Friday 15 December 2017

In a nip-and-tuck final Kerry get the nod to be first among equals

Kick-outs ...

Michael Darragh Macauley was a game-breaker off the bench against Mayo
Michael Darragh Macauley was a game-breaker off the bench against Mayo
'Diarmuid Connolly has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late, but he is arguably the best forward in the game'
Kerry's Paul Geaney

Billy Sheehan

Stephen Cluxton and his kick-outs have been talked about all season. Monaghan were the last team to press Dublin's restarts. In this year's National League semi-final they won six of the 24 and got a shot off on five occasions.

In the All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo wanted to keep their sweeper in place to limit goal chances - which worked for long periods - and didn't want to expend energy and fail like they did in the final two years ago.

Kerry will play zonal, as they did in the 2013 semi-final and again in this year's quarter-final against Kildare. Short kick-outs received by Dublin players facing their own goal will be pressurised to force a turnover from all sides. If Cluxton restarts quickly, Kerry will retreat en masse to the 45-metre line and set up their first line of defence there.

Kerry for the most part will go long, even if they did adopt a somewhat cautious approach in the semi-final against Tyrone.

Certainly Kerry will make Dublin and Cluxton think long and hard about how they are going to set the wheels in motion quickly from restarts. But this takes a lot of concentration, with a lot of energy being expended.

It can pay off with a crucial score as it did with Kieran Donaghy's goal in last year's final, but it can also result in Dublin dictating the pace of the game especially in the final ten minutes when the intensity of Kerry's efforts could take its toll.

It certainly will be a factor, but it's not as simple to counteract as people might think.

And it's extremely unlikely that it's going to be the crucial factor which will determine the result.

The midfield battleground ...

This was the key sector for decades, especially in Dublin-Kerry games, but it is now about a lot more than just the four players wearing No 8 and No 9.

In the modern game teams are flooding the middle third and adopting a kick-out strategy which endeavours to minimise the impact of high fielders. Players have had to adapt and become a lot more flexible, operating in some respects as link players.

The partnership of David Moran and Anthony Maher for Kerry is widely regarded as the best in the country and certainly both are suitably equipped in all facets of play to compete and dominate.

Teams are now giving their midfielders the freedom to manoeuvre, which has allowed for some very loose marking. This has resulted in players getting some spectacular scores, but it can disguise a midfielder's defensive deficiencies.

Kerry certainly run a tight ship in this regard and their marking of Cork's Alan O'Connor, Kildare's Paul Cribbin and Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly illustrates this.

Following on from his All Star award last season, Moran has continued to be a key performer. Maher has made a huge impact since he was omitted from the drawn Munster final. He has since matched the performance of his partner with some outstanding displays, which include winning 20 kick-outs.

That is nine more than Moran, whose influence in the semi-final was minimised by Tyrone's tactics, which largely by-passed midfield through various methods. However, it's a sector which Kerry will feel they can dominate with two such accomplished figures.

This season, Brian Fenton has been ever-present in the Dublin engine room and his graph shows a steady and consistent improvement in his performances.

In the semi-final replay he made 32 plays, scored a point and was also directly involved in a further two goals and two points.

Mayo's Barry Moran dropped off, affording Fenton time and space, and his athleticism coupled with some excellent kick-passing allowed him to have a profound impact on proceedings. It's doubtful he will be given the same freedom to operate today given Kerry's attention to detail in this particular sector.

Michael Darragh Macauley was a game-breaker off the bench against Mayo. He provides a lot of energy and industry. He is particularly effective attacking with intent when Dublin win the opposition's kick-out.

Denis Bastick, by contrast, offers more in terms of defensive qualities; he is a tremendous competitor and it was significant that Dublin's midfield collapsed when he was black-carded in the drawn semi-final.

If the battle is waged in the skies, it's likely that Kerry will thrive. But Dublin will bring a different philosophy, endeavouring to by-pass the midfield spine and negotiate a passage along the flanks.

It will be a cat and mouse contest, and one that will be fought with incredible intensity.

Kerry's attack versus Dublin's defence ...

This is a match-up that is largely being viewed as advantage Kerry, especially with the probable absence of Dublin centre-back Cian O'Sullivan, who has been a pivotal figure all season. He has filled the void created by the absence of Ger Brennan, using his pace, discipline and ability to organise to great effect. He has also taken on a sweeper role, illustrated by the part he played in largely containing Aidan O'Shea in both the semi-final and the replay.

If unavailable, his replacement will be either John Small, who manned the No 6 jersey throughout the National League, or Mick Fitzsimons, who could be used in the full-back line, releasing Philly McMahon or Jonny Cooper to the centre-back position.

Fitzsimons is capable of having a significant influence on proceedings. He proved this when he came off the bench twice against Mayo in direct opposition to Cillian O'Connor and Andy Moran. He is an under-rated player.

As a unit, Dublin's defence may be considered by some as being wafer-thin, but it's well to remember that they have conceded just four goals in this year's championship. And one of those was a Cillian O'Connor penalty and another was Seán Quigley's for Fermanagh.

In over 140 minutes of football against Dublin, Mayo created just four goalscoring chances and scored two. Both came from O'Connor, one the penalty; the other, in the second half of the replay, didn't come about as a result of Dublin's defence being exposed or unlocked, it was down to Mayo's good forward play.

Dublin's defensive endeavours begin with a full press high up the pitch, with their inside men tracking, harassing and tackling as far as they are needed. If this means going deep into their own half, Paddy Andrews, Dean Rock and Bernard Brogan will do it. Paul Flynn is usually retreating as cover when players break out up the pitch.

The midfielders will drop to offer cover in front of the centre-back, and if in this situation Dublin force a turnover they are extremely potent and effective with their wing-backs James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey the launching pads for counter attacks.

Kerry won't necessarily attack through the central channel, though, as they tend to kick the ball wide and use the full width of the pitch. If Dublin defend narrow with Stephen O'Brien, Jonathan Lyne, Donnchadh Walsh or Killian Young hugging the touchlines, Johnny Buckley will drop into midfield and become a playmaker, servicing the wide players. In both of his appearances in Croke Park this season, O'Brien has used his pace to devastating effect, scoring 1-6 coming in from wide positions.

Walsh on the other wing has been causing endless problems with his late untracked runs in behind the defence. In 2013 Walsh scored one goal and was involved in the other two. This season against Cork in the replay it was his run that gave Colm Cooper the outlet for the quick free and game-changing score for Paul Geaney when his shot had been saved. He also got the first goal to break Kildare's resolve in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

James O'Donoghue has for the most part been utilised as a playmaker this year and as a result his scoring returns from play have dropped significantly. There is no guarantee of course that he will fulfil that role today, even if he featured in that position in last year's All-Ireland final.

It is significant that he had 26 possessions in the All-Ireland semi-final. He didn't score from play and only one of his possessions was received inside the 20-metre line. It's likely that Philly McMahon will track O'Donoghue, leaving Kerry operating with just two players inside. It will be interesting to see which players Cooper and Rory O'Carroll will be assigned to mark.

Of course if O'Donoghue is deployed in a deeper role, it will attract McMahon into a sector where he is quite comfortable and is also capable of making a significant impact in offensive plays. He has played the free man role to deadly effect throughout this year.

The absence of Kieran Donaghy from Kerry's starting line-up will mean the defending champions will play a fast, heads-up, passing game, moving the ball at pace to their inside duo of Paul Geaney and Colm Cooper. Geaney excelled when introduced against Tyrone and the change of style also benefited Cooper, bringing him more into the game. Kerry will have little problem switching styles from a long, direct game to a pass-and-move system, as that was how Fitzmaurice had them playing prior to Donaghy's introduction against Mayo in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

So, it isn't simply a case of Dublin's defence coping with Kerry in attacking situations. Kerry will also have to be extremely organised and focused in terms of limiting the scoring threat which will be provided by McCarthy, McCaffrey and McMahon at the other end of the pitch.

Dublin's attack versus Kerry's defence ...

Kerry selected their team with the opposition in mind. They will go man to man. Kerry's six backs will rarely feature in their selected positions; the emphasis will be on old-style defending with a modern flavour.

Defenders will track their opponents far beyond the defensive zone and target the opposition's key players. We saw this happen in last year's All-Ireland final when Aidan O'Mahony went toe to toe with Michael Murphy. In this year's Championship it was also done by Paul Murphy on Kildare's Niall Kelly, Jonathan Lyne on Tyrone's Peter Harte, and Killian Young on Cork's Paddy Kelly.

However, operating solely on individual match-ups can result in a team giving up goalscoring opportunities, and Kerry have been exposed in this regard against Tipperary, Cork and Tyrone. We saw defenders staying tight on their defined men and not covering across to the danger quickly enough.

Kerry drop 12 men behind the ball - and sometimes 15 - utilising Anthony Maher, David Moran and Johnny Buckley as a central wall in their defensive structure, with Donnchadh Walsh and Stephen O'Brien tracking back along the flanks.

There's a widespread belief that if you run at the Kerry defence you will profit, but their structure is really only vulnerable in broken play. So if a team wins a Kerry kick-out and initiates an attack at pace, with players committed to the breaking ball, the avenues and chances will come. Tyrone did this twice in the opening period, with Connor McAliskey spurning two great goal opportunities.

Peter Crowley concentrated solely on marking Sean Cavanagh in the semi-final, but Cavanagh's positioning on occasion took Crowley out of his pivotal position and opened up the space for defence-splitting attacks. Cork too, with runners coming from deep who had lost their markers, profited with goals in both the drawn and replayed Munster finals.

Dublin adopt a screening strategy, just like basketball, so man-to-man marking in these situations can be quite costly.

Bernard Brogan has been Dublin's standout performer in the Championship, scoring 6-19 from play. Shane Enright will probably be given the job of policing him, but Brogan has shown that he can essentially live off scraps, with two points and two assists with just five possessions in the drawn semi-final versus Mayo.

At the moment, with Dean Rock moving out towards the 45-metre line, extra space is left inside and Paddy Andrews has benefited from this, registering ten points from play in his last three games. His crossfield runs on the 21-metre line could prove crucial in creating space inside.

Fionn Fitzgerald is likely to be given the task of curbing the in-form Andrews, who played corner-back and marked Colm Cooper in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, a game Kerry won by 1-24 to 1-7.

Diarmuid Connolly has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late, but he is arguably the best forward in the game. It would be interesting if Dublin placed him on the edge of the square at the outset and left him there for a prolonged period.

In a man-to-man marking situation it would mean that either Lyne or Young would effectively be playing in the full-back position for Kerry. Donegal were unhinged in a similar situation by Paul Geaney's early goal in last year's All-Ireland final.

Ciaran Kilkenny has been a huge addition to the Dublin forward line since his return from a cruciate injury. He's led the line, linked the play and generally controlled the game from the centre region. He's scored 18 points in this Championship, with 16 coming in the first half; this shows that when things are tight in the beginning he's at his most dangerous.

Repeatedly the argument is made that Dublin's impressive scoring returns against supposedly weak Leinster opponents offer little insight into their attacking potential.

However, 4-24 from play over the two games against Mayo is confirms that they have a wealth of firepower.

In 2013 Dublin attacked the heart of the Kerry defence, creating six goal chances, principally through the direct running of Cian O'Sullivan, Jack McCaffrey and Connolly.

It's hard to see them carving open the Kerry defence to the same extent, but Dublin have scored 18 goals in the Championship this season, so they have the capability to capitalise.

They have scored goals in all but one of their Championship games under Jim Gavin, the exception being against Donegal when they lost last year's semi-final.

On this occasion they will need two or more to prevail.

Strength on the bench ...

Kerry have lots of options and they've used their bench extensively in all of their games to date. They have enviable strength in depth, with All-Ireland winners and indeed All Stars in reserve.

Darran O'Sullivan and Barry John Keane are the two most likely to be introduced by Kerry when the game is hanging in the balance in the final quarter.

Kerry also have the option of putting their captain Kieran Donaghy in on the edge of the square, and we saw the impact he had 12 months ago when he had a point to prove against Mayo.

All three bring a cutting edge and are able to inject energy and momentum almost immediately.

Dublin's trump card is obviously Kevin McManamon, whose input has included goals in the 2011 final and the 2013 semi-final.

Over the two games against Mayo he posted 2-2, so expect Kerry to react with a substitution of their own when he is introduced.

Alan Brogan offers control, guile and direction along with the ability to finish with clinical efficiency.

Dublin have benefited to the tune of 2-10 off the bench this season, while Kerry's return has been 3-9, although it should be noted that 3-4 of that tally came against Kildare when the result had essentially been decided.

Bryan Sheehan, an All Star midfielder, is also being held in reserve by the Kingdom, while an interesting addition to the Dublin squad for the replay against Mayo was Cormac Costello. Injury has restricted his involvement all season, but he is a player with the ability to make a sizeable impact if he is fully fit.

So, while both sides might feel that every eventuality has been covered, there's always the possibility of a trump card being pulled from the bottom of the deck.

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