The Blue Wall
Dublin's defence has gone from leaky to water-tight in 10 months. Martin brehany examines a remarkable transformation
Published 21/04/2011 | 05:00
It's a conundrum that Dublin will happily ignore, Cork will examine in forensic detail and neutrals will analyse for clues as to the likely direction next Sunday's Allianz Football League Division 1 final will take.
Here's the puzzle: how could a Dublin team that leaked five goals against Meath in last year's Leinster semi-final tighten security to a degree where they have conceded only eight goals in their subsequent 12 championship and league games?
In terms of goals per minute, that's one in 14 against Meath, compared with one in 105 against Cork (twice), Armagh (twice), Kerry, Tyrone, Down, Galway, Mayo, Monaghan, Louth and Tipperary. Dublin kept clean sheets in six of those games and conceded just one goal in five others.
Such high security would be even more remarkable except for a serious defensive shudder in Croke Park last month, which Mayo exploited by scoring three goals in nine minutes.
Granted, they came after Dublin had hit Mayo for four goals but it was still a sharp reminder that errors are only a lapse in concentration and a dropped work rate away.
Dublin manager Pat Gilroy, who epitomised diplomacy and understanding -- publicly at least -- following the Meath cave-in last June, was blunt and unforgiving after the Mayo game.
He had pointed out after Meath's goal rush that a failure to provide cover for the full-backs left them exposed to Royal raids but did it in a patient, understanding sort of way.
It was different after the Mayo blitz. Asked how Dublin had squandered a 14-point lead to be hauled back to parity, Gilroy's explanation was emphatically direct. "Pure laziness. If you don't track back, that's what happens at this level," he said.
His players reprieved themselves by winning the game with a decisive final-quarter flourish, but the experience was sufficiently scary to make for a more defensive formation next time out.
It was accompanied by much higher all-round industry and worked well, prompting Down manager James McCartan to comment on how difficult it was to create space in Dublin's half of the field.
"Wherever we probed them, they were there in numbers," he said.
As for Gilroy, he referenced the heavy leak against Mayo and the need to ensure that it wouldn't happen again.
"We conceded 3-9 in 18 minutes against Mayo so it was important to get that side of our game right. I'd be a lot happier with the way we defended this time. Our application was much better," he said.
A week later, Galway reeled them in point by point in the second half after trailing by eight, and while the result was largely irrelevant to Dublin -- who had already qualified for the final -- Gilroy would not have been pleased with even a brief return to a trend that bedevilled them for many years.
However, Gilroy will, in an overall sense, be satisfied with the way his defence has evolved since the Meath debacle or, whisper it, the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final when the "startled earwigs" conceded 1-24 to Kerry.
Combine that improvement with the remarkably high strike rate (Dublin scored just one less goal in seven league games than Cork, Kerry, Galway and Monaghan combined) and it's clear how many positives greet Gilroy when he turns up at training.
Nonetheless, the power failure against Mayo, albeit one that was corrected, underlines how narrow the margins are. It's unlikely that if Cork or Kerry scored three goals, they would lose a game but Mayo, having worked so hard to draw alongside Dublin, undid all the good work by weakening on the home stretch.
Ultimately, the issue of whether Dublin become the country's top side will be decided by how consistently secure their defence is, but then that has been the case for a long time. There has long been a view in other counties that Dublin defenders, while being brave, committed and good on the ball, were poor markers.
It was also felt that Dublin were one of the few leading powers whose attackers didn't act as aggressive semi-defenders when the opposition has the ball. That has changed considerably since the dam burst against Meath last year.
The dividend from the new approach has been phenomenal, not least because it hasn't in any way inhibited the attacking impetus. In fact, Dublin's strike rate increased by no less than four points per game on last year's league to an average of 2-13.
If they were to maintain that, they would almost certainly win the All-Ireland title. However, it's unlikely that such a high yield will be harvested in the more claustrophobic environment of the championship, which brings the focus back on the defensive systems and -- equally importantly -- how they are executed.
Remove the Mayo game from the equation and Dublin have conceded just five goals in 11 games since losing to Meath last summer. That's one goal every 2hrs 34mins, giving them a 'Triple A' security rating.
However, the reckless giveaway before and after half-time against Mayo, during which Jason Doherty (2) and Alan Freeman got in for goals, takes some of the gloss away, even if there must be a suspicion that Dublin throttled back unwittingly after leading by 4-4 to 0-2 in the 23rd minute.
Now comes the start of the real examination for Dublin, who couldn't have been handed a bigger test in their last outing before the championship than a match-up against the reigning All-Ireland and league champions.
How they cope will provide a valuable indicator of whether their solid finish to last year's championship and their high-octane start to this year's campaign have primed them to reach a level not attained for a long time.