cian O’Sullivan will find it difficult to field against O’Shea on those long ones. And if they don’t, Mayo will have punished Dublin for pushing up. It was such a tactic by Donegal that unhinged Dublin in the famous 2014 semi-final, the last time Dublin lost in championship.
When Dublin pressed so high, Paul Durkin went as long as he could to midfielder Neill Gallagher who tapped down into open country for Mark McHugh to run onto.
Two further considerations, which are relevant. Mayo’s conditioning is as high as Dublin’s. It has been evolving and improving since 2011. Dublin will not be able to rely on pushing over a punch-drunk Mayo team in the final 10 minutes. Secondly, if ‘want and desire’ are to have any effect on this match, it’s difficult to see how Dublin will be able to match an almost guttural need these Mayo players now have.
For them, the novelty of finals has worn off. In a 15-on-15 game, Mayo will still need to win nine or ten individual battles but they are capable of doing it against champions who may be vulnerable to that human condition of over-praise.
Mayo are coming to play but they are also coming to win.
*Conor McCarthy was part of the Cork backroom team beaten by Mayo after extra-time in the fourth round of the Qualifiers.
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