Saturday 25 January 2020

Dublin v Tyrone: Where the All Ireland semi final will be won and lost

Peter Harte and (inset) Dean Rock
Peter Harte and (inset) Dean Rock

Conor McKeon

Conor McKeon examines the strengths and weaknesses of both sides ahead of what is sure to be a tactical battle between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park today.



THE Gaelic football statistics blog ‘Don’t Foul’ produced a graphic recently illustrating the combined scoring attempts of Tyrone’s Ulster semi-final and final opponents in the first halves of their respective defeats to Mickey Harte’s team this year.

Between them, Donegal and Down had 28 shots in open play, just nine of which were scored and the peripheral, low-percentage areas from which they took their kicks tells its own story of the efficiency of Tyrone’s defensive set-up.

Harte’s side are experts at applying pressure to the ba ll-carrier, showing them a path of apparently less resistance and then appearing from the shadows to mug the trespasser.

As Cathal McCarron explained of Tyrone’s system: “We don’t play in straight lines. We are set up in diamonds. Every single man knows what he is doing, what he is supposed to be doing.”

How effective is it? They have conceded the lowest average score of any of the remaining semi-finalists – 12.25 per match.

Michael Carroll’s late strike for Donegal in the Ulster semi-final remains the only goal they have conceded this summer and they shipped just four in their seven league games this spring. Central to this is the role of Colm Cavanagh. Cavanagh will contest kick-outs and then instantly retreat to the edge of the Tyrone square.

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IT’S not overstating it to say that the potency of Tyrone’s attack, which has seen them score an average of 23.75 points in this year’s championship, is linked to the efficiency of their defence.

Mark Bradley is a threat in his own right, despite spending most of his afternoons in isolation in the opposition’s half.

But it is their playmaking middle third men that make this Tyrone team hum with their overwhelming of opposition defences by flooding forward at break-neck pace.

Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden and Tiernan McCann mind the ball with huge security.

Their movements are tightly drilled and they have proved almost impossible to dispossess in full flight.

They possess almost a full team of players who can score from range.

With 2-4, David Mulgrew is their top scorer from play, despite the fact that he didn’t start their last match against Armagh.

Bradley (0-8) and Ronan O’Neill (2-1) are their next highest marksmen from open play and no team spreads their burden as thinly as Mickey Harte’s.

Tyrone have had 14 different men on the scoresheet this summer and have demonstrated their capacity to shoot over defensive cover from distance.

Sean Cavanagh, Aidan McCrory, Tiernan McCann, Niall Sludden and Peter Harte of Tyrone celebrate


TYRONE led Dublin by 1-7 to 0-5 in the 61st minute of the league match between these two counties in Croke Park on February 11 before Dublin reeled them in to draw.

Notably, three of the five points Jim Gavin’s team scored between the 61st and 74th minute were Dean Rock frees. In total, Rock scored five placed balls on the night and also missed a penalty.

Since then, Tyrone have become by far the most disciplined team in Ireland. In their four matches in the Championship so  far, they have conceded just over 11 frees per match.

Between the first halves of the Ulster semi-final and final, they offered up just one free in scoring range.

McCarron has been their one big offender, sent off twice on double yellow cards this year but mostly Tyrone’s efficiency in the tackle has been remarkable and it could lead to a situation where Rock is under-utilised.

The other area were Tyrone have become market leaders is the ‘mark’.

Kevin Feely remains the individual with the highest number of ‘marks’ but via the speed and accuracy of Niall Morgan’s kick-outs and the fielding ability of both Cavanagh brothers, Pádraig Hampsey, Harte and Conal McCann, they have bought possession and breathing room.



THE conversation after the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final when Donegal withdrew to defend in record numbers and almost threatened to shut Dublin out was all about the arrival of Kevin McManamon and the tweaking of Pat Gilroy’s plan to a running-based game.

Keeping six players in the traditional defensive zones, Mickey Whelan explained, had negated Donegal finding space when they broke from deep.

This contributed to keeping Donegal to just six points, a figure Dublin were always likely to surpass if they kept their nerve and ceased shooting from improbable angles.

Three weeks ago against Monaghan, Dublin played with two players (mostly Cian O’Sullivan and Philly McMahon) inside their own ‘45’ alongside Dublin’s designated markers, Jonny Cooper and Mick Fitzsimons.

Tomorrow Tyrone will play with one man up at most – likely to be Mark Bradley – but the number of players Jim Gavin sends to attack will define how vulnerable Dublin will be.

Four would seem the likeliest figure, with O’Sullivan certain to stay put and one of Dublin’s other half-backs covering for McMahon when he advances.

Eric Lowndes did a man-marking job on Karl O’Connell in the quarter-final and Gavin i s unlikely to leave Peter Harte without a man assigned tightly.


AT his pre-match press conference, Gavin was asked whether there is a danger of getting “sucked into playing the game on Tyrone’s terms?”

“That’s a possibility, yeah,” he replied curtly.  Gavin has long since learned the virtue of patience.

He has also devoted much of Dublin’s training in the past two years to breaking down defences as organised and densely populated as Tyrone’s and tomorrow will be the biggest test so far of all that work.

Dublin’s attack play with maximum width. Their corner men will be exactly that, their wing-forwards will hug their sidelines.

Some of their runners will be sent as decoys to occupy one of Tyrone’s sweepers and through the assured ball-handling of Ciarán Kilkenny and Brian Fenton, they will seek to stretch Tyrone with lateral passing and lure their press by keeping possession, safe in the knowledge that Tyrone can’t win the game if Dublin have the ball.

When a chink of light appears, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion (and later, possibly Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly) will dart into it and force defenders to commit.

Jack McCaffrey of Dublin during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Dublin and Carlow at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, in Co. Laois. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile


DUBLIN’S bench have contributed 2-17 this summer, 20.7pc of their scoring tally. Gavin has used 29 players in the four games of Dublin’s championship campaign, more than any of the remaining All-Ireland semi-finalists.

Their  list of reserves doesn’t just feature players of high quality and experience but also huge variation. For all Con O’Callaghan’s directness and comfort off either foot and Paul Mannion’s prolific summer so far, there is no certainty that either - or any of Dublin’s front six for that matter - will thrive.

Which is where having Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon, Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley in reserve comes in handy. Obviously, Connolly is the man most likely to lift the crowd. But Dublin’s surprise impact player could be of Templeogue/Synge Street stock.

Eoghan O’Gara goal against Westmeath demonstrated his brutish ball-winning and goal-scoring potency and at different stages this summer Dublin tested out a more direct, long-ball route of attack. If they’re chasing a goal late on and Tyrone have receded into a thicket of defensive bodies, O’Gara will be the man for the job.

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