It is all a bit anoraky, but the statistics behind Dublin’s games this year are fascinating. Especially for those of us whose other interests include American sports like NBA basketball and the NFL.
Jim Gavin is an NFL fan, and Jason Sherlock. one of the ley backroom boffins, played basketball at a high level. It is no secret that aspects of the tactics of both games, and especially basketball, have been deployed as part of Dublin’s efforts since 2014 to overcome efforts to stymie them through ultra defence.
The key to breaking down defence in the NBA, and to running down the clock, is to use up as much of the 30 seconds on the shot clock, hoping to being able to finish with a lay up or a three pointer.
Dublin since being outwitted by Jim McGuinness and Donegal in the 2014 semi final have operated a version of that. Rather than bursting at speed and attempting to isolate players inside, they move the ball quickly into the opposition half but wait patiently for an opening, holding onto the ball for long periods if needs be. When the other team has possession Dublin fall back in numbers with the emphasis on harassing their opponents and forcing turnovers.
It has been highly effective, and they have not lost any championship matches in three years. That amounts to 18 games to date, including two draws against Mayo in the 2015 semi final and last year’s final. Between league and championship Dublin had amassed an all time record of 36 unbeaten games until narrowly defeated by Kerry in this year’s league final.
For the nerds among us it is interesting to look at how Dublin’s tactics translate into actual game time. I have chosen to analyse the possession statistics from the semi final victory over Tyrone.
I count as possession periods when a team has the ball in play or holds possession prior to a free, penalty or 45 metre kick. I do not count periods when a team holds the ball prior to a kick out or to allow a substitution to be made.
The game was actually relatively free flowing with just 27 frees conceded, compared to 51 in the replayed semi final between Mayo and Kerry that took place the day before. Of the 76 minutes and 58 seconds that the match lasted, the ball was in play for just over 77% of the time.
Using my criteria Dublin had possession for 61% of the time the ball was in play, compared to 39% for Tyrone. Dublin were far more dominant in the first half; having 65.5% possession, than in the second when it dropped to 56.3%. However, Dublin had already established a winning position and Tyrone were forced to be more aggressive in the second half.
Dublin had 22 possessions to Tyrone’s 19 in the first half, but over the course of the match Tyrone had 46 possessions to Dublin’s 41. The key difference was between the two teams use of that possession, and Dublin’s greater efficiency on, and ability to retain, the ball.
Dublin were able to hold onto the ball for over one minute on 13 possessions, compared to just four for Tyrone, whose players ironically found themselves under far greater pressure than Dublin who it had been speculated would be asked serious questions by Tyrone’s defensive system.
Dublin held on the ball for over two minutes on four separate possessions. The longest of these – for 2 minutes, 49 seconds, included a minute’s stoppage after Colm Cavanagh’s reckless “tackle” on Brian Fenton. However, on two occasions Dublin held the ball for over two minutes with no stoppages, and the phase of play ending in a Dublin point. The longest that Tyrone held onto the ball was for 1 minute and 19 seconds, which included two stoppages for frees.
One of Dublin’s key attributes is to be able to control the game in the dying stages of both halves. In the semi final that was illustrated by the fact that their last five possessions of the first half lasted in total for over 8 minutes to Tyrone’s 2 minutes and 25 seconds. At the end of the game, Dublin’s last five possessions ran down the clock by over five minutes while Tyrone had the ball for less than three minutes and that included two stoppages for the saved penalty and a 45.
To conclude my Rainmanesque prognostications, it will be interesting to see how Dublin’s tactics fare against Mayo next Sunday. Mayo had the most of possession against Kerry, but not to the same impressive extent as Dublin over Tyrone.
One of the reasons for the latter was Dublin’s superior physicality. They will not enjoy that advantage against Mayo. Mayo will also be much more aggressive in attempting to close down and turn Dublin over. It promises to be an intriguing encounter, as ever.
Matt Treacy’s book on the 2013 All Ireland championship is available on: