Friday 18 January 2019

Joe Brolly: You won't win anything with zonal defence - nobody will beat Dublin unless they commit numbers to attack

No team will beat Dublin unless they have bravery to commit numbers to attack, says Joe Brolly

Galway’s Peter Cooke is crowded out last Sunday by a Dublin rearguard that always gets the balance right between defence and attack. Photo: Daire Brennan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Galway’s Peter Cooke is crowded out last Sunday by a Dublin rearguard that always gets the balance right between defence and attack. Photo: Daire Brennan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

It was a great day's football and fun in Croke Park last Sunday. Afterwards, I was in Cusack's Bar for an hour thawing out and enjoying the banter with a crowd of yahoos from St Vincent's.

We were talking about trash talking, and a Dromore man (wearing his Tyrone top of course) joined us and told us this one: he had a reputation for being hot-headed when he was young. He was playing in the under 21 championship semi-final, and just after the throw-in his man started, "Your mother was at the bingo on Friday night in Omagh?" "She was," he said, taken aback that his opponent knew this. "I slept with her afterwards," he said. Cool as a cucumber, the Dromore man said, "What time was that at?" "Half ten." "You must be mistaken, at half ten I was sitting beside her on the sofa watching The Late Late." The place exploded.

The first game was played in a great spirit and it is highly doubtful that there was any trash talking. Spectacular goals duly flowed, both teams showing their considerable skills. It gave us a flavour of how proficient our players are now.

Cavan looked unrecognisable from the team that brought us such abysmal, robotic, defensive muck before this season. The Black Death is gone, cured by football, the only antidote. Instead of trying not to lose, Cavan were striving to win, and they played vibrantly for long stretches against an equally imaginative Roscommon team. Even when they were five points down with five minutes to go, they kept fighting for the win.

Roscommon were just further down the road, more settled, older and more seasoned, even if the Dubs would probably score 12 goals against them. Their Connacht title and exploits over the last two years have given them a composure that this young Cavan group do not have yet. This was the only difference. I was sitting amongst Cavan people at the game and they were rightly proud of the way their team played. As Oisín McConville is fond of saying, "The game is about dying with your boots on."

Dublin, meanwhile, continue to save Gaelic football. Their annihilation of Tyrone's system last year highlighted the fallacy of playing a packed zonal defence with no one ahead of the ball. Galway think they are the young pretenders, but they are merely playing Tyrone football from last year, so it is not possible for them to beat Dublin. This was illustrated in Salthill a fortnight ago against Dublin's B team, and again last Sunday, in spite of the fact that for 27 minutes of the second half, they were a man up, and playing with a gale-force breeze. Like Tyrone last year, they got hemmed in by Dublin's full court press, were turned over in very dangerous areas in the middle third and even further up, and in the end were labouring futilely inside their own '45, allowing Dublin to hold possession (at one point for three minutes and 24 seconds) with the clock running down and the Dubs four points up.

This was a carbon copy of what happened a fortnight earlier in Salthill and underlines the point that the 1-13-1 formation is one-dimensional. Like Tyrone last year, when they needed to change tack, they couldn't. The gale and the extra man were irrelevant. In the final quarter, Dublin outscored them 0-6 to 0-2, created and narrowly missed two great goal chances and, in truth, romped home.

Back to Cusack's. Mark Ingle, the basketball coach who works with Dublin, was among the Vincent's faithful. His constant theme was the futility of zonal defending in Gaelic football.

"The pitch is too big, Joe. It will only work if the other team are doing the same thing."

Just to tease him a bit, I started asking questions about what's happening inside the squad. Which turned out like the scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where Steve Carell is following his mentor's advice and chatting up the woman in the bookstore by only asking questions.

"What's the problem with Diarmuid?

"What do you think the problem is Joe?

"Is he too upset to go back after not being picked for the final?"

"Do you think that's the reason?

"I don't know. You're his clubman. Or is he not happy with the role he's being asked to perform?"

"Why would he not be happy about that?"

"Is his relationship with Jim poor?"

"Why do you say that?"

"Is it over for him? Is he just moving on?"

"You'd have to ask Diarmuid that."

And so it went, like Paddy the Irishman on Mastermind in the mid-1970s. Paddy was from Crossmaglen and his specialist subject was the Troubles. He 'passed' the first four questions, and someone from the audience shouted, "Good man Paddy, tell them feck all."

The Dubs man-mark because it is the smart way to play. They do not retreat into set positions and allow the opposition to hold possession outside their perimeter. Instead, they apply constant pressure in an effort to turn the ball over and regain possession. This can only be done via man-marking, since otherwise there is confusion as to who should pick up whom and the team in possession has the advantage.

Dublin choose to man-mark, tackling fiercely the whole way down the pitch if necessary. This wears the opposition down, since normally they are used to carrying the ball out of their own defence fairly freely. It also means they are always ready to attack. If they turn the ball over inside the opposition '45 they immediately go for goal or an easy point. The same in the middle third (think of their first goal against Tyrone last year). If the opposition commits everyone forward when they counter-attack, then their men go with them, so that when the Dubs turn over in that situation, the opposition is turning and running back towards their own goals with their backs to the play.

There are two other refinements. Firstly, when the opposition forwards retreat, the Dubs drop a temporary sweeper into the space in front of the full-back. Secondly, when a Dublin defender realises his man is making a dummy run or that his man is staying on the touchline to create space, he will drop off towards the danger area and help in there. This is an illustration of footballing intelligence.

Put in a nutshell: the Dubs do not want to defend zonally. They want to get the ball back as quickly as possible. You cannot play a pressure game if you zonally defend. This is why when a team is playing the Dubs, they can never hold possession against them, stringing the ball around and killing time. It is also why the opposition find it so difficult to score against them, because they are all constantly being pressurised and struggle to work the ball upfield, which they must generally do out of a zonal defence that only has one or two forwards ahead of the ball.

The key message from the last few years is that unless teams get the balance right between defence and attack (and this is difficult, though not impossible to achieve once you depart from a man-marking template, since a combination of zone and man to man is very tricky), then they will not make it to the highest level. And it will remain impossible to beat the Dubs. Though I didn't hear any of that from Mark Ingle . . .

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