Friday 9 December 2016

Comment: Handpass happy Kilkenny is completely unrecognisable from the forward who won an All Star - but is he better or worse?

Published 03/10/2016 | 17:22

Dublin are All-Ireland champions once again, winning back-to-back titles for the first time in 39 years, which makes it four titles in six seasons - but it would be a mistake to assume that the 2016 triumph was a formality or that it was even similar to the other victorious seasons.

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Yes, the end result to this campaign was identical to those in 2011, 2013 and 2015, but the manner with which Dublin went about their business was markedly different in certain areas.

Some reasons for this was down to personnel. The current Footballer of the Year Jack McCaffrey watched Saturday's replay win over Mayo in the Hogan Stand while two-time All Star fullback Rory O'Carroll similarly ruled himself out of Dublin's title defence.

However, surprising though it is, the absence of the defensive duo wasn't what almost derailed Dublin. Their replacements - John Small, David Byrne and Michael Fitzsimons - were among the team's most consistent performers and Jim Gavin will have a tough task selecting his defence if and when he has a full deck to play from.

Rather, a noticeable feature of Dublin's championship run this year was their reduced scoring capacity.

In 2015, they notched 7-62 in their four All-Ireland series games.

In 2016, they managed 4-61 - a ten point difference, which might not seem like a large number but when games are being decided by the slightest of margins, every point is crucial.

A huge reason for the drop-off was the poor form of some of Dublin's marquee attackers. Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn, after scoring 6-21 and 2-6 in 2015, only struck 1-10 and 0-3 respectively.

While Brogan's decline this year was noteworthy, the most interesting set of performances came from wing forward Ciaran Kilkenny.

After missing the unsuccessful 2014 championship through injury, Kilkenny returned to add a dynamic impetus to the Dublin attack last season.

He played as a traditional wing forward - linking play, picking out inside forwards with incisive passes and regularly kicking a flurry of scores with his unusual striking motion.

What marked Kilkenny out as one of the game's best players last year - and what won him an All Star - was his ability to marry the modern day role of the wing forward - which requires them to get up and down the field and tackle like a defender - with an ability to contribute regular scores.

Last season, he notched 0-18 in seven games, including 0-5 across the two titanic tussles with Mayo at the semi-final stage.

He started 2016 in the same vein, scoring 0-4 in the championship opener against Laois.

However, his scoring output fell off a cliff thereafter - Kilkenny only raised the white flag once more in Dublin's six games, going scoreless in five.

Some of this was down to Dublin taking a needs must approach, with the versatile Kilkenny filling in at wing back when James McCarthy was absent.

However, it is more a result of Kilkenny occupying a sort of 'play-making' role where it appears that either he or the management team feel his skills are best utilised by taking a handpass first approach.

A feature of his game in 2016 was a great deal of lateral running accompanied by Kilkenny pointing at certain areas of the pitch where he wanted blue shirts to run, reducing his vaunted team-mates to robots who needed instruction to be of use.

Kilkenny's new style was most apparent in the quarter-final win over Donegal. James Horan was effusive in his praise on Sky after learning that Kilkenny had 52 possessions.

An interesting debate then emerged with some feeling that the Dublin star was dictating the tempo of the game - while others agreed with that assessment, but claimed that his consistent handpassing was slowing down the steam train that is the Dublin attack.

While keeping possession and launching attacks are a vital part of Gaelic football, it certainly appears that Kilkenny' attacking instinct has been dulled by his deeper role.

The Don't Foul blog shared an interesting statistic before the first All-Ireland final this year:

In 2015, Kilkenny was averaging a shot every 15 minutes and converting 59% of his efforts - in 2016, following the win over Laois, he was only taking a shot every 50 minutes and scoring on 14% of his efforts.

Those numbers certainly tally with the eye test. While Kilkenny played at wingback against Donegal, he was ostensibly meant to be a forward for the Kerry game and the two Mayo clashes.

There were a few occasions where Kilkenny had opportunities to kick for the posts - chances that were formalities last season - only for the 23-year-old to turn back towards his own goal or go sideways in search of a support player.

On the few occasions where he actually took on attempts, they were either wide or dropped short.

Of course, Kilkenny is still a great player who regularly exhibits Gaelic football's greatest skills - his two catches under pressure were spectacular in the replay win over Mayo.

He has an engine that few can match and his vision is razor-sharp. Furthermore, his lack of scores hasn't stopped him from elbowing his way to the front of the half forward All Star betting - none of his positional peers are shorter odds to claim an award.

But he was once unbackably short odds to claim Footballer of the Year, only to see himself overtaken by others down the home stretch, which begs the question:

He may win All Stars two years in-a-row, but is this new version of Ciaran Kilkenny really better than what came before it?

It will be interesting to see how his role in the team develops as some of the aging forwards start to be phased out. If players like Brogan and Flynn are no longer around to kick score, then Dublin will be better off with the 2015 version of Kilkenny rather than the newer model.

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