Damian Lawlor: Search for right blend keeps every option open
With so much talent at his disposal, Jim Gavin can tailor his Dublin team for each game.
NEAR the end of last year's 16-point drubbing to Dublin, Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick wondered if the opposition had 20 men on the field.
"All I could see were blue jerseys up and down the pitch," he recalled. "They were like a machine. I figured there must have been 20 Dublin players out there because I had never seen a team with such movement and power."
That machine, designed and developed by Pat Gilroy, is now in Jim Gavin's cycle of refinement. The leash has been taken off the lean, mean, defensive mechanism that Gilroy nurtured and instead the new-look model is encouraged to attack in waves. The stats reflect this change in tack. When Gilroy's side won the 2010 All-Ireland title their main achievement on the day was restricting Kerry to 1-11.
In their 15 games so far in 2013, however, they have scored 21-310; a whopping average of 0-24 per match. With such artillery, they have outgunned every team they've met, hence their credentials as serious All-Ireland contenders again – despite their callow look.
It remains to be seen if such proficient shooting will endure if they meet the likes of Donegal, Tyrone or Mayo as the championship unfolds because, while the squad is prolific and energised with the promise of youth, they haven't been fully tested yet.
And when it looked like they were – against Mayo and Tyrone in the league – they leaked scores, conceding 0-16 and 0-17 respectively with the likes of Johnny Cooper and Ger Brennan, who was man-marking Seán Cavanagh, having a difficult day at the office. In that final, Dublin enjoyed 60 per cent possession but conceded 17 points. That's high.
And there's another niggling concern for Gavin as the season unfolds. He probably has the best players in the land, but does he know his best team?
It's a dilemma that has haunted Cork football for a few years now. Like Gavin's Dublin, the Rebels peppered their squad with youth – at one stage 15 of their panel were under 26 – and when they had everyone fully fit they looked unbeatable. Yet there have been too many blips.
Nowadays, managers like Jim McGuinness are more concerned with ending, rather than starting, a game with the strongest players on the field. After they beat Tyrone in this year's Ulster championship, McGuinness referenced that.
"I wanted to finish with the strongest team and I wanted to finish with the quality on the pitch that could see the game out," he said.
"We had really good decision-makers on the pitch in the last 20 minutes. That took us over the line."
Every manager reckons he has a strong bench but most are deluding themselves. Even McGuinness has acknowledged that Jim Gavin has the strongest squad in the country.
But trying to keep everyone happy cannot be easy and only time will tell how the manager fares in keeping so many big names and established talents on the bench.
It was easy in the early stages when players were busy knuckling down in the gym and conditioning their bodies. Game time was plentiful for everyone. During the O'Byrne Cup campaign, eight subs were used in the final against Kildare (after extra-time) and bar the semi-final when four replacements were made, the bench was emptied five times during that competition.
For the league, there was enough pitch time to go around. Bar their semi-final against Mayo, when four subs were drafted in, Gavin used 20 men per game.
But by the time their championship opener against Westmeath came around, the path forward was clearly defined. It was youth all the way. Darren Daly, Johnny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion were all handed debuts ahead of more seasoned performers. Indeed, seven starters that evening won All-Ireland under 21 medals in 2010 or 2012.
"It was said at the start, 'we don't care who you are, or what you've won or what All Stars you have or any of that crap', so lads had to prove themselves," said Michael Darragh Macauley.
"I didn't know if Jim was a fan at all of what I do, but he stressed from day one that he was going to play in-form players – and that's the only way to have it. No lads should be picked on their reputation, and I don't think they have been."
He's right. Six well-known forwards didn't even start against Westmeath. Those men, Bryan Cullen, Alan Brogan (injured), Kevin McManamon, Dean Rock, Eoghan O'Gara and one of last year's gifted minors, Cormac Costello, would strike fear into most inter-county teams.
It was no great shock; Macauley had sensed from day one that no position was safe and worked hard in pre-season training, taking extra sessions on his own.
He still endured a bumpy opening to the season although he gradually settled back into midfield, alongside Cian O'Sullivan. That pairing is interesting; a statement of intent from Gavin with such forward-minded players in the engine room.
It's not just those two who have been handed a specific brief. The likes of Cooper, McCaffrey and Daly have all fulfilled their defensive duties well while the half-back, midfield and half-forward lines attack in droves, playing with an admirable level of abandon: their game revolving around delightful kick-passes, speed and players rampaging forward.
But what happens when they meet defensive screens? Will they revert to playing as individuals rather than a team?
We'll find out more by the close of business today when it's entirely possible that Cullen, McManamon, O'Gara, Costello and Bastick will all be on the field to help steer the Dubs home. Those players will allow Dublin to continue driving forward at Kildare while Bastick will offer more defensive cover.
They will need all 20 players on form, because Kildare coach Jason Ryan will definitely have some tactical ploy up his sleeve – whether that's through exploiting the gap left by the attacking Dublin midfield, or capitalising elsewhere.
Ryan has caused serious problems for the Dubs in recent seasons and this afternoon Kildare are bound to punch a few holes in Dublin's armour.
In fact, many pundits feel that Cian O'Sullivan may switch with James McCarthy to offer more protection to the defence. Because the side hasn't even left first gear yet, however, such variables still hang in the air.
Meanwhile, with so many familiar Dublin faces in the front row of the Hogan Stand, it must actually be something of a headache for the manager at this stage in the season.
McManamon, for instance, feels he should be a starting player but his dramatic and sudden impact from the bench makes him almost impossible to start. With Eoghan O'Gara and Nicky Devereux reportedly flying in training, they will be almost demanding pitch time this afternoon.
Flooding the team with hungry tyros does not guarantee success of course.
Paddy Andrews and Johnny Cooper, for example, have been in superb form all season, but today both players will have their biggest championship tests – in Andrews' case, as an attacker.
So many young players been blooded since last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo that they could be devoid of key decision-makers at the start of games. The average age of the team has decreased to a point where there are only six players past the 26 mark.
Yet the signs are that Gavin is flexible and treats every game individually, looking closely at man-to-man match-ups before deciding on team line-outs.
The more senior players, meanwhile, feel that the youngsters have been a breath of fresh air around the place.
"It's weird," said Paul Flynn. "They don't think about the game they just go out and do it. It's a great attitude to have. They don't know anything else other than winning."
All of which leaves the likes of All-Ireland-winning captain Cullen and the experienced Denis Bastick struggling to break into the team. Little wonder that their A v B games have been ultra-intense since the beating of Westmeath four weeks back, the competition for places has been massive.
Throughout that month's break, the manager has repeated one message over and over again.
"We've been consistently saying to the squad that the guys who are performing on the training field get the slots. That didn't change in the National League and won't change for any of the championship games," Gavin says.
For the moment we can enjoy their freedom and youthful exuberance, admire the dash, cut and beautiful football they play. The wiser, older heads, however, could yet be needed before the curtain falls on their season.