The headlines may be about Dublin’s failure to score in the last 20 minutes but the greater cause of defeat was a deficiency that lasted the full 70 minutes of Sunday’s Allianz League Division 1 Final.
Dublin’s goals expose Cork’s defensive worries
The meat of this column will deal with the factors that ensured Cork’s victory but it would be remiss to begin with a major concern for the Rebels that raised its head early and often.
Dublin’s two goals typified the positioning issues which plagued Cork’s full back line throughout the game. Michael McAuley’s break through the middle was a fine bit of creativity on the midfielder’s part but his well-placed pass to Bernard Brogan in the left corner still left Cork’s backs with a numerical advantage. The 3 on 2 situation, with Quinn still lining up to charge should have favoured the Rebels but Brogan’s cut inside attract defenders too easily. This was not a particularly innovative run and Cork should still have been able to counter Quinn’s run but Brogan sucked all the defenders towards him to leave the Vincent’s man in perfect position to receive the pass and finish from close range.
The faults in Cork’s backline for the second goal were easier to spot with the naked eye. This time Quinn turned provider as he quickly lofted a sideline ball towards Brogan. The elevation on the pass was crucial as it exploited the disorganisation amongst the Cork backs, enabling Brogan to take the goal side of Michael Shields. This turned an already favourable 1 on 1 situation into a point blank position. Brogan finished with power to give Dublin their second goal.
The errors that led to the goals reflected an issue Cork suffered from throughout the game. The Rebels efforts to crowd the middle in the full back line gave them a strong centre but gifted Dublin uncontested opportunities out wide. An uncontested shot from the flanks is not a low percentage shot. In order to exploit a crowded middle, extra defenders need to be on hand to pressure the outside shot, decreasing the chance of a score. Cork simply didn’t commit enough bodies back to afford a crowded middle.
Rebels hit the centre early and often
Fortunately for Cork’s backs, their attacking strategy was far more astute. From the off, with a brief exception in the last 10 minutes of the first half, Cork committed to driving up the gut of Dublin’s defence. We saw in the All-Ireland semi-final encounter last year, and indeed in Cork’s final win over Down, that the tide turned when Cork committed to attacking the middle. Pearse O’Neill was particularly effective early in targeting the spine and his economical movement compared to his counterparts on the Dublin team would prove as the game wore on.
While Dublin’s swarm defence is at its strongest in the middle, it is also at its least adaptable. The swarm is built around numerical mismatches forcing attackers outside into unfavourable positions. It is far easier for backs in a swarm to create additional numbers in support when they hold the inside angle. The centre may be tougher to break through but once broken, the opportunities for Cork’s forwards were immense.
The only point in the game where Cork didn’t enjoy consistent success in this regard came towards the end of the opening period. Dublin’s full backs pushed up while the half backs remained deep, essentially tightening the middle to a point where Cork resorted to long range efforts. This lapse in concentration came at about as good a time as Conor Counihan could have hoped for because once the game resumed, despite Dublin’s initial surge at the other end, the Cork forwards returned to the script. The patience of the Rebels forwards really can’t be overstated. With 10 points in the first half and 11 in the second, this was a tremendously patient display where they notched up almost a score every 3 minutes. They had a plan to target Dublin’s spine and stuck to it, reaping massive rewards throughout the game.
Gilroy’s men fail to go with the flow
Dublin’s forwards racked up 2-14 over 70 minutes. In normal circumstances, including league finals, this should be enough to come out on top. These however were far from normal circumstances. We’ve already addressed how Cork exploited Dublin’s spine so let’s look at how issues emanating from this strategy ended up deciding the outcome.
Michael Dara MacAuley was effectively in the sweeper role for Dublin, operating as the extra cover man in defence. McAuley however also had a vital attacking role for Dublin and typically relies on sharing the load so he can be effective at both ends of the park. The Ballyboden man was rampant in the first half in both roles, although his last second passes in attack didn’t always work out. While Cork’s O’Neill had support to spread the work around, McAuley didn’t have the same supporting cast due to injuries. Dublin are better built than most counties to overcome loss of personnel but the sheer dearth of players who could slot into midfield or end-to-end roles in either half line proved telling. MacAuley was, like much of the Dublin defence, gassed early in the second half. As Cork continued to apply the direct approach in the second half, MacAuley et al didn’t have the energy to continue their high-tempo defence.
The pressure on the backs mentally affected the forwards. Once again the desire to land a mythical killer blow seemed to infect the mindset of the forwards. Dean Kelly’s miss was indicative of this failing, pulling the trigger rashly when he had time to steady himself and score. The better example when looking at Dublin’s mental woes however is Paul Flynn.
The Fingallians man gave up two cheap technical frees that both turned int Cork points in the first half. First he was called for travelling at a point where he was under no pressure, the resultant free led a Daniel Goulding point. A few minutes later, after fluffing his initial effort to get the ball off the ground, Flynn panicked and picked the ball up directly while in full view of the referee. This soon became a point for Patrick Kelly. The real damage would come later on as Flynn tried to overcompensate for his earlier errors with rash efforts, both in terms of running and shooting. As Cork reduced Dublin’s lead, at one stage 8 points, the same panic set into the rest of Dublin’s attack.
Patience under pressure is not just a virtue, it’s a necessity for victory. As the results of Dublin’s defensive failings continued to mount, panic infected the entire line-up. Cork maintained a calm and direct strategy that was more successful over the course of 70 minutes to deservedly take a 0-21 to 2-14 victory. All that being said there is plenty for both managers to be concerned about. These were two dreadful defensive performances.
Dublin’s swarm won’t be outmuscled by many teams in the championship but to survive at the business end of the year, they must find a way to counter the direct running strategy imposed by Cork. Mentally Gilroy must find a way to make his team better able to deal with adversity. Front-running is a fine strategy but much like a Boxer must accept that he is probably going to get hit in the face, Gaelic Footballers must acknowledge that the other team will probably score points. The other team scoring is not a reason to deviate from the plan. Cork didn’t and we saw the end result.
The Rebels’ problems are more directly addressable. Quite frankly Counihan needs to impose more discipline in his defensive ranks. It’s one thing to be tactically outmanoeuvred, it’s quite another for players to repeatedly miss assignments. A further concern for Cork in the short term is their own mounting injury crisis. Three players came off in the first half. Like Dublin, they are in better shape than most to handle such a situation but they too have limits to their bench.
With the quest for the only piece of tin that matters about to begin, two of the prime contenders have plenty to work on.