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Monday 21 August 2017

Gavin's troops must heed past

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

So far, so typically straight-forward for the Dubs. But is it now time to start getting worried?

After all, three years have passed since Jim Gavin's super-slick machine - then, as now, defending All-Ireland champions - swatted away Monaghan at the quarter-final stage with a level of fuss that scarcely qualified as minimal.

In 2014, they ran amok by 17 points. Last Saturday, they cruised home by ten. Somewhat less emphatic, but only in a statistical sense.

It may as well have been 20, so enormous was the chasm.

But in 2014, many of you will never forget, that quarter-final cruise was the misleading preamble to a watershed date with the then-champions of Ulster.

A team with a system predicated on massed defence and the ability to counter-attack in numbers at rapier pace. A team famed for its savage fitness levels. A team overseen by a shrewd tactical mind.

Then it was Donegal and Jim McGuiness.

Now it's Tyrone and Mickey Harte.

Three years ago, it all appeared to be going serenely to the Sky Blue plan with the Dubs five points clear and with Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly taking it in turns to kick points for fun from distance.

Critically, during their early dominance, two goal chances were spurned.

Donegal hung on (this was no Ali rope-a-dope, their distress was palpable) but gradually steadied on their feet before Ryan McHugh, possibly the smallest man on the pitch, hit Dublin with a haymaker shortly before the half-time bell.

You know the rest … a straight knockout, with the judges' score cards reading 3-14 to 0-17.

In almost five years of SFC combat - embracing 29 matches - that remains the only championship defeat endured by Gavin and his players.

Traumatic

It was traumatic at the time, hugely so. But the harsh lessons absorbed that day have been central to all their subsequent success.

Dublin remain the most attack-minded team in the country, but the earlier incarnation of 2013/14 (at times heedlessly gung-ho) already seems like ancient history.

They have learned to be patient against those familiar banks of opposition defenders, midfielders and nominal forwards clogging up space inside the '45'. How they set about beating the blanket isn't always easy on the eye but they've become very adept at doing so.

At times, they'll even mirror the opposition with a blanket of their own - although, more often than not, the presence of Cian O'Sullivan and Jonny Cooper operating as double-sweepers (as happened last Saturday) can be explained by the relative dearth of opposing forwards.

The way Dublin now play makes it far less likely that they'll be ravaged on the counter as they were by McHugh, Neil Gallagher and Colm McFadden in 2014.

Or the way Armagh were ripped asunder by Tyrone's jet-heeled forays from deep during Saturday's opening quarter-final.

But - and this cannot be stressed strongly enough - the Dubs of 2017 are a different animal to the Dubs of 2014. And they certainly don't warrant the slightest comparison with the Armagh of last Saturday.

The latter - so ebullient and seemingly organised of late - were a mess, their Division 3 shortcomings horribly exposed once they squared up to a heavyweight.

After barely five minutes, they looked like a team that had lost the will to even try and escape Tyrone's defensive web. When they attacked (sporadically) it was as individuals searching out the nearest cul-de-sac. Time and again, even though already chasing a lead of six, seven or eight points, they conceded the short kickout.

And on the few times Niall Morgan deigned to go long with his restarts, Armagh's own defensive cover appeared to evaporate.

We're pretty sure Dublin's defence won't be so glaringly exposed. They are too savvy - and dogged, and aggressive - for that. All of which places a big burden on the pocket rocket shoulders of Mark Bradley, who tends to be the only full-time forward presence for Tyrone (albeit he excelled in the role at the weekend).

Drilled

But here's a more obvious predicament for Dublin: will they be able to breach that supremely drilled Tyrone rearguard?

They are masters at suffocating space; at ensnaring opponents in a trap of white jerseys; at the collective turnover. This is not about the individual but it's rather a collective effort in which the system is king. And their defensive system, right now, is more refined than Dublin's (we suspect) and Kerry's (most definitely, on recent evidence).

Will Dublin be able to eventually outsmart them? That is a big ask - the biggest challenge Dublin have faced since those gripping semi-final and final contests with Kerry and Mayo last season.

Physically, mentally, tactically and in terms of bench options now returning en masse (Flynn, Macauley, Connolly, take your pick) Dublin look in rude good health.

But are they ready to push on in pursuit of that holy grail hat-trick? It's only now that we'll find out for sure …

The Dubs of 2017 are a different animal to the Dubs of 2014

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