Sometimes, when looking for explanations, the detailed analysis of sport during and after games can be overly complicated. Sometimes, the separating factors are quite simple and so it was for Saturday's epic contest over 80 minutes. Stating the obvious is sometimes unavoidable.
In an opening half where both teams capitalised on their own tactical advantages and momentum highs, the teams could barely be separated and certainly not on the scoreboard.
Over the first pulsating thirty eight minutes of play, both Kerry and Dublin had 100% retention from their kick outs, 22 possessions and 10 points apiece. That translated into identical rates of productivity (scores generated from every 10 possessions) of 4.55. Just about every other key performance marker was within a percentage point or two when the teams headed back under the Hogan Stand for a breather.
Kerry's numerical advantage
In the second half, Kerry retained 100% of their kick outs (superior to Dublin’s 86%), mounted 18 attacks (the same as Dublin) and created 16 shots (one more than Dublin). Those are basic numbers that would normally imply at least parity in the flow of the game.
The key stat, to no-one’s surprise, is the one that measures finishing. Those chances yielded a return of five points in the second half – representing an efficiency of only 32%.
To put that malfunction in the final third in context, Kerry’s efficiency across the "Super Eights" and semi-final averaged 73%. Even during the first half of the drawn game, when it is accepted that they wasted an unusually high number of scoring chances, they still produced a return of 47% in front of the posts.
The game was lost for Kerry in those numbers. At face value, if you take only five from sixteen shooting opportunities in a half of football then the result is inevitable.
The follow up question has then to be if it can it be a coincidence that a potentially lethal Kerry attack happens to produce its two weakest shooting performances of the season against Dublin?
Dublin's attacking prowess has by now been roundly recognised for its potency. If they catch an opponent out of position or in any way vulnerable with space in defence, the speed and accuracy with which they can move the ball is devastating. They have athleticism through their middle third that sets them apart as the best counter attacking team in the country.
Less well recognised is their more methodical attacking patterns. When opponents have bodies back and space is at a premium, their pre-planned positioning and movement engineers shooting opportunities through the centre better than anyone.
Once the signal comes, Kilkenny or Fenton will demand possession as they hold it beyond an opponent’s tackling perimeter and those ahead of the ball move wide and high inside. The playmakers will hold the ball until O’Callaghan or Mannion can get out in front coming from goal to present for a popped ball they can build off.
Con O’Callaghan’s point immediately after Murchan’s goal early in the second half was maybe the most important example from Saturday evening but it is a well used strategy that Paul Murphy’s positioning should have been more effective in limiting.
From an attacking perspective, Dublin struck the balance between kicking and running the ball much better than the Kingdom. Particularly in the first half, Kerry used the long early ball onto the square too often. Once Dublin realised the danger their half backs and the covering Cooper adjusted their positioning to be first to the breaks off those deliveries and their opponents weren’t able to win a single one of those second balls.
Ironically, when Tommy Walsh came on in the second half his movement removed the long ball as an option. Each time Kerry crossed half way, Walsh would inevitably make a run wide and collect a ball in front and going away from goal – the sort of service any one of their other forwards would be better suited to creating off.
The Key to the Kingdom
Saturday's replay demonstrated everything that is great about Gaelic football played at the very peak of physical and mental capacity. The first half was at times a blur of movement as both teams went toe to toe around the middle and some of the country’s finest attacking talent demonstrated their quality.
As the pace dropped after half time, Dublin were the team most able to impose their will without the ball. The champions were consistently excellent in the tackle. They were aggressive enough to pressurise the ball carrier but controlled and physically strong enough to not be beaten. They stay in the way while tackling exceptionally well and a forward has to work extremely hard to get a clear shot off.
Two of Kerry’s points early in the second half were prime examples. First Paul Geaney and then Sean O’Shea produced high quality points – one from a tight angle and another from distance. Very few players might have squeezed those shots over given the intense pressure they were both under from Davy Byrne and Brian Howard respectively.
The Dublin defence were able to produce that level of defiance throughout the game and as the clock ticked on and bodies tired, the Kerry attack wilted and those shooting gaps disappeared.
Standing head and shoulders above everyone in leading Dublin's resistance is Mick Fitzsimons – the most complete defender in the game at the moment and, for me, the footballer of the year.
Fitzsimons’ quality was never as clear as in a vital passage of play in the 48th minute. Kerry has closed the gap to two points and turned the ball over for a counter attack. Racing from centre forward across to the right wing, Sean O’Shea collected a pinpoint outlet pass as he spun John Small and exploded past him towards goal.
Luckily for Dublin, the mercurial Fitzsimons had sat in the cover position and, sensing the danger a marauding Sean O’Shea posed, left home early to meet the threat. This is an impossible task. Meeting a playmaker and finisher of O’Shea’s quality in space as he drives at you while you go the other way is a recipe for disaster.
Fitzsimons’ footwork and changes of direction are not only scarily quick but also instinctively perfect to close off space and take options away from an attacker. O’Shea, who may be the best possible man to create something from that position tries to get into shooting range but Fitzsimons closes the space and will block if the shot comes.
As O’Shea turns back onto his left, Fitzsimons is quicker and squeezes contact and pressure on him. After trying to wriggle left and right to find some passing space and finding not even a yard, O’Shea swings a left foot at something vague and possession is Dublin’s again.
That 15 seconds may have been the most pivotal in the psychology of the game. Dublin would keep the ball for fully three minutes in a clinical example of control under pressure before Paul Mannion splits the posts to squeeze the gap out to three points. The score was important but the message from Fitzsimons even more so.
The Mastery of Mick
There is no doubting the quality of both finalists in attack – the range of score taking lays that out clearly. However, Dublin’s win and the five in a row was ultimately delivered by the quality of their individual and collective defending.
In a clear response to the ease with which Kerry created chances in the drawn game, Jim Gavin made decisive structural and personnel changes. Johnny Cooper moved from man marking duties to operate as a much needed cover player, dropping off Adrian Spillane. In the absence of Cian O’Sullivan, Cooper was their best option having played the role well in Healy Park during the Super Eights.
Playing without cover was baffling and almost cost Dublin their title in the drawn game. They were never going to repeat that mistake.
All of the Dublin players have an innate hunger to work without the ball and coupled with their efficiency in the tackle they are a difficult proposition – even for an attack as potent as Kerry’s.
Every era produces its own emblematic players and the list usually starts – at the farthest – at wing back then through high fielders, play makers and mercurial finishers. Appreciation for the value of high quality defenders – out and out defenders – is more difficult to find.
For his mastery of marking, positioning, sense of danger and the tackle, Mick Fitzsimons is a once in a generation talent. It may have gone largely unseen but without their talisman at the back both battles with Kerry could have had very different results.