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Wednesday 20 September 2017

Clarke will find it tough on kick-outs

Dublin's second wave of forwards can carry Gavin's men to historic hat-trick of Sams

Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly has his jersey pulled by Mayo’s Lee Keegan as David Clarke and Keith Higgins close in during last year’s drawn All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly has his jersey pulled by Mayo’s Lee Keegan as David Clarke and Keith Higgins close in during last year’s drawn All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In life we all chase perfection but if the truth be known we never find it. All we do is try to get better. Improve in some way. Keep raising the bar.

Mayo come to Croke Park still chasing perfection this weekend. Learning from past failures, persisting and working hard continues to drive them towards success.

They are a remarkable group of players who keep coming back to the well. Do they deserve their day in the sun? Yes, absolutely they do. But as I well know myself, sentiment will not deliver Sam for Mayo this weekend.

Dublin on the other hand, if you were to buy into it, are a flawless machine who will trample over their opponents from the West.

In reality that is a dangerous place to be for the Dubs. Are they really as good as we think? Have they been tested? Did Monaghan and Tyrone show Dublin too much respect?

Reflect for a moment and consider the teams that caused Dublin the most problems over the last few years - Mayo and Kerry.

Stifled

Outside of the fact that most opponents have come to play Dublin with a defensive plan to stay in the game as long as possible. Mayo and Kerry are the two teams who have matched Dublin man-to-man out the field and in turn have stifled them for long periods in recent games.

So we really need to ignore the recent perfect storm that blew Tyrone off their Ulster perch. Sunday's challenge is different.

Come Sunday afternoon Dublin will enter a cauldron of intensity that they have not experienced since probably the league final.

Experience though would suggest that this Dublin side will be prepared to go up through the gears when required.

However, this is a Mayo team that has no fear of Dublin and they are the one team that can match them physically and athletically.

Mayo come into Sunday's decider as the team with the weight of history on their shoulders. The monkey is still firmly on their backs. A three-week lay-off will have given them time to reflect on their journey this summer where they have mixed the bad with the brilliant.

The optimism around Mayo is feeding off their brilliant performances against Kerry in their last two games.

Mayo destroyed Kerry because they set the tone from the start. They tore into them with self-confidence. The body language of the team suggested that they knew pound for pound, as a group of players, that they were a better team and they wanted it more.

Mayo will not do what Monaghan, Tyrone and many other teams have done. More importantly Mayo cannot afford to do it.

They must come after the Dubs was a raw intensity right throughout the field. Mayo will look to set the tone of the game and Dublin will need to be ready to sow an early seed of doubt in their heads.

Lifting

Last year in the drawn game, Mayo stifled the Dubs in the opening quarter turning them over on numerous occasions with their supporters lifting the roof on each occasion. It fed into their self-confidence and they coped remarkably when conceding two own goals.

The talk of Mayo trying to 'stay in the game' is rubbish.

If Mayo think they can sit back, concede kickouts to Dublin and soak up pressure, then you might as well draw the curtains now and forget about it.

Mayo need to cut off the oxygen to the Dublin forward line. So how do I think Mayo will go about it?

Key match-ups and man-marking are always important but Mayo cannot afford to sacrifice too much of their own game. If they get too absorbed with Dublin's key players they will already be on the back foot.

For me, Lee Keegan could possibly track Ciarán Kilkenny or Con O'Callaghan if Diarmuid Connolly does not start.

Brendan Harrison will probably be given the duties of following Paul Mannion. After that Mayo must attack on the front foot and dominate the middle third.

Mayo's defensive structure and organisation has been excellent in recent games and their game-management, in freeing up Keith Higgins to drop in front of their full-back line, has allowed them to flood the midfield area with a high press in the opposition half.

Dublin will ensure that they set up their forward line to occupy Keith Higgins and pull him out of the scoring zone.

If Higgins is out of position, Mayo have a vulnerability to concede goals.

Mayo still have no traditional full-back and those same weaknesses could be exposed badly by Dublin.

Mayo have to take risks in this game and they will leave space in behind their defence. Dublin will attack from all positions on the pitch which will allow numerous players to drift untracked into attacking positions.

In my opinion the key deciding factor on Sunday will come from the performance of the goalkeepers.

David Clarke's kickouts will be a huge factor and Dublin will see this as an opportunity to pin Mayo into their own half which they successfully achieved in the league game this year.

After Kerry caused Mayo a lot of trouble in the drawn game, Mayo totally changed their kickout strategy for the replay to great effect.

They adopted Australian Rules tactics in the replay where their six defenders all retreated in close together into a large huddle in front of Clarke thus leaving a massive amount of spaces on either side of the field.

Hang-time

They then looked to break out into the space available to take a short option or alternatively their midfielders or half-forwards sought to win a longer kickout by moving onto the ball at the right speed to secure possession by avoiding the hang-time that Clarke can put on his kicks.

Mayo's return off their own kickout increased from 60pc to 90pc over the two games with Kerry.

Dublin will have prepared for this tactic and I have no doubt they will close down the spaces to put pressure on Clarke.

Disrupting Cluxton's kickout strategy is also one of Mayo biggest challenges.

Stephen Cluxton will get away a large percentage of his kickouts but what Mayo will do is close down some of the options available to him.

I expect they will zonally cover the wings and across the midfield area which is where they might use Aidan O'Shea to counter any long kickouts. In doing so their forwards must work relentlessly to prevent Dublin building with ease from the short kickouts that they know Cluxton will get away.

I suspect O'Shea's role will be mixed up between offering aerial support in midfield and also occupying periods on the edge of the Dublin square. Nobody has asked real questions of Dublin under the high ball.

Relying on the in-form Andy Moran and Cillian O'Connor in a two-man forward line for the whole game will not be enough particularly with the best sweeper in the game, Cian O'Sullivan, sitting in front of them.

I think O'Shea will definitely be used, at times, in full-forward and Philly Mc Mahon will be charged with controlling the aerial bombardment. The downside for Mayo is that McMahon will only be too happy to follow O'Shea out the field and look to become one of Dublin's untracked players to cause damage going forward.

History indicates that a game between these two teams will come right down to the dying minutes. With the subs bench that Dublin have they will have a second phase to their attack and Jim Gavin might even surprise Mayo by mixing up his starting forward line. Mayo do not have the same options to rely on.

This is a game of risk for Mayo. They must back themselves and take Dublin on. It will give them the best chance of victory.

In taking risks they might leave themselves exposed. If Dublin were to burst their ambitions early in the game, who knows what could unfold.

If the game is still in the balance with minutes to go it will be a case of hunger versus decision-making under pressure. Decisions under pressure will ultimately decide the outcome and that is why I think Dublin will create modern history and win the three in-a-row.

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