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Saturday 16 December 2017

Blues need O'Sullivan to sweep if they're to win the race for Sam

Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan. Pic: Sportsfile

How do you turn a nine-point cruise into a warning signal, flashing amber, about the perils of what comes next for the Dubs?

Easy ... you accentuate the negatives about Sunday's Leinster final.

Amid the avalanche of scores from play, the precociousness of Con O'Callaghan and the brilliance of Bernard Brogan off the bench, there were some worrying issues for the All-Ireland champions.

Nothing alarming enough to cause a shock surrender of their provincial crown ... but signs of vulnerability that could be pounced upon in August, if not at the quarter-final stage, then conceivably by the likes of Tyrone in a semi-final.

Specifically, we're talking about Dublin's defence - a sector that was ultimately crucial to their glorious renaissance in the wake of their shock-and-awe defeat to Donegal in 2014. And central to that was Cian O'Sullivan's reinvention as their defensive linchpin.

Versatility

One of O'Sullivan's greatest strengths is his versatility, so much so that he has won All-Irelands as a corner-back (2011), midfielder ('13) and centre-back/sweeper ('15 and '16).

He has the pace and adaptability to flourish in multiple positions ... but while these qualities are central to his success as a floating No 6, what sets him apart in the role is his football brain.

He can sense danger before it happens; then his deceptive acceleration (he glides from A to B quicker than most) allows him to close off the gaps in front of Stephen Cluxton's goal.

On Sunday, the Kilmacud Crokes man was wearing his familiar No 6 jersey but handed an altered job-spec: follow Daniel Flynn. In fairness, this was a case of needs must. Dublin were without Jonny Cooper, an obvious candidate to shadow Kildare's roaming No 14.

But Cooper was stricken by injury and the recently hamstrung Philly McMahon - an 11th hour call-up to the Dublin full-back division - was making his first start of this SFC campaign.

Thus, Dublin's last line was missing its fastest and arguably stickiest marker (Cooper) while another current All Star (McMahon) showed some understandable signs of rustiness.

That's why Gavin pushed O'Sullivan into man-marking duties - it even entailed starting at full-back until Flynn began to wander.

And at times he struggled to keep tabs on his elusive target. More significantly, though, Dublin looked more vulnerable when Kildare's speed merchants (most notably David Slattery and Keith Cribbin when he joined the attack) sought to punch holes through the middle of Dublin's defence.

Slattery created that pivotal goal chance for Flynn. If he had scored, as he certainly should, Kildare's tally would have reached 2-17.

As it was, 1-17 constituted Dublin's heaviest Leinster SFC concession in five summers under Gavin - indeed their worst since Meath hit them for 5-9 in 2010.

Flourish

It matched the 2-14 scored by Kerry last August; not since Fermanagh's late consolation flourish yielded 2-15, two years ago, have Dublin leaked so much in a championship match.

It's fair to surmise that this is partly attributable to O'Sullivan's altered role; partly due to the open type of contest it was.

In that scenario, Dublin can usually trust themselves to outgun anyone.

But if/when they face a battle-hardened rival schooled in the arts of blanket defence and counter-attacking at pace, they can't afford to be so open.

Re-enter their sweeper supreme.

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