It has become apparent to the majority of people interested in the game of Gaelic football since 2011, that to win an All-Ireland crown almost certainly requires a full proof plan to beat Dublin.
Despite having the best team in the country for the last six years though, the boys in blue failed to reach finals in both 2012 and 2014. Proof indeed that there are a number of vulnerabilities in this Dublin side that Mayo can look to exploit this Sunday as they go in search of redemption after years of heartache at the business end of the Championship.
The defensive set up of this Mayo side will be under considerable scrutiny as a result of underwhelming defensive structures in the early exchanges of both the 2006 and 2012 finals. This Dublin team possesses the most feared offensive unit in Gaelic football, the input of Jason Sherlock as a forwards coach over the last two years having led to an increased fluency around the undoubted raw ability of the likes of Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly and Dean Rock.
The most glaring issue for Mayo is the full back position. Over the last decade, quality direct ball on top of their full back has caused them considerable issues, especially in the 2012 final against Donegal in which the area was ruthlessly exploited by Jim McGuinness. Barry Moran has been used to good effect this summer, but is still relatively untested considering Tyrone’s reluctance to go long with any regularity and Tipperary’s lack of depth in quality.
Kevin McLoughlin has grown into the sweeper role as Mayo have negotiated their way through the qualifiers and may well be needed to double up at times if Dublin decide to use aerial bombardment as a means of causing unrest in their opponents’ full back line early on. Stephen Rochford’s side’s defensive structure relies primarily on every defender being man on man and on the sweeper creating an advantage for the full back line. They also expect the half back line to pick off two or three points.
Considering Stephen Cluxton’s capitulation before half time against Kerry, in the form of his kickouts, you would imagine Stephen Rochford has placed a great deal of emphasis on attacking this crucial facet of Dublin’s game. Often lauded for having changed the role of the modern day goalkeeper, Cluxton now finds himself in the unenviable position of having to rebuild his own myth of indestructibility as a technician from the kickout.
The crux of the issue for Mayo on Sunday is whether they stick or twist. Push up high and press the kickout and Cluxton will pick them off with long kicks, whereas if they sit too deep, they allow Dublin to play out from defence. In reality, they will aim to do something similar to Kerry in that they will pick and choose when to push up, hoping to catch Cluxton unaware.
This game of cat and mouse will be one of the more intriguing aspects to the final considering that Mayo have long been considered one of the best exponents of the tackle in the modern day game since James Horan placed a great emphasis on turnovers in his four years at the helm. Mayo must attack the Dublin kickouts sensibly, because it isn’t about the number of kickouts that they win, it is more important to manipulate Cluxton’s decision-making to such an extent that they win kickouts in crucial areas.
One area of concern for Mayo is the form of Aidan O’Shea. In 2015, O’Shea was almost unplayable and was comparable to the likes of Jonah Lomu in rugby at his peak in that he seemed a force of nature intent on destroying everything in his path. This year his influence on the team has waned, while the emergence of Diarmuid O’Connor and Evan Regan as top class forwards has curbed Mayo’s reliance on him somewhat.
However, his influence is still crucial to this game because as many pundits continue to lament Rory O Carroll’s absence from the Dublin full back line, there is a perceived weakness hidden in there and if there is one player capable of exploiting this area of the pitch, it is O’Shea. His ball-winning ability and sheer power are unrivalled as a target man, which is why at some point I expect him to find himself on the edge of the large rectangle. Mayo’s ability to create a one-on-one mismatch with O’Shea inside will have a direct effect on the outcome of the game.
Dublin’s undoubted strength on their bench is something that Mayo will also have to successfully curb if they are going to win that much longer for All-Ireland. The difficulty that Rochford will encounter on the line in Croke Park on Sunday will be how to counter the likes of Paul Mannion, Paddy Andrews and Eoghan O’Gara coming off the bench.
One thing that will help to do so is refusing to let the game degenerate into uncontested kickouts as we get later into the game. Kerry did this in the last ten minutes against Dublin and it gave them the chance to create scores from deep positions, with the likes of O’Gara obliging with points. One plus for Mayo is that with Kevin McManamon being a likely starter, you don’t have the same problems of a few years ago, where his explosiveness off the bench would lead to a barrage of scores for the Dubs. The impact subs on Sunday are not the same type of player, but each have qualities which could leave Mayo’s dreams of Sam in tatters.
As Jim McGuinness espoused in his column in the Irish Times during the week, common sense would dictate that after losing two All-Ireland finals already, Mayo have to do something unexpected in order to win this one. There is an expectation that after losing out to Dublin and other top teams in games they could have won, that Mayo cannot win on Sunday.
This is not true, but they must attempt to unsettle Dublin in a way that they would not be expected to. Something along the lines of “Hillgate” in 2006, where they famously warmed up in front of the hill. Mayo need a trump card in order to free themselves from the oppression of being nearly men. For as Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
Luke O’Connor, Pundit Arena
Read More About: 2016 All-Ireland Football final, aidan o'shea, all ireland senior football championship, barry moran, bernard brogan, dean rock, diarmuid connolly, Diarmuid O'Connor, dublin gaa news, eoghan o'gara, Evan Regan, kevin mcloughlin, kevin mcmanamon, Mayo GAA news, Paddy Andrews, paul mannion, Stephen cluxton, stephen rochford