How Dublin made the blanket defence redundant
By John Harrington
Dublin selector Declan Darcy says the blanket-defence is no longer an effective tactical approach at the highest level against the very best teams.
The reigning All-Ireland Champions destroyed Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final, who before the match had been lauded for their blanket-defence and slick counter-attacking.
But Dublin had little problem taking them apart and Darcy believes that’s because their players are now accustomed to playing against blanket defences and have the keys required to unlock them.
“My reading on that would be that that initial set-up was to target against certain teams that weren’t used to playing against that and it was very effective,” said Darcy.
“Now teams have got well used to playing against that system and are better at it. And that had evolved. I think managers now will have to think differently as to how to break that.
“If you go to club matches right throughout the country you will see this throughout. It has been a phase of our games, which is probably a good thing in way, now whether it will continue or not I don’t know.
“But at the same time the more you play against it the better you get used to playing it and then you understand it.
“The key thing is, the more you understand that phase of play the more you understand it and I think players now have begun to see what way it works and how to break it down."
The only championship match that Dublin have lost under manager Jim Gavin was the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal.
They were outsmarted tactically by Donegal that day who frustrated them by defending in numbers and then counter-attacking at pace.
But Dublin clearly learned a lot of lessons from that experience because they haven’t lost a championship match since and have never looked discomfited again by playing a blanket-defence.
“It was a learning curve for us all,” said Darcy. “There was a tactical change, I suppose. Dublin played Donegal in 2012 and you could sense there was an evolution coming in gaelic games and we needed to adapt to that.
“Tyrone were there going at it again, other teams particularly in Leinster were setting up that way against us as well. So we quickly evolved and adapted, and we enjoyed it. We kind of said ‘this is what’s happening, it’s going to happen, we have to understand it.’
“The way we were playing against other teams they probably had to set up that way, considering the players we had. So we tried to evolve with that and I think we’ve enjoyed that journey.
“I wouldn’t say, just because we played well against it the last day, that we’ve cracked that nut. But the players know now what to expect.”
Since that 2014 defeat to Donegal, this Dublin team has been proactive rather than reactive.
They never want to be caught on the hop again, and are driven by a determination to stay ahead of everyone tactically rather than find themselves in a position again where they’re playing catch-up within a game of football.
“The environment within the group is that everybody wants to become better and that’s from the coaches right down to the players," said Darcy.
“And it’s great. I’m energised when I go in training and I see Stephen Cluxton there before I arrive kicking his frees or kickouts – the standards are high. They set high standards and they expect high standards. Everybody is driving the machine.”
What makes Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC Final against Mayo so fascinating is we know they’ll come out and take Dublin on man for man rather than adopt a blanket-defence.
Under Stephen Rochford they’ve proven themselves to be a tactically flexible team capable of pulling rabbits from the hat like reinventing Aidan O’Shea as a full-back, and Darcy wouldn’t be surprised if they throw something new at Dublin too.
“Their form might not be as predictable – they are likely maybe to do something against us,” he said.
“But we’ll prepare again, we’ll watch what they have done, but we can’t legislate for what they are going to do but we’ll prepare as best we can for what they might throw at us. They still only have 15 players on the pitch at the end of the day.
“You can look at a team and ask ‘why are they in four All-Irelands in the last six years? Is it because they are lucky? It’s not, it’s because they have a huge standard of footballers.
“Look at Lee Keegan, he’s a standout footballer in any physique, has physicality, pace, he has everything and they have several players like that.
“They have been hugely resilient to stay at that level and it’s reflection on the effort piece, the commitment to their county and you have to admire that. To get to an All-Ireland Final you still have to have ability and they have that in abundance.”