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Dublin blitz offence to meet blanket defence

AND so finally, 18 months into his reign and in his tenth championship outing, Jim Gavin is about to experience the snug embrace of 'the blanket'.

For a while, as some teams engaged in high-court presses while others simply fancied a gung-ho shoot-out, we had started to wonder if the blanket defence was passé, so last-season, an obsolete relic from a bygone, pre-black card era.

Think again. The race for Sam has been distilled down to six; it's getting serious and Dublin - the ultimate swashbucklers - are about to encounter something completely different.

Different in the sense that throughout last season, this year's league and the Leinster championship just gone, they have rarely - if ever - faced a properly organised and well executed blanket defence.

Wall

This column stands open to correction - often! - but can only think of one prior encounter where Dublin faced a wall of defenders when there was a serious prize on offer.

We're talking last year's Allianz League Division One final. Six times during an intriguing second half, Tyrone edged one point ahead. The Red Hands duly got all their defensive ducks in a row and invited Dublin to break them down. For much of that second half, they probed and toiled and struggled to unlock the door, until Dean Rock (with a brilliant brace) and Jack McCaffrey kicked the points that would seal a one-point victory.

None of the teams faced during last year's All-Ireland run - or their recent Leinster title retention - sought to stymie Gavin's gunslinger approach via a packed defence.

The near-certainty is that all this will change when Monaghan come to town this weekend, presumably with that familiar four banks of three and two inside forwards.

We'll call it the Malachy O'Rourke Rug, in honour of the manager who has landed a breakthrough Ulster title, a league Division Two crown and now a second consecutive quarter-final appearance in the space of two seasons. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Problem is, whereas Gavin's Dublin have faced very few blankets in their time, Monaghan have yet to encounter a team of Dublin's multi-pronged attacking strength either. Something has to give on Saturday.

In search of tactical education, we sought out Kevin McStay, of this parish and Sunday Game fame, to find out how Dublin might cope. He's confident they'll have the armoury to survive.

Dublin, he suspects, will rely on three strengths to breach the blanket's suffocating grip. Players will move the ball on their first touch (via foot or hand); they will do so at frightening pace; and they will utilise the full width of Croke Park to stretch and fray the blanket.

Runner

"Then, if they go down the middle with the ball, there is a support runner coming off the shoulder - coming at pace to break the bank of three. Once inside, then things start to open up," McStay surmises.

"Dublin wouldn't be noted as a team for scoring from distance," he adds, "so they will have to take the game to Monaghan, bringing the ball inside."

The Mayo pundit cautions that Dublin will have to "establish the right" to impose their game on Monaghan during what promises to be an attritional opening phase - but he fully expects them to do so.

But then what? Unless Armagh conspire to produce a weekend shock, Jim McGuinness and the ghosts of 2011 will loom into view.

It may seem dismissive of Monaghan, but you can understand why people are viewing Saturday's quarter-final as an ideal "dry-run" for Dublin before facing into the Donegal Duvet.

McStay again: "Donegal will be a way greater test. It's three years in the making - a very sophisticated defence. They retreat and get everybody back; they're not interested in having any high line, they are just counter-attack."

Still, much has changed since Dublin survived the most flagrantly defensive chess battle in GAA history, the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, beating Donegal's 14-man defence by 0-8 to 0-6.

A more ambitious Dublin now attack at every chance. They're faster and more athletic than the crew of 2011. Seeing how those qualities cope with uber-defence will be fascinating.


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