FTP #4

Welcome to the 4th edition of Footy Talking Points, featuring Nick Hind, Callum Mills, the Brisbane Lions and more!

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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1. Trade steal of the year, Nick Hind

Nick Hind (#19) has been the steal of the 2020 trade period. Acquiring him for Pick 67 (and a shuffle of picks), Essendon have already found themselves their Saad replacement.

Hind played at St Kilda as a small forward and showed flashes of his zippiness and agility. Yet, at Essendon he is playing as a running half back and is excelling in that position. He is averaging 23 disposals, 5.5 rebound 50's and 450 metres gained a game. He is generating so many scoring opportunities for Essendon from their back half and does so with his blistering pace on counter attacks. Essendon are the 3rd best team in the AFL for scoring points from their D50 and Hind is the key reason for that. Hind loves to take the game on, leaving players in his dust. He knows they can’t catch him. He has a couple of runs like this a game.

Most other players would either give off the handball or look ahead of the field to hit a player on the lead. Not Hind. Hind sees a huge amount of space in front of him and bolts forward. The kick isn't clean but he stays involved and finds the football again before lowering his eyes and hitting Stringer on the lead.

The most impressive thing about this is Hind’s ability to run at such a fast pace but still have the composure to balance his body and hit his target.

Hind is hitting difficult kicks inside 50 to set up scoring opportunities for his side. Look at this well weighted kick to Jones inside 50.

He isn't all just about offense either - Essendon entrusted him with defending Papley (Sydney's most dangerous small forward) on the weekend. They clearly rate his defensive capabilities and trust him to even that match up whilst taking advantage of Papley when Essendon have the ball.

We discussed in Week 1 how Essendon are striving to play fast-handball happy football. To do it consistently, you need not only to perfect your execution of such a game plan but you need the personnel to put it into practice. Hind fits the mold of this play style perfectly and it's been a masterstroke by Essendon. They obviously saw his talent from his time at Essendon VFL and knew that he could have a significant impact on the game as a rebound defender. He is an exciting player to watch each week for the Dons.

2. Callum Mills' move to the midfield

The move of Callum Mills (#14) from the backline to a full time midfielder is one of the key factors for Sydney's 4-0 start. Mills is the type of player where you watch him and seriously question whether he has any holes in his game.

He is a great accumulator of the football (26 disposals a game) with an ability to win contested possessions with his strong frame, he is a strong mark overhead for his size, a great kick of the football and finishes around goals. He has a strong work ethic defensively shown by his second half job of Merrett. If you were to nitpick, you could argue that his initial defensive spread from stoppages is poor given his lack of speed but it's something that doesn't hurt Sydney too much given his smart positioning around stoppages. 

He is incredibly composed and clean with his disposal. He rarely makes mistakes and has the capabilities to match up on different types of midfielders. He has the strength to match up on the bigger midfielders as he did on Martin against Richmond and the positioning and agility to play on quicker midfielders like Merrett last week.

He quickly is becoming one of the best midfielders in the league – he has polled 13 coaches votes in the first 4 round with a clear best on ground performance in Round 1.

You can tell he’s a player that has learnt a lot from playing in the backline. One of the things that starting in the backline has helped in his transition to the midfield is his decision making without the ball. He is a really smart decision maker, which is why he is entrusted with those big assignments.

Look at how he makes the split decision to come off his man Smith in a dangerous area of the ground to cover for his teammate Wicks. (In the middle of the screen)

He pushes up to defend Parish and forces him to make a decision. Mills sees that Parish's momentum has him running boundary side making it almost an impossible kick to Smith. Mills gives himself enough space to defend both Parish if he decides to take him on but ensures he is still within distance of Smith if he decides to handball. He reads the play to perfection and cuts off the errant handball before finding an open teammate inside 50. It was noted by Champion Data this week that 40% of scoring in 2021 is occurring from midfield intercepts between the arcs. Mills' decision to come off his man and perfectly execute this intercept shows how important it can be to a teams ability to actually score. This decision resulted in a Franklin goal.

I said in an earlier column that I believed Sydney would fall within the 9-14 bracket on the ladder in 2021. It’s hard to see that eventuating now. At 4-0, Sydney are playing a brand new game style and are inspired. The loss of Heeney for a month will hurt and it will be interesting to see how long their young players can play at this level for. Regardless, it seems likely they make finals from here especially with the play of their bonafide A-grade midfielder Callum Mills.

3. Brisbane's Midfield and their defensive issues

Brisbane’s now 1-3 after their loss to the Bulldogs and do not look like the preliminary finalist team from last year. On the weekend, the Bulldogs had 81 tackles to Lions' 50 even though they had almost the same disposal count (347-361). The Lion's have been poor defensively for a few weeks now and it's a worrying trend for a side that wants to play the forward half territory game. If they are unable to defend the initial sequence out of a stoppage, it gives them less opportunity to defend in the forward half of their ground. They were the 3rd best clearance team in 2020 – so far in the 2021 they aren’t even in the top 8 (Per Footywire). They are ranked 15th in opponent clearance differential, losing by an average of 3 per game. They also have been out-tackled by an average of 7 tackles a game. This is an extremely worrying statistic when you consider that they are dead last in disposals in the league. So they aren’t accumulating or possessing the ball at a high rate yet are one of the worst tackling teams in the league. The eye test (along with the statistics) indicates that this is a work rate thing.

Lyons (#17) was one of Brisbane's best on the weekend offensively. Yet, he had a moment on the weekend that represents the issues hurting Brisbane's midfield right now. Look at him at this stoppage early in the first quarter on the weekend matched up on Bontempelli.

Is anyone else wondering why no Brisbane player was within 3 metres of Bontempelli forward of the football? Bontempelli was Lyons' match up at the stoppage. Yes, you want to back your midfielders in to win the ball and so you start on the opposition as a reference. But the Dogs win this clearance and control the ball out of the stoppage for over 8 seconds.

Look at Lyons. He is ball watching whilst his man Bontempelli pushes forward. Even worse, he turns his head and looks at Bontempelli ahead of him (14.21 minute mark) and continues to ball watch! He then makes a poor and late decision to come forward to defend.

Bontempelli doesn't make him pay in this instance but it’s the lack of defensive respect and intent from one of Brisbane's top midfielders that is disappointing to see. It's too easy for opposition midfields at the moment.

I am still bullish on the Lions this year. They've started 1-3 with 3 away games in a row – there’s no need to overreact. They will hit their stride and should play finals. But it's been the performance of their midfield in recent years that has made them such a dominant team. They have strong ball winners who are able to keep the ball in their forward half. This allows other elements of their game to function - as their smalls can be more dangerous closer to goal (they have regressed from 4th in tackles inside 50 team in 2020 to 8th in 2021) and their defensive interceptors (Harris, Gardiner) and rebound ball users (Rich and Birchall) are able to set up behind the ball making it difficult for opposition teams to counter attack.

It's also worth noting that Brisbane are having issues exiting defensive 50. They are currently 17th in 2021 for defensive half turnovers, a big difference to last year where they were exiting defensive 50 with the 3rd least amount of turnovers in the league. This is a trend worth noting going forward.  

If their midfield continues to play the way they have, the strengths of the rest of Brisbane suffer and they will be at a serious risk of an early finals exit or missing finals altogether. Essendon this week is a should win game and will get their year back on track - but it will start and end with their midfielders.

4. Luke Davies-Uniacke, the signs are there

LDU (#9) has been a slow burn for North fans. Taken with Pick 4 in 2017, Davies-Uniacke has battled a number of injuries throughout his career and has struggled at AFL level with the pace of the game. Part of that is a lack of continuity. LDU has played 7 (2018), 14 (2019), 9 (2020) and 4 (2021 so far) games in his first 4 years, which has undoubtedly hindered his development. The Kangaroos are hoping this year things start to change with his continuity. He has himself healthy and has played every game this season. The numbers don't jump out of the page for a high draft pick - especially someone playing midfield minutes. But there is clearly something here there’s no doubt. Every game he does something eye brow raising. As an example, against Adelaide last week...

He has incredible stoppage craft for a young player and has a number of tricks - a spin move and an impressive step to clear himself from congestion.

You can see why some have compared him to Judd. He has the agility to navigate his way through tight spaces with his footwork and large frame and has breakaway speed to exit stoppages. 

But for every exciting sign he shows, there's still issues in with his game. He simply isn’t on the ground enough, averaging 74 % TOG before this year. It shows that he is still building his tank to play as a full time midfielder. This has improved in 2021 so far, where it’s jumped up to 84.5% - a far more respectable number for a midfielder.

He can also be poor defensively - he doesn't locate a man as quickly as he needs to in slow play situations and his defensive spread is widely inconsistent. Gerard Healy has phrased him as a ‘bit of plodder’. That’s a bit harsh – as this kind of stuff can be expected from young players, especially high draft picks, who are used to having the game on their terms before they enter the league. But LDU isn't exactly a 'young player' now - he has been in the system for 4 years.  That is why this year is so important – so we can see the development both with and without the ball.

He is still building as a player with the ball as well. At times he tries to take players on with fend offs and isn't strong enough yet to break through tackles or attempts to step out of traffic where there is no space to go. He can lack vision around stoppages and miss the easy option.

He is able to win the ball off a group of Adelaide players and have the strength to break a tackle - super impressive. But he fails to give the easy handball to 3 teammates right in front of him, electing for the ambitious outside handball to Cunnington that doesn’t pay off.

This is part of his development and why he needs to play as much footy as he can this year to get those reps. The more reps he gets in the midfield, the more opportunity he has to see different scenarios play out and know, for example, when to fend off or when to handball.

LDU can be a future star for North - he has the traits to be an elite midfielder. A play or sign from LDU each week is a sign of optimism to the future for North fans.

5. Nic Naitanui - Tim Kelly Connection

The brilliance of Nic Naitanui (#9) is something to behold each week you watch him. He has such a big impact on games beyond the usual statistics.

That is a hit-out to advantage - but it's so much more. He palms the ball into space perfectly for Kelly to run onto it. It gives Kelly a head start to go inside 50 and the opportunity to hit a leading forward. It pretty much should be an inside 50 statistic to Naitanui... There’s one thing to lead the league in centre clearances (Eagles are equal first at 14.8 a game) but the quality of exit from clearances puts the Eagles above the competition and Nic Nat is the reason for that. Naitanui's connection with Tim Kelly around stoppages is something to watch out for.

Naitanui is able to place the ball outside of the initial bubble of a stoppage scenario to an area of the ground where Kelly is already on the move. Look at how Kelly knows exactly where this ball is headed and works to that spot whilst disregarding his (very dangerous) opponent in Bontempelli. It almost comes off.

It's a stark contrast to other ruckmen in the game, including some of the best like a Grundy - who seem to win the hit-outs but have a lack of cohesion with his midfielders resulting in taps sharked by the opposition. Naitanui’s hit-outs to advantage rate of 38.7% far exceeds the other premier ruckmen in the competition in Gawn (34.5%) and Grundy (31.7%). He also leads the league in score launches at 20 for the year - his tap work from centre clearances leads to shots on goal for West Coast. Out of the top 15 centre clearances winners in the league, Naitanui is the only ruckman (#7) showing his unique ability to not only place West Coast midfielders in a position to excel winning clearances but win them himself!

It’s awesome to see two players on the same page and having that connection at AFL level given the frenetic pace of the game. At the end of the day, West Coast this year will go as far as Nic Nat’s dominance in the midfield will take them.

That's it for this week - if you enjoyed the article make sure to subscribe !

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