Old rivals, new approaches
Much has been made of the history of the rivalry between Dublin and Kerry. In terms of on-field strategy, we should expect nothing that we are used to. The 1970s era is the easiest to point to for dramatic differences. For example, Dublin and Kerry are using over twice as many hand passes per game as they did in that era. We don’t even need to go that far back however for major strategic differences. The 2009 encounter may have ended in a flash due to the Kingdom’s early flurry but stylistically the two sides have altered substantially, albeit more subtly on Kerry’s part.
Not Donegal but not Tyrone either
The bulk of this column’s readers began following after Dublin’s quarter final with Tyrone and it was a clash with Tyrone a year earlier where Dublin’s adjustments became most obvious. The installation of the swarm defence became most evident at a league game in Omagh and that system, with some notable adjustments, has carried Dublin through the last two seasons.
The approach against Kerry is unlikely to mirror either the Donegal or Tyrone games too much. From what little we have learned of the Kingdom in 2011, more on that later, they prefer to keep their two back lines more conventionally stationed than either of Dublin’s last two opponents. This means the war between the 45s of the semi-final is unlikely, while the near exclusive focus on outside the 21 efforts from the win over Tyrone will also be tough to deliver.
Once element from both games will factor heavily into play and that will be keeping the defence honest. In each of those last two clashes it fell to Bernard Brogan to stay higher up the field so as to create room for scoring chances for the rest of the Dublin attack. Any attacking approach on Sunday will rely heavily on this. It may hinder Gilroy’s greatest single attacking threat but it will give Dublin their best chance of scoring regularly.
Defensively Dublin need to adjust their swarm to counter Kerry’s ability to spread and cut. The use of Kieran Donaghy in a further wide position for his target role has enabled Kerry to move the ball along the inside forward line before cutting up the inside or passing back to an open shooter for a high percentage effort. With a commitment to getting attackers in position and plenty of scorers, this is a bold and effective approach.
Kerry’s double-edged sword
So effective have Kerry been this season that it makes a preview remarkably difficult to write. They have recorded two blow-outs over Limerick, and a one-sided semi-final win over Mayo. The only close encounter was a bizarre Munster Final victory over Cork where Kerry effectively recorded a blow-out in the first half, fell victim to one after the break before rallying in stoppage time to win. Kerry have won All Irelands without being test before but it is a big ask to enter a final without a significant test along the way. In their favour however is the fact that it means they haven’t fully shown their hand and could have some interesting adjustments in mind.
Tactically that leaves very little to work off for this preview but enough to notice some elements. While ostensibly playing a conventional 15 man formation, Kerry do bring a distinct element of swarm into defence between 45 and midfield, drawing players back from attack, but without overcommitting bodies as to slow Kerry’s own counter attack.
Jack O’Connor really is one of the game’s most under-rated tacticians, largely because of his historical failings against Mickey Harte. A manager should not be judged on failings alone as Kerry’s three All Irelands under his tutelage, not to mention dominance in their rivalry with Cork, have not come through merely on talent. Like any great strategist O’Connor has worked on building around Kerry’s own strengths, particularly their deep pool of attacking threats, and looked to exploit the weaknesses of opponents. Playing six scorers up front is pretty but doesn’t have a back-up plan. Playing five and one disruptor wins All Irelands. In Kieran Donaghy he hass a physically powerful ball winner who sorely lacks the ability to get past his man and is far from an accurate shooter. Deploying him right up the middle can deliver some results in distribution but O’Connor has always used Donaghy off-centre* and has increasingly pushed him wide in order to open up space for those around him.
*Tommy Walsh’s use in place of the injured Donaghy in the target role in late 2009 showed just how effective such a target man can be when he has the mobility to go passed his man at will.
The wrinkle we need to see this Sunday, one that really hasn’t been evident throughout O’Connor’s reign, is how playing a target man wider can aid Kerry in beating a swarm defence. Sweeper systems and standard blanket approaches, where defences invite attacks onto a wall, have rarely troubled the Kingdom but the 5 on 3 match-ups often present in a swarm have long troubled O’Connor’s teams. That movement of Donaghy nearer to the flank could however cause enough chaos to enable the spread and cut play to thrive.
Defensively O’Connor’s Kerry have proved adept at slowing opponents. Again this is about playing to Kerry’s strengths. Most opponents the Kingdom face will line out with either a sweeper or try to bring an extra man back in defence. Forcing the play wide around half-forward and fouling high has long aided Kerry in slowing attacks, not just because these approaches either slow or stop play but because they enable some of their forwards who are defensively gifted to get back and cover without limiting their role in attack.
Age profile in defence is the one notable concern for Kerry but again there is reason to believe that O’Connor has a plan here. The decision to start Donnchadh Walsh ahead of Paul Galvin at half-forward, indeed Galvin hasn’t started all season, should not be taken as much of a shock. A fresh Galvin’s defensive prowess could prove crucial if Kerry’s backs tire late.
This column is mostly concerned with post-match analysis** because, in simple terms, it’s far more informative to discuss how systems interacted with each than guessing what they might do to each other. That’s especially true when I openly admit to being quite unsure about what adjustments one of the teams will make. Not that I will allow that be an excuse to sit on the fence, that would be cheating you readers. When the information we know is taken into account, they are more points of concern with Kerry’s line-up but a larger and more definitive point with Dublin’s.
Much as I have criticised the limitations of Kieran Donaghy, his positioning further to the flank could prove crucial in breaking through Dublin’s swarm. Cork won last year by targeting the spine of Gilroy’s. Dublin learnt to adapt to that approach but Kerry’s approach could prove more akin to a kidney punch. By going deep and outside, the Kingdom could open up holes on the inside to allow Cooper and co. to exploit at speed. I expect a brutally tight game but Kerry to win.
**So if you use my pick as the reason you make a bet you can consider that due warning.
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