Ciarán Whelan: Talk of Dublin cruising past Donegal is very dangerous and has me nervous
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“It was like an Ali fight, absorb everything and try hang in there.”
The words of Eamon Magee after their All-Ireland semi-final victory against Dublin in 2014.
One would think the same mantra will be eminent around the Donegal camp this week in the build-up to their All-Ireland quarter-final tomorrow evening in Croke Park.
So with their team philosophy probably still the same, can Donegal live with the blue wave that will come crashing their way this weekend?
To be honest, I am nervous about this challenge for the Dubs in headquarters tomorrow.
The script is supposed to read that Donegal are over the hill at this stage and Dublin are the powerhouse set to dominate for the next few years. That sort of talk is dangerous, very dangerous.
Dublin’s wealth of options and strength of depth is grossly exaggerated in some quarters. A drill down into Jim Gavin’s resources indicates there is great back-up in the forward unit, particularly the inside line, but from 1-9 the depth of support is not what some may think it is.
With Eric Lowndes a doubt and James McCarthy hardly fully fit after injury, Dublin’s back-line options are beginning to look thin on the ground.
Darren Daly and Mick Fitzsimons are the only two other defenders that have seen some championship football this summer. The real impact of losing Jack McCaffrey and Rory O’Carroll may only become apparent in the coming weeks, probably as early as tommorrow.
McCarthy’s recent injury is a major concern. He has been one of Dublin most influential footballers since Jim Gavin took the reins.
His ability to break the gain-line by gliding at top speed through gaps in opposition defences has been hugely important in creating space and overlaps for his team-mates.
If you reflect on Dublin’s performances over the last three years, despite a great record, it is accepted that at times they have struggled against a mass-defence system in championship football and in some league games. It is something they have worked hard on and over the last 18 months, and to their credit they have become comfortable in dealing with breaking down defences.
However, McCarthy and McCaffrey have been so important in the process of breaking the first phase of defence in their recent key championship battles.
Let’s not forget that Dublin have not, in the championship, faced a team like Donegal or Tyrone that have a strong, rigid defensive system engrained into their natural make-up since 2014.
Dublin looked more ruthless last year and were certainly playing with a little more consistency throughout the earlier stages of the championship and Jim Gavin will be looking for a full 70-plus minute performance.
Donegal also have their own problems. Under Jim Mc Guinness Donegal were unpredictable and had a varied approach in their style of play. A bombardment of the ball to the full-forward line could be followed by a period of deep attacking runs from their defence.
If Mc Guinness smelt a weakness, a change was made. It could be three long kick-outs
in-a-row to Neil Gallagher or Michael Murphy pulling the full-back off the square for 10-15 minutes to create space for Colm McFadden, who he may have recognised had the beating of his direct opponent.
A cold, honest opinion of Donegal in last weekend’s first half against Cork was that they looked like a team that wanted to lose. Michael Murphy looked out of sorts and their defensive system was opened up very easily.
Paddy McBrearty’s awesome performance, combined with the energy and skill of Ryan McHugh, practically dragged Donegal into this quarter-final meeting with Dublin.
Donegal certainly upped their performance in the second-half and totally controlled that concluding 25 minutes to close out the game but the first-half energy levels were poor all round.
Rory Gallagher’s tactics, particularly this year, have been one-dimensional and Donegal have generally played a running game for large portions of their encounters. There is no doubt he has to mix up his approach for this game and I suspect he will throw a curve ball at the Dubs.
Even though they were successful in pressing the Cork kick-outs during the second half, Donegal had problems winning primary possession at midfield without Neil Gallagher, who is a big loss.
Gallagher may opt to conserve energy and concede the Dublin kick-outs for large portions of the game, which will allow them to get their defensive line in order.
Donegal’s match-ups in defence will be crucial and they will endeavour to keep a couple of Dublin’s key forwards from influencing the game.
The positioning of Michael Murphy will be one of the big talking points. Dublin will anticipate that he will spend more time on the edge of the square and I expect Donegal will go with direct ball and see if they can expose a weakness.
If Murphy does play full-forward, then the question remains, who will pick him up. Again the James McCarthy factor comes back into the equation. He was tasked with the job of marking Murphy in the league semi-final win in April and he did a very effective job.
If McCarthy is ruled out, Dublin’s options are limited. It would then be expected that Philly McMahon would be given another crucial
man-to-man role. If Murphy plays his normal roving role, then McMahon will be in his element out the field but if he stays inside he will pose more problems for McMahon, as his movement would be better than that of Aidan O’Shea, who is not a natural full-forward.
McBrearty will again also be required to put in a blistering performance but I expect Jonny Cooper will have to be surgically removed from his left boot.
The big question mark that hangs over Donegal is whether they bring the same level of performance as 2014 .You would expect that they will be hugely energised by this game, which will result in a much improved performance in terms of intensity and work-rate. That has to be a given.
One thing for certain is that Donegal will be the full first team to face Dublin this year who actually believe they can win the game. The only difference is that Dublin will be ready for an ambush this time. For that reason, I expect Dublin to come through a tough engagement.