Dubs show patience is a virtue as goals crush Westmeath
Dublin 2-13 Westmeath 0-6
Dublin's lowest concession in a Championship match under Jim Gavin's stewardship is a cause for satisfaction.
Their lowest scoring return in nine Leinster Championship games across the same era is a slight cause for concern however.
Two second-half goals in quick succession just after half-time confirmed the inevitability of a 10th provincial success in 11 years for the dominant team in the province.
One more next year and they'll match the achievement of the team of the 1970s who reeled off six in a row between 1974 and '79, surpassing their predecessors' five from 2005 to 2009.
But a few managers of high-profile teams present in Croke Park yesterday on a watching brief will have left in the knowledge that when space is denied to them and a team shows patience, Dublin don't always readily provide the answers.
Westmeath, a team with natural attacking instincts, put together a defensive system that helped to keep them in touch until Bernard Brogan got his timing right to palm Paul Flynn's fisted pass to the net in the 39th minute.
Within seconds Jack McCaffrey had exploited the invitation to pounce on a short kick-out to pinch a second and the lead was in double figures, where just about everyone expected it to be anyway, for the first time.
Westmeath didn't have the counter-attacking game to hurt Dublin when they did push forward.
Often committing 12 to defence as selected half-forwards Ger Egan and Paul Sharry all dropped deep, it left Shane Dempsey and John Heslin with too much to do and the by-product was too many shots dropped short, six in the first half, four more after the break.
Too often Jack McCaffrey, Rory O'Carroll or Cian O'Sullivan were able to get their bodies in and make important tackles.
But Westmeath held their defensive shape for long enough to ask the most searching questions of Dublin in a Leinster Championship match since the first half against Laois in the 2014 quarter-final.
What Dublin have to decide if it was the pressure of the defensive screen or their own high quota of unforced errors, particularly in the first half, that kept them to just 15 scores. The crisp execution of their play did not reach the standards of the Longford or Kildare games.
Balls put out over the sideline, balls hopping off chests and passes put down the throats of Westmeath sweepers was a feature of their first half.
"To score 2-13 and to have so many missed shots would be very disappointing, that's for sure. It does give us areas to work on on the training field. We pride ourselves on the technical aspects of the game," said Gavin afterwards.
They led by 0-8 to 0-4 at the break and scored fewer times in the second half as the wide count soared to 16 but, critically, showed more patience, holding on to the ball and switching the points of attack across the field with long-range passes.
As an exercise for future challenges it was worthwhile in that sense. Gavin has consistently spoken of his players 'relishing the challenge' of taking on teams that set up so defensively against them and this was something they had anticipated.
"It was one of the game plans that we thought they might roll out and they did. I thought we handled it very well," he reflected.
Their defence was compact and never troubled, O'Sullivan making such a difference at centre-back.
Westmeath will feel they have achieved something by restricting the deficit to 13 points. Had Dublin showed a little more urgency the 16-point handicap would probably have been surpassed but Westmeath, to the credit, held their shape and it never got out of hand.
"You have no choice but to do it against Dublin," said Tom Cribbin of their set-up. "They have so much collective pace and power. Even their young players, they're just very composed on the ball and very, very quick.
"They have natural pace everywhere, it's not just fitness or size. I thought our lads did it very well in the first half, but we weren't counter-attacking at the pace I wanted, with the same level of intensity that we were putting into the tackling," he reflected.
"I think if we hadn't conceded the goals, I know we only got six points but I think we would have had the belief to go and get more scores because we were staying to our game-plan.
"We felt if we got the game plan right on the day, didn't concede goals and conceded 12/13 scores which was our hope and if we got a goal or two we might nab it."
It was wishful thinking. Dublin were content not to force it in the second half as much as they did in the first and it worked better for them.
Connolly oozed class, always willing to take it on and inject a little extra pace into it. His two points off the outside of the right boot, either side of the goals, were the product of a man at the top of his game.
Ciaran Kilkenny miscued a few times but he was busy as ever and chipped in with three points while Bernard Brogan got going after a troublesome first half with Kevin Maguire on his case.
But Paul Flynn appears to have lost some of the dynamism that has earned him four successive All-Stars and his shooting, the most improved part of his game in recent years, was particularly poor. Dean Rock and Kevin McManamon struggled in such heavy congestion.
"We maybe forced the shots," reflected manager Jim Gavin, who has guided Dublin to a seventh major title in just 27 months, a level of consistency and achievement that shouldn't be lost by the nature of some of the challenges they face.
"I think we worked the ball into good shooting positions, and the shots were on when they took them, but the execution wasn't the best. I thought we controlled it better in the second half."
Sharry was Westmeath's most effective player, his ability to weave through bodies when he carried out of defence a significant weapon. Denis Coroon, James Dolan and Kieran Martin were also effective but a heel injury that Heslin carried may have restricted him somewhat.
Unlike Pat Flanagan two years ago there was no call from Cribbin for a 'B' Championship after the defeat.
"We want to be in the main championship. As far as I'm concerned, I want to be trying to get up to Dublin. I want to be getting up to the best team in the country."
Scorers - Dublin: B Brogan 1-1, C Kilkenny, D Connolly 0-3 each,J McCaffrey 1-0, D Rock 0-2 (2fs), P McMahon, J McCarthy, MD Macauley, A Brogan all 0-1 each. Westmeath: J Heslin 0-3 (2fs), K Martin 0-2, F Boyle 0-1.
Dublin - S Cluxton 8; J Cooper 6, R O'Carroll 7, P McMahon 7; J McCarthy 7, C O'Sullivan 8, J McCaffrey 8; B Fenton 6, MD Macauley 7; P Flynn 5, C Kilkenny 8, D Connolly 8; D Rock 5, K McManamon 5, B Brogan 7. Subs: M Fitzsimons 7 for Cooper (h-t), P Andrews 6 for McManamon (47), D Bastick 6 for Macauley (50), A Brogan 7 for Rock (55), J Small for McMahon (61).
Westmeath - D Quinn 7; K Maguire 7, F Boyle 6, K Daly 6; D Lynch 6, J Gilligan 6, P Sharry 8, J Dolan 7; P Holloway 6, D Coroon 6; G Egan 5, K Martin 7, R Connellan 5; J Heslin 6, S Dempsey 6. Subs: P Greville 5 for Connellan (h-t),K Gavin 6 for Lynch (h-t), C McCormack for Connellan (51), D Glennon 5 for Holloway (53), J Egan for Heslin (61), J Gonoud for McCormack (63).
Ref - Joe McQuillian (Cavan)
GAME AT A GLANCE
MAN OF THE MATCH
Diarmuid Connolly (Dublin)
Jack McCaffrey was vigilant in defence and impressive going forward but Connolly’s vision and three points from distance stood out.
Westmeath asked questions of Dublin in the first half with their defensive set-up, but Dublin’s performance was error-strewn. Controlled the game better after the break. An 11th Leinster medal for Stephen Cluxton, who lifted a seventh trophy in 27 months.
Diarmuid Connolly’s 40 metre pass to Ciaran Kilkenny in the 62nd minute for their 12th point was laser-like in its execution.
Not too many taxing calls for Joe McQuillan to make as contact was limited in this type of game as Dublin retained possession for such long spells.
Dublin 16 (7)
Westmeath 4 (1)
Dublin 14 (7)
Westmeath 18 (11)
Dublin 4 (MacAuley 9, Cooper 24,
Flynn 64, Bastick 71)
Westmeath 1 (Heslin 24)
Dublin play an All-Ireland quarter-final on August 8, Westmeath have a Round 4 qualifier on the weekend of July 25/26.