Dublin hope to exorcise the demons of 2014
By John Harrington
Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC Quarter-Final against Tyrone is a real litmus test for the tactical nous of Dublin manager Jim Gavin and his players.
This Tyrone team is the best manifestation of a blanket defence combined with a slick counter-attack that they have faced since coming up against Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final.
That game, of course, was the last time that this Dublin side was beaten in the Championship and it represented a real fork in the road for Gavin and his players.
The Dublin manager seemed to resolve that his team would never be picked off so brutally on the counter-attack again because ever since Cian O’Sullivan has been positioned as a hugely effective deep-lying sweeper in front of his full-back line.
Dublin have won back to back All-Irelands with that refined system, but it’s also true to say that in that time they haven’t had to face a side as well set-up to both defend and counter-attack in numbers as Donegal were in 2014.
Sure, they exacted some measure of revenge against Donegal by beating them in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, but this was a Donegal team without Jim McGuinness in charge and with its best years behind it.
Tyrone on the other hand are a team very much on the up and bear more than a passing resemblance to that Donegal side of 2014 in how they play the game, something that Dublin manager Jim Gavin is happy to agree with.
“Yeah, I think that’s fair to say,” said Gavin at Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final press conference.
“You just need to look at their scoring in the Ulster championship to see how good they are at that counter-attacking style.
“Looking at it the last day against Armagh and how easily they dispatched them playing a very defensive system and a really impressive attacking game.
“They seem to have got the balance right so it’s going to be a tough game for us.
“I think if you look at any of the games that Tyrone have played in, the Ulster championship for example, even the National League, they have a very, very impressive defensive system.
“It is very, very difficult to break down. They're very skilful at it, very skilful defenders.
“They're a very, very impressive attacking team as well, to see the scores they're putting up in each of their Championship games, it has been...and against traditionally very good defensive teams, like Donegal, they broke them down at their ease.
“They've got the mix right, it's going to be a very tight and close game.”
You tend to learn more in defeat than you do in victory. As that 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal is the only championship match that Gavin has lost as Dublin manager it’s fair to assume he learned more on that day in the job than any other.
They certainly tempered their previously gung-ho approach in the aftermath of that defeat, but Gavin wouldn’t go quite so far as to admit that loss to Donegal was the major watershed moment of his Dublin management career.
Dublin defender Philly McMahon is more willing to make that connection though, admitting Dublin are now more careful with how they use the ball than they were in 2014 against Donegal.
“Well, certainly in 2014, tactically it didn’t work for us, getting beaten by Donegal," admitted McMahon.
“It is about being patient on the ball and you keep the ball and you don’t give it away too easily. Because if you give it away too easily, they break with numbers.
“You want to have structure because if you don’t you are going to leak scores. Offensively, it is very important we mind the ball and that we are patient and that we take the right options, in terms of shot selection.
“I think we have had to hold onto the ball a bit better, especially defensively, coming out with the ball.”
Dublin started that 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal well, but the longer the game wore on the more they played it on Donegal’s terms rather than their own.
They poured bodies forward in a desperate attempt to break down Donegal’s massed defence, but that left them horribly exposed to the Ulster team’s lightning counter-attacks.
Don’t expect Dublin to make the same mistake on Sunday. That may require long periods of keep-ball that will frustrate the crowd, but this time around Dublin are determined to play the game on their own terms rather than Tyrone’s.
“Most of the focus over the last two weeks has been on how we want to play our game,” admitted Gavin.
“That's the focus that we've always taken. Each team that we've played, we give them the ultimate respect and prepare as best as we can for the challenge that they bring.
“But we've always tried to play our game plan, and execute that to the best of our ability, and obviously that changes from game to game. Over the last number of weeks, that has been our key focus and it will continue to be leading into the game.”
What Dublin also have in their favour going into this game compared to 2014 is that their players are now a more experienced, savvier bunch.
And, according to Philly McMahon, they’re far less likely to panic in the face of adversity like they did against Donegal in 2014 because they’re now capable of adapting to any situation.
"I think after that game the players took a bit of ownership that the players have to be able to adapt on the pitch. We have to take ownership and make sure we make the decisions and if we see something changing, to do that.
“The management team have helped us adapt in training and different scenarios and prep us for different opposition so again like last year we haven't seen anything different just yet but we're making sure that we're able to adapt.
“2014 was a prime example of that because we didn't adapt on the pitch. Donegal broke, we left gaps at the back and conceded three goals. That was the end of our season.
“We don't know what other teams are going to throw at us, they might throw something completely different in what we're doing in terms of what we're prepping for them.
“As players, we have to be able to adapt.”
If they do so successfully on Sunday and move to within one step of third All-Ireland title in a row, then the ghosts of 2014 will be banished for good.