Dublin were at times majestic only to flounder violently down the stretch en route to an unconvincing win over Meath in Sunday’s Leinster Final. Emmet Ryan break down a game that was defined by strategy for the bulk of it but came down to execution in the closing stages.
Dublin adapt to Meath’s sweeper but the Royals to counter
How play developed in Meath’s half of the field defined the flow of the first half. Just like against Kildare, Meath opted to have a clearly committed extra man in cover for the defence. Unlike their victory over the Lilywhites, the Royals weren’t entirely sure what to do with him. The high ball threat of Tomás O’Connor was easy enough for Meath to key on in the semi-final but the assignment in this game wasn’t as clear. Conor Gillespie was assigned the task initially. As we see below, he was initially stationed in front of the full back line where he dropped deep from midfield whenever Dublin won possession. The dual requirements of this role however soon began to hurt his game. As Gillespie was contesting a kick-out, Meath didn’t have cover in place when Eamon Fennell set up Kevin McManamon for a score on 7 minutes. More fundamentally however Gillespie’s presence at the back wasn’t slowing the Dublin attack as Dublin racked up 6 points in a 12 minute spell.
Meath’s adjustment was straightforward enough but remarkably effective. With Dublin’s game built from the back, the defending champions were typically starting attacks with only one player inside the 45. Meath dropped more players deep with the intention of snuffing out the ball-carrier before support could arrive. This approach worked a treat as Alan Brogan’s two missed opportunities in the first half both came under intensive pressure. The player who suffered the most was McManamon as he was effectively boxed out of the game, unable to turn his man and run into space.
O’Gara changes the game
Alan Brogan’s injury saw Eoghan O’Gara come into the line-up, resulting in Dublin having three natural front line players on the field. O’Gara’s finishing has never been a strong point but his positioning and distribution is ideal for Gilroy’s attack. The Templeogue/Synge Street forward had a hand in both of Dublin’s late first-half goals. O’Gara’s contribution to the first goal was obvious as he made two important passes en route to Bernard Brogan finding the net in the first minute of injury time. The target man’s role in Denis Bastick’s goal was more subtle. As Paul Flynn looked to deliver the ball in, O’Gara moved away from Bastick drawing the attention of the defence with him. This created enough space for the midfielder to take control and record Dublin’s second major. O’Gara played a role in what was nearly a third goal for Dublin on 45 minutes, as he fed Bryan Cullen who in turn found Michael Darragh McAuley but McAuley’s effort hit the post.
Dublin switch to a more advanced attack
Having gone in at the break with an unlikely 8 point lead, Dublin looked to press higher upon the resumption. Bernard Brogan, McManamon, and O’Gara stayed largely inside the Meath 45 as Dublin sought to play a more aggressive attacking game. Over the course of the second period this approach yielded just 6 points but it paid dividends early in the half. O’Gara scored twice as he found space to operate while Brogan added two scores as Dublin stretched their lead to 10 points. The substitutions Dublin made as the half wore on supported this strategy of pressing forward. Barry Cahill, Paddy Andrews, and Craig Dias, are all the kind of mobile players that would prove effective in aiding the front-line scorers. Instead of pressing on, Dublin were forced to hang on. Much as it was the case against Wexford, execution would be their undoing.
Meath prey on Dublin’s defensive lapses
Trailing 17-7 with 17 minutes to go, Meath looked beaten but they remained organised. By keeping their discipline as a unit, even when individual lapses were obvious, the Royals made a game of this final in the closing stages. Graham Reilly recorded his second bad wide of the afternoon on 48 minutes and Joe Sheridan followed up with a desperation shot in the 62nd but for the most part Meath held their nerve. As Dublin advanced, Meath brought more defenders out in order to disrupt Dublin’s supporting players. This helped slow the supply line but Banty’s men enjoyed their greatest success in Dublin territory.
Attacking the Hill, Meath looked to run through the middle and force Dublin’s backs into mistakes. Their goal didn’t come until two minutes from the end of regulation but it was evident for the previous quarter hour that Meath were capable of breaking the Dublin rear-guard. The normally organised Dublin backs started rushing their passes and elementary errors forced them to concede frees in favourable positions for Brian Farrell. Reilly redeemed himself by finishing off a passing move on 64 minutes and Sheridan set up Reilly for his third point of the day on 70. Much like the Kildare game, Meath looked to respond quickly whenever Dublin erred at the back and it nearly worked.
Strategically Meath played a sound game and did about as much as they were capable of with the resources at their disposal. The two goals late in the first half hurt them but those scores were symptomatic of Dublin adapting to the Royals’ adjustments in defence. The Royals’ structure should earn them some plaudits as they stayed true to their game plan for the full 70 minutes, looking to force mistakes and counter quickly. A lesser team would have lost all structure 10 points down entering the final quarter hour.
For the third straight game Dublin have shown flashes of brilliance only to be dragged down to other from sloppy play. Worryingly for Pat Gilroy, the mistakes increased as the game wore on. When the lead hit double-digits, Dublin appeared in control and assured of victory. Closing out this kind of a situation should be a formality for an All-Ireland contender but lapses, particularly in defence, saw Dublin dragged into a dogfight at the death. The win at least assures them of a place in the quarter-finals but the defending All-Ireland champions are running out of opportunities to deliver a complete 70 minute performance. There will be no second chances if they fail to do so on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
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