Sunday Business Post journalist and author of 'Tactics not Passion' previews the All-Ireland final
The template for beating Dublin is pretty clear, making it succeed is a whole other matter. That’s the task that faces Mayo in Sunday’s All-Ireland decider.
Mayo’s radical shift in style this year has come with heaps of teething pains. This season has a lot in common with James Horan’s first season in charge in 2011, when he made big changes to the way Mayo played in order to make them capable of being All-Ireland contenders while their best players were hitting their peak years.
Horan’s failure to win the big one in 2012 and 2013 came after an ugly - but relatively successful - first year in charge. Having scrapped their way to a Connacht title on the back of a national league campaign where they barely avoided relegation, Mayo got their marquee win for the summer with victory over reigning All-Ireland champions Cork in the quarter-finals, before falling to Kerry in the semis.
What followed was a string of seasons where Mayo somehow became viewed as a side that lacked a top-tier attacking force despite, collectively, being the only side with the ability to create and convert chances at a rate comparable to Dublin.
Stephen Rochford has, like Horan, tried to make a huge shift to the way Mayo play and it’s come with issues that the 2011 version of Mayo are all too familiar with. A poor league campaign, followed by a far from great start to the summer in which they relinquished their provincial crown, naturally brought criticism. However, for Rochford, it was about the hard reset. He needed to deliver a style that could make Mayo capable of beating Dublin. That’s been the target from the start of the year. Find a way to get to Croker and be ready for the best team on the island.
Stylistically, his charges have the game to make Dublin wary. They can adopt much of what Donegal did in 2014 and what Kerry tried a few weeks ago; bringing heavy pressure to the Dublin full-back line and forcing them to hand pass through defence is the best way to hinder Jim Gavin’s side.
While much has been made of Dublin’s hand passing statistics, that tactic is far more about ball retention and making a platform for attacks, rather than creating scoring opportunities.
What Dublin actually want is a defence that encourages them to kick through; that’s what Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jim McGuinness have keyed in on previously, and it’s what Rochford appears to have built his side to do.
The only problem is actually making it work. There’s a huge risk in this approach, as not only is it physically draining on starters, but it is also massively reliant not just on keeping errors low, but on committing none at all. Kerry’s ball-handling was their biggest failing in the semi-final - not only did it give Dublin second chance opportunities in attack, but it also meant they were unable to punish Dublin’s own ball security issues in that game.
The pace and style of this gameplan is not ideal for avoiding such mistakes, but it’s better than the alternative of trying to keep it close, or focusing solely on Mayo’s own strengths and hoping that’s enough to get the win.
For an underdog, that’s a safe approach. Fans will see it as their style of football, but the danger is it significantly increases the probability of defeat. The only thing that matters on Sunday is who actually wins, not by how much.
For Mayo, despite having some ageing players, this looks a year too early for them. Dublin should win with a bit of room to spare, but Mayo will arrive to Croke Park with an approach that can enable victory, and that’s all that really matters.