Tuesday 23 January 2018

Jim Gavin's blanket solution

Gavin aims to crack defensive systems' code

Dublin football manager Jim Gavin
Dublin football manager Jim Gavin
Dublin's Paul Flynn and Cork's Fintan Goold will be key men for their counties in Sunday's Allianz FL Division 1 final at Croke Park. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile.

SOME would have you believe that whoever first conjured up blanket defence is the spawn of Satan. Jim Gavin has a different take: "The devil," according to Dublin's football manager, "is in the detail."

In today's complicated inter-county world, not every team can be pigeon-holed as either ultra-defensive conservatives or swashbuckling Harlem Globetrotters.

Now, maybe Dublin embraced the latter to an extent, but last summer's Donegal-inflicted Waterloo has evidently led to a strategic recalibration. Ditto with Cork after the twin calamities of last year's league semi-final (second half) against Dublin and the Munster final (every painfully porous minute) against Kerry.

And now, Dublin and Cork happen to meet again in Sunday's Allianz League Division One final at Croke Park (4.0).

How the two teams set up will be one of the more intriguing elements, but it's hard to conceive a mirror image of that sieve-like semi-final. Then, Cork raced into a ten-point lead only to capitulate totally in a remarkable 17-point turnaround.

Brian Cuthbert's transition to a more defensive set-up, with nominal forwards recast as defensive sweepers, began late last summer. Dublin have embraced a more nuanced policy that involves roaming half-forwards while at least one half-back - usually No 6 anchor John Small - will 'mind the house' instead of bombing forward into a Donegal-like web.

This has led several observers from the home of ultra-defence - Ulster - to cover Dublin with the same 'blanket' label. Gavin is bemused by the depiction - but then again, he doesn't view the "all-out-attack versus blanket defence" debate through the prism of good and evil.

"Defence is a part of every team's game," he says, speaking at a Gibson Hotel press conference ahead of Sunday's final. "Teams have different philosophies and different cultures, and we like to play a particular way - but defence is a part of our game, it always has been.

"We do an awful lot of work on our defence, both technically - on the art of defending - but also tactically. It's an area that we really go hard after. But the term 'blanket defence' … the devil is in the detail, I suppose, and it doesn't do justice to how intricate some of the defensive systems are.


"Going as far back as 2011, when Donegal came up (to play Dublin in that All-Ireland semi-final), I did say that I was surprised at the comments that were made about the Donegal system. I thought it was inventive; it took a lot of hard work for them to play it that way.

"It's not just a blanket - that word doesn't explain it all. There's players going man-to-man, there's players going zonal, it's a combination of both.

"And obviously they're playing a counter-attacking style of play. So, some teams set themselves up to play a counter-attacking style of play and some other teams want to play a more expansive game.

"And the challenge for both of us - whatever system you play - is trying to break the other system down."

And yet Dublin have got lumbered with the same tag even as 'corner-back' Philly McMahon was bombing forward to kick two points against Monaghan in Clones recently.

"I can't influence what people write about us," Gavin demurs. "Of course there's going to be patches in play where you have men behind the ball. In a moment in time that will always happen, because players don't want to concede points and for whatever reason they're covering off space.

"But you need to look at the tactical formation of the defensive structure and where does that start and what's the philosophy of the team. And that will tell you more about what way they'll play."


A keen student of the game's history, Gavin agrees that Gaelic football tactics "probably" have evolved more in the last ten years than in any other era - but then lists a handful of previous tactical shifts, from Dublin in the 1950s, Down in the '60s, Dublin and Kerry in the '70s, to show that "the game is evolving all the time."

Question: 20 years ago, would players have been fit enough to implement the various guises of blanket defence?

"I still think they could have," Gavin suggests. "Look at club football as well - certainly in Dublin it's gone that way. There's a tactical element to our championship, teams setting out different formations, trying to maximise their strengths and go after opponents' weaknesses, and that's your job as a coach. And as a player that's what you want."

But do the fans want it? Sin scéal eile.


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