Where was the game won and lost as Mayo faced Dublin in MacHale Park?
Stephen Rochford was appointed as the manager of Mayo at the end of November following a fruitful spell as the main man in Corofin.
Despite that successful reign in Galway, little is known about the approach Rochford will take as he tries to guide Mayo to their first All-Ireland title in 65 years. The new Mayo management team also includes Tony McEntee, Donie Buckley, Sean Carey, Maurice Horan and strength and conditioning coach Barry Solan.
Despite all of the knowledge we have on Rochford's backroom staff, what did we learn about his Mayo team on Saturday night in their first televised game of the 2016 National League?
Dublin disarmed Kerry's attack and dismantled their defence the previous Saturday night in Croke Park, and Rochford obviously had his people watching that tie in order to come up with a balanced and logical approach to beating Dublin in Castlebar. While it did not work out entirely as planned, the approach taken was a pragmatic one from the new boss.
Rochford and his backroom staff got their match-ups right in playing Shane Nally as a sweeper, putting Ger Cafferkey on the lethal Paddy Andrews with some help when necessary, and allowing Dublin to try and beat them by kicking from the wings.
Colm Boyle picked up Diarmuid Connolly and Rochford appeared to prioritise the inside men and was willing to allow Tomas Daly and Ciaran Kilkenny added space down the wings. This was not due to lesser talents of either Kilkenny or Daly, but Rochford was willing to take his chances against a team kicking long-ranges efforts. Giving up goals was a non-runner as far as Mayo were concerned and they frustrated Dublin in that respect all night.
Mayo were more than willing to give up the wings and defend the middle against Dublin.
Rochford opted to play Aidan O'Shea in the middle of the field and had the Breaffy man clogging up the middle as a deep-lying defensive midfielder for much of the first half, along with Tom Parsons when the breakdown in play allowed both men to get back.
While most common sense might suggest that O'Shea's best displays are in an attacking midfield role, Rochford decided to reign in the big man and utilise his athleticism, big body and excellent tackling to force Dublin down the wings in the first half.
In what is referred to in soccer as a double pivot, Rochford made his side hard to break down with both Parsons and O'Shea being able to cover plenty of ground laterally to hinder any of Dublin's attempts to grab a goal early.
O'Shea and Parsons teaming up to close down the middle and spy out late Dublin runners
Diarmuid O'Connor emerged as a stand-out player for Mayo last year and he will be just as important in Rochford's set up due to his immense work rate and sensibility when going forward. Much like his brother, Cillian, he does the basics well and distinguishes himself not through his acts of individual brilliance (although they are not uncommon) rather through 70 minutes of making informed decisions going forward and in defending.
Mayo's work rate and awareness in getting men behind the ball was impressive with six inside the large rectangle, and more on the way, on this play
Here we can see six men inside Mayo's circle with James McCarthy surrounded before being dispossessed. Mayo have clearly bought into whatever Rochford is telling them and with O'Connor and others willing and capable of the cognitive sense needed to drop back when necessary despite being relied upon for scores, Mayo will be very competitive this year.
Gegenpressing is defined as "to press the opposition right after losing possession, i.e. to press as an organized unit the moment you transition to defense. The entire team hunts the ball and, in the ideal case, immediately wins it back from the opponent." and its merits are to win the ball back high up the field but also to prevent a counter-attack from the opposition.
Rochford was willing to allow his side kick the ball into their inside forward line even against a strong breeze so they could utilize the tactic that Jürgen Klopp has made famous - gegenpressing. Despite the fact that Mayo struggled in their final third, O'Connor and Conor O'Shea in particular were willing to work hard in pressing Dublin defenders before dropping back to cause problems for Dublin's potent attack. There appeared to be a collective decision by the Mayo forwards that once the ball was kicked in, making it difficult for Dublin's forward to come out with the ball was the next step if possession was lost.
Many might suggest that carrying the ball against a strong breeze would be the best option, but Mayo kicked the ball in as soon as the approached their half way line, possibly for two reasons. Firstly in order to deny Dublin the chance to showcase their exceptional tackling skills by dispossession them and leaving Mayo vulnerable on the counter, and secondly so that they would not be as tired in the second half if they needed to chase the lead.
Mayo possibly left too much for themselves to do against Dublin in the end, and as we can see from the image below, cracks began to appear as soon as the visitors started to move up a gear.
Rochford commented after the game that, "We did very well in the first half against the breeze and I would have liked us to be able to drive on, but Dublin hit three points in the third quarter and, ultimately, that gap left us under pressure"
This was to prove the losing of the game for Mayo, as their excellent defensive shape was forced to suffer once they had to attack the game. As we see here, Jack McCaffrey made space in the centre of the field with Mayo pulled out of position.
As Mayo pressed forward, Dublin saw opportunities to push forward and put the game out of reach as we see Jack McCaffrey in plenty of space in the middle of the second half
Rochford and Mayo proved on Saturday night that they are adaptable with a very coherent game plan. Dublin barely got a shot on goal on Rob Hennelly, while Paddy Andrews and Paul Mannion, who had just six days previous ran riot against the All-Ireland finalists, were subdued to the point of almost complete cancellation. Despite some suspect full forward play and place-kicking, they were every bit as good as Dublin.
Once the fitness improves along with the weather, expect Mayo to scout their opponents well and adapt to conditions of the game. Mayo might be 0 for 2 in their league campaign so far, but that stat-line does not tell the entire story.