FTP #7

Welcome to the 7th edition of Footy Talking Points, featuring the Gold Coast Suns, Western Bulldogs, Jack Ziebell and more!

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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1. Gold Coast's Game Style Change

The Gold Coast Suns have now won 2 in a row, including against a current top 4 team the Sydney Swans. They have improved their effectiveness winning the inside of the contest led by midfielders Hugh Greenwood and Touk Miller. They were quite reactive to start the season, allowing teams to control clearances and put pressure on their backline without applying enough pressure. Gold Coast are now ranked 11th in opponent clearance differential – a statistic which has improved (Losing your top ruckman with no legitimate replacements is a key factor in this).

This creates further issues where Gold Coast are not able to generate enough inside 50’s for their forwards (14th in I50’s per game). Yet, Gold Coast have found a different way to win games without dominating the clearance count or even amassing significant amounts of I50's. The key theme for the Gold Coast Suns this year has been ‘Tempo’.

They have altered the way they play - prioritising control of possession through a kick mark retention game. We saw it earlier in the year against West Coast where both teams had over 135 marks (absurd numbers for two teams given the averages that we will note later). Gold Coast were almost copying how West Coast like to play on their home ground. But that game wasn't just an anomaly. For the year, Gold Coast are the #1 ranked side in the AFL for marks averaging 122 per game – the Eagles are second at 115.7. The Suns are also #1 for kicks per game.

To understand the seismic shift in game style, last year the Suns were ranked 11th in marks and the year before were 16th. It is a significant change in how Stewart Dew and the Suns want to play. They want to widen the ground and spread the opposition defence. This is one example of it on the weekend.

They widen the ground and hold their position on the offside wing. Ellis takes the ball deep in the left hand pocket. Farrar leads hard as does Caleb Graham forcing Collingwood players to shift over. On the other side of the ground (Behind the goals footage would be really nice here…) Ballard is holding his shape which helps widen the ground and makes it difficult for Collingwood to defend. Ellis shifts the ball to the other side where Ballard outnumbers the Collingwood press and Gold Coast are out.

Admittedly, this is in part due to a trend of Collingwood’s poor locating ability defensively this year but it also signifies how Gold Coast are playing in 2021. They keep possession and find marks until they find an opening to attack.

This wasn’t a one time thing either. No less than 3 minutes later…

See how Ainsworth continually looks inside. It’s a clear emphasis for the Suns. They want to shift to the other side of the ground at any possible opportunity. Ainsworth is patient enough until he reverts back to Farrar, who kicks the ball to the open side of the ground where the Gold Coast numbers spread.

Gold Coast are a dangerous team when they execute a kick mark retention game because they have players on the outside who will hurt you with either their disposal or gut running if they control the tempo of the game (Lukosius, Bowes, Weller, Ellis (who is having a career best year)).

So what are the likely reasons for such a switch? (besides having the players to pull it off)

At times last year Gold Coast played out of control, wanting to go fast at every moment. This left the team exposed to counterattack on turnover. This new game style ensures they aren’t hurt as much on midfield turnovers because they control the tempo of the game whilst having their backmen set up in case a kick is poorly executed. This is backed up by the numbers – Gold Coast were the 3rd highest turnover team in 2020 – they are only 8th in 2021.

Another likely reason for the change in game style is that Gold Coast have burnt out in all of Stewart Dew's seasons. This may be due to the last couple of years where they had to play a frenetic and quick style of football to win games. As noted earlier this year, Gold Coast are 2-29 after Round 10 under Stewart Dew. The Suns are trying to win in different ways. They have their season back on track and it’s a positive step in the right direction that they are learning how to play and win at the MCG given their poor track record on the ground. Finals still seems out of reach given their slow start but it is entirely possible. The match against St Kilda this week proves to be an 8-point game given their ladder positions.

2. Jack Ziebell's move to Defence

The move of Jack Ziebell (#7) to the backline has been an interesting one for North Melbourne. It's clear why they did it - Ziebell struggled playing a forward role last year after being pushed out of his main midfield role. He started the year as a midfielder in 2020 under Rhyce Shaw but given the number of midfielders North now possess either through the draft or through their experienced campaigners (Anderson, Dumont, Cunnington, LDU, Powell, Phillips), it makes sense that Noble would look to try Ziebell in an area of the ground where North lack some experience (outside of McDonald/Atley). If you looked at his statistics, you'd think he is having an All-Australian year.

He is averaging 29 disposals (12th in the AFL) including 24 kicks (1st), 8.6 marks (6th), 9 rebound 50's (1st) and 608 metres gained (9th). He is accumulating disposals exiting defensive 50 - North's young players love to use him. He isn't overly damaging by foot though even with a high 84.7% disposal efficiency - conversely Ziebell is ranked 4th in total turnovers this year.

When compared to other players who average 29+ disposals (12 players), Ziebell ranks 1st in DE amongst them. Disposal Efficiency isn't the best statistic to measure a player’s ball use - especially a player like Ziebell who is playing on a lot from kick outs and hitting easy targets. Still, you can’t bash someone who is averaging 20.6 effective kicks a game.

He's a strong mark overhead – there were couple of instances on the weekend where he took either took the front position from a Melbourne player or used his strength to put himself in a better position to mark the football.

Ziebell has the capabilities and size to be a really strong intercepting defender but for it to happen, it's clear it's going to take time. This is because he lacks situational awareness as a backmen. It’s understandable when you're learning a new position but the inability to read the cues and understand when to defend or come off your man, when to fly or stay down, is the difference between Rebound 50’s and the opposition kicking goals. There were two direct examples of his mistakes that cost goals on weekend.

Here’s the first:

Ziebell's a courageous player and to go back with the flight of the ball is what you want from your skipper. But it isn't smart. Ziebell fails to understand that McKay is in the perfect position to mark and doesn't assess his surroundings before flying. He ends up spoiling McKay with his man Fritsch staying at ground level kicking the goal. North cannot afford to shoot themselves in the foot especially in a game where they had an opportunity to win.

Ziebell has had a number of these instances this year.

His match up is Fritsch - who Demons coach Simon Goodwin said they wanted to match up on Ziebell. Part of that was to supress Ziebell continually gathering disposals in the backline and taking those intercept marks. Yet, I also think Melbourne believed they could exploit Ziebell. Ziebell ball watches and loses touch of Fritsch, who is given a run and jump at the footy while Ziebell finds himself behind in the pack.

This is what we are talking about - at times he is more interested in ball hunting and flying for marks when his priority as a backmen is firstly his opponent (especially given Fritsch had kicked 5 up until this point!).

It's an interesting experiment for North - one that is probably costing them goals at the moment but has long term value. Hopefully it is an experience and repetition thing for Ziebell. There's no doubt he has the attributes to be an impactful defender player given his size, his booming kick and his courage. It’s important that he improves at defending first and then looking to attack rather than the other way around. North Melbourne are gradually improving and their first half on the weekend showed how exciting this team will become when they can execute that corridor heavy attacking game style more consistently. The team along with Ziebell’s continual improvement for the rest of the 2021 season will likely see them upset some teams.

3. Hugh McCluggage rising to stardom

Hugh McCluggage (#6) is quietly having himself a career year.

Shifting between the wing and inside midfield, McCluggage provides a point of difference as a classy ball user for a Lions midfield that is quite contested heavy in the way they play.

McCluggage this year is averaging 26.3 disposals including 9.9 effective kicks, 6.3 marks, 441 metres gained and 7.9 score involvements per game (9th in the AFL).

McCluggage is a great user of the football - arguably the best in the AFL. He nails his kicks with pinpoint precision on both sides of his body.

As he has felt more comfortable at the AFL level, he’s been more willing to take on riskier kicks like this with more reward for the Lions.

To be one of the best players in the AFL, you must have at least one (but most have two) elite/unique qualities that allow a player to:

1. Be consistent in each game they play because their qualities hold up in any type of game; and

2. Substantially impact the game for periods at a time

McCluggage’s qualities are starting to shine with great consistency this year. Along with his great ball use – McCluggage has a huge tank. Per Champion Data, he is ranked one of the best players in the AFL for kilometres run per game - running 16.5 against Carlton. McCluggage’s fitness makes him such a dangerous player because as the game goes on he gets better. His tank compliments his kicking skills to substantially hurt opposition teams.

Case in point last week against Collingwood earlier this year. In a comeback vicotry, in the last quarter he had 11 last quarter possessions and 232 metres gained. McCluggage isn’t overly quick yet he isn't slow either. Look at his extraction from the clearance and his ability to link up again before finishing with an amazing goal.

Not many players in the entire AFL could pull this off and yep… this was in the last quarter on the weekend.

The key for McCluggage will be consistency week to week. Technically, his elite ball use and tank should hold up in every game he plays yet McCluggage still comes in and out of games. Sometimes that’s a result of playing as an outside midfielder – in games the ball simply doesn't come your way especially given Brisbane rank 18th in disposals per game. They are probably the most direct and forward facing team in the AFL going I50. Yet, he is starting to play more inside midfield this year. He needs to find ways to increase his contested disposal numbers so he isn’t reliant on his other midfielders in feeding him the football.

Regardless, Brisbane has their season back on track with an incredible showing against premiership contenders Port Adelaide and McCluggage was a key reason for that. His ball use and link up run will play a significant role in determining how far Brisbane will go this year.

4. The Bulldogs' first challenge

The Bulldogs have been the form team of the competition this year. The way they play is exciting and unique to watch (we discussed their game style earlier this year in Week 2) and it was on full display in the first half against Richmond.

The chain of handballs out is brilliant to watch when it's working - the team has an inherent understanding on where players are positioned around them and know exactly when to give it to the next player in the chain. I love the way the Bulldogs play because it is so unique to many other teams in the competition who want to control the tempo of the game through marks and shudder at the thought of a midfield turnover through handballs in the middle of the ground.

Yet, for the first time this year, the Bulldogs felt pressure and heat around the ball they haven't had all year. It was a vintage Richmond quarter - they applied pressure at the source of the ball and were able to play a front half territory game, winning the clearances in the 3rd term. As we noted a couple of weeks back, it is rare that Richmond wins the clearance battle against any team but if they do, they are almost impossible to beat. The Bulldogs didn't handle the pressure particularly well - failing to have a disposal inside 50 for almost the entire 3rd quarter (unheard of) and a number of their core players failed to handle the pressure.

Look at how Bontempelli feels the implied pressure from Richmond even though he has clear space and time to link it up through handballs.

Instead, he rushes a kick forward straight to Grimes who is set up behind the ball. It's a fair decision given how much pressure Richmond applied in the 3rd quarter but it's still interesting to see it from one of the best players in the AFL and definitely one of the most composed. Moments later, Smith does the same thing.

They went away from the handball happy way they have played all year partly because it invited further Richmond pressure. It’s a cause and effect issue for Bulldogs. If the opposition increase their defensive pressure, the more you handball, the more you are inviting further pressure from up the ground. In some respects, the Dogs’ game style allows Richmond to play the chaotic, turnover heavy game they want.

It wasn't just offensively - the Bulldogs were disorganised defensively a number of times. Look at how in a slow play situation, the Bulldogs still leave Cordy on an island against Lynch allowing him to have a one on one contest.

That should never happen in a slow play scenario, especially given the marking game Lynch was having. Wood is too far away from the contest.

Look closely at what occurs to the left of your screen when Houli has the ball.

Wood is the one that should be chopping out Cordy but he has to cover for Crozier, whose man Castagna leads to the boundary. Because Crozier was too far behind to take Castagna, Wood has to respect Castagna’s lead. By the time he realises the kick is going long it’s too late – he can’t help defend the kick to Lynch. 

The Bulldogs will learn a lot from this game - mainly that they have to continue to trust their system when they are challenged and learn to better control the tempo of the game when things aren't on their terms. Given they haven't been substantially challenged this year - it's the perfect result for the Dogs. Sometimes, a bad loss where you don't win but maybe more importantly you learn can be far more beneficial than the 4 points. Bulldogs now understand where the benchmark for pressure is set for them later in the year come finals time.

5. Liam Baker

Liam Baker's (#7) approach to football is great to watch. He's a player that always gives a 110% and plays like his spot is on the line each week (even though he is a 2 time premiership player!). Everything he does is with intensity and purpose. During the 3rd quarter against the Bulldogs where Richmond began turning the tide, it started with efforts of players like Baker.

For a small player (listed at 173cm), Baker is tenacious with his tackles. Look at how he provides the initial pressure on Keath but stays involved and follows up with a hard tackle.

He is also super impressive overheard and it is a clear strength of his. Teams love players like Baker because he always puts his head over the football, nails his tackles and does the selfless team acts. He is the perfect Richmond role player and he embodies the selfless nature of their success. On the weekend he had 29 pressure acts (2nd best on the ground), 8 tackles including 3 inside 50 (best on the ground).

Sometimes, it's easy to see how Richmond are so good – yet in the same breath it’s not always so clear. If you compared the two teams on the weekend, every man and his dog (pun not intended) would say the Bulldogs fielded the better team, both in terms of individual production and talent wise.

Yet, Richmond went from 25 points down to 22 point victors - Why? Yes, part of it is due to their system that is second nature to the playing group but it’s also because of players like Baker who don’t have an elite skill of say a Caleb Daniel but is someone who will play their role for the team and do it consistently.

Similarly, look at the first, second, third and fourth efforts of another role player in McIntosh even after the game is all but won.

These are the little things that win you games of football. Baker played everywhere on Friday, in the backline, on the wing and as a forward. A player who is so trusted by his coach and has that versatility are unique players and ones that fans understand their value to the team outside of the statistics. Liam Baker is one of those players - I suggest when Richmond play next you look out for him - watch as he will always make the right decision or put his body on the line when he needs to go. More of a spotlight needs to be shone on these types of players.

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