Some tactical wars are obvious, others are more nuanced. Sunday’s All Ireland Football Final was most certainly the latter. Emmet Ryan breaks down the moves that decided the clash between Dublin and Kerry.
Kerry were expected to deliver a few tweaks that we hadn’t already seen this season. Jack O’Connor didn’t disappoint as he made three moves with Kieran Donaghy alone.
The Austin Stacks man played the first 24 minutes between midfield and a roaming half-forward position. Having usually been moved to midfield this season solely for the throw-in, Donaghy’s extensive use in this area was a notable departure from the norm. His impact however was not what Kerry wanted. Despite delivering some good passes, his patient approach on the ball didn’t gel with the quicker players he was trying to create chances for. Dublin’s backs were able to adapt quickly by only committing two defenders to the full back line and utilising Ger Brennan in a role between the two banks of defenders. Donaghy’s slowing down of play essentially allowed Brennan to occupy the space of two players without leaving considerable gaps for Kerry’s forwards to exploit.
Once Paul Galvin was introduced, Donaghy switched almost exclusively to a true corner forward position for the remainder of the half. The one exception was when, as the lone man left up front, he went back to a more conventional 14 slot and came close to scoring a goal but the crowding out of Donaghy enabled Cian O’Sullivan to make a crucial block.
Dublin defend from half-forward and midfield
The key defensive deployments for Dublin, for more than half the game, came between numbers 8 and 12. The midfield pairing of Dennis Bastick and Michael Dara McAuley, while possessing attacking nous, is undoubtedly Dublin’s most defence-minded pairing at that position. Likewise the entire half-forward line of Paul Flynn, Barry Cahill, and Bryan Cullen are amongst the better defenders in Dublin’s forward ranks.
Starting all five, unchanged from the semi-final, enabled Dublin to effectively use them as a defensive force from the outset. Kerry have created attacks from the half-back line all year and Dublin’s focus was to slow down that supply line. It led to Dublin committing more men into the opposition half than at any other stage this season but largely for defensive purposes. For the most part this strategy proved effective in the opening period with one glaring exception.
Kerry break the spine
Without the numbers for a deep lying full back line, the spine of Dublin’s swarm once again proved a weak spot and it was exploited in devastating style for Kerry’s goal.
Kerry won the ball just in front of their own 45 as Tom O’Sullivan punched down to Tomás Ó Sé. He passed across midfield, standing almost on the white line in centre-field, to Declan O’Sullivan who continued the charge right up the gut. As O’Sullivan advanced, Colm Cooper dropped back from the 13 metre line to midway between the 13 and 21 before turning to sprint back towards goal.
This created a 2 on 1 in the middle but, unlike the norm with the swarm, it was the attacking team with the numerical advantage. Having allowed the Gooch to drop back, Michael Fitzsimons was caught between two assignments, he committed to O’Sullivan who passed to Cooper who at this stage was almost in line with the penalty spot. He calmly placed the ball in the top corner for the first major of the day.
Patience gives Dublin breathing room
Dublin didn’t panic after going behind and instead largely controlled the game from attack either side of half-time. Between the 28th and 40th minute, Dublin out-scored Kerry by 0-5 to 0-1, which gave them some room for manoeuvre. It was a patient approach focussed on high percentage chances that largely delivered these scores but, as we will see later, this run was part of a larger tactic.
Kingdom change tack, Dublin adapt
Trailing by 3 points with half an hour to play, it was Kerry’s third move with Donaghy that gave the momentum back to the Kingdom. Donaghy was placed as an out-an-out 14. Having scored the goal from exploiting the spine at speed, Kerry used Donaghy’s re-positioning to force Dublin to commit cover to the big man and leave space in the middle further out the field. This saw Kerry enjoy by far their best period of the match as they out-scored the Dubs 0-8 to 0-1 between 40 and 63 minutes.
Gilroy however started making adjustments to his defence after the third Kerry point of this run. The most important of these was the introduction of Philly McMahon for James McCarthy as Dublin switched to playing the five man half-back bank that frustrated Cork in the first half of last year’s semi final. While Kerry still managed to slot over five more scores, they were made to work far harder to create opportunities as the half backs pushed them out wide. Rich as the haul of 0-8 looks on paper, it would have been much more had Dublin not managed to reinforce this bank and slow the pace of Kerry’s attack.
A comeback that began on 23 minutes
Kevin McManamon’s goal came in the 64th minute but the work that led to it truly began in the 23rd. The first of Dublin’s repeated challenges to the pace of Kerry’s last line of defence came midway through the first half and it was commitment to this approach that would eventually yield McManamon’s major. Here’s a timeline of crucial events:
23 mins: Alan Brogan makes the first effort to sprint past the Kerry full back line, he is fouled and the result is a pointed free by Bernard Brogan.
25 mins: Alan Brogan again leads the way as Dublin break through Kerry’s defence to force a fine save from Brendan Kealy.
30 mins: A long ball over the top is aimed at Bernard Brogan to run on to but it goes too far passed the younger Brogan and over the end line.
38 mins: McAuley breaks through the last line and moves in on goal before being fouled. The result is another pointed free from Bernard Brogan.
48 mins: Bernard Brogan gets around Kerry’s last line but his effort is across the face of the goal.
51 mins: Kevin McManamon replaces Flynn.
52 mins: Cahill passes inside to McManamon in the large rectangle, his effort is blocked but Dublin are subsequently awarded a free which Bernard Brogan converts.
57 mins: Eoghan O’Gara replaces Cahill.
63 mins: Eamon Fennell replaces Bastick.
This aggressive tactic aimed at tiring out Kerry’s defence, who were substantially older than the Dublin attack, delivered 3 points before McManamon’s moment. The introduction of McManamon, O’Gara, and Fennell was enabled by the change in defence to the five-man bank. With three more attack-minded players on late in the game, Dublin could hammer their pace advantage home even further.
O’Connor was not caught cold as he tried to adjust by bringing Brosnan off mere moments before McManamon’s goal but it wasn’t enough to stop the culmination of 41 minutes of work.
The move began with Cian O’Sullivan winning the ball at midfield after an error by Declan O’Sullivan. The Dublin defender quickly kicked to Alan Brogan who brought the ball forward quickly before passing to an on-rushing McManamon in open space. With fresh legs on his side, McManamon surged forward easily side-stepping Declan O’Sullivan who was gassed after sprinting back to cover. This left McManamon one-on-one with Kealy and he made no mistake from point-blank range.
There can be no greater vindication of Gilroy’s game management skills than his performance on the sideline yesterday. Throughout the game he looked to make the necessary adjustments to counter Kerry’s moves while staying true to the strategy he implemented early in the contest. Jack O’Connor played every card available to him but Gilroy had an answer for his every move.
This was a game that Gilroy’s charges won over the course of 70 minutes. Dublin had to wear down Kerry’s supply line early to keep their own backs fresh for the latter stages. With the Kingdom’s half backs waning, Gilroy was able to change up his defence and give a new look to his attack, one that would have been too draining to deliver for the full game.
The 1-3 to 0-1 rally in the closing stages was the culmination of the work in the preceding hour. Dublin’s composed comeback after the Kerry goal ensured Kerry were left with work to do when their attack finally got going after the break. Without it, Dublin would have been left with a near insurmountable challenge in the final moments. Instead Dublin were able to reach a position where, with the scores level, they were awarded a long range free in injury time. For the 12th time this year, Stephen Cluxton scored, giving the Capital its first All Ireland Senior Football title since 1995.
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