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Dubs happy to bluff but they don't have all the aces

Bryan Cullen said there'd be no one tipping Dublin for the All-Ireland after that performance, and he seemed almost pleased to be saying it.

But really, if the plan was to play poorly just to keep the dreaded hype at bay, they could've made a better effort to conceal it. Because it kind of takes the good out of it if people can see through it. So, you really shouldn't be explaining that it's "no harm to come in under the radar a little bit."

That way, it feels like he's telling us what to think -- and giving the game away in the process. Aha! So the Dubs deliberately dropped down a few gears, knowing they'd still have the beating of Wexford, and hoping that we'd all end up writing their obituary afterwards.

The Dublin captain has matured into an impressive and serious county footballer. But he felt the need to add, just in case we missed the point: "Maybe we're not as good as we think we are." Which was laying it on a bit thick, we reckoned.

As always, one was left with the nagging thought that Dublin GAA wasn't in school the day they were teaching the art of cuteness in Gaelic games. It would have been a much more convincing bluff if he'd come out saying the performance was actually better than it looked. That they'd still scored 2-12 and if they could hit that tally on a bad day, what would they be like on a good one? That way he'd have copped a bit of flak for being in denial about Dublin's problems. But it might have disguised the fact that this was simply a low-key performance against a Wexford team they knew they would comfortably contain.

Top teams do this all the time. They will say all the right things about their opponents beforehand, but deep down they'll be calibrating the level of output required to get the job done. And if they can save some energy in the tank, they will; if they don't need to go flat out, they won't.

Dublin didn't go flat out last Sunday. Their motivation was well below peak intensity. They switched off through the second and third quarter, allowing Wexford back into a game that was steadily drifting away from them. They got a big break with Wexford's own goal. But they had plenty of time anyway to reel in the deficit they were suddenly facing after Redmond Barry's goal in the 44th minute. Dublin didn't have to throw the kitchen sink at Wexford to get back in the game. James McCarthy's goal was proof of that. He took on a Wexford midfielder in a simple foot race and beat him easily. Then a defender who might have blocked him slipped, leaving McCarthy a free run on goal.

It was too easy. And we are assuming here that Dublin players privately believed it was going to be an easy afternoon. Hence the slack performance on the day.

Cullen also said afterwards that "the season really starts now for us". Their intensity levels, physical and psychological, will take a quantum leap for the quarter-final.

The real problem is that their skill levels will not improve by a similar margin. And it's at this point that their formidable advantage in athletic power will start to shrink. It's been their perennial problem. Dublin will now start to face teams who won't get steamrolled by the force of their running game. McCarthy and his colleagues will encounter players who won't be beaten in a foot race, and who won't be blown away in the tackle.

It's when the athletic capacity of the top teams starts to even out, that the margin between winning and losing is decided by the finer levels in skill. This covers everything from keeping the ball under pressure, to making the right decision and executing those decisions. It is about general field craft: slick build-up play and efficient finishing.

Dublin will never approach the current Kerry side, or Tyrone in their prime, when it comes to these qualities. But it doesn't mean that they can't improve, and improve just enough to get them over the line.

They can make an immediate percentage gain in midfield, for example, by selecting the right combination. Last Sunday they went with a pairing that was useful, hard-working and ponderous. Barry Cahill's omission remains a puzzle. Cahill has the pace and field intelligence to knit moves together; to take a ball out of defence and move it on smoothly to the forward line.

The half-forward line of Cullen, Brogan and Flynn is good enough for any team hoping to win an All-Ireland. The full-forward line is not. Surgery is needed here. Eoghan O'Gara is simply too crude for this level. He is too slow in thought and deed. A team with designs on the title needs more sophistication than this.

Bernard Brogan cannot carry the inside line on his own. And the first person who needs to be told is Brogan himself. He was at his self-indulgent worst last Sunday. But part of his problem is that he is being asked to operate in a malfunctioning full-forward line. It is Dublin's biggest worry that they do not have a settled, integrated inside three at this stage of the championship.

If it's not sorted, and quickly, they will fall short again this year.


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