Sunday 22 September 2019

Dublin v Kerry: Breaking down the stats and the battle for middle earth

Kingdom aiming for a repeat of dominance in the engine room - but Bastick believes Dubs will have a new plan

David Moran. Photo: Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

In the 75th minute of the drawn All-Ireland final, Seán O'Shea became the last would-be Kerry match-winner to wander into a thicket of blue shirts inside the Dublin '45.

Technically, Jack McCaffrey got the turnover because he gathered the spilled ball. But it was Brian Fenton, so weirdly peripheral all afternoon, who blocked O'Shea's shot with his forearm.

That, in a snapshot, was the great Brian Fenton 2019 All-Ireland final Paradox.

A performance lacking verve, energy even. Yet his most influential act coming in the frenzied final moments of an exhausting game.

Statistically, Fenton barely did a single thing wrong all afternoon. But nor did he wield significant influence. Figures recorded by Sure, the GAA's official stats partner, show that Fenton had just 16 possessions in the match.

He completed every pass, never turned a ball over and committed just one foul. Yet he kicked the ball only four times all day and didn't have a single shot on goal.

For nine of those possession, the midfielder with the Royals Royce engine kept it jammed in first gear, receiving a simple pass before giving one off, making no subsequent attempt to get beyond his man and generate an overlap.

On the list of traits attributed to Fenton over the past five years, passivity isn't one of them.

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"He's usually a 30-plus possessions guy," says Denis Bastick, who partnered Fenton in the Dublin midfield for his first All-Ireland final appearance in 2015.

"But there's not a whole lot you can do when it's not happening, except come deeper for the ball.

"The last day," Bastick notes, "between the sending-off and getting man-marked, it's difficult."

These are the twin pillars behind which Fenton's influence hid.

Bastick noticed how Jonny Cooper's sending-off "left him limited in terms of having to look over his shoulder, which Brian would never have really had to do in the past in a game like that."

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated joust with Jack Barry never really happened.

Fenton marked David Moran on Kerry's kick-outs. Moran, in turn, stuck to Fenton on Shane Ryan's.

Then, whether it was Moran or Barry, one was always close enough to Fenton to check his run but he didn't attempt a single sprint into the Kerry '21.

Click to view full size graphic
Click to view full size graphic

They weren't the only factors at play.

Adrian Spillane's best work came at the very start of the match, when he turned Jonny Cooper over with a big hit that led to Kerry's first score.

Michael Darragh Macauley meanwhile, completed all 11 passes and tried with every wattage of energy to make things happen in his 52 minutes on the pitch.

But the battle for middle earth was always going to be defined by the Fenton/Moran dynamic. Moran, the other shoo-in All-Star midfielder, posted better numbers but also produced more big moments.

It was Moran's perfectly-placed handpass to David Clifford's left-hand side that caught Cooper and resulted in his second yellow card.

He had a couple of huge ball-carries in the second half but most eye-catchingly of all were Moran's kick-out catches.

In the 49th minute, he fetched one in a cluster of bodies from Ryan, killing the buzz generated by Jack McCaffrey's left-footed point.

Then, in the 66th minute Moran claimed a mark on Cluxton's restart, a catch which ultimately led to Killian Spillane scoring Kerry's last point of the match.

In total, Moran won four kick-outs, three from Ryan and that single, inspirational Cluxton interception.

Some context.

According to Bastick, the number of catches a midfielder generally makes from kick-outs in a game is just one.

"Max - two," he stresses. " And up until the mark came in, it was less than that."

The numbers back this up.

Last year, Fenton's crowning season as Footballer of the Year, he won 13 of Dublin's kick-outs in seven championship appearances.

"It's such a 'wow moment' when you come up with one of those, that it sticks in people's minds," says Bastick. "But it's only ever one or two."

For every action, though, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Fenton's marginalisation two Sundays back and Brian Howard's prominence were not unrelated, according to Bastick.

"We would have spoken about it before with Paul (Flynn) or Diarmo (Connolly) when they were being man-marked on kick-outs," he recalls. "When that happens, you go over to the sideline and you stand there. You take your man out of it and you create space for everyone else.

"If Fenton and Macauley go over one side and drag Moran and Barry with them - which happened in the draw - you put Brian Howard over the far side.

"That's how Dublin got their goal. His hang-time for that catch for the goal was crazy."

In total, Howard had five more possessions in the drawn game than Fenton.

He won five kick-outs (all from Cluxton), but it was instructive that Howard caught them over three different Kerry players.

While Brian Ó Beaglaoich clearly shadowed Niall Scully, Howard had no designated marker.

With Dublin down a man, he became their most important ball-carrier, calmly pirouetting out of situations where a turnover might have been fatal.

"Sometimes," notes Bastick, "you have your hand on your heart thinking, 'What happens if he gets turned over here coming out of defence?'

"But that hasn't happened yet. And you always need those players who can drop the shoulder and go by."

No doubt, Howard is unlikely to be afforded such space and time again by Kerry.

But as Bastick predicts, "I think you're going to see a drastic improvement (from Fenton) the next day.

"He sets huge standards for himself. He didn't become this player by accident. He's constantly pushing the boundaries.

"So I'd expect a massive effort from him on Saturday."

For all the tactical advancements of the last decade, midfield remains a vital war zone in the battle for this year's All-Ireland.

The soldiers are forewarned and forearmed.

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