A fascinating battle of two swarms and two very different attacks resulted in a low-scoring but tense tactical duel in Croke Park on Sunday. Emmet Ryan breaks down how Dublin beat Donegal by 0-8 to 0-6 to book a date with Kerry.
Donegal saw everything coming
The Ulster champions did everything I expected of them and everything I said they needed to do in my preview in the first half. What I couldn’t have possibly expected was just how perfect their execution would be in the first half. Jim McGuinness’ team wanted to play the game between the 45s and they succeeded with aplomb. The blanket and swarm combo kept the game going at the slow pace Donegal enjoy and forced Dublin to operate in limited space. The room they enjoyed between the 21 and 45 against Tyrone simply wasn’t there and that left Bernard Brogan as an island rather than a threat in the first half. The first score from play didn’t come until 24 minutes.
While Donegal may not have been scoring for fun they played to their strengths and dominated because of it. This was by far the best set of backs the Ulster champions had faced this season so the objective had to be control when attacks were made. If Donegal could ensure they crossed the Dublin 45 more than Dublin crossed theirs, the odds were in their favour. The strength of this defence showed in the final tally, with Dublin’s 0-8 the lowest they have scored since losing to Wicklow by 0-9 to 0-6 in a 2009 O’Byrne Cup game.
Two key elements of Dublin’s play were addressed directly from Donegal. The issue of long range frees was taken rather simply, foul even higher and wider. In the first half this worked as Stephen Cluxton was reduced to two difficult efforts from place balls, both of which he failed to convert. The other big question was how Donegal would react to Dublin’s propensity to use short kick-outs. The simple answer was “let them”. Donegal kept true to their shape and allowed Dublin easy short kick-outs, not challenging possession. With Gilroy’s men meeting a blanket once they crossed their own 45, the advantage of playing short was largely negated as they couldn’t turn defence into attack at speed. The biggest victim of this ploy was Michael Dara McAuley. A box-to-box runner struggles to succeed if play is kept to such tight confines.
Donegal’s tempo gambit
For all their dominance, the Ulster champions still only held a 2-point lead at half-time due to Dublin’s sturdy defence. Jim McGuinness decided to try and force the issue in the second half by trying to choke the life out of a comeback early. It nearly worked. Colm McFadden’s point to make it 0-5 to 0-2 and his subsequent miss on goal were the first two occasions where the spine of Dublin’s swarm was broken. They would also be the last times it was threatened. A 5 or 6 point lead at that stage could have been decisive. McFadden should not be blamed however as chances were limited. The best way to ensure victory is to create more quality chances than your opponent. If you can’t do that then risks must be taken. With such gambits come the potential for failure.
Donegal’s decision to play a faster game at the start of the second half created a gap between their attack and defence. With the Donegal half backs starting from deeper positions, Dublin were able to move the game further into that end of the field. The closer you let your opponent get to goal the better their odds of creating high percentage chances.
Dublin attack at the back
Donegal’s increase in tempo suited a Dublin defence used to playing at speed. With the opportunity to push the pace, Dublin’s backs took charge by maintaining the swarm tactics that brought them to this game. It was aggressive and quick Football, getting the ball to outlets early and fouling in positions which left little chance of Donegal scoring. Now it was Michael Murphy and co. who were reduced to taking rushed low-percentage efforts. In turn Dublin started to control the flow of the game, with the defence pushing play further up field as the game wore on.
With the ball crossing their 45 with more ease, Donegal’s backs weren’t able to control where the game was played with the same authority as in the opening 35 minutes. Stephen Cluxton would soon be presented with two much easier opportunities, both of which he converted. His fifth effort of the game may have gone wide but the decision to bring him up was mainly about killing the clock. Even Dublin’s two points from play were a clear result of this swing in territorial advantage, with Dublin finally having the requisite time to get the numbers inside the 21 to create better opportunities. The first Dublin point from play came on the hour mark, Kevin McManamon’s equaliser, the second would come two minutes later as Bryan Cullen scored from broken play to give Dublin a lead they would not relinquish.
This was a tactical war and for 35 minutes it was a masterclass from the Ulster champions but Dublin’s core system eventually found a way to triumph. Donegal’s first half performance was close to perfection. They prevented Dublin from patiently building up their attacks, forced low percentage efforts, and largely controlled when the ball left the areas between the 45s.
The tide turned with Donegal’s decision to push the tempo early in the second half. It may have padded their lead early but the disruption to their rhythm was massive. McGuinness knew he would have to take risks and this was one that didn’t pay off. The added confidence of Dublin’s backs pushed the play deeper into Donegal territory. For all Dublin’s limitations on the day, the opportunity to create high percentage chances will always increase when you can play the game further up the field. The dominance of Dublin’s backs proved vital in turning the game.
Donegal could ask no more of their team on this day, they played a tactically brilliant match for the most part, committed to keeping Dublin guessing. They simply don’t have an answer yet to a swarm defence that operates at speed. It was that defence which limited Donegal to the lowest tally of any team facing Dublin in the championship since Leitrim scored just 0-4 in 2004. This unit has grown tremendously over the past 2 years and it was dominant defence, indeed the more dominant defence of the two, that won the day.
That red card
I’ve deliberately left out discussing the Diarmuid Connolly red card in detail above as the nature of the offence and the knock-on effects after this game don’t fit with the rest of my analysis. There are a couple of matters to bear in mind with the offence, namely what the rules are and how the presiding committees may view it. The former is clear. Connolly clearly threw a punch that connected. That is striking and a straight red card. The referee had the right to dismiss Connolly based on the advice of his assistance in this regard. This really is clear cut and indisputable if the letter of the law is being applied.
The murky issue is whether the card will stand up and that is far harder to call. Arguably Connolly may not have received his marching orders if Marty Boyle hadn’t gone down as it would be far from the first time that a player didn’t get sent off after throwing a punch. The manner in which Boyle hit the deck could impact whether the powers that be to hunt down a fudge in the rules, one that would give them due cause to decide to overturn Connolly’s red card. I will not guess as to whether the red card will be overturned, frankly it’s too hard to call, but whatever the ramifications I’ll assess the impact of the final decision in my preview of the All Ireland Final. Well I had to finish on a shameless plug really.
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