Friday 23 February 2018

Feisty Mayo have the tools to nullify Dublin's 'big three' and finally reach the promised land

Stephen Cluxton and (inset) Cian O'Sullivan in action
Stephen Cluxton and (inset) Cian O'Sullivan in action
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

No team has been capable of taking Dublin out of their comfort zone during this year's championship but they haven't come across a side like Mayo yet, and they can cause the Dubs problems that other teams could only dream of.

If Mayo show a physical edge, blended with composure and patience when in possession, then there is nothing stopping them from finishing what they have started in the last two years.

It won't come easily as the Dubs are better than Mayo, individually and collectively, and possess the greater skill and athleticism, but if Stephen Rochford can ruffle the feathers of the 'big three', namely Stephen Cluxton, Cian O'Sullivan and Ciarán Kilkenny, he can lead them to the promised land.

Cluxton is in line for Footballer of the Year at 35 and rarely would an award be more deserved as he has revolutionised what it means to be a goalkeeper and Donie Buckley will have focused a lot of attention on how to curb his influence. Mayo must do anything they can to unsettle him, starting by positioning fellas in the areas which Cluxton regularly targets for kick-outs.

They'll have to be very physical with Dublin and not allow them to go where they want to go while also having the awareness that he can kick a long bomb to midfield with great accuracy at any time as well.

It's impossible for any team to push up on the kick-outs for 70-plus minutes but I expect them to do it at various intervals, possibly adopting the three lines of four tactic which Kerry used to spook Cluxton in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

A high ball into Aidan O’Shea, who could rotate in and out of full-forward, and cause some aerial collisions, could bear fruit. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
A high ball into Aidan O’Shea, who could rotate in and out of full-forward, and cause some aerial collisions, could bear fruit. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

You've got to vary it, you've got to get bodies forward at times and operate a full-court press and other times you have to admit defeat, let them have the ball and defend from the '45'. Every time Cillian O'Connor has a free, he'll take his time and give everyone a chance to get into position.

Rochford isn't adverse to pulling a rabbit from the hat either and Mayo have been putting more thought into Dublin than anyone since the start of the year, so they will be ready for Cluxton.

It's easy to forget that a goalkeeper's primary function is to be a shot-stopper and Cluxton has improved enormously in that area this year. However, as a former forward, it's frustrating to see how many shots are hit straight at him.

People always ask, 'how do you upset him?' There's nothing that will put him more off his game than sticking a goal past him. A high ball into Aidan O'Shea, who could rotate in and out of full-forward, and cause some aerial collisions, could bear fruit.

He hasn't been tested like that because Dublin have had everything their own way and a few long balls into the edge of the square could upset him. Also, Mayo will get goal chances and they must be ruthless, hit the corners and not give the Hill a chance to sing his praises.

One of the primary reasons why Cluxton is rarely exposed is O'Sullivan. Dublin's defensive lesson started when Pat Gilroy developed the wall and Jim Gavin has evolved it since Donegal pierced through them three years ago with O'Sullivan the key man sweeping at the back.

He reads the play so well and is so athletic that he can plug holes at the drop of a hat but he has definitely gotten a free ride over the last couple of years. Few have troubled him and with the Dubs adopting two sweepers recently, he has even more freedom to dictate things.

Mayo are unlikely to push up with seven attackers but of all the Dublin defenders, he's the one who should definitely be occupied because he's the general. He collects the knock-downs from high balls and superbly cuts off deliveries to the corners.

To trouble him Mayo must match him up with a scoring threat, maybe Kevin McLoughlin, and play the ball through the scorer to keep him honest and take away from his primary role as sweeper. He can be got at but you must have the courage to take him on because he's not used to that part of the game any more.

Whenever a Mayo player looks up, O'Sullivan's marker must be available to receive it to force him to push up. This will bring him away from the 'D' and the long delivery to O'Shea, or Diarmuid O'Connor drifting across on a high ball like the last day, will pay dividends, especially if the spare man isn't as close as he'd wish.

Kilkenny is Dublin's quarterback, a great decision-maker in possession and Mayo must force him to take a backward or lateral step.

In Australian Rules a 'tagger' is willing to sacrifice his game for the team and that's needed here.

Mayo have the perfect man for the job in Colm Boyle because if you let Kilkenny play, he'll conduct the orchestra all day long.

I don't expect Diarmuid Connolly to start because of the disciplinary baggage he brings and Gavin might try to win it without him to make him realise that he must change his ways.

That would free Lee Keegan to possibly rotate with Boyle and I'd be telling them both, 'I want at least three runs forward in 15 minutes' before switching over. It would be very hard for one man to do that job for a full game but you've got to do something to stifle Kilkenny's normal routine.

Mayo can't afford any player rated below 6/10 in Monday's papers and it will take a brilliant team effort to end 66 years of pain, but they can do it and reducing the impact of Dublin's big three in any way could make all the difference. Mayo by one.


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