Thursday 22 June 2017

Know-how, skill and class will smother blanket defence

It's a popular sentiment that a win for Dublin in today's All-Ireland final would be, quote unquote, good for the game.

In fact it's become something of a platitude, and it didn't just start this year. A win for anyone other than Kerry in football -- and Kilkenny in hurling -- is these days generally deemed to be, quote unquote, good for the game.

Perhaps what they mean is that it would be good for the sport. But in terms of the game, as in how it's played, one could easily argue that it would be better served by a win for Kerry. Because in terms of skill and style no current team, Dublin included, comes close.

One could argue that a win for Dublin would in fact be bad for the game, a triumph for dour defensiveness over Kerry's instinctive creativity. And if new champions, as many people believe, lay down the template for other teams to emulate, then the upshot of a Dublin win would be an epidemic of defensive tactics over the next few seasons. And no one wants to see that.

But the copycat theory is questionable: most managers know enough to know that another team's style won't necessarily suit their particular players. The solution for many is to borrow not the entire template but the parts they feel can be applied. And irrespective of the result today, more managers next year will be obsessing over defensive strategies. They will have seen how it worked for Dublin and Donegal this year; they will be emboldened to stack their defences with extra bodies too.

It's not something that requires radical improvements in ball skills, which of course is why they generally steer clear of the Kerry formula. Because no amount of dedicated practice on the training ground will bridge the skills gap here.

It's the same gap that Dublin are faced with today. They can't and won't take Kerry on in a shoot-out, a talent contest between the opposing forward lines. Their job is to claw back the deficit by other means, both tangible and intangible.

The tangibles are obvious: a loaded defence to cramp the space in which Kerry's forwards will operate; physical power to win ball and break tackles; stamina to maintain relentless running; pace to close down opponents and create overlaps themselves. With this tactical set-up and athletic capacity they can, in theory at least, close the skills gap to a minimum.

The intangible is that old chestnut, hunger. A desire for the prize so strong that it does away with fear; a collective need that becomes so manic, the players find themselves in some sort of altered state. There's no stopping a team that can surf a wave like that. But those waves are hard to find. Dublin should, however, be able to summon up the trademark energy and attitude typical of a naïve challenger coming face to face with ageing champions.

And still it probably won't be enough. We expect Kerry to ship periods of heavy punishment and remain standing. They are, among many things, a battle-hardened outfit. They can absorb serious blows and come back with more of their own. It is know-how, experience and class.

There is slippage. They are not the team they were through most of the last decade. That much is obvious. Their defence is a make-do-and-mend structure that will wobble more than once this afternoon. Their alpha midfielder, Darragh ó Sé, is gone and was never going to be replaced.

A terrifying sight for Kerry supporters will be high ball raining down on isolated full-backs, struggling in acres of space to cope with the bulk and height of a Connolly or Brogan. Dublin are in goal territory here, if they can manage to engineer exactly that scenario. Mayo managed it more than a few times in the semi-final and one assumes that Kerry have been planning some sort of strategy to avoid a repeat today.

They don't need to come up with a long-term solution. They just need to get it right for one game. We think they'll improvise, we think they'll find a way to minimise potential damage in their full-back line.

The Kerry midfield is also an improvised combination, but it has more pure football ability than the strong but ponderous Dublin pair. Sheehan and Maher are more rounded players and could well have an edge in terms of influence on the game's outcome.

But the cockpit, for once, may not be in the middle but the final third of the field: Kerry's forwards in the maw of that Dublin rearguard. Dublin will be aiming to turn it into a grindhouse. They will have the numbers, the pace and the ambition to try and strangle that brilliant attack.

But we think Kerry will find a way to extract the scores they need. They have too many weapons. Dublin have the Brogans, and possibly Connolly. Stop two of those three and their scoring is reduced to a trickle. The perennial champions have multiple scoring threats. Some of them will be stopped but not all, and not for 70 minutes. It could be a few frees that get them over the line in the end. It won't be bad for the game; it won't even be bad for the sport; it just will be.

So without further ado: gentlemen, please step up to the plate.

thecouch@independent.ie

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