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Thursday 14 December 2017

Dubs find a route through blanket

Donegal had 15 men inside their own '45' and we aren't shocked, but is this entertainment?

Dublin’s Kevin McManamon drives past Donegal’s Ryan McHugh. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Kevin McManamon drives past Donegal’s Ryan McHugh. Pic: Sportsfile

On the very same weekend last year, Derry came to Croke Park and parked the double-decker against Dublin. They lost by 0-8 to 0-4 and an exasperated Jarlath Burns turned Twitter into a version of RIP.ie that night.

"The death of Gaelic football," pronounced the former Armagh skipper-turned-influential chairman of the standing committee on playing rules.

Twelve months on, football has belied the obituaries but we're not exactly talking an all-singing, all-dancing Lazarus.

On Saturday night, it was Donegal's turn to park the bus along with every available unused Luas tram in the capital. It didn't work ... or maybe Rory Gallagher will look at the eventual scoring difference of minus six (1-10 to 0-7) and conclude that, well, it kind of worked.

PENETRATE

Not that he said so: his overall view was "disappointed". For his part, Jim Gavin repeated the now-familiar mantra that his Dublin players enjoy the challenge of trying to penetrate such a defensive blanket. But is it fun for people to watch? "No".

What's intriguing (if that's how you deign to describe this tactical strait-jacket approach) is how attitudes have changed since these counties clashed in the Year Zero All-Ireland semi-final of 2011.

Then, the audacity of Jim McGuinness to play 14 Donegal men behind the ball (coupled with the cagey response of Pat Gilroy's Dublin) drew an angry chorus of boos from the stands.

Almost five years on, Gallagher's Donegal went one step further: at times during the first half it became 15 men behind the ball. As early as the seventh minute, Odhrán Mac Niallais came within inches of crossing his own '45' beyond which all 14 of his team-mates had retreated.

Then, in the 35th minute, it happened: as Dublin pushed up, all 15 yellow jerseys had crossed their own '45', leaving a distant Michael Savage to contemplate a drastic new version of that old adage, the loneliness of the goalkeeper's existence.

This time there were no boos because this is what we've become conditioned to expect. Afterwards, Gallagher was bemused by a question concerning the tactic of 15 men doubling as defenders.

"We didn't set out to have 15," he said.

"Yes, we had quite a few men back. But Patrick (McBrearty) and Leo (McLoone) were inside and they ended up chasing their men back. I think Dublin probably committed 15 into our half. It's not as if some of our men are going to leave their men free."

In the interests of balance, this was far less turgid than Dublin/Derry. There were goal chances at either end; some excellent points; even some red card controversy.

Moreover, in the week that Johan Cruyff departed this world, we even had Philly 'Total Football' McMahon tucking away a clinical 66th minute goal, stemming from Mark McHugh's turnover and a slick Dublin counter involving Paul Flynn and Man of the Match Kevin McManamon.

Also in the interests of balance, Donegal aren't like this every week: they had amassed 6-43 while winning their first three outings in Division 1. But now they've lost three on the spin, upping the ante for next Sunday's trek to Monaghan.

What is increasingly evident, though, is that teams set up differently against Dublin in Croker. Damage-limitation?

If so, it's a debatable ploy: the streetwise Dubs of 2016 are coping far better with these defensive webs.

In 2011, it took them an hour to figure a way through the morass. In 2014, they went all gung-on and were sucker-punched by Donegal's ruthless counter-attacks.

But on Saturday, they were able to mix patient probing (in possession) with a high-octane and hugely effective full court press (when Donegal backs had the ball). They weren't shy about flooding their own defence either. "We have just become accustomed to it now. Most teams will present a defensive system like that. They want to compress it; want to exploit space that we leave behind ... the guys are really enjoying the challenge of it," said Gavin.

COMPOSURE

"They're becoming more experienced at it," said Gallagher. "Go back to that famous game in 2011 ... there was an element of shock to it. Today, most teams put 12 or 13 men behind the ball. I thought they showed a lot of composure."

Last word to Gavin: "I wouldn't say it was a pretty game to watch at all. That's not the way we play; it's not by choice. There is no right or wrong way to play Gaelic football ... we've a particular way we play football in Dublin. It's expressive, it's creative."

But adaptable, too. Six wins on the spin is proof of that.

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