Monday 23 April 2018

Dick Clerkin: Mayo's intensity levels will put it up to Dublin in decider

It is no coincidence that Mayo have played some of their most open and fluid and attacking play in Croke Park with O’Shea playing a more defensive role. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
It is no coincidence that Mayo have played some of their most open and fluid and attacking play in Croke Park with O’Shea playing a more defensive role. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Shortly after yesterday's match between Dublin and Tyrone, I overheard a conversation between two Tyrone supporters.

"Did you watch the McGregor fight last night," one guy asked. "Aye, pure rubbish... but even it was better than that there."

"Aye, but least McGregor got a few slaps in at the start, our boys just lay down from the throw-in."

It was hard to argue with. Yesterday's game, not for the first time this season, failed to live up to the pre-match hype. Nostalgia, rather than an honest assessment of the facts, put Tyrone on an overly elevated pedestal.

Saturday's game between Mayo and Kerry saw a contest to at least match the intensity expected from an All-Ireland semi-final. Kerry, however, could have done with their own dose of nostalgia, as they adopted a defensive style of play at odds to the football we have come to admire and respect from them.

Mayo and Dublin are quickly becoming the great combatants of this decade, similar to Kerry and Tyrone in the previous one.

slimmest With the slimmest of margins separating both teams in recent years, the respective form going into the final doesn't suggest the next instalment of their rivalry will be any different. Who then arrives at the final in better shape, and which manager will be most satisfied that all the creases have been ironed out?

In that regard, Mayo and Stephen Rochford should be. Their last three performances, Kerry twice, and Roscommon, have delivered a sustained level of intensity and attacking cut that is more than adequate to win an All-Ireland.

Dublin, while coasting to their third final in a row, still don't know where their weaknesses lie. What weaknesses, you might say? Every team has them, don't be under any illusions. Dublin's just haven't been found out yet. For a manager as astute as Jim Gavin, this should be a cause of concern.

From Mayo's perspective, what are the big questions Rochford will need to consider over the next few weeks? The main one is what is to do with Aidan O'Shea. After that, how does he ensure he puts out a team and formation that maintains the intensity which has lit up Croke Park in their last few visits.

It is no coincidence that Mayo have played some of their most open and fluid and attacking play in Croke Park with O'Shea (below) playing a more defensive role. Not around to hold the ball up and slow their offensive thrust, they are moving more fluidly as an attacking unit, and players like Jason Doherty and Andy Moran are thriving under the responsibility.

But without an aerial threat such as the one posed by Kieran Donaghy, it is unlikely Rochford will play him in the back six against a frighteningly agile Dublin attack. Midfield, or as a retracted forward to put pressure on Dublin's middle third, should be his only options. If we have learnt one thing about Dublin, give over the middle third, and you are goosed.

Kildare are the only team to ask questions of Dublin in this regard, and they got plenty of success by pushing up on Dublin and playing an expansive style. A few moments of defensive naivety cost them dearly, but you would think Mayo, expertly marshalled by Higgins, Harrison and Co, won't make similar mistakes.

And what of Dublin? For me, Gavin's biggest problem is knowing his best team, or should I say best 21. Some might say it doesn't matter, but when a whole season boils down to one game, one performance, you want to know your best team, and having them playing well together.

Should Rochford play a high defensive line, and put pressure on Dublin's middle third, they could cause Dublin serious problems. With pace and power to punch holes on the turnover, and a new-found marquee outlet in Andy Moran, they have more than enough variation in their attacking play to ask questions of what is a relatively untested Dublin side.

Dublin dominated the possession stakes against Tyrone with Ciarán Kilkenny recording what must be a record 65 possessions. A barometer of the pressure Mayo put on Dublin will be how many balls pass through the hands of the Dublin linchpin.

Intensity Mayo seemed to have gained in energy and fitness over their summer sojourn. Dublin will have had to rely on the intensity of their now-legendary in-house games for similar levels of preparation.

You certainly wouldn't have chosen Mayo's route over Dublin's if it was offered a few months back. However, having successfully navigated their way to a second successive final with Dublin, Mayo's more challenging route has forced them to answer some difficult questions of themselves. Questions I'm sure that Jim Gavin would have preferred to have been asked sooner than the third Sunday in September.

Mayo have almost single-handedly carried this year's championship on their back, and in three weeks' time I expect them to deliver one massive challenge to Dublin.

With history beckoning for the victors, it has the makings of a memorable final.

For those Tyrone fans I mentioned, it should make up for the disappointment of this weekend's two big non-events.

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