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Dublin using Donegal lesson as launch pad to success

By Declan Bogue

In every discussion of where this Dublin team belongs among the 'Greatest Of All Time', there is one game that is constantly referred to. The fly in the ointment, the one black mark, was Donegal in 2014.

With Dublin now chasing three consecutive All-Ireland titles, that game in 2014 stands out, as Donegal continuously exposed them at the back while the Dublin defenders kept flying up the pitch, leaving enormous gaps, while Dubs manager Jim Gavin took no corrective action.

It would seem inconceivable that the army of backroom statisticians and selectors connected to the Dublin effort were not spotting the pattern that they were vulnerable at the back. But still, Gavin did not intervene.

Stung by defeat, he spent some time on the All-Stars trip later that year attending a couple of Boston Celtics games and later brought Jason Sherlock - himself with that basketball background - in to work on the Dublin defence.

A key, though rarely highlighted facet of Dublin's system now is their ability to 'screen' opponents as in the hoops game. It was this kind of grey area offence that the black card was introduced to guard against, but the subtlety with which it is used often goes undetected or unpunished.

The scars of that Donegal defeat have informed much of Dublin's evolution since, with Cian O'Sullivan sure to play sweeper in front of Tyrone's one-man full forward line Mark Bradley tomorrow.

A key part of the Dublin rearguard, Philly McMahon, believes there are similarities between north-west neighbours Tyrone and the Donegal 2014 edition.

"They have a good spread of scorers and they have racked up a good score over the last couple of games and they are obviously defensively strong.

"They are a kind of all-rounded northern team that are hard to beat and that is what we came up against when we faced Donegal."

The chances are that Dublin have seldom come up against a team that defend in such numbers since, and it doesn't suit them. When Westmeath for example tried to go man-for-man with them, they suffered a record defeat.

In some ways, Monaghan have done Tyrone a favour by now retreating into a deep defensive shell in the quarter-final and offered Dublin a road-test for what they will face against Tyrone.

"It is nothing that we haven't come up against before tactically, but we know the intensity they bring is another notch above the rest of the northern teams," states McMahon.

It's Tyrone's ability to soak up pressure and then break, that drew the admiration of Dublin manager Jim Gavin at their recent press event.

"I think if you look at any of the games that Tyrone have played in, the Ulster championship for example, even the national league, they have a very, very impressive defensive system. It is very, very difficult to break down.

"They're very skillful at it, very skillful defenders. They're a very, very impressive attacking team as well, to see the scores they're putting up in each of their Championship games, it has been good and against traditionally very good defensive teams, like Donegal, they broke them down at their ease.

"They've got the mix right."

While admitting, "That's a possibility," that Dublin could get sucked into playing the game on Tyrone's terms, Gavin slipped into vintage Jim Gavin generalities.

"Each team that we've played, we give them the ultimate respect and prepare as best as we can for the challenge that they bring.

"But we've always tried to play our game plan, and execute that to the best of our ability, and obviously that changes from game to game. That has been, over the last number of weeks, that has been our key focus and it will continue to be leading into the game."

He won't get fooled again.

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