Saturday 24 February 2018

Ciarán Whelan: Finding leaders is Dublin’s biggest summer challenge

Training plan could be why Jim Gavin’s men are slow to peak

Brian Fenton of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match between Donegal and Dublin at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Brian Fenton of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match between Donegal and Dublin at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

The Dubs are back in town this weekend. Remember a couple of years ago when everyone whinged and moaned about Dublin playing all their games in Croke Park?

There is a sense that many Dubs fans would have preferred a Saturday evening trip to Tullamore to play Westmeath this weekend! However, the powers that be decided Croke Park was the place to be this Sunday.

Anywhere I go the Dubs are still top of the list when it comes to discussing All-Ireland contenders. But are they as formidable presently as they were two years ago? Have they come back to the pack? If so, who can beat them? Are Kerry as good as many think just yet? Are Mayo a spent force? Are Tyrone on the rise? Are Donegal gone for the foreseeable future? 

The recent statistics would certainly indicate that Dublin is struggling for the form that delivered three All-Ireland titles in the last four years.

They scored 18 goals in the 2015 championship, nine in the 2016 campaign on the way to winning back-to-back All-Irelands. No goals against Carlow three weeks ago. A full 30 minutes without scoring in last year’s drawn All-Ireland final against Mayo. 

A three-point return from play from the six starting forwards in the replayed final against Mayo last year. A few Houdini escapes throughout this year’s league campaign followed by the defeat to Kerry in the National League final. Not exactly signs of a team on an upward curve.

If you drill further into last year’s games against Mayo you could point to the fact that Mayo had not beaten a Division 1 side on the way to the final last year. Were Mayo as formidable last year as they were in 2015 when Dublin needed to be at their best do beat them in an All-Ireland semi-final replay? Possibly not.

Yes, plenty of questions to ponder. The next six weeks will tell us if Dublin are the same potent force coming into 2017. Putting aside the statistics which indicate a dip in form, I suspect Dublin have planned their path very differently this year.

A five-week break from camp for the players following the National League indicated strongly that Dublin are looking to keep some fuel in the tank for whatever the months of August and September might bring. 

Tapering off training for games may not have been the priority in recent weeks. Taking that into consideration, Dublin’s lack of fluency against Carlow at times could be attributed to their current training plans . 

Of all the counties in Leinster presently, Westmeath are more familiar with the experience of playing Dublin in Croke Park. Match experience against the Dubs in Croke Park is invaluable. Not just for the players but also for the Westmeath management team. They know what to expect. They know how some of their players have matched up against the Dubs. They should know Dublin strengths and  try to counteract key elements of the Dublin game-plan.

Do Westmeath have the quality to do everything they might want to do? I’m afraid not. They will look to pinpoint some key areas and after that they will hope that fortune favours them.   

Westmeath will implement a defensive structure on Sunday. Against Offaly and Wexford in the league, the foundation of the Westmeath set-up was based on a 12-man defensive system. Tom Cribbin will look at the Dubs and could be tempted to press them higher up the field but I suspect fear will win out. 

The talk this week is that Westmeath have nothing to lose and they should ‘have a cut off’ the Dubs. It is popular now to talk about playing open, attacking football but it doesn’t always work.

Westmeath may commit one or two more players to attack at times but overall I can see them following a similar pattern of the last two years. Their primary objective will still be to curtail the influence of the Dubs’ attacking threat.

They will play with Kieran Martin and John Heslin close to goal and utilise Paul Sharry as the playmaker around the middle of the park with the remaining players tasked to drop back and flood the scoring zone. 

James Dolan is likely to track Ciarán Kilkenny in the absence of Diarmuid Connolly. The influence of Brian Fenton and Jack McCaffrey will also be high up the Westmeath priority list.

Running Game

Cribbin will also focus on the third-quarter collapse over the last two years and you would expect they will be better prepared for the periods when Dublin might implement a strong running-game from deep. 

The biggest challenge for Dublin in the coming weeks is that new leaders need to emerge. Will somebody put their hand up and lay down a marker to partner Brian Fenton in midfield? Will Paul Mannion, Niall Scully or Con O’Callaghan emerge as key threats in the forward line?

The form of McCaffrey is so important for Dublin this year. When Dublin carve open defences and get goals, McCaffrey has usually played a part somewhere along the line.

Whilst Dublin had plenty of options for cover last year when he took some time out, the Footballer of the Year in 2015 was badly missed. McCaffrey puts the fear of God into opposition defences when given the licence to attack.

If anything it is Dublin that need to cut lose the weekend. If Dublin play with less conservatism and go at Westmeath from the start, there will only be one outcome. Dublin to win with a bit to spare.

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