Sunday 22 July 2018

Joe Brolly: Fasten your seatbelts as two superpowers collide in All Ireland semi-final

11 February 2017; Hugh Pat McGeary of Tyrone in action against Dean Rock and Eoghan O'Gara of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 2 match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
11 February 2017; Hugh Pat McGeary of Tyrone in action against Dean Rock and Eoghan O'Gara of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 2 match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Tyrone are the least-loved, most-feared team in the game and Mickey Harte will be happy with that. "Ruthless man, very ruthless man," said Owen Mulligan during the week, looking back on his own decapitation from the squad. "Mickey never even rung me, which hurt me a lot."

The leader must be right, or the team cannot succeed.

He may be infuriating, stubborn to the death, self-righteous, blinkered, even suffering from a touch of megalomania. But he is a leader that moulds hard, ruthless teams.

The thing I have liked about Tyrone this year (and it's not their style of play), is the way they have totally ignored their opponents, playing as though they were the only team on the pitch.

This is disconcerting for an opponent, since they cannot unsettle or panic them. It is a serenity that comes from knowing exactly what you are doing, and knowing that so long as you keep doing it, it will work.

Their defensive system is the best I have seen. Here are a few pretty scary stats. In their four championship games to date, the half-time scores against them are as follows: 0-5 (Derry), 0-5 (Donegal), 0-5 (Down), 0-4 (Armagh).

I said to Colm Cooper last Sunday when Kerry and Mayo were playing a marvellous man-to-man contest, "You'd love to be out there today Colm." He said, "Yes, but I wouldn't love to be out there next Sunday."

No one knows who will win today. They just feel that Tyrone are going to getting under Dublin's skin, something that has only ever happened once, the day that Jimmy McGuinness and his revolutionaries ambushed them in plain sight.

That ambush began with a 13-man defensive system, until Dublin became subdued.

Then, they moved to a different formation and launched lightning-quick counter-attacks. Tyrone will not switch formations. They will play with a 13-man defence throughout, with one forward up to occupy the full-back and Cian O'Sullivan.

Where it will be won and lost, is as follows: Tyrone's defensive system is used to coping with maybe one or two forwards inside it, and the others strung out around the outskirts, moving the ball laterally and trying to make suicide runs through the centre.

Dublin do not do this. They flood the blanket defence, pushing up almost man to man.

This negates one of the great advantages of the blanket, namely the ability to run the ball out with free men. Instead, Dublin focus on hemming you in, as they did to Monaghan in 2015 (at half-time that day the score was 2-8 to 0-5) and again three weeks ago (0-11 to 0-3).

They tackle ferociously as you try to carry the ball out. They keep two covering players in the middle third whose job is to pick up any spare runners out of the defence, sprinting to them and tackling them hard as they emerge. Tyrone will have to withstand this.

Secondly, the Dubs are themselves expert in the art of defence, and it is hard to see Tyrone scoring goals. Donegal did it in 2014 with a long ball to the edge of the square and two long balls to the midfield that were flicked on, but these goals were only possible because Dublin played without sweepers and Dublin's defenders were not only outnumbered, but were running towards their own goals with their backs to the play.

In the three years since, they have become experts at sweeping, and goal chances are extremely scarce.

Thirdly, Dublin are experts at breaking down defensive systems, and work religiously on this at training. They work the ball in threes, at high speed. They are also very patient, exemplified in their final score before half-time against Monaghan in the quarter-final when they held possession for two minutes and nine seconds before releasing James McCarthy for a point.

Tyrone likewise have scored heavily this year, but there can be no doubt Dublin's attack is more potent.

The question is whether Tyrone's frightening defensive system is enough to bring them the victory against Dublin's better balanced approach. The imponderable is what is in the minds of both teams. Are Tyrone's young players going to be able to withstand the constant pressure of the Dubs and the crowd? Do Dublin have enough desire to defeat a voracious, powerful opponent?

Nobody knows who will win.

Colm O'Rourke said to me yesterday that Dublin might win easily.

Two minutes later I bumped into Pat Gilroy, who fears a fatal Tyrone ambush.

Fasten your seatbelts.

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