Friday, September 16, 2016

Are the Dubs Really Unbeatable?

As Mayo enter the cauldron of an eighth All-Ireland final in 27 years, the bookies have summed up the general sentiment around the country, that poor old Mayo will once again be lambs to the slaughter. Dublin are almost 3/1 on favourites.

On one hand it's difficult to argue. In 31 championship and knock-out league games under Jim Gavin's stewardship, their record stands at 29 victories, one draw and merely one loss. Mayo, in eight attempts in league and championship have failed to beat them once, earning one draw in their heroic comeback in last year's semi-final. Could there be any hope at all?

Considering the fact that Mayo drew with Dublin in last year's semi-final and led by four points well into the second half of the replay you'd have to assume that it would be naive to assume that they don't enter this Sunday's  final with at least a puncher's chance. The question of course is are they as good or better under their current management team as they were under their previous one?

Considering the fact that they've got to the final off the back off a particularly soft draw and have failed to win Connaught for the first time in six seasons, though not to say that they're not, there's no evidence as yet that they are better or even as good as they were last year.

In terms of knocking the Dubs off their perch, however, there is one noteworthy statistic which could and most certainly should be the crux of any attempt to do so. The term "unbeatable" was being bandied around in 2014 before Jimmy McGuiness's Donegal had other ideas, and though more mute than then, the same word is being whispered again within the county. I beg to differ!

A key factor in Dublin's success under Jim Gavin has been that they manage, not alone to get a huge amount of scores from getting the ball out quickly on kick-outs, they also manage to run opposition teams into the ground, setting the foundations for their typical 60th minute plus onslaught (not the third quarter as is generally suggested). However, a look at statistical analysis from Dublin's semi-final and final this year and last against Kerry and last year's semi-final against Mayo throws up some striking patterns. 

Taking into account initial possession weighed up against the possession from an initial turnover on Dublin's kick-outs, Dublin, as expected, recorded a positive result on quickly hit short kick-outs over the course of those four games and never once recorded a negative result (this figure accounts for scores gained upon initial possession as well as conceded upon a first turnover).

However, there is one frightening pattern. Dublin have recorded a net loss on their own kick-outs to the midfield area. In fact, not alone have they recorded a total net loss, they recorded a net loss in each individual game. That is to say, that over the course of the Mayo and Kerry  championship games from the last two seasons, the difference between Dublin's net score from their own quickly hit short kick-outs, compared to their net loss from long kick-outs is huge. They have accounted an average profit of 0.25 points per short kick against a deficit of 0.29 points per long kick. 

That's right. Based on these games, if you can make Dublin go long on their kick-out instead of getting off a quick one to the full back line, you stand to avoid conceding a point on average on every four short kick-outs and gaining a point on average on one in every three. In statistical terms that's a total Estimated Value of over a point per two kick-outs. Dublin's score concession on delayed kick-outs to their half back line is even worse than on long kick-outs. Obvious conclusion? Try to press Dublin high and don't let them get the short kick-out off.

All things considered, that  the only team to even muster up a draw with Dublin in their last fifteen championship or knock-out league matches would mutiny on their manager in the aftermath appears baffling, all the more so when you look at the finer statistical details. For the only time in Jim Gavin's reign as Dublin manager, when Mayo drew with them last year, it was Dublin's opposition (Mayo) and not Dublin who did the overrunning of the opposition late on, overturning a seven point deficit. 

The devil, as my grandfather used to say, is in the detail. In that entire game, only once did Mayo allow Dublin to get their kick-out off quickly. Not alone did they not allow Dublin to pummel them with scores from their own short kick-out, they also didn't allow Dublin run them into the ground. Alas, Mayo made the late surge. This finer detail may well have gone unnoticed.

Whether or not Mayo's current management team recognise the significance of this factor remains to be seen. In the league encounter they went for the opposite approach, drawing their players en masse into the defence for Dublin's kick-outs. Though less romantic to watch, there is a logic of sorts to this. You try to get your team behind the ball before the Dubs over run you and say "right, here we are, get past us if you can". In the league encounter Dublin did so for a mere nine points. Mayo, however, only scored seven !

While I wouldn't write this off entirely as a strategy, it's noteworthy that Jimmy McGuinness's Donegal  tried it in 2011 when Dublin beat them. In 2014 when Donegal won, they pressed them high up, made them go long, pummelled them on the long kicks and beat them.

There are no guarantees in football.  You can only weigh up the logic pertaining to the previous encounters and make as balanced an assessment as possible regarding your strategy. However, considering that the only side to beat Jim Gavin's men in championship football to date forced them to go long, as did Mayo when they drew with them last year, lends itself to the argument that balanced assessment suggests it's the way to go.

Considering the fact that the 6'5" Barry Moran more or less played as a sweeper against Tipperary in the semi-final and that they tend to attack in waves, Mayo would be perfectly well set up to push him into midfield for the kick-outs and go man on man attempting to force Dublin long on their own kick-outs (Tom parsons at 6'3" is in instead of Moran but could fill the same role). Of course, they did something along these lines last year and still didn't win. They came as close can be though.

 All evidence suggests that if Mayo choose to do so on Sunday and proceed effectively, they'll be in with significantly more than a puncher's chance.

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