The Defensive Revolution

There is an Iker Casillas quote that seems to sum up much of the narrative around Gaelic Football at the moment.

Most kids dream of scoring the perfect goal, I’ve always dreamed of stopping it

While there are no doubt some kids around the world who dream like Iker, the majority want to score them. Likewise I imagine there are very few kids who are dreaming of playing in a blanket defence. Sure they will take the county jersey if it comes, but most want to do the scoring not stop it.

Fans will talk longer about the great forwards of the game, than the great defenders. The prestigious Ballon d’Or  has had only 3 vaguley defensive winners since 1976 and the last true defender to win Footballer of the year was Marc O’Se in 2007.

In The Numbers Game, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally discuss the two histories of football;

One is a tale of wonderful players, of ingenuity and guile and wizardry, constantly finding new ways to improve on (what at the time looks like) perfection.

And there is a second history, one of the men who did all they could to stop them. Not the defenders, but the managers, who dreamed up catenaccio and zonal marking and the sweeper system, all of it designed to stop the virtuosos showcasing their talents. Even the tiki-taka style honed and perfected by Barcelona and adopted by Spain has been labeled a primarily defensive approach—passenaccio—because its emphasis is on starving the opposition of the ball.

Players have improved as the game has matured: They run faster, they shoot harder, they dribble quicker, and they pass more accurately. And as they have improved, so structures have been built to contain them. These structures—offside traps, pressing, triangular passing—are the reason that goal scoring has largely withered on the vine, moving from an average of 4.5 goals per game in 1890 to 2.6 goals more than 100 years later.

In soccer there was a time when seven players on any given side were given over to attacking, with two halfbacks and one fullback. That soon morphed into the W-M formation as two attackers were pulled back, and then came the 4-2-4 of Hungary and Brazil, the 4-4-2 so beloved of English managers, and now, the trend is to deploy just one striker. Barcelona and Spain do not even do that, since the rise of what has been called the false nine.

Gaelic Football is going through a similar transition. Recency bias will determine that Jim McGuinness is to blame but the reality is of you read Daire Whelan’s The Mangers,a fascinating history of the tactics and thinkers that have transformed Gaelic Football you will see that the game has constantly had innovators, both in attack and defence. This ‘curse’ of the sweeper did not start or end with Jim McGuinness.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Soccer has transformed itself from a game of 7 attackers & 4 defenders to one built more on 11 attackers and 11 defenders. Gaelic Football is attempting something similar. At the later end of the season watch how many people take pictures of 15 Kerry or Dublin players defending in their own half, as if ‘look, even they are doing it’.

But soccer is a very different game. Despite all the rule changes, (offside, backpass and 3 points for a win) the goals per game has barely moved since the 70’s.

Soccer-goals-per-match the_numbers_game_why_soccer_teams_score_fewer_goals_than_they_did_100_years.html

To state the obvious, not conceding guarantees you something in soccer – you can’t be beaten. Therefore it is possible for team in leagues or major competitions to approach games with the ‘we won’t concede’ mentality and that has potential to get them somewhere. In other words soccer allows you put almost all your focus on the stopping part of the game.

This is virtually impossible in Gaelic Football. You have to go back to the 1940’s to find a scoreless team. While the two sports share a lot more in terms of tactics & strategy than traditionalist would care to admit, this is a fundamental difference. The nature of Goals and Points demands that you have to have a strategy for both stopping and scoring, a fact that seems sadly lost on many teams today.

I have reproduced a similar graph as above but for Gaelic Football. It is clear in the soccer image that there was a significant shift in strategy around the 1970’s and despite all the advances in training and preparation, video analysis and coaching standards the new normal began in 1970 and hasn’t be altered since.

Here is the scoring chart for Gaelic Football over a similar time frame.

Data from 1950 – 2016. Qualifiers have been excluded to allow for like for like comparison.


See that big drop (orange line) in 2011 and how the trend of conceding less has continued? O wait…

Despite the defensive revolution that McGuinness has apparently blighted the game with; scoring in general is on the rise year-on-year and there is no big dip like in soccer. And for the doubters who say yes the number of points being scored might be the same but that’s because teams like Dublin are doing all the scoring, well the blue line discredits that theory. The average winning margin is almost amazingly consistent since 1950.

My point with all this is two-fold. First I feel the facts should get a fair hearing. You may not like the style the game is currently being played in, but don’t confuse that with the substance of what is on the pitch. Defensive football is not leading to less scores!

Secondly to the managers and coaches. For all the effort put into defensive systems, for the lack of enjoyment the fans seem to get from this style, for the sake of attracting the exciting, ambitious players, you really need to question what value are you getting from this defensive football? Taken as a whole teams are not conceding less than before, as we can see above scoring is on the increase.

Football is not like soccer, you can’t progress by just stopping. I look forward to the next iteration of the game, I hope it goes on the attack.

Football County Squad Sizes

It’s a different game these days. Impact subs and panels that extend beyond 30. “You need a big panel of players to cope with the demands of the modern game with it’s physical demands” they say. Even rules changes now allow for more players to take the field with Black Cards and additional substitutes.

But I wonder what the evidence says. Are any of the above statements true? Are we seeing counties use more players and as a result this is to the detriment of the ‘weaker’ counties with limited playing populations.

To try and answer this question I can now delve into my Player Database which goes back to 2006 and take a look at the evolution or lack thereof of squad sizes. Granted it would be great to look through the last 125 years of squads but that will take me a bit longer to organise. For now we can use 2006 as our starting point and 10 season should give us some indication of change, if any has happened.

Average Players Used

In 2006 the average number of players used by 31 counties* was 24.3 and 10 seasons later in 2015 it’s now 25! Yes on average squads are using 1 extra player. That doesn’t seem like a big change to me and certainly doesn’t fit the narrative of this new game they are all playing. Whatever playing resources a County needed in 2006 is very similar to what they need today, as you can see from the almost flat line plotting this average over the last 10 years.


Starters v Subs

So that looks at overall how many players were used, but doesn’t really distinguish between starters/subs. So let’s look at the average number of starters counties have used and see if that has ‘evolved’ over the last decade.

2006 = 20

2015 = 19.3

So on average team used less starting players in 2015 than they did in 2006. It’s not a huge change and has hovered around that figure consistently. Counties are using 1 extra player but that’s mostly just an extra sub, the number of starting players is static.

The Have’s v Have Not’s

So we can take this a stage further, let’s look at the difference between good and bad teams. You can argue the toss over successful and unsuccessful for the last decade but let’s say it’s Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Mayo (at least 3 AI Final appearances). We can then compare those 4 teams v’s the rest to see if there is any differences of note.

Average Players Used


First point is there is very little change over time. Successful teams are using the same amount of players as they did in 2006 as are Unsuccessful teams. There does seem to be a difference of about 1 player but this gap has not widened.

Starters Comparison


Again – I can see no evidence of the evolution of bigger squad sizes. 2015 looks a lot like 2006 for both groups. The gap here again is around 1 player.

Bigger Resources = Bigger Squads = Winning ?

I think what is clear from this is that the season to season difference is negligible and even looking at the data county x county doesn’t shed any light on it either.  In a single season all counties tend to use the same playing resources. So is there anything useful to be gathered from squad sizes?

The final graph I will share today is the number of individual players a county has used over the last 10 seasons. This includes starters and subs but should give an idea of player turnover in that time.

Total Players Used (2)

10 years is a big time frame to look at. Squads will go through transition periods but at just 58 players Kerry have used the fewest players.

Does success lead to stability or does stability lead to success? Looking at these numbers and especially looking at the above graph since 2012 it seems to me that unsuccessful teams don’t lack for players but they do seem to struggle to retain the same players. In any given year they use the same quantity of players as the best teams, the issue is not enough of them are the same players as the previous year.

A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. The unsuccessful teams are constantly playing catch up with their new/slowest buffalo(s).

*For reference including London and New York doesn’t really change these numbers at all but for the sake of this I have left them out. 

Football Tactics; Revolution or Recycle?

“It goes back to the time Clive Woodward guided England to the Rugby World Cup, it’s paralysis by analysis……. This game of Gaelic Football has been infiltrated by a load of spoofers and bluffers, people with no experience in some cases of Gaelic Football, fellas with ear pieces stuck in their ear, psychologists, statisticians, dieticians… and we’ve forgotten the basic principles of the game – the catch and kick. “ – Pat Spillane, 2013

The comments about spoofers and bluffers from Pat Spillane took place during the half-time analysis between Cavan & Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship 2013. He was angry, the game wasn’t being played how it should be, the only way to play FOOTball is with your feet. It’s a game only about catch and kick. It’s an interesting thought, maybe there is only one way football should be played. But this isn’t gymnastics, there are no points for style. Stoke City and the Crazy Gang Wimbledon of the late ‘80’s didn’t play like Barcelona or Arsenal and the traditionalists hated them too.

In fact this style of play debate was the starting point of a book ‘The Numbers Game’ by Chris Anderson & David Sally. While discussing the merits or otherwise of Rory Delap’s long throws David Sally wondered why all teams didn’t employ the same tactic. The only answer Chris Anderson (a former professional GK) could come with was ‘because there are some things you don’t want to do when playing football. Because, even though a goal celebrated by a long throw is worth just as much as one from a flowing passing move, it’s almost like it doesn’t count as much. Because, to purists, they’re are somehow not quite as deserved.’

This debate is not confined to Soccer. Almost as soon as the Galeic Games were codified it seems there was a traditional way of playing. Check out this extract from Dick Fitzgerald’s book in 1914!

‘Everybody knows that the tendency of the outdoor games of the present day is to reduce the individual player to the level of a mere automation. In a manner the individual in modern games is a disadvantage to his side if his individuality asserts itself too strongly.’

Gaelic Football history is littered with these conflicts of style. Fans get much more excited by the big high catch from a Kieran Donaghy who turns and scores then a sweeping hand passing move from one end of the pitch to the other ending in the same result. But the fact is there isn’t just one way to play football, there are loads of ways and if there is one thing that separates great minds from the rest it is the ability to question how things have been done.

Do people always get it right, no! but the questioning, development and innovation can lead to much greater things, things that weren’t envisaged by the traditionalists. All of these developments come from people who are willing to question the most common seven words in football ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’

Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s and whose character Brad Pitt played in the film Moneyball was recently asked about hiring outside baseball people. When asked about one of his right-hand men, Farhan Zaidi, who has has a PhD in behavioural economics and whether that was a disadvantage Beane replied ‘he has no experience-bias when he comes to my office, so he is able to question the obvious. A guy like myself, who has been in the game his entire life, may not be able to spot when the emperor is not wearing any clothes.”

Far from an outsider but still one of the most recent innovators is Jim McGuiness. We all know the story, McGuinness took over a team that had failed to win an Ulster Championship game in 4 years. A team that had last won the All Ireland 19 years previously. He wanted to build a team that could not only compete within Ulster but go even further. No doubt he knew the players well, but even from afar he knew what he was getting when he inherited the squad. Rather than take on the likes of Kerry, Cork & Dublin at their own game (the so-called traditional game) he needed to beat them at a different game.

This was a modern day form of David v Goliath, The Oakland A’s v’s the Yankees, The Have not’s v the Have’s. David couldn’t fight Goliath with a sword, he couldn’t take him on at his own game, David had to change the rules, do something unexpected. Football teams throughout history have been doing exactly the same. 

Jim McGuiness took charge of his first Ulster Championship game against Antrim in 2011 on a very wet May day in Ballybofey. It was the only game on TV that weekend and was the start of the Championship season. It was 6 points to 3 in favour of Donegal at half-time. During the half-time analysis Joe Brolly summed up the game and Donegal’s tactics as follows;

“The disease of Donegal football is solo running and hand passing, it’s a lethal cocktail which can lead to only one thing, which is boredom” Joe Brolly continued, (referring to Donegal’s style)…”that’s ok at the moment but it’s not going to be any good in terms of winning an Ulster Championship or advancing beyond that.”

Within 40 months Donegal would be 3 times Ulster Champions & visit the All Ireland Final twice, winning once, only losing 3 championship games in that time; An Ulster Final, All Ireland Semi-Final and an All Ireland Final.

I don’t quote Joe Brolly to make a mockery of his analysis, which in hindsight couldn’t have been more wrong, but rather to highlight this notion that there is only one way to play football. This is not a unique situation to Gaelic Games, all sports seem to have a ‘right’ & ‘wrong’ way to play the game. But history has shown that that has never been the case. Just as ‘new’ coaching and training methods are developed there is an ebb and flow to tactics and strategies, history has shown that not unlike the catwalks of Milan or New York there is a reinvention every season and while it is often heralded as a revolution, when you look a bit closer it seems more like recycling than revolution.

2016 will require something different from the challengers. While it would be wrong to call Mayo, Monaghan, Kerry, Donegal or Tyrone David’s they are going to need to recycle or re-invent something about their game to find a way to topple the Dublin Goliath.

Expected Points

Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

If you follow any of the soccer analysts you will constantly hear the term Expected Goals. Soccer is a low scoring game and Expected goals is a better way to both accurately reflect a players true scoring value and also how many he is likely to score in the future given the same opportunities. It turns out that simply looking at how many goals a player scored in one season is not a good prediction of how many he will score next season and the season after that. Expected goals is a better way to do that. Perfect? No, but better. And when you are buying players for £50m+ every little helps.

You can find out a little more about the soccer versions and their rational by reading this summary post – which links to all the mains models.

Gaelic Football Expected Points (ExpP).

While soccer is low scoring, with relatively few shots, Gaelic Football is not. Therefore what the sport lacks in # of games it ‘sort of’ makes up for in the number of shots and scores per game. James over on the blog dontfoul gives a very good account of his model here and it’s well worth reading. Our models are not identical but the fundamentals are the same and from some of the results I’ve seen the outcome is very very similar.

ExpP is a pretty simple concept. You effectively break the pitch into scoring zones. In my case I use 40 zones. 5 from touchline-to-touchline and 8 zones progressing approximately  every 7 meters.

expPoints Pitch Zones

So you take all the shots from a given location (let’s say there are 100 from a certain location and 50 of them have been converted for points). The ExpP for that zone is .5 (50/100). In my model I have over 14,000 shots across all the zones.

If a player takes 8 shots from that location in a game we would expect him (based on the average) to score 4 points. If he scores 6 he is +2 points better than the average footballer.

The models can get much more complex than this and you can build in factors such as opposition strength, # of defenders between shooter and the goal, pressure on the kicker, game state, ground (think Hill 16) and so on. For now I’m going to run with the simple version above.

So we take out 14,000 shots. Divide them up into the 40 zones, break them down if they were from play, from placed ball or from a penalty. For each zone and shot type we get an ExpP number. Every time someone takes a shot from that location we can compare him or his team to what we would expect.

In Action

Spurred on by Richard Whitall doing something similar for soccer on his new site here is what the Expected Goals looks like against the actual chances and in it I hope to highlight while ExpP is a great way to look at players over the long run, it does have weaknesses if we just look at chance x chance or even game x game.

I’ll use the League final and just a few examples to show how this works.

Stephen O’Brien Point

You can see here that O’Brien slots what seems like an easy chance over. However we would only expect inter-county players to score this 42% of the time. So while it looks easy a score here is not a gimme.


Cormac Costello Point

Cormac Costello slots over a point from distance in the 2nd half. It’s the other side of the pitch than the example above but a very similar expected return.


Paul Flynn Goal

Paul Flynn’s goal happens in zone 2;3. I’ve recorded 596 shots from play from that zone. 152 goals have been scored and 167 points. This means that from this location (ignoring all other factors) we would expect a team to score just over 1 point (1.045 to be exact)* for every attempt.


I think we can all agree that the ExpP model is underestimating how good a chance this is. Despite my belief that ExpP is a great way to look at players and teams it is not without its flaws. While we wouldn’t expect Flynn to score 100% of the time, expecting him to score a goal just 33% of the time from here is underestimating him. And the following 2 images show why that is.

ExpPoints1 ExpPoints3

The model treats these 3 shots in exactly the same way i.e. they happened in the same location. Although we can see from the screen grabs that the attacker is facing very different situations in each case. In the long run Paul Flynn will attempt many shots from the location he scored the goal from on Sunday so 1.005 is accurate over his career, just not in this individual case.

ExpP is really useful when looking over the long run, a much better indicator of a players true ability, rather than just looking at Shot % or Total Scores. But this is the health warning. Looking at 1 shot or even a full game a model is going to be flawed. Teams can have an eye on the long run but ultimately deal in the here and now. That’s why video analysis is so important for them.

I’ll publish more about this during the summer and I will start to build in some other factors rather than just location but for now consider this the introduction.

We’re Hiring

We’re looking for an enthusiastic analyst to join us here at Gaelic Stats for the summer. Rather than look for CV’s and cover letters all you need to do is fill in the following application form.

You must be available to work Sunday’s, Monday’s and Tuesday’s from May to September in our offices in South Dublin.

Work will commence very soon and the closing date for applications is Friday 8th April.

Cork’s Blanket

Cork arrived with a blanket in Croke Park last Saturday evening and it seemed to work for about 35 minutes. But then Dublin caught them, passed them and gave them more headaches leaving than when they arrived. Coming into the game with the worst defensive record in the 4 divisions it’s easy to see why Cork set up with virtually all men behind the ball.

There is no getting around this, this was a scrappy and poor game overall. With 56 turnovers (29 in the first half) and 52 fouls the game never really got going. It took 11 minutes for the first point from play and Cork scored 1-1 from shots that dropped short in the first half.

The 1st half had a staggering 21 by Dublin. For some context Dublin’s average Turnover rate is 26 for an entire game. I think we can safely assume no team will get as many against Dublin again this term.

So did the game all hinge on the half-time team talk? The hairdryer treatment? I’m sure there is an element of that but there is a lot more at play that a couple of broken tea-cups in a dressing room.

 Cork’s Set-up

As mentioned Cork came with the intention to get men behind the ball and park the bus. Over the last 3 weeks we have seen vastly different styles against Dublin. Mayo conducted a mix of press and drop off, Monaghan were much braver in pushing up on the kickouts and really trying to put pressure on Dublin while still effectively playing with 2 sweepers. Cork did the 3rd option. They defended in numbers. Early on you can see they have +3 defenders in place which forces Dublin to go lateral time and time again. In this example Ciaran Kilkenny has no option but to head back across the pitch.


We can see in an earlier play (below) how well Cork were set-up defensively. Costello receives the ball under the Hogan and his first thought is to look up and find someone inside. We can’t see from the camera angle but nothing is on inside.


So he cuts inside, plays a 1-2 and looks to change the point of attack.


He does find a nice ball to Brogan, but Brogan receives the ball 45m + out and again Cork have +2 defenders against the 2 Dublin forwards and a sweeper arriving behind them.


Brogan is forced to try a fairly impossible shot with no other Dublin Forwards in sight. Of Dublin’s 21 1st Half turnovers 17 were misplaced kick passes. Whether they weren’t reading the sweepers or simply ran out of options is hard to tell.

Dublin Switching Play

Against a blanket defense Dublin constantly look to change the point of attack. They are great at keeping their width and even though they struggled in the first half they were always looking to switch the play. Cork switched off for a couple of minutes in the first half and Dublin were able to see the opening.

Cork win a sideline ball but have no options so end up kicking it away in the middle of the park.


Cooper picks it up and immediately keeps the ball coming towards the near touchline. A nice interchange with Cian O’Sullivan opens up the play, but the Cork players are slow to react to losing the ball. I think the 3 men highlighted on the far side could be quicker to react to the danger. All 3 effectively walk back towards position.


For the first time in the half there is no sweeper in place and Dublin can play the ball into Brogan and have men running off. If the 3 men highlighted above were quicker in getting back it would have (possibly) allowed everyone to shift around a bit more and for Brian O’Driscoll cover that space in front of Brogan and Andrews.


Connolly finishes the goal really well but I want to highlight the defending of Brian O’Driscoll. As he is running full-tilt towards Brogan he seems too preoccupied with marking the inside runner, Paul Flynn. He could have read the situation a bit better and saw that Cork had 4 men inside to take Flynn. There is no need for him to keep tracking that run.


He almost has to break his stride to get out of Brogan’s way. The danger here is the man on the ball and he would have been better served stopping any release.


He makes a valiant effort to get back put those split second decisions are crucial against Dublin.


A Game to Two Halves

So what changed in the 2nd half? Other than the tea-cups being thrown, there were some positional switches with McCarthy going into Midfield and being 7 points down players feel they have more license to take risks. Phily McMahon barely ventured forward in the first half but he kept appearing off the shoulder and making runs into Cork’s 45. Even in the last minute of the game as James McCarthy coolly slotted the ball into the net the player waiting in the square for a pass was McMahon.


It’s hard to see McMahon not being given a license to venture forward in games given his recent form and the Mayo game.

Cork’s blanket was still in place for the majority of the 2nd half but some costly errors in front of Dublin’s goal early in the 2nd half killed their momentum and the scoreable frees Cork conceded allowed Dublin edge ahead without much fuss.

It took Cork 9 Attempts to get their first score of the 2nd Half. The 3rd miss coming when Cork still had a 5 point advantage 5 minutes into the 2nd half.

Cork’s first 9 shots of the 2nd Half

What will probably disappoint Cork the most is the easy chances they coughed up from scoreable frees. Dublin kicked 10 points from 11 placed balls for a 90% return. In contrast they kicked 6 from 16 attempts from play (albeit 2 goals). But that is a 38% return from play. The fouling really kept Dublin in the game.

With 55 mins gone Cork still lead by a goal (2-7 to 1-7). For Dublin’s remaining 7 points only one was from play. Cork coughed up 6 frees in those remaining 15 minutes. For the blanket to work the discipline is so important. In the end as much as Dublin upped the ante Cork let them off the hook by allowing them keep the scoreboard ticking over.

Monaghan v Dublin League 2016

Dublin won by the smallest of margins on Saturday night but Monaghan have a lot to be pleased with. Many teams don’t get this close and yes it is the league but playing Dublin in Croke Park is never an easy game no matter what the competition is.

Dublin’s Kickouts

Having been involved with inter-county teams there is always the discussion to stick or twist against Dublin’s kickouts. Between the accuracy and speed, pushing up feels like the riskier option, easier to sit back let them have it and meet them at half-way. Some teams try the half-way measure of splitting defenders (see Mayo last week) but not Monaghan this week. They pushed up and went man-to-man.


This was typical of Monaghan’s shape on Cluxton’s kickouts. If Dublin get clean ball here there are 5 Monaghan player’s out of the game. But that’s the risk and you have to balance that with just gifting Dublin the ball.

Rather than being content to make sure their own man didn’t get the ball you can see 2 Monaghan men racing to be involved should there be a breaking ball.

Earlier we can see again Monaghan have committed 6 men inside Dublin’s 45 but their willingness to get to the breaking ball was surprisingly better than Dublin’s.


Once the ball is going long Monaghan get 5 players to the breaking ball, wile some of the Dublin player’s stand and watch.


Monaghan had good success with this strategy. Dublin ‘only’ won 67% of their own kickouts. Many other teams have tried and failed to stop the relentless possession Dublin get from kickouts and winning 33% of their kickouts is a decent day. When we look at the return Monaghan got from the 8 kickouts we can see how valuable it was.

  1. Point (great goal chance)
  2. Point
  3. Foul Against
  4. Hand Pass Goal
  5. Point
  6. Post (great goal chance)
  7. Point
  8. Point

5 Points & 2 great goal chances is an excellent return, especially in a 1 point game.

The Risk

Pressing Dublin’s Kickouts does come at a cost. In general Monaghan handled this very well and Dublin didn’t have many fast breaks but there was once where Phily McMahon was allowed drift off his man


and if there was a better ball at the end, well this is what Dublin do, a sucker punch of goal.


close-range-zoneDublin’s Shooting

All shots are not created equal. Monaghan out shot Dublin by 32 : 26, no mean feat in Croke Park. However Dublin’s chances were from a much closer range. Using 30m as ‘Close Range’ we can examine very quickly the difference between 2 teams shots.

Monaghan took 23 shots from play but only 9 (39%) were from the Close Range

Dublin took 17 shots from play but 9 (53%) were from the Close Range.

This means that although Monaghan had more shots, questions must be asked as to whether the shot selection was right. Dublin were more selective and less willing to shot from outside the Close zone where the return is a lot less. For Monaghan to truly push Dublin they will need to improve their shot selection.

Dublin’s Defensive Shape

Against Mayo Dublin pushed up a lot and were willing to leave the Mayo full-forward line a little more room. However we did see a shift on Saturday night. Conor McManus is one of the most dangerous forwards in the game and Dublin gave him ample respect with a more permanent sweeper (yes Dublin use a sweeper). In this example, following a Dublin turnover, Monaghan break and Ciaran Duffy is afforded much more space than any Mayo player was last week because Cian O’Sullivan isn’t sure to push up or is more worried about McManus inside.


Cian O’Sullivan clearly had this job on his mind throughout the game. Just before half-time Monaghan win a line-ball on the Dublin 45. Cian O’Sullivan is clearly signalling at Paul Flynn to take his man.


Flynn pushes up as O’Sullivan races back to the sweeper role. Monaghan play the ball backwards and then look for McManus inside.


Except who has arrived!


O’Sullivan reads the intercept and Dublin win a free to escape the pressure.

I’m not sure if the lack of pressing by Dublin was deliberate or not. But in the last 2 games we have seen Dublin play 2 different styles. Against Mayo they pushed high up the field and were willing to leave themselves a little more exposed. Against Monaghan we see a more defensive approach with a clear sweeper in place. McManus is special and kicked some amazing scores. Dublin will be happy enough with the win but I think Monaghan, especially with the 2 goal chances can count themselves unlucky not to escape with a win here.

Dublin’s Blue Wave

Dublin get a lot of praise for their attacking football, stemming often from their ability to start quick fast attacks from their own kickouts. However, Dublin’s work-rate and skill in defending is overlooked and as a result undervalued.

Dublin defend differently to most other teams. They press high and with numbers, they commit as high up the pitch as necessary to win the ball back as close to the opposition goal as they can. That can leave vulnerabilities when you pass that first and even second line of defenders but when they get their pressing game working it’s very difficult to stop.

Take this example after 30 seconds in the Mayo game. Dublin turn the ball over but instead of falling back and defending on the half-way or even close to their own goal, the Dublin players take position at the point they lost it. In the pic below you can see that at least 8 players are committed to pressing the kicker.

Early Press

And it’s not just that they are looking to press man-on-man, you can see the player(5) is pressing space, he wants to fill that large bit of space in the middle of the field, regardless of the fact there is no Mayo player in that space. From the resulting lineball Dublin win a scoreable free almost immediately.

Dublin win a very impressive 70+% of their own kickouts, but the more startling statistic is they win 55% of the oppositions kickouts on average. Dublin commit, to winning the opposition Kickout. It’s not a case of trying to split defenders or anything of the sorts. Throughout the game they were willing to go man-on-man on Mayo’s 21. This is something most other teams don’t do as often or as well as Dublin.

The image below is the first kickout of the game. It’s 5 v 6 in favour of Mayo

1st Kout 5 player commit

Compare this to the Dublin Kickout following a great Mayo goal chance in the 22nd minute. At the time Regan strikes the ball at goal there are 7 Mayo players inside the Dublin 21. A few seconds later the image below shows how easy it was for Dublin to win possession from the Kickout and move the ball up field.


From the following 2 passes you can see the Mayo players get so easily taken out of the game. They are neither pushing up nor falling back and as a result they get passed out as if they are cones on a training pitch. Dublin are afforded so much space and get to the Mayo 45 without any pressure at all.


And this wasn’t an isolated incident in just the 6th minute Dublin get out so easily and Denis Bastick reaches the half-way and kicks an easy ball into the Mayo 45 without ever facing pressure from Mayo.


Compare this to what Donal Vaughan was met with from the first kickout of the game.

Dvaughan met on 45

Or after 9 minutes when Mayo when a free in their own 45 compare how far up the pitch Dublin are willing to commit 11 players.


Very different styles and tactics between the two teams. Dublin are happy to not just go man for man, because that’s not actually what they do, but an overall team commitment to press high up the pitch where possible and win the ball back as quickly and as close to the oppositions goal as possible.

It’s not about Man on Man.

As proof of that take a look at the following image.  Ciaran Kilkenny is tracking a Mayo player as Aidan O’Shea cuts across the pitch. Instead of following ‘his man’. Kilkenny puts the breaks on, and although makes a very minimal attempt to tackle O’Shea he slows him down enough for his marker to cause a dispossession. When Aidan O’Shea drops the ball it’s Ciaran Kilkenny who picks it up and launches another Dublin attack. I think in most other teams Kilkenny tracks that runner no matter where he goes, but not with Dublin.


Again to contrast this with the Mayo style; as Dublin win possession back inside their own half look how far off the Mayo player’s are. Not pressing but some have even turned their back and are simply just running back.


At one stage in the 1st half Mayo get a free just inside their 21. 30 seconds later after a series of passes they are themselves turnedover, having almost never been outside their 21!! To play Dublin you need to deal with this sort of pressure.

The high press game comes at a cost and at times it can be high risk. If you commit that many numbers to press the opposition, you need to make sure you get pressure on the man carrying the ball. As soon as that doesn’t happen you leave yourself vulnerable to a long ball that can take out all but your back-line.


Dublin failed to get enough pressure on the ball carrier following a turnover and had 2 v 2 inside. There is cover arriving and Jack McCaffrey gets back to break up the play but on a dry day where the ball sticks first time – this is a vulnerability.

This high risk, high press game showed an earlier vulnerability. As you can see the next image is from the 2nd minute of the game. Dublin are pressing, it’s not really about their man – more about getting pressure on the ball. But in doing that they have left 2 Mayo men free. If the ball carrier can get their head up a 20 yard pass would take 7 Dublin men out of the game.


Later in the half we see Dublin get turnedover on the ½ way. The pressure system means in 2 quick hand passes suddenly Mayo see a very different field in front of them.


Suddenly they are in behind, running full speed against a Dublin full back line. This happened much too infrequently for Mayo. Will other teams be able to exploit that high-press? Dublin looked excellent at it, but it will leave gaps behind. There players knew when to push up and when they needed to hold their position. This is not a skill I’ve seen in many other teams.

Monaghan will no doubt defend in numbers, they are unlikely to play a high-press game, but the big test will be how they cope with the Dublin press. Will they be able to beat the initial high-press and get the Dublin team turned?