Meath's struggle for scores against Dubs after packing their defence highlights problems facing chasing pack
Published 28/06/2016 | 02:30
In his post-match interviews, Meath manager Mick O'Dowd summed up the quandary facing mid-ranking teams when squaring up to the big boys.
In defence of his side, O'Dowd insisted they had set out to win the game rather than simply hope for the best.
"We didn't come here to just see how much we could lose by or reduce that amount. We came here to have a go," he said.
"I genuinely mean that they didn't come up here for damage limitation, as some people were thinking.
"And I know there'll probably be some criticism that 'why didn't we have a go?', but we did have a go."
In setting up a shield in front of their defence, Meath looked to ensure they wouldn't suffer the same fate as Laois did and cough up two early goals that effectively ended the game as a contest.
It worked to an extent as Meath were very much in the game at half-time, trailing by three points as they looked to hit Dublin on the break.
And at the end of the 70 minutes, Dublin - admittedly at half-speed - had failed to score a goal in a Leinster Championship match for the first time since these sides met in 2010.
However, that defensive security came at a high cost at the other end. In shoring up their defence with bodies, Meath automatically conceded Dublin's kick-outs, which brought its own array of problems.
According to GaelicStats.com, Stephen Cluxton went long with his kick-outs just twice in the whole 70 minutes. Dublin were virtually assured possession from their own restarts and by extension, a launch-pad for their own attacks.
For Meath, Paul had been paid alright but Peter was penniless.
It's a tactic that won't have pleased everyone but it highlights the challenge facing the mid-ranked counties who are looking to put it up to technically and athletically superior teams.
Teams will be criticised for not "having a go" but as Kildare defender Ciaran Fitzpatrick put it, trying to go toe to toe with better sides is a "pipe-dream". Defensive set-ups, he said, are just a fact of life for those trying to break through their glass ceiling.
"(There is a) more pragmatic approach - giving yourself chance to win," Fitzpatrick said. "Some are saying it's the end of the world - are they connected with the real world at all? Go 15-on-15 and leave Kerry and Dublin win every year?
"It's a pipe-dream playing 15-on-15 and this perfect brand of football."
Fitzpatrick's point is backed up everywhere you look. Even Mayo, who are ranked amongst the top sides in the country, used an extra defender in their defeat to Galway.
However, John Morrison has coached intercounty teams who have operated in Division 4 as well as sides that reached All-Ireland finals and he believes that setting up with an emphasis on defence is counter-productive.
"You can win playing that way but you do need the other team to have a very bad day," Morrison said.
"The first thing is that you are setting up not to lose when you go out like that. And apart from anything else, you are mentally in trouble then when you send players out like that.
"An interesting thing for managers to do would be to time the game on one stopwatch and on another, keep a record of the amount of time you spend in the opposition's half.
"And if you are spending 60 or 70pc of the game in your own half, then you just can't win a game.
"It's hard for teams but I still maintain that the best form of defence is still man to man. The big thing with that is that you have forwards, and so many of them, even at county level, can't defend.
"If you play a game in training, where you put the backs against the forwards and you give them both two minutes to defend a one-point lead, the backs will usually win.
"And that's just because the forwards don't know how to tackle and defend that well."
In Croke Park on Sunday, Westmeath and Kildare effectively mirrored each other's set-up. And Lake County manager Tom Cribbin admitted it was only when they pushed more men forward in the second half when the game looked to be going away from them that things started to come right for them.
"We were a bit scared to go four-on-four at one end and leave it eight-on-eight at the other," he said. "It's impossible to mark space and they have quality forwards who can hurt you. So we had no choice but to leave one back. I thought we would do more damage up front.
"I suppose we probably were a bit too defensive - we didn't attack the game as we should have in the first half. We didn't do it until they went six points up."
Westmeath now find themselves in the same quandary Meath did for the last fortnight. In last year's Leinster final they pulled together a defensive set-up that kept them in touch with Dublin up until half time. They'll be expected to adopt similar tactics this time around and they'll almost certainly be more comfortable with it.
But if they opt for defensive security they'll have a whole other host of problems to deal with.
For teams looking to bridge the gap to the top sides, it seems they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.