All-Ireland football final weekend is finally here. This one took its time coming in.
Maybe it was more frantic around the capital last year when there was just a two-week lead-in after the Mayo replay. Or with Dublin back for a fourth final in six years, has the novelty worn off? Mayo, too, are in a third final in five years and while the management faces have changed the core of the players remain in place.
In the moments after their victory over Tipperary, I wondered was this the perfect way for Mayo to come into a final? In the past, they have won classic semi-finals only to underperform on the big day. Could the backdoor route and some patchy displays allow them to prepare free of the expectation they may have carried in the past?
But after meeting a handful of Mayo people on the walk down Clonliffe Road after the game, I quickly realised they would carry the same burden as they have done on all their recent big days: a county’s hopes to finally get over the line.
In contrast, the Dublin players and management have to cope with a different prevailing attitude: an air of complacency around the city.
It absolutely isn’t coming from anyone associated with the players or management but it’s certainly a feeling I am picking up from people within the clubs and supporters who cannot see any other result than a Dublin victory.
The performances and results this Dublin team have achieved in recent years have been built on focusing on their game and trusting their process. I believe their mindset and ability to stick to their process will face its biggest challenge tomorrow.
As much as those involved in the setup will do all in their power to ignore the prevailing mood, it can be extremely difficult to not allow some element of it seep in.
The players from both sides will feel a release and an energy when they meet up with their teammates for the game. The talking is done and plans are in place, now they have the opportunity to perform.
Every player will have clear roles and targets and one of the most interesting areas to look at for me will be how effective Andy Moran can be against the Dublin defensive setup.
Moran has played a key role in Mayo’s run to the final and his ability to show hard into space to win primary possession has been critical in Mayo’s attacking game plan.
Against Tipperary and in particular Tyrone, he was dealing with at least one additional defender in the space in front of him.
Brian Fox played that role for Tipp, while Tyrone would often get multiple bodies back, though it was predominantly Colm Cavanagh’s role to protect his full-back line.
On both occasions, the intelligence of Moran’s movement allowed him to win primary possession and create chances. His point-taking against Tipp showed how dangerous he can be if he gets that yard of space.
Dublin will have studied Moran’s influence in detail and will look for Cian O’Sullivan to be the deterrent for those balls into the channels that Moran is so good at winning.
O’Sullivan’s reading of the game and the speed at which he can cover ground to cut off these passes make him better equipped than either Cavanagh or Fox to force Moran into making different runs. The presence of O’Sullivan also allows Moran’s direct marker — likely Jonny Cooper or Davy Byrne — to really attack the first ball in.
Another battle that will go a long way to deciding the outcome will be as much physical as tactical. Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly are arguably the best players in their positions in the country and will renew their rivalry tomorrow.
Keegan has marked Connolly in the past, most notably in the two semi-finals last year. This year, the Mayo management have extended his man-marking brief, so Keegan has tended to take up the opposition’s best forward. He tracked and frustrated Sean Cavanagh throughout against Tyrone and went wherever Michael Quinlivan did in the semi-final.
Keegan has matched up well against Diarmuid in those recent games but I think he faces a tougher challenge this time round.
Diarmuid’s game has evolved and the timing of his runs to join the attack at pace and his ability to make the right call with ball in hand have gone up another level this year.
There is a tactical element too. How long will the Dublin man spend in the full-forward line and close to the Mayo goal. Keegan is an excellent defender but is far more comfortable out the pitch where he can also look to join the attack and send Connolly chasing back the other direction.
Look for Dublin to restrict Keegan by keeping Connolly closer to goal for long periods and attempt to create an isolated match-up in the area in front of David Clarke’s goal.
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