Monday 21 January 2019

Back-to-back? More like back to basics for Gavin

THE statistics are stark and the evidence before our eyes was damning. It all begs the question: did Dublin take their eye off the ball against Donegal?

Year after year, this column has watched All-Ireland champions hit the 'wall' in defence of Sam and it has inculcated in us a healthy scepticism about the prospects of the latest September kingpin, 12 months on.

Were Dublin different? "Yes!" roared the consensus. Now we know otherwise.

Hunger - unquestioning, relentless, demonic - is meant to be the elusive ingredient that sated champions lose somewhere along the way as they are feted as the next invincible force.

The counter-argument was that Jim Gavin (pictured) possessed such a multitude of options that hunger would not be an issue. Such was the internal competition for places ("disgusting", according to Michael Darragh Macauley) that no player could afford to take it easy on the training ground. "There are so many guys there to take your place," explained Paddy Andrews only last Thursday.

By the time Andrews entered the cauldron last Sunday, 53 minutes had elapsed and Dublin (despite kicking the previous two points) trailed by six.


The team had long since unravelled into the panic-stricken mode that marked the boom-to-bust days of the mid-to-late noughties, when ebullient Leinster coronations would be followed by an abrupt collapse whenever the pressure was applied by a serious contender.

Andrews, to his credit, was one of the few who didn't panic, kicking two measured points at a time when forward colleagues were running up Tir Chonaill cul-de-sacs or taking slashed pot-shots on goal.

But the really criminal damage had been inflicted elsewhere. Dublin's defence went AWOL and while individual players must accept their share of culpability, this was a strategic debacle as much as anything else.

Why allow your half-backs and Philly McMahon to be sucked so far into enemy terrain as they chased 'forward' opponents? Why allow Rory O'Carroll to be lured so far from full-back, becoming a de facto midfielder at times, when the only beneficiaries were those Donegal raiders sprinting through that exposed central corridor? Why not revert to a holding centre-back and/or sweeper, if only to counter the mounting carnage?


All of these are relevant questions for Gavin and his management team to ask of themselves over the long winter months.

They have consistently espoused attack-minded football over the last two seasons, with thrilling success.

But you can't win every match by concentrating purely on your own strengths, and to hell with the consequences. When you do that against Jim McGuinness, the ultimate tactician, a noble aspiration looks like naivety.

The nearest we came to a deliberate Dublin policy shift last Sunday was a ploy of beating the blanket by kicking points from distance. It worked - brilliantly - for 27 minutes.

That apart, there was scant evidence of a coherent game-plan designed to frustrate Donegal's counter-attacking surges - or signs of the "game intelligence" (to quote McGuinness about his own players) when Dublin were faced with an unfolding crisis.

The net result is that they scored 0-17 - almost 12 points below their previous SFC average for the season. And conceded 3-14 - over nine points above their summer average.


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