A Test of Faith

After my rant on good vs evil last week and various other matters, I’m back with a more conventional preview of Sunday’s semi-final.  This will be Dublin’s fourth semi-final in four years and Donegal’s third over the same period of time.  It’s a meeting of the Champions for the past three years.  It’s being billed as a contrast of styles, of beliefs, of resources.  It’s being touted as Armageddon II.  For reasons best known to myself that I have since forgotten I didn’t do a preview or a review of that (in)famous semi-final from 2011.  I was away for the quarter-final and so struggled to get thoughts together for a preview and was probably too upset and/or annoyed to do a proper review.  I have been so annoyed about some of what I have been reading and hearing about this Sunday that it’s been hard to get my thoughts in order for this game too.

I am in a very weird mood about Sunday.  Very apprehensive I guess; I have seen plenty of Dublin in Croke Park, and watched them more intently than any game I watch on TV.  I am fully aware of what they are capable of, and frankly, it is frightening.  There’s no great mystery about how they will play – and that is not meant as a slight to Jim Gavin’s tactical nous, but it is devastatingly effective.  If we are to compete, let alone win, this may well need to be our best ever performance of the McGuinness era.

The backdrop to the game has been overshadowed by discussion of Dublin’s financial muscle, something Jim McGuinness has passed comment on and latterly by events of last weekend – the ‘best game in the football championship so far’ and then the fact the replay will be played at a glorified club ground (I joke, it’s a fine ground I’m sure).  Donegal aren’t really flying in under the radar, as the only discussion on the game centres on how we can stop the Dubs, but the Dubs themselves, as in the team that will take the field on Sunday, are getting very little ink at all.  Jim Gavin will be delighted I’m sure – Dublin’s problem in earlier years seems to have been an inability to escape the hype, but those days appear to be very much in the past.  And that assumes that hype was the issue, rather than the fact that they may just not have been good enough.  Make no mistake about it, the 2014 edition are a fine team and seemingly well grounded, although I’ll stop there.  Some of the praise, especially about ‘how they carry themselves off the pitch’ is just a little too gushing for my liking.  They’re fine lads (mostly) I’m sure, but aren’t most intercounty footballers?

One thing that struck me watching Dublin play Monaghan was how Dublin set up on attack.  They left two men back – everyone else was inside the Monaghan 45.  Very effective, but if the attack breaks down, then surely they are susceptible to counter attack.  Sure – if you can do it at pace.  You cannot kick the ball from your own 20 and expect your forwards to win it – especially if those two forwards are McFadden and McBrearty.

Dublin run at you.  Hard. The two goals scored against Monaghan were as a result of fairly direct running.  Now, it probably helped that they attacked the right side of the Monaghan defence where Colin Walshe was struggling – it subsequently emerged that he had sustained a cruciate injury.  But will we be able to stop the likes of James McCarthy or Diarmuid Connolly when they get a head of steam?  Not to mention the reigning footballer of the year, Michael Darragh McAuley, a superb athlete but someone who is a little goal shy.  And then there is there serial big match winner from Kevin McManamon, who made the difference in 2011.

Here’s a review of Dublin’s last match that gives Donegal the template for victory.  Just play like Laois or Monaghan did for 25 minutes.  Except they need to do it for 70 minutes.  In last year’s All Ireland Semi-Final, Kerry went into a one point lead on 63 minutes.  Dublin ended up winning by seven.  In last year’s Final, Mayo raced out to a five to one lead, Dublin hit back with a goal.  Similarly in the second half after Andy Moran gave Mayo renewed hope, Dublin marched down and got another goal.  They are relentless.  The question is, are they really as patient as is being made out?

So how do Donegal beat Dublin?  I don’t know.  I have faith that Jim McGuinness does however.  There are potential areas that are suspect – their midfield if the ball is kicked long and high.  Their man for man defence when they are attacking.  The perception that they will get frustrated when faced by mass defence and will lose their temper when provoked.  All of these may be weaknesses, but throw them at any knowledgeable Dub and they will have an answer for you.  Their midfield did fine in last year’s All Ireland Final.  Their man for man defence is only an issue if you can turn them over and break at amazing speed – something that is hard to do when running with the ball, if we kicked it more, we might have a chance.  And, their full court press is such that we will be doing well to make it out of our half at all.  I think this year’s Dublin are more confident and mature than prior editions, especially 2011.  I just don’t know that we will be able to frustrate them as much as we did in 2011 and a ‘zen like calm’ has descended on some of those who were susceptible to provocation.

One issue that a lot of attention is being paid to is what Donegal will do to counter Dublin’s kick outs.  Rob Carroll (@gaelicstats) tweeted during the week that Dublin ‘won’ 100% of their kick outs in the 2011 game.  100%!  Given we took only 18 shots in that game the sample size is small, but it’s still an astonishing statistic.  Will we cede possession to Dublin in this way again in 2014?  Perhaps, but the last time Donegal played Dublin was in the league in Ballybofey in 2013, a game we contrived to draw.  One thing I noticed early on that day was the pressure we were putting on the Dublin kick out.  All our players were working very hard to stick to their men.  I don’t think we persisted with the tactic throughout the game, but we have tried it against them before.   If we can force them to kick at least some ball long and directly to midfield, we may be able to disrupt one source of their attacking possession.  Much easier said than done of course – it’s not just Cluxton’s accuracy, it’s the pace and movement of their outfield players that makes their kick out strategy so effective.

Thanks to stats tweeted by dontfoul after the Armagh game, I saw that Colm McFadden has now taken 11 shots from play over the 4 championship games played to date and has scored only 0-02.  Neither the return, nor the volume of shots is really acceptable given that his primary value to Donegal is his scoring power.  For the same sample, Michael Murphy has scored 0-03 from 8 shots.  The reasons for that low return are more obvious, but it seems hard to believe that we have actually got this far with only five points from our 2012 All Stars in the full forward line.  But, the line often pedalled in the lead up to this game is that Donegal rely too heavily on Colm and Michael for our scores.  Lazy analysis at its finest.  But, the issue with Michael and Colm not shooting as much is that it seems as if our accuracy and efficiency is being badly affected.  Armagh was the nadir in this regard, with a success rate of 39%.  In 2012, our success rate was 59%.  Our success rate in 2014 is bang on 50%, which puts us at slightly worse than average but a long way behind 2012, which has to be the benchmark for success. To win on Sunday, we will have to be much better than we were against Armagh in this regard.  If guys like Paddy and Odhran can do better than they did against Armagh (for all that was good about their scores, the missed shots were very poor), great.  If not, we will surely need more from both Michael and Colm.

Once again, the Donegal defence picks itself.  For all his fine kicking however, Paul Durcan needs to be near perfect on Sunday and perhaps take less risks.  We can’t afford balls going to Ryan McHugh unless he is in lots of space – he is turned over too easily against bigger players.  We hope that Karl Lacey is fit enough to start.  If he’s a doubt for 70 minutes, don’t be surprised to see him on the bench.  I was frankly amazed that Lacey was left on the pitch against Armagh – he seemed to have little or no impact on the game in the second half, and I can only assume he was not in the right shape to contribute.  If he doesn’t start, it’s anyone’s guess who replaces him – Declan Walsh would be a possibility, but so too would dropping Ryan McHugh back and replacing him in the half forward line.

Midfield – well, Big Neil will start.  If he’s fit enough for 70 minutes, I think Rory should start alongside him.  If not, then hold him back and stick with MacNiallais.  Rory looked in good shape when he came on against Armagh and although he has missed a lot of game time this year, I would be confident he will be in a position to start on Sunday given how well we have managed our injured players this year.

In the half forward line, Ryan McHugh (as long as Lacey starts) and Leo McLoone are dead certs. If MacNiallais is bumped from midfield, I would start him ahead of Christy.  Although, reading Sean Moran and Jim McGuiness in today’s Irish Times and you can see why Christy will start, and indeed why Michael Murphy will probably play deep.  We need big physical guys who can carry ball if we are to get through the Dublin defensive line.

As ever this championship season, it’s in the full forward line where we have our most pressing questions.  I don’t know which you address first – is it (a) should Colm McFadden start; or (b) where should Michael Murphy play?  I guess we tackle the thornier issue first – should Colm start?  My position would be ‘no’.  I respect what he has done for the county and I don’t think there’s been any lack of effort at any stage on the pitch this year, but I just think that he has either lost something, whether it’s physical or mental I don’t know, but something doesn’t appear right.  I think the idea that he will suddenly turn things around on Sunday is fanciful, I think it will be more of the same.  The only mitigations for him is that perhaps we have not been playing to his strengths, as we did in 2012, and, is he still an acceptable decoy creating space for others?  I am not so sure.  I don’t think we can afford to kick ball into him and let the Dublin backs lap it up and canter down the field.  There are murmurings that McGuiness is being overly loyal to Colm based on the fact that they are related through marriage.  I think that is bordering on insulting to both manager and player.

If then we don’t start Colm, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if he does start, in fact at this stage I am nearly certain of it, we need to decide who replaces him.  My initial thought would be that we should play Michael and Paddy as a two man full forward line and pick either Rory or Martin McElhinney to start as a third midfielder.  There are a few issues with that of course.  First is that Michael has played very little of his championship football for Donegal at full forward so far this year.  Now, of course he is well capable of playing there, but how likely is it that McGuinness will move away from using him in a deeper role?  I’m not so sure.  The next thing to acknowledge is that his nominal marker on Sunday would be Rory O’Carroll, a player who has tended to do quite well on Michael in recent meetings.  It would be very out of character with everything we’ve seen so far this year for Michael to patrol the edge of the square for anything other than the odd moment at the start of each half.  I seriously doubt we have been playing him deep to try and trick people into believing that we won’t play him as an orthodox forward. I think we have been playing him in that role because that’s where Jim McGuinness feels he can be at his most effective within our system.

If we revert to 2011 shape, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Colm or Paddy as our lone forward.  I don’t think that will win us the game.  I think we are going to have to offer something more.  Something more like the performance we saw against Down or Cork in 2012, although neither of those teams were anywhere near as good as this Dublin team.  To use a cliché, Donegal will have to play out of their skin to win.  And we’ll need a little luck.  And we’ll need Joe McQuillan doesn’t let too much go, as he did in our last game.  We’ll need a lot of things to go in our favour.

It would be a tremendous achievement if Donegal were to beat Dublin on Sunday.  But, that is not the end goal for 2014.  Jim McGuinness and Michael Murphy didn’t rally the troops back in the winter of 2013 to just play in a semi-final, I am sure that they have been thinking of a higher goal all through the year.  However, the challenge here is greater than anything we have faced under McGuinness (although you can make the case that last year’s Mayo team were every bit as good as this Dublin team based on last year’s All Ireland Final) and the truth is while Donegal have improved since 2011, I think Dublin have improved a lot more.  Still, I have faith that we will give them a very good rattle, but ultimately I think they will be too much for us.

I may have failed the test of faith with respect to us winning the game, but I won’t end on that note.  Whatever happens on Sunday, I hope we can leave Croke Park with our heads held high, as we did in 2011.  There was no shame in that defeat.  What happens on Sunday does not define our season, our players or our manager.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Until Victory, Always.

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