Friday, September 16, 2016

Could Dublin's Defending be Their Downfall?

Considering the fact that Dublin under Jim Gavin to date, in four seasons, have a lost just single game in 31 championship and knock-out league matches and that Mayo have somewhat snuck into the final having failed to win Connaught for the season in six, it's easy to see why Mayo are such significant underdogs coming into this Sunday's final.

There's no doubting that Dublin, not alone have immense fire power, but their semi-final comeback against Kerry illustrates that they have huge levels of composure and character. That's not to mention the lesser commented fact that there is unprecedented technical detail gone into the manner in which they attack, pulling key forward threats into wide positions, creating ample space for defenders, midfielders and other forwards to attack into more space in the centre. All things considered, they're a pretty phenomenal force to be reckoned with.

While their attacking prowess is well noted, could there be however, chinks elsewhere that Mayo could potentially exploit? Let's not forget, after all, that it's only a year since they drew the first semi-final and led by four points coming well into the second half of a replay. Were these displays flash in the pan stuff by Mayo, or could they potentially be closer to the Dubs than many people imagine?

In considering this question there are two key pieces of statistical analysis worth considering, one of which we'll look at in greater detail. Initially, however, it's worth considering the fact that over the course of Dublin's two championship games with Mayo last year they conceded a considerable net loss in scores when they had to play their own kick-outs long. That is compared to a significant profit when they managed to get their kick-outs off quickly to their full back line. Interestingly, the exact same patterns have shown up in each of Dublin's games with Kerry this year and last year. So if Mayo can, as they did last year, prevent Dublin from getting the short kick-out off and force them long or to try ropey kicks to the half back line (this also showed up a significant net loss for Dublin over the four aforementioned games) then they'll be in with a chance.

While much has been made of Dublin's attack there are, however, significant factors relating to their defending which raise serious question marks. One of the key statistics which I suspect I may be unique in taking is that I rank every score conceded into one of three categories : Grade 1, Grade 2 or Grade 3. A "Grade 1" concession is where the opposition attacked so methodically that it would be difficult to blame any individual for the concession of the score. A "Grade 2" is where the opposition have taken on a defender/other and got past them in order to score. A "Grade 3" is where the opposition managed to get a score without having to directly take on and beat the opposition. Essentially it means an unmarked player has received the ball and scored or an attacker who wasn't running towards goal/was running straight into more than one defender was fouled for a scored free. In technical defending terms, I'd rank these score concessions as criminal.

There are two values in collecting such statistics. One is that it pinpoints the individuals who are being breached for scores and how culpable they are. Secondarily, a high proportion of these concessions pinpoints an overall technical and structural issue with the defence.

Just to put things into perspective here, when Jimmy McGuiness's Donegal won the All-Ireland in 2012 they averaged less than a single "Grade 3" concession per game. Mickey Harte's Tyrone in 2008 conceded less than two. When Mayo put 1-15 past Dublin in the replay last year a massive ten points which Dublin conceded were "Grade 3", nine of which had accounted for Mayo having a four point lead midway through the second half.

That is to say that on ten occasions when Mayo scored, they didn't have to beat a single player to do so! Typically, they held possession long enough for Dublin to leave a player free within point scoring distance. In case there's a lack of clarity here in terms of comparisons with Donegal or Tyrone, the majority of these were scored from outside the front line of Dublin's blanket defence.

There is a further statistic which should also be of concern to Dublin. That is that almost across the board I've found that short kick-outs that aren't played quickly tend to result in less scores gained than they do in scores conceded upon the initial turnover. That is to say, that broadly speaking, my statistics have found that it should be safe to allow the opposition play a kick-out to their full back line as long as they don't do it quickly and catch you off your guard. You're essentially saying to the opposition, "have it, come on, break us down".

 However, in Dublin's semi-final against Kerry they allowed Kerry to do this ten times. Kerry scored a whopping five points from these and conceded none upon turnover. That's a result that bucks all statistical trends.

Put these three pieces of statistical analysis together and you have a potentially lethal cocktail. Figures from their semi-final with kerry suggest that Dublin are incapable of consistently preventing a good opposition from scoring, even when they allow them to have possession. Last year's two semi-finals with Mayo illustrate that Mayo have the capacity to exploit this element. Prevent Dublin from hitting short kick-outs on top of exploiting this element and you could really put them on the back foot.

Of course, all three of these elements were in force when Mayo failed to beat Dublin last year. Therefore there's every chance that Mayo could get these things right and still fail to beat them. The essence of Dublin's brilliance is that they appear to have a philosophy of "whatever you score, we'll score more", and essentially they almost always do.

Bearing these factors in mind, however,  in statistical terms, all things being equal to last year's initial encounter, if Mayo can get these things right, as they did last year, the difference in winning two extra breaks on kick-outs to midfield would give you a statistical calculation of an expectancy of a Mayo win.

The question remains, will their management team be as efficient or more so than last year's in these regards, and if so, will they get the extra break or two required to turn the tables?

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