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Thursday 19 October 2017

No longer in a league of their own...

Dublin still the team to beat - but now it's Gavin's turn to face some hard calls

Dublin's Paul Mannion shoots to score his side's goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Paul Mannion shoots to score his side's goal. Photo: Sportsfile

Jim Gavin has always insisted that Dublin analyse every display and sift through the evidence to see how his team can be better the next day.

Yet there is no doubting that defeat amplifies everything - in the media and, presumably too, in the Dublin dressing-room. The questions are tougher, more forensic.

The hype that had accompanied every latest comeback - to preserve their never-ending unbeaten run - has been punctured by the realisation that, well, nothing lasts forever and they are actually beatable.

According to Gavin, this 36-match streak was a matter of supreme indifference to the camp. We're not so convinced. Be that as it may, the Dublin manager has always stressed the fundamentals of performance and consistency.

On that yardstick, he has several issues to mull over between now and June 3. Issues that didn't suddenly manifest themselves against Kerry ...

Backs to the wall

Ever since that infamous Donegal ambush in 2014, Dublin have moderated their gung-ho principles. They remain the most attack-minded team in the country, true; but equally they know how to defend in numbers when required.

Cian O'Sullivan has been the glue that knits it all together. And initially on Sunday, he provided a reassuring screen in front of Kerry's primary inside threat, Paul Geaney.

But O'Sullivan, in tandem with several of his defensive colleagues, struggled in the third-quarter. The two-time All Star fouled Paul Murphy for one pointed free and then kicked away possession from a free out of defence. He was promptly replaced; fellow half-back Eric Lowndes would later join him.

Aided by the concession of a spate of frees, with Philly McMahon the chief culprit, the Kerry forwards were in position to push up on Stephen Cluxton's kickout. Dublin found it difficult to build from the back. Kerry punched holes by running hard through the middle.

The end result was a 20-point concession - the first time in Gavin's five-year reign that his team has leaked so many scores. Three times they have conceded a higher total (2-17 against Mayo and 3-14 against Donegal in 2014; 2-15 against Fermanagh in 2015) but never 20 flags.

That must be a concern for Gavin. The good news? According to his latest injury update, Jonny Cooper, John Small and Jack McCaffrey will be fit for June 3. Whatever about then, he'll need them in August.

Cooper's focused tenacity has especially been missed. McCaffrey's unique counter-attacking X-factor was seen as recently as Clones nine days ago but Small, a more orthodox defender, proved his worth in McCaffrey's absence last summer.

The importance of Fenton

Ever since his 2015 breakthrough, Brian Fenton has been Dublin's pivotal midfield cog. It's hardly a surprise, then, that specific plans have been hatched to reduce his influence, which may explain why he had a better first than second half to this league.

Jack Barry has plenty of football but, more crucially, the athleticism and selfless focus to stick with Fenton. Dublin didn't appreciate Barry's spoiling tactics in Tralee, but there was far less of that on Sunday and it still worked. That freed up David Moran to set the midfield agenda. All of which means Gavin may have to consider a different tactic or partner to keep Fenton firing.

Keeping Connolly on the pitch

No one questions Diarmuid Connolly's importance, but he's of zero value watching from the sideline. And that's where he has been forced, too frequently, of late.

In his last eight appearances (six starts and two off the bench) he has accumulated six yellow cards and two blacks. Those six bookings were tallied over five SFC outings, starting with the Leinster final when he could have been black-carded instead, and including a double-yellow dismissal against Donegal.

Now he has failed to finish on successive Sundays, lasting 15 minutes as a sub before an admittedly harsh black against Monaghan.

There could be no such arguments about Sunday's moment of daftness. That leaves him one more black (or double-yellow) away from a one-match suspension - a disciplinary tightrope that Dublin could do without.

Who to start, who to finish?

Gavin's selection dilemma up front is alluded to elsewhere on these pages, but Sunday underlined the need to inject more pace in his inside line and for sound judgement calls on who best to start and who to finish.

A welcome headache, perhaps, but not an easy one to manage.

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