1. Alex Neal-Bullen
The Melbourne Demons are 11-1. Very few people would have anticipated a start like this especially given how they looked at the end of their last pre season game (which never truly reflects where a team is at yet it's hard not to put weight into it).
It's an impressive 11-1 as well beating fellow premiership aspirants in Brisbane, Richmond, Geelong, Bulldogs and Sydney. 5-0 against top 8 sides. Many things have gone right this year for Melbourne to play such improved football - the maturation of their stars, the trust in their defensive system behind the ball and cleaning up their ball use going inside 50. However, one of if not the most important improvement has come from Melbourne's role players who have a stronger understanding of what is required of them week to week. They've all improved this year – Neal-Bullen (ANB), Spargo, Petty, Sparrow and even Hunt who has been solid defensively but has found more ways to be useful with his pace offensively.
ANB’s (#30) transformation from a player who was asked to throw some flyers out to other clubs last trade period to one of Melbourne's most important role players has been quite amazing. ANB plays one of the hardest roles in the AFL - the high half forward role. In the high half forward role, players are required to work up to a stoppage and cover off the most dangerous - usually the spare opposition winger. ANB may get involved in that initial contest but if Melbourne win the ball forward, he is required to push forward and get to the drop of the ball at a forward 50 entry. He has to provide the important pressure at ground level that is so important to how Melbourne set up behind the ball. This hasn't been an issue for ANB in the past - he’s always had a good tank being one of Melbourne's fittest players. Yet, it's still an incredibly difficult role to play with consistency week to week because it requires a high work rate with significant amounts of unrewarded running.
The thing that has improved markedly this year for ANB is his composure with his ball use and finishing around goals. ANB throughout his career has struggled with his ball use forward of center - perhaps exhausting himself from his multiple running efforts. This caused him to be a bit of a liability for Melbourne when he gathered possession and drove Melbourne inside 50 (He wasn't the only one - Melbourne have been average to below average with their inside 50 entry before this year). Now, he isn't rushing so much - he takes that extra second to assess his options and is finding the right target. He is also more composed finishing around the goals - assessing his options before making the right decision.
His numbers for the role he is playing have improved drastically – Inside 50's are the best for his career (showing that he is putting himself in more dangerous areas to win the ball) and he's ranked 8th in the AFL for total tackles inside 50. ANB is part of a broader forward 50 group who are so clear on their role and what is required of them with and without the ball - think of Spargo, Pickett, Fritsch, McDonald. This is evidenced by Melbourne being one of the top teams in the league for tackles inside 50 all year.
Yet, ANB is going above and beyond his role as a high half forward. He is a competitive beast – look at how he competes in a 3v1 contest, bringing the ball to ground, getting a hand in on the disposal to force a turnover before jumping to his feet and providing a handball outlet. This is the kind of stuff that wins games and I would be surprised if this isn’t shown in Melbourne’s review because it’s pure effort and work rate.
(Side note: Clayton Oliver's work rate to be behind Salem when he kicks that high ball and find a way to both get there and win that contest with clean hands is what makes him one of the best players in the AFL)
ANB reminds me of Castagna back in 2017 - a player that was pretty maligned at Richmond, always in and out of the side, before settling on his role. In the last three years, Melbourne has had an impressive spine with superstars on every line. That was never the issue. It always felt like their bottom 5 or 6 let them down week to week and didn't know their defined roles. That has changed now. Everyone understands their role in this team and it's a key reason why the Demons look primed for a home final.
2. Bailey Dale
It's been well overdue to talk about Bailey Dale (#31). He's no secret now - with most having him in their All Australian teams and rightly so. Dale has been electric off the half back line. He has always been a pretty underrated player - even from his days playing as a forward where he had a couple of 5 goal games.
But his move to half back and how he has settled into this role has been extremely valuable for the Bulldogs. Dale has the rare combination of blistering pace with precision, bullet like kicking. I always think about the Bulldog's last offensive generators from the backline when I now look at Dale - Matt Suckling’s odd but penetrating kick and Johannisen’s damaging pace off the backline. Dale is like a hybrid of the two. Look at his ability to gather the ball and burn his opponent and then use his foot skills to hit his target.
Dale's numbers are all up because of this move (aside from his goal kicking, although it is still a good number for a backmen). More so how his numbers stack up against other defenders. He is 6th for disposals (which includes Docherty who is playing more on a wing now), 20th in R50's, 8th in metres gained + 7th in the league for bounces highlighting his dash with ball in hand. He is covering off on all the offensive metrics you'd like to see for an attacking half back.
He isn't a bad defender either and given his rangy build is quite versatile - he's tall enough to take 2nd or 3rd talls but is also quick enough to play on smalls. Can his defence improve? Of course - but it doesn't hurt the Bulldogs too much when you can generate so much the other way and be dangerous as a goal kicking defender like this.
One thing that is noticeable at times is that Dale can try to do too much with his kicking. He has a quick ball drop to kick action which allows him to get penetration on his kicks - but sometimes it leads to him over kicking the ball or actually dropping it too high on his leg resulting in him shinning the ball. It luckily works out but look at how this happens in the game on the weekend - a chaos ball that luckily hits Macrae.
The game against Melbourne he wasn't so lucky - a ball overkicked resulting in a turnover.
The Dogs have confidence in Dale nailing his kicks more often than not because they are so impactful when he does - they allow the Bulldogs to counter attack quickly from the backline because of the pace he puts on the ball.
It'll be interesting to see whether teams put any time into Dale - a practice that has been mostly carried out against Caleb Daniel. He is so damaging as a backmen when he gets going so it wouldn't be surprising especially come later in the year. Dale is a strong chance to win his first All-Australian nod this year and would have to be the most improved player in the league this year.
3. Jack Higgins
We decided to talk about Jack Higgins (#22) this week given how much he has been unfairly scrutinised following his performance on the weekend. We'll analyse Higgins' game fairly by including the things he is doing well and things he needs to work on. It's unfair to talk negatively about a player just because they missed shots on goal. Yes, Higgins kicked 1.6 including 2 missed shots in the last two minutes of the game. It led headlines like 'Missy Higgins' cost the Saints. It's a bit harsh. Higgins isn't trying to miss those goals on purpose yet is getting almost bashed like he has done something wrong. The only thing I will say in regards to his inaccuracy is that Higgins seemed to rush his shots. He didn't take his time and it looks like he has no defined goal kicking routine. Something for him to work on.
Outside of the bad misses (especially the two in the first quarter), people fail to mention that Higgins in fact had a great game, maybe his best game for his new club. He had 23 disposals, 12 marks, 3 inside 50’s and 2 tackles. For a small player who is playing a mixture of high half forward and a small forward role - to even get 7 shots on goal is an impressive feat.
Higgins is an interesting one for St Kilda. He left Richmond to get more opportunity at a new club (which he has had) but isn't playing the midfield role that he probably anticipated when he made the move (and where he played all of his junior football). There's no doubt Higgins is an accumulator of the ball and plays his best football as a midfielder so it's odd that he hasn't been tried in the midfield this year practically at all. It isn't like St Kilda are loaded with top end midfielders either - especially with young players like Byrnes and Bytel getting reps in there.
Alas, as a forward, Higgins presents well up at the ball - he is always on the move and coming at the leg. He is decent overhead but lacks the athleticism and spring to play above his height. He makes up for this though through his work rate. On the weekend, Higgins played like a tall hit up forward and provided a genuine option for St Kilda to use. He had 12 marks and all were from his work rate to lead up at the kicker or work back into space to get used forward.
Here, his speed and work rate gives Howard an option out of the backline in a pressurised situation. Higgins then goes quickly and hits the inboard kick, which allows for a dangerous inside 50 entry. This is really good stuff.
Again, he spreads forward from a 50 metre penalty and tracks the ball before eventually getting used.
His ball use can be questionable at times. He has a tendency to kick high up and under kicks instead of lowering his eyes or taking some height off the ball to allow his forwards a proper run and jump at the ball. This is an example of it from the weekend that ends in a free kick and goal but it is too high in the air without enough penetration to leverage King's leap and length. He does these kicks often.
Higgins is having a solid year in the role he is playing for St Kilda. He ranks elite in score involvements averaging 6 a game and averages 1.3 tackles inside 50. St Kilda should continue to honour Higgins on the lead. He had 4 marks on the lead on the weekend but including ones that were contested he had 6. He's only had 14 for the entire year. If Higgins can make this a trend and continue to work up the ground and provide an option, it allows him to become more involved in the play up the ground rather than playing a traditional small forward role that doesn't lend itself to Higgins' strengths. It’s either that or actually give Higgins some midfield time – he has shown at TAC Cup level that he is super impactful in that role.
Higgins as a forward has been far from their worst. As a side note, it's actually quite surprising how little heat Butler has received this year given how poorly he has played and how much his defensive work rate has dropped off compared to last year.
For everything that has gone wrong for St Kilda this year – they are still a chance to make finals. They probably should have won on the weekend and whilst it hurt St Kilda fans to lose in that fashion – there’s reason for optimism.
4. AFL Ladder
When you look at the ladder after Round 12, you can't help but feel that the Top 8 is probably set:
Some things I thought that were noteworthy:
1. Outside of probably the Giants or Saints (I would say Fremantle but more and more injuries keeping piling up) it's hard to see any other team pushing a top 8 team out
2. This could sound crazy but one team that could go on a bit of a run and push for a 7th/8th spot is Collingwood (written before Bucks resigned!). We highlighted last week and earlier in the year the troubles that Collingwood have had this year - from list depth to board chaos to play style. Yet, when you actually look at their year holistically - things could have been very different. They've lost two games this year by a point and another game by 10 against finalist teams in Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Geelong. On the weekend they started to play with more attacking flair and began to generate more offensive opportunities from their pivot to a high mark game style. They moved the ball quicker than previous weeks and gave dangerous forward Jamie Elliott one on one opportunities that he capitalised on. They are probably too far back given their poor start but are a team to watch
3. Within the 8, it's hard to see Richmond finishing 7th. They are well aware that to have any shot to win the flag you need to finish top 4 (although if any team was to win it outside the 4 it would be Richmond) and given they always seem to time their run late, look for them to push up the later in the remaining 2nd half of the year.
4. If we were to make a judgment on which team would fall out of that 8 - it would have to be either West Coast or Sydney due to their run home. Sydney continue to impress by grinding out wins. They have quite a mature group to go alongside some of their younger players that are developing nicely (Rowbottom, Florent, Warner etc) but it just feels like a drop off is not too far away. They still have Port Adelaide, Bulldogs and West Coast to play. I am more confident in them than West Coast.
5. West Coast have looked poor in recent weeks (both due to injuries but also how they are playing) and are probably a non-finalist team given their injuries. They'll have to hold on until they get a lot of those players back but it may be too little too late considering their run home. Eagles play Richmond, Melbourne, Bulldogs, Brisbane and Sydney (in Sydney) in the second half of the year
6. The Top 4 is likely set. It’s tough to see the Demons not finishing in the top 2 given their wins against two of the top 4 teams already. One team that would be shaking their head at Melbourne's meteoric rise would be Brisbane - who traded away their first round pick this year in exchange for Melbourne's future first this year. At the time it was a great move by Brisbane - it was a low risk play that had incredible upside given Melbourne's inconsistency year to year. Realistically, the exchange could have been pick 18 in the 2020 draft for a top 10 or even top 5 2021 pick given the volatility in Melbourne’s play in recent years. Well no more upside now, the pick will likely be 18th or 17th in what was a great albeit bold trading strategy by Melbourne
7. When compared to the ladder from last year - St Kilda (6th) and Collingwood (8th) are the two teams that have been kicked out for Melbourne (9th) and Sydney (16th)
5. Nic Newman
For all of the talk about Carlton this week and their defenders who either can’t or refuse to defend (Saad, Williams and to an extent Docherty), I’ve really enjoyed the game of Nic Newman (#24) since he has returned from injury.
Newman has always been a good user of the football with his trusty left foot but has actually been one of the few Carlton defenders who is prioritisting defence this year. On the weekend, he beat his man in a number of one on one situations, reading the high ball better than his opponent and edging him under the contest to win 1v1's. Here is one he had in the first.
He got beat a number of times on the weekend playing on Liam Ryan but who doesn’t? The speed along with his marking ability in the air caused issues for Newman but the effort was there. It’s surprising that neither Williams nor Saad was given that responsibility at all during the game given how both possess the speed to go with Ryan (Poor Stocker had his hands full). It’s quite absurd if all the talk about neither wanting to defend is true – especially from a player who is a permanent backmen like Saad. You have to be two way players in the modern AFL for your team to have any success of winning and it sets a bad precedent for younger players coming through at Carlton if Saad only cares about the offensive side of the ball.
However, you can’t fault Newman for this - the intent and courage is there. I’m not going to show the video of his brutal concussion/neck injury but flying for a ball like that and putting your body on the line shows that Newman has the intent and desire to defend.
The biggest strength of Newman’s is undoubtedly his kicking. Newman has a great ability to find a ‘first mark’. What we mean by this is through his quick but accurate kicking motion – Newman is able to generate a mark from a pressurised situation. This is incredibly valuable because it allows a team to regain control of the tempo of the game – if you can generate a mark quickly you can go from a disputed situation where a turnover may eventuate to a stop in play where your team takes back control and dictates what occurs next. Few players have this with their kicking – one other player that comes to mind is Salem from Melbourne.
This is what we mean:
It just relieves so much pressure for a team and it's beneficial for Carlton that Newman can find these options off essentially one step.
He is also one of Carlton’s few trusted kicks going inside 50 even with pressure on him.
Hopefully Newman isn’t out for too long because he is having a great year and is semi important to Carlton’s ball movement out of the backline. Carlton fans have to be pleased with his form following a long time off with a knee injury.
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