Thursday 14 December 2017

Blues developing swift kicking game to keep championship rivals on back foot

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Fourteen minutes into Dublin's first game in defence of their Leinster and All-Ireland titles last Sunday, Bryan Cullen and Kevin McManamon combined down the right flank beneath the Hogan Stand to send James McCarthy spinning away at pace towards the corner of the ground.

There weren't too many options open to McCarthy and in that situation his tendency is to keep running and perhaps find an opening like he did against Wexford to score the goal that wrapped up last year's Leinster final.

Without a second's thought, however, McCarthy put the brakes on, positioned himself at the right angle and floated over a most inviting crossfield ball that landed in front of Bernard Brogan about 25 metres out from the Louth goal.

From the moment McCarthy made his decision and then executed the delivery, it was a forward's ball. All the way.

Brogan gathered, offloaded to his brother Alan, moved further out to the other wing, took a return pass and fired over off his left foot for Dublin to lead 0-5 to 0-1.

Turning around to deliver the acknowledgments, it was to McCarthy that the younger Brogan looked to applaud, not his older sibling with whom he had combined with in the last play.

significance

The significance of McCarthy's delivery was that it was in perfect sync with how Dublin aimed to play the game.

Their preferred method of transferring the ball was by the foot. When it was on they went for it, exploiting space with accurate diagonal and crossfield passes that made their vastly superior athleticism and pace count.

It was assured, fluent and pre-ordained. Admittedly, the pressure applied by Louth was poor at close quarters and in pursuit of runners. But that shouldn't dilute the credit for what Dublin set out to do and consequently achieved.

By our count Dublin executed 206 passes in open play in the course of Sunday's match -- 71 were from the foot.

That's a ratio of slightly more than one foot pass for every two handpasses or just over 34pc, way above what is the average for an inter-county team in a championship or league match. Of those 71 passes, just 11 could be deemed incomplete with just eight of the 135 handpasses failing to find their target.

Louth kickpassed 46 times from 155 passes made with 16 failing to find their target.

The significance of Dublin's passing trend was that every player felt confident to use the boot in possession.

Players like Ger Brennan, Kevin Nolan, Diarmuid Connolly and Alan Brogan are much more likely to move the ball on by boot rather than hand.

What's just as significant is that none of their defenders got on the end of any of their 24 scores.

Only seven teams from 24 that have started the championship to date have not had scores from a defender.

Of the 21 scores (2-19) from play, the final pass to the scorer was delivered from the foot for 10 of them.

Bernard Brogan's point to make it 2-13 to 0-3, the second point of the second half, came after a sequence of three kickpasses.

For Denis Bastick's late and solitary point, three passes also constituted the build-up, with the midfielder covering some 40 metres for the 21st Dublin point.

For all the focus on their athleticism, their power and their pace, the statistics show that Dublin have developed their game around a much swifter transfer of the ball into space to maximise the mobility of their six forwards.

Not once did Dublin allow a sequence of handpasses to get into double figures. At one stage the chain reached eight handpasses before McCarthy and Bastick fluffed their lines and the move broke down. More often than not, the number of handpasses in any one sequence did not climb above four, before a gear change involving a kick.

Ironically, 'The Sunday Game' team were gnashing their teeth over the trends in the preceding game (Wexford v Longford), which produced 305 handpasses and just 75 kickpasses between them. On less than 50pc possession (according to television stats), Dublin were able to manage almost as many footpasses as both Wexford and Longford together.

By comparison to the recent league finals, the Dubs' propensity for footpassing is bucking every trend.

Only Kildare, with 61 footpasses from 268 in total (22.7pc) came close. Tyrone managed just 27 from 165 passes (16.3pc) with even league champions Cork delivering just 37 passes by the foot out of 212 in total (17.4pc).

In the four league finals played over the last weekend in April the average number of passes executed by each team was 187 with 40 from the foot. That amounts to 21.4pc, well below Dublin's figures on Sunday.

There were many reasons for Dublin's vast superiority to Louth on Sunday, but the quality and regularity of their footpassing, off what appears to have been slightly less time in possession, is high among them.

For certain there are much sterner tests ahead where the safety of a short handpass will suit the moment much more than a punted 30-metre kick.

But just as they showed in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone, their exploitation of space through an order of the boot is now their deadliest weapon. Who knows, this 'kicking' fad might catch on.

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