Jim McGuinness: Savvy Roscommon expose Dublin’s tactical shortcomings

Rossie dominance in opening half down to build-up approach in the first and middle third of pitch

During my four years managing Donegal, I often frequented a blog called Tactics Not Passion.

We had our own video analyst, data and stats, but I looked at this site as an extra resource where you could perhaps pick up additional information or gain some useful insights on upcoming opponents. It was run by a journalist called Emmet Ryan, and he would break down various aspects of games, from kick-outs to how many shots a team got off.

It was a helpful tool, though to be honest I never entirely agreed with the name because our game plan in Donegal was built on intensity and for me, that intensity was born out of passion, a passion for where you came from and who you were representing. For me, it was tactics and passion.

Ahead of our All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in 2014, we collected as much information as we could. I was on the blog one evening scanning through the analysis of Dublin’s season when I was struck by a statistic indicating they had got 46 shots off in a particular match.


They had an average conversion rate of 50 per cent at the time, hence they were amassing scorelines like 2-25 and 3-20. They were the kind of statistics that would keep you awake at night.

Last Sunday afternoon I sat down to watch the current batch of Dublin footballers in their round-robin opener against Roscommon.

With 25 minutes on the clock, Dublin had scored 0-3. They had registered only a single wide at this stage but that was from an overhit pass. So in 25 minutes of championship football, they had managed just three shots. That would have been unthinkable 10 years ago when the number would have been up at about 15. It had people wondering how Roscommon were able to control the game to that extent.

During the first half, Roscommon left only one player high in their attack and used the other 14 in their possession-based build-up play

The answer was predominately in tactics, not passion. The secret to Roscommon’s dominance in the opening half was in their build-up approach in the first and middle third of the pitch. With Dublin going with their usual man-to-man approach, Roscommon’s game plan was predicated on overloads.

During the first half, Roscommon left only one player high in their attack and used the other 14 in their possession-based build-up play, where goalkeeper Conor Carroll was a conduit in terms of keeping the ball moving and recycling it away from Dublin’s man-orientated press.

The result was a copious amount of cat-and-mouse possession phases in the first third. Roscommon used that numerical advantage created by Carroll to pull and drag the Dublin press. It was a very measured and controlled approach and it worked. When they did find a gap and get the ball forward, Roscommon were not found wanting in that sector either.

One area where I feel several teams in the country have now caught up with Dublin is in terms of athletic development and Ciarán Murtagh’s goal chance in the first half was a great example of that.

The conditioning underpinning most county set-ups now is really focused on speed and power and agility, all of which allow players to carry multiple threats while in possession. This combined with a heightened level of game intelligence, close control skills and good decision-making, ensure it is harder than ever to get real pressure and contact in the tackle.

It was a big team talk for Dessie Farrell at half-time because significant questions were being asked of them, tactically. Yet their response, ironically, was more on the passion side than any major tactical innovations. They essentially upped the ante.

From the first moments of the second half, you could see the Dubs were going after the game a lot more, and they were going after Roscommon a lot more, too. They had a really high press, releasing off each other and pressing the Roscommon goalkeeper, whereas, in the first half, they remained with their own man and allowed Carroll to be free. In that regard, they took more risks and hunted the ball down.

There was much more purpose and intensity to Dublin’s play. On Roscommon’s kick-out they exacted an aggressive full-court press, forcing Carroll to go long, which in turn allowed Brian Fenton to dominate aerial battles in the middle third.

Con O’Callaghan stayed high and tackled hard along the Roscommon end line, forcing a 45 at one stage.

At the other end of the field, Dublin made several defensive blocks, which for me is always a brilliant sign of defensive intensity, an important metric to know where your team is at.

Niall Scully forced a turnover for the Dublin goal and within 10 minutes of the second half they had drawn level. Ultimately, it finished that way too, but I think this game will give Dublin plenty to consider.

If you think of Dublin over the last nine or 10 years, Roscommon supporters would have been travelling to Croke Park to face them more in dread than expectation. But that wasn’t the case last weekend.

And for me, the biggest question for Dublin now is one of innovation. Can they come up with something new that asks questions of teams that aren’t being asked now?

Still, Dublin managed to get their heads together at half-time and sort out their issues. In sports, you will always be asked questions, the important part of that conundrum is finding a way to get answers.

And for me, the biggest question for Dublin now is one of innovation. Can they come up with something new that asks questions of teams that aren’t being asked now? Can they bring something creative, innovative and highly effective? Because you have a situation where lesser teams are asking questions of the bigger sides and the playing field is levelling out. Can Dublin now wrestle back the tactical superiority they enjoyed over the rest of the country for much of the last decade?

Stephen Cluxton was a huge part of that dominance, he gave them a platform by successfully getting kick-outs away at an accuracy in the 90 per cent sector, while at the other end the forwards were able to get their shots off.

But that dynamic has shifted. Many intercounty goalkeepers are clocking up those kinds of numbers that once had Cluxton out on his own, while we have seen in recent seasons goalkeepers being much more involved in open play, with the likes of Rory Beggan, Ethan Rafferty and Odhrán Lynch effectively operating as an extra outfield player, thus asking more questions tactically.

Defensive structures are also making it much more difficult to score. Teams are using the first and middle third of the pitch now to draw opponents up the field so they can hurt them in transitional moments.

Can Dublin find a way to wrestle back that tactical superiority? I don’t know. If they can, I think they will always have the calibre of player to take advantage, but if they can’t then they run the risk of getting left behind.