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What have the Dubs learned?

ANOTHER day over and it doesn't get any easier for the distraught Dublin football camp. Hard to look forward when all you can do is look back in angst at what happened in those fateful closing minutes against Cork.

Still, that is what Dublin must do if they are to take the next step forward in 2011. No rest for the workers, mind you: an inevitably compressed club championship looms into view. Then they must regroup, refocus and get back to some seriously hard work.

For Pat Gilroy, the hard planning will start even earlier. He deserves enormous credit for bringing Dublin so far, so quickly ... not just from the calamity of Kerry last August, but even more so from the debacle of Wexford/Meath last June.

But there is no room for resting on laurels in this perennially evolving inter-county management gig. This season, in taking a sledge hammer to a team that couldn't stop winning Leinster titles, Gilroy was brave. He was braver still in sticking to his tactical guns in the face of their provincial nosedive and the brief abandonment of their defensive game-plan against Meath.

But, as countless managers can testify, doing the same thing all over again offers no guarantee that you'll get the same results. What worked last year may not work the next.

Everyone now knows how Dublin play. Rival managers will plan accordingly. The dogma of blanket defence, forcing turnovers through weight of numbers and aggression in the tackle, before feeding the irrepressible Bernard Brogan on the quick counter, may not enjoy the same success rate as before.

Suffice to say, Gilroy and his backroom colleagues needn't reinvent the wheel but they'll have to tweak, tinker, adjust ... and maybe unearth a few more uncut diamonds to supplement all the young gems who sparkled this summer.

Here are a few areas that may merit special attention ...

1. THE FREE COUNT

Obviously this has generated much debate given the fatal rush of scoreable frees conceded in the home straight against Cork. True, some of Maurice Deegan's late decisions looked dubious whereas others stemmed from kamikaze tackles, possibly prompted by fatigue.

Here's the rub, though: in several outings this summer Dublin conceded too many frees in the scoring zone. Now, this is partly understandable in the context of their new game plan, where turnover is king and players are tackling on the edge. It also represents a sea change from recent seasons where Dublin departed the All-Ireland race having conceded massive tallies in open play.

Then they were too loose, too nice even. Now the onus must be on striking the right balance. This summer they conceded 7-89 in total, 1-39 of which came via frees or penalties -- that's just over 38pc.

The figure rises considerably against Cork (1-7, or over 55pc) and that proved a killer. Here's another worrying stat: they conceded 12 frees within scoring range on Sunday whereas Cork coughed up just two such chances.

Converted frees also threatened to unhinge Dublin against Tyrone (six out of 0-13, equalling 46pc) and against Wexford (eight out of 0-15, or 53pc).

In an overall context, they actually won more frees against Wexford, Meath and Armagh but in their last three outings -- Louth, Tyrone and Cork -- Dublin conceded over 60pc of the overall frees awarded.

2. SUPPORT FOR BERNARD

This has already been the subject of endless debate. A few points worth making: Dublin's over-reliance on Bernard Brogan should be measured in the context of his phenomenal strike rate. The stat that he's tallied almost 40pc of Dublin's SFC scores worryingly jumps from the page, but then again how many counties can boast a forward who can amass 3-42 (3-25 from play) in just seven matches?

For all that, Dublin next year will require a greater spread of scorers. What happens if Brogan loses form or, perish the thought, suffers serious injury?

The fact that Tomas Quinn (0-12, including four from play) was his nearest rival tells a tale: Mossy was barely utilised at all post-Leinster.

The only other Dubs to reach double figures were Eoghan O'Gara (3-2) and Alan Brogan (0-10). The elder Brogan has more scores in the locker than he showed this year whereas O'Gara's exciting goal threat is offset by his poor return on point-scoring chances and his occasionally suspect touch. O'Gara is raw but, with more exposure at this level, the presumption is that he can improve. He'll need to.

As for alternative scoring sources, Dublin must hope that either Conal Keaney can force his way back into the starting frame by dint of rediscovering his scoring ways. Or maybe, touch wood, Mark Davoren re-emerges as the explosive player he was threatening to become before successive cruciate nightmares.

3. ANY MORE YOUNG GUNS?

Dublin have already benefitted from a raft of newcomers, some younger than others, who have forced their way into the senior team. Consider last Sunday's starting cast: the entire full-back line along with Kevin Nolan, Cian O'Sullivan, Michael Darragh Macauley, Niall Corkery and O'Gara were not regulars prior to this season.

That is some overhaul. Gilroy has already intimated that he doesn't expect any retirements and has the majority of players that he needs.

Still, a couple of potential recruits from this year's All-Ireland U21 champions are surely worth a spring look. We're specifically thinking about teenager Gary Sweeney, who could be just what the half-forward doctor ordered: he has the engine to cover the hard yards required, but he also has a knack for delivering timely scores. Nicky Devereux, the jet-heeled wing-back, is another who could make the leap.

In an ideal world, Gilroy will also have long-term casualties from the Crokes A&E department back in the frame: namely his stricken skipper Paul Griffin, Ross O'Carroll and Davoren.

4. TACTICS, TACTICS

Management's primary aim this year was to make Dublin harder to beat; to eradicate their soft underbelly.

After a promising league followed by an alarming Leinster blip, this objective has been reached. And maybe even ahead of schedule, for all that this column cannot abide such phrases as "bonus territory" or teams "over-achieving".

Dublin have achieved this state of affairs through a combination of crowding their defence, stifling the opposition's goal threat, an admirable work ethic and a devotion to the primacy of 'the team'.

Obviously this tactic works best when you have a lead to defend and you can force the opposition onto you, providing the opportunity for turnovers and quick delivery to a certain B Brogan.

What happens, though, when you fall several points behind in the second half? They managed to recover against a wilting Wexford (from seven down) but against Meath, when forced to go chasing the game, their full-back line was left horribly exposed.

Since then, Dublin were never asked the above question. Only once -- against Armagh -- were they asked to reel in a four-point deficit but this was before half-time.

Yet at some stage next summer, Dublin may well face just such an unpromising scenario. Then, the blanket defence won't save them. They will need a Plan B.

For now, however, the planning can wait until the pain subsides.