Alan Brogan: Jim Gavin never loses his cool but he was visibly angry last Saturday
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IT’S not often you see Jim Gavin get visibly frustrated. As a player who played for him for three years and briefly as a team-mate, I genuinely can’t recall him losing his cool too often.
Jim certainly masks his emotions well and he’s a very cool customer, but I could visibly see the glimpses of anger on his face in Nowlan Park last Saturday as the Sky cameras panned in after Dublin’s concession of the second Laois goal which, most frustratingly of all for Jim, was very similar in origin to their first.
Fool me once...
Dublin have worked so hard since 2014 on systematically minimising the potential for the opposition to catch them too advanced and lacking numbers at the back and then hit on the break, just as Donegal did back then and exactly as Laois did again on Saturday.
And to concede two goals, so similar in creation, will annoy Gavin who, in light of the problems caused by the physicality of Donie Kingston at
full-forward, probably has newer issues to address in defence.
Whilst this was a straight-forward victory, it did throw up some food for thought for Jim and his defensive coaches.
On the one hand, he doesn’t need old failings, flaws he might have justifiably presumed corrected, cropping up all over again.
But on the other, it’s definitely better to experience these glitches now rather than deeper into the Championship when Dublin won’t have the sort of cushion they’d already done so well to build for themselves in Nowlan Park.
These days, defending can seem like a very technically complex and overtly tactical pursuit but let’s break it down to its most basic level.
The last thing that Jim Gavin wants to see is a situation, such as the two generated by Laois on Saturday night, where his defenders are chasing opponents towards their own goal coming up the middle of the pitch.
You need cover there. Always.
That doesn’t necessarily mean dropping a seventh defender back because no team plays with six forwards any more, but the anchor - be it a
deep-lying centre-back ( Cian O’Sullivan) or a ‘spare’ corner-back (usually Philly McMahon) - must always be there.
And if he’s not, someone should be covering for him.
You need players facing the play, ready to stop or slow the player in possession.
But even with backs as quick as Dublin’s, you’re in trouble if they get clean through without a sweeper or a covering player or whatever terminology you care you use.
The other issue Gavin must re-examine is full-back.
Laois were bearing fruit from Donie Kingston almost from the start of the match. Every time it went in, he looked like he was causing trouble. He set up the second goal. Kingston is a top-class target man so this was a challenge Dublin needed.
Philly started on him and then Mick Fitzsimons took up the challenge but both struggled with his sheer size and if you were éamonn Fitzmaurice or Rory Gallagher or Stephen Rochford watching that match, you couldn’t but surmise that Dublin haven’t yet solved the problem of how to replace the presence and security offered over the last five years by Rory O’Carroll.
Prior to that, Dublin looked in control of all aspects of the game; possession, kick-outs, scoring rate, etc.
A lot of their play was very smooth and only after John O’Loughlin’s red card, when Laois adopted a blanket defence did Dublin start to struggle.
When Laois folded into that defensive formation, it upset Dublin’s rhythm, forcing Laois to adopt a method of attack which, as it turned out, was more effective than anything they had tried in the first half.
Clearly though, Dublin expected something along these lines.
You could see how wide Dublin kept their wing-forwards and wing-backs to prise open space.
They kept moving the ball from wing to wing and eventually, they’d forge a little pocket of space and someone like Diarmuid Connolly, Ciarán Kilkenny or Dean Rock would be rotated on to the ball and presented with something close to a free shot.
Some of those points were technically quite difficult in their execution but the pay-off of keeping Bernard, Kevin McManamon and Paul Mannion so quiet by getting bodies around them is you’ll inevitably leave spaces further out.
Dublin were quite patient too in trying to tease the defence in that period but when you’re ahead in a game, that’s an easy thing to do.
When you’re chasing a lead, a team like Donegal and Tyrone will sit back and they’ll happily let you have the ball 60 metres out from their goal.
These teams will invite you on and they’re mentally strong enough to leave you play out around the middle with the ball.
Here, Dublin were well ahead. They could take their time. Under no pressure to try and get scores.
Still for all that, I think for a lot of that second half, Dublin were in third gear.
Ultimately, Gavin will be happy that Laois did resort to that defensive structure in the second half.
It was good too, to see Eoghan O’Gara back and showing such determination and get that sort of welcome back from injury from the Dublin fans in Nowlan Park.
People say Dublin won’t realise whether the hunger is there in the group until they’re coming down the straight in a tight game and it’s put up to them but you could see in his tackling and his chasing back that Eoghan has that in abundance.
You can’t beat someone who brings that sort of energy to a group. Particularly one, like Dublin, that doesn’t necessarily need that sort of urgency to survive until August.