Football by numbers – the Dublin secret

As we gradually edge our way out of the madness, induced by Covid lockdowns, the mind turns slowly back to football. For years, Mayo GAA has been a passion that has consumed us when the action was underway and that gave us serious withdrawal symptoms when the year’s action was over. Throughout the last twelve months, the radical changes in how society functions have pushed football into the background. And as we begin to crawl out of the long, dark Covid night, the prospect of football is something that lightens the mood.

As yet, probably as there is no certainty on dates for matches and the prospect of actually going to a match is still a long way in the distance, getting the flags out and having the jersey ready haven’t even got on the to-do list. Much less has the scouring of begun for hotel deals for Saturday nights in far-flung counties – that is more of a prospect for 2022.

The continued dominance of Dublin is also a dampener on the enthusiasm. Even if we get back to full tilt, we wonder how far further Dublin will have got ahead in the interim. We all know the arguments about money and population, about the fact that it’s 15 years since another county had a home championship game against Dublin, which, by the way, was when Longford played Dublin in Pearse Park in the 2006 Leinster quarter final. There is a general feeling in other counties that Dublin are treated more favourably by the powers-that-be and that they take every opportunity to maximise the benefits of such treatment.

The recent debacle of the early morning training sessions is a case in point. The Dublin county board moved quickly to protect the playing squad by imposing a ban on their manager, thereby discouraging disciplinary action from the GAA at a national level. In reality, Farrell’s ban was a toothless sanction as the next in line in the management team stepped up to continue whatever work is going on. As a result, there was no penalty on the people who were caught and there is a general perception that they have probably moved any covert training exercises to someplace else where they has better sheltered from the eyes of the media.

But when we look at Dublin’s advantages, it’s difficult to conclusively argue how any one advantage is causing the disparity. We can logically state that extra money in itself will not win championships. Just look at the excellent fundraising in the last few years by Roscommon. It has not translated – even at underage – into any increase in dominance. If we look at the number of clubs, Cork has even more than Dublin. We can realistically point to the implementation to the Blue Wave strategy in terms of youth games development in Dublin, but couldn’t similar strategies be developed and implemented in Kildare, or Meath or even Wicklow, all of whom have growing populations, proximity to employment and lots of young players? It can also be argued that all of Dublin’s advantages should also have made the Dublin club teams even more dominant than the inter-county game. This is not the case.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the answer must reside in the way the Dublin inter-county squad is developed, prepared and managed, which brings the chorus from Dublin that everyone else must try harder. Let’s look at the processes in the inter-county squad for a moment.

Any of the top four or five counties will rightly claim that there is no significant difference in physical condition of the players. There is no noticeable strength or skill level difference. Pick out the fittest, strongest, fastest and most skilful players currently playing the game at inter-county level right now and you will see that there is a much better spread across the country than in any recent All-Stars selection. What Dublin seems to have is a number of types of players:

  • Goalkeepers – Cluxton and Comerford play in exactly the same style
  • Hard man backs
  • Fast attacking backs
  • Centrefield workhorses – Fenton is arguably their only out and our centrefielder but he is a class apart
  • Ball carrying forwards
  • Break creating forwards
  • Scoring forwards

Every Dublin player fits one of these categories. The day of the flashy, unpredictable, crowd pleasing maverick Dublin player is gone. They all fit into a mould if they want their place. If they don’t fit, they do not get into the squad.

The other thing that is obvious is that Dublin have a playbook of “plays” that they run all the time. In the early part of the championship every year, they hone these plays. With an extended championship that the Super 8s brought, this gave Dublin more opportunity to refine these plays in a championship environment. Training is all about these plays, how each player statistically hit the target and how their numbers can be improved.

This is straight out of American Football and began back in the Pat Gilroy days. In between training, every player is given the opportunity to evaluate their own performance. On match day, this continues as each of the squad not on the match day 26 is collecting data on completed passes, frees won, phases in play, blocks, shots from specific locations, converted shots, etc. All of this is fed back to the data analysis team in real time. Getting squad players to gather the data further engrains the plays into their minds as they know that their own data results in training will determine whether or not they will break into the squad.

What is also analysed is the opposition, both in-game and from recordings of previous games. That is why Tommy Conroy’s card was well marked long before the All-Ireland final. It is also why Eoghan McLaughlin’s exploits were restricted, but Oisín Mullin (whose star was only coming into full luminance) made hay – they just had not done their work on him to the same degree. As anything new emerges in-game with the opposition, that is also fed back to the data analysis team (note how Ryan O’Donoghue was restricted in the second half of the All Ireland). All of this information is then presented to the manager with recommendations for changes as the game progresses.

One really noticeable thing about Dublin is the split between the way they play the first and second halves of games. The first half is a general feeling-out of the game plan and the analysis presented at half-time then determines the strategy needed to close out the win. Once everything resumes, the squeeze comes on in the areas identified and the scores begin to come. An opposition team hoping to drive home any advantage finds these areas of opportunity closed off and the game slips away.

Sounds familiar?

So what has happened is that Dublin have reduced the game to football by numbers. They have gone much further down this road than anyone else and they are really good at it. It was perfected by Jim Gavin as his pilot’s training was built on following the data that was presented to him. Realistically, anyone could be the manager if they are prepared to follow the data. Also, it doesn’t require huge financial resources to do it – a dozen iPads and a few people who know their way around data analysis.

It does, however, require huge commitment to the process by all of the squad and the management team. And it requires a manager who will rely on the data and follow the advice he is given.

Could Mayo do this? Do we really want football by numbers?

I think if the result was an All-Ireland, we’d chance it.

Keep the Faith!

25 thoughts on “Football by numbers – the Dublin secret

  1. An absolutely brilliant analysis of the Dubs. I’ve always maintained money doesn’t buy All Ireland’s it’s a combination of factors. In theory with their population Dublin should have been winning All Ireland’s for years and Cork shouldn’t have been far behind them but thankfully not, lots of other teams have been successful.Now it’s dawned on me that Jim Gavin was the genius behind it all and it could have worked with any team , not the dopey type of boring character he portrayed in interviews but a brilliant manager Now that he’s gone gives me hope,hard act to follow.
    Keep the faith

  2. Excellent analysis Four Goal McGee , I agree with you… So many of Dublin Goals tend to be replicas of each other, with a simple palmed effort into the net.. In fairness, Diarmuid Connolly hardly falls into the pre programmed class, Maybe that’s why he wasn’t as appreciated as much as he should have been by Jim Gavin.. For me he was the most instinctive and free spirited of the all outfield player.. And even including Fenton the most talented.

  3. News emerging this morning about Monaghan breaking the Covid restrictions to hold a training session underlines the argument that Dublin weren’t alone in breaking ranks.

  4. Leantimes, you are bang on about Connolly. He was their last maverick and with his departure, the Dubs have lost a spark that the Dub supporters really miss. We all love a villain, but only when he’s your own villain. But as you state, he didn’t do the preprogrammed thing. To be fair to Gavin, he recognised that Connolly needed looking after in a different way. I always respected Gavin for that.
    But at present, the GAA has a big problem coming down the line in that the fairweather Dub supporters are losing their enthusiasm to keep supporting. The whole thing has become formulaic. You can see that in the 2019 Dublin support. Only for Mayo in the semi, the only sell out Dublin game that year would have been the All Ireland Final.
    The hard-core supporters will stick with it, but their numbers are much lower than Dublin is given credit for. My own sons, who grew up in Dublin and followed the Dubs, no longer go to the Dubs matches. Their reasoning is that it is better to watch it in the pub and enjoy a few pints rather than spend €35 watching a game that will be a foregone conclusion early in the second half. Conversely, they love going to Mayo matches as they are usually on the edge of their seats right up to the end.
    Which really focuses the question at the end of the piece above. Would we be prepared to go the football by numbers route if it was to deliver an All Ireland?

  5. Well if that’s the case WJ then the whole thing is becoming a farce. I too believed that Dublin were not the only team breaking the rules.

    I think the Gaa need to plough ahead with their timetables for league and championship but without any team that have been proven to have broken the rules.

    There are undoubtedly many counties who have abided by the guidelines and should not be burdened or punished much less be asked to play in a competition where other counties have broken the rules to gain an unfair advantage.

    It will be like a formula one start this year if counties who have started the training early are allowed participate. The rule breakers will be on the first grid.

    The Gaa and the competitions will end up with little or no credibility if counties who have been caught breaking the rules are allowed participate.

  6. Excellent analysis 4 goals. I was sick to the teeth of the amateurs using this site to slate the Dubs or this and that at every opportunity. Agree with you also that Connolly was their last maverick. Personally I loved to watch him play and I expect he will be remembered in Dublin football circles longer than most of the others.
    Dublin also do a number of the simple things that Galvin copied from the Kerry bible but with which we are totally unaware of. They end the game with their best 15 on the pitch. Now we could try that some time. They recycle players throughout the pitch so as not to overwhelm the GPS. Imagine DOC with fuel in the tank for the last 15. Mmnnnn

  7. Ah PJ , most of us are amateurs on the blog ..
    Wouldn’t have a load of sympathy for Dubs . They are the best in the business.. but also now benefiting from all the money pumped into Dublin Gaa over the year . Not to mention a huge pick of players to pick from .

  8. Three Mayo officials break Covid rules and will each serve a 12 week suspension. Approximately 10 Dublin players knowingly break Covid rules and none get suspended. The only Dublin person suspended didnt even break the rules. If you are found at a house party now – all people at the party are found guilty of breaking the rules not just the person who organised the party.
    Are the Dublin and Monaghan players going to get off scott free – looks like it.

  9. Southmayo exile, you’ve failed to mention suspensions handed down by the GAA to Cork and Down managers, right or wrong this set a precedent for punishment when breaking covid regulations. No one at the time were calling for Cork or Down players to be suspended. I’m not saying Suspending Farrell only is the correct decision but there has to be consistency, Dubs or anyone else cant be punished more than another team just because they have a higher profile. Monaghan being caught just proves what alot suspected, that there are more breaking the rules, I wonder would people on here be calling for Mayo players to be suspended if they were caught training.

  10. Excellent article four goals. The only item I would add is that as Gaelic football became more about athleticism a large population would help in terms of having genetically gifted athletes. I wouldn’t agree with the viewpoint that other teams are just as fit and strong.
    I massively agree with the point that Dublin are working off a playbook, in my view it has been poor coaching by other managers to not implement some of these plays.
    Dublin setup shooters in good positions in a playbook way. Other counties are leaving it mainly up to individual on the spot thinking.

  11. Very good piece
    I noticed a lack of intensity from Dublin in the 2019 semi final a few times but in particular where McCarthy was dispossessed and didn’t seem too bothered about winning it back
    They come out in the second half and score whatever it was (2-4?) in ten minutes
    Two large factors as well as this is the Dublin decision making around substitutes (Mayo have to rely on wringing every last drop out of their top 17/18 players) and the patience they show in sticking to the plan even if they’re not going well (even though if Paddy hadn’t got injured, would Kilkenny have come good in the last quarter last year)
    Mentioning Connolly above, it’s worth remembering that had he not pulled the ball from Kilkenny in 2016 to try a sideline point, we might not have had the chance for Cillian’s equaliser.
    Maverick alright, but nearly worked against them

  12. @PJ. I think it’s a case of no matter who they have on the pitch they are a good 15. People always use the line they always finish with their best 15. That may be more to do by the players available than any great game plan.

    I mean Brogan was used as a sub when there was mileage in the legs. Always going to look good coming on. If he was able for it he would have been a sure starter.

    Mcmanamon never played well as a starter but a super sub so that’s the reason he used to be kept for the stretch.

    Costello, another man that has caused us enough trouble, I reckon if he was deemed good enough to start then he would have started alot more championship games.

    You’ll never see Cluxton or Fenton been brought on or Kilkenny. They are nailed on as the best in their positions.

    I actually believe that Dublin go with their best 15 as starters. Bringing on fresh very good players usually against backs who have been run ragged for 50 or 60 minutes, well they are always going to look good.

    Believe me if their management thought they had guys fit enough and the best option to start then I believe they would be starting.

  13. @Revellino, Agree with you. McManamon with his chunky build is better set for a sub role than a starting role, also he’s not very quick over 20 yards. As you note he has always done better from the bench.

  14. Colm Keys in the Indo is reporting today (here) that the GAA are voiding the self-imposed manager bans in Dublin and Monaghan and imposing their own 12-week punishments on them. This only alters the effective date for the bans. Dublin are also being stripped of their one home League game (the Examiner reports that the game against Kerry will be played instead at Portlaoise, so that’s not much of a punishment) and Monaghan are likely to face a similar sanction there. So, it’s a small slap on the wrist for both of them by the looks of it.

  15. Wow. so losing a home game means only having to go less than 100KM from your home ground, while the other team has to go more than twice that distance. Hardly a consolation to Kerry that they’ll only have to cover 70% of the journey that they would have had to in order to fulfill a “neutral” fixture. Surely Semple Stadium would have been more fitting?.

  16. Excellent article. Dublin game management has taken Gaelic football to a new level. Their ability to take shots from preferred spots, their execution of plays, and control of the pace of the game, and their ability to close out games on their terms and to adjust at half time and neutralise players that are hurting them. Mayo in the last two meetings started out at 100 miles an hour, pressing all over the field, running ourselves ragged and setting a pace and energy level we could not sustain for the whole game. We controlled possession and the middle third but did not capitalise on the scoring end. Dublin absorbed the pressure and as we tired upped the pace. In 2019 it was the beginning of the second half and in 20 because they were a man down they played containment until they were back to full strength and then stepped on the gas. After a brilliant first half we also ran out of gas late on against Tipp. No doubt lack of Dublin quality subs hurt us in both games. Cillian is a good example, very effective early on, runs himself ragged covering all over the field [ and the effort is commendable] and is not effective in the late stages of the game.

  17. It’s a bit of a stretch to say we ran out of gas against Tipperary. 20 points ahead at the 2nd half water break, several subs made, it’s only natural minds start to wander to the final.

    Agree with Cillian working too hard however. He needs to start conserving energy in the same way Andy Moran did in his later years. Let the younger players do the heavy running.

  18. Against Tipp we lost control of mid field in the last quarter and gave up enough easy goal chances for a whole season.
    In fact rather than efficiently closing out the game as the dubs would we were in complete disarray.Yes minds may wander when you have a big lead but you should not collapse.

  19. What about the Galway game? We were under the kosh, but we rode it out and held on. OK we WERE better and shouldn’t have got into that position, but we were cute enough.

  20. Brilliant article. This is it in a nutshell.

    No easy way to beat them. Teams will need to get in their faces and not allow them to implement their second half plans. Perhaps the start of the second half is the time for opposing teams to change their play and/or bring on a substitute etc. Don’t allow Dublin to dictate terms in the way they do. They have it far too easy. Where are our stats guys, Kerrys stats guys etc??

  21. Our game plan of pushing up on teams, forwards working like dogs, running back 50 meters etc to put in a tackle is physically not sustainable for a full 70 minutes. We have to modify our game plan so players have something left in the tank with 25 minutes to go in a game. I hate to see Cillian anywhere outside the opposition 45 meters line because he is no good to us out there. Scoring and creating chances close to the opposition goal is what we need from Cillian.

  22. Totally agree Southmayo, all out press is not sustainable for 70 minutes. Dublin conserve their energy and they have the best bench in football. We see teams, and not just Mayo, hang tough for a half or three quarters of the game and then Dublin up the pace. Game management.

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