1. Sam Walsh's Inside / Outside Game
The number 1 pick of the 2018 Draft has taken a back seat in the media’s attention to the likes of Rowell, Rankine and Serong. After an impressive first year in the competition, Walsh like many young players regressed in his second season, down in disposals, contested possessions, tackles, rebound 50’s and clearances. It had many questioning how good Walsh could become at AFL level with many stating they’d rather take Rozee in their side over Walsh (The debate of “I’d take player Y over player X from the same draft class” is such a nonsensical discussion). But as an inside midfielder this year, Walsh looks to be a breakout star of the competition. His inside / outside game was on full display against Richmond, where he amassed 31 disposals and 6 clearances at 82% disposal efficiency. Walsh has put on size over the summer and it shows. He now has an ability to bounce off and hold up in tackles to distribute to team mates.
Walsh would not have stood up in that tackle in 2020. His ability to take on two Richmond tackles and still find a handball to a team mate shows a glimpse of his progression as an inside player.
His added strength around stoppages makes him a more dangerous midfielder now because he can win his own football at the stoppage – an issue for Carlton who has had to rely on Cripps to do everything in the contest in recent times.
Yet, where Walsh provides a difference maker to many other midfielders in the competition is his gut running. He will hurt teams with his outside game from stoppages. Just look at this...
Walsh gathers the football at the stoppage and has the class to step around Nankervis. He then has to make a split decision to either kick or handball. Walsh recognises that a kick will likely be smothered by Bolton and at the last second notices Fisher ahead of the contest with some space. Forward handballs are a risky proposition given Richmond’s ability to force forward half turnovers and create scoring opportunities but Walsh takes the risk. Whilst it’s messy – the gamble pays off. But Walsh isn’t done. His follow up work and ability to track the football and stay in the contest is elite. He stays involved and pushes forward to get the handball receive, sending Carlton into attack for an eventual goal – leaving the man he started at the contest with (Bolton) in his wake.
These are promising signs for a young midfielder. However, one area that Walsh needs to clean up is his finishing for goal. It improved in his second year (from 27% to 47% from 12 shots at goal) but he still has a bad habit of kicking for goal with a reverse banana as opposed to a drop punt that needs to be cleaned up. Nevertheless, the future is bright for Carlton with Sam Walsh in their midfield.
2. Essendon's new style
It’s early days but Essendon are playing a noticeably different brand under new coach Ben Rutten. They are emphasising attacking football through forward handballs – similar to the Bulldogs. We saw some of this in the pre season.
In Round 1, Essendon were the 3rd highest handballing team in the league. Whilst they ranked 3rd in the competition last year, there is more dare this year to counter attack from turnovers using their run and hand ball chains.
The use of forward handballs are becoming more and more common in the modern AFL. As a junior, you were told to never forward handball because it invites pressure forward of the football. The ball stays in the air too long allowing the opposition ahead of the ball to either intercept it in the air or force a turnover with a strong tackle. Yet, a forward handball and continuous handball chains can open up a game as teams are scrambling to push forward from one player to the next.
It is high risk-high reward football. When it works, Essendon look like a connected team.
It's simple but electing to forward handball rather than deciding to kick resulting in a shallow forward 50 entry provides a very different result. They are able to work it through forward handballs before giving it to Shiel in space to kick long for a deep forward 50 entry where even if Hooker doesn’t mark – it is easily defendable.
Essendon fans can at least identify with this attacking brand of football. It is a far cry from Rutten’s remarks at the start of this year that the team would a ‘blue collar football team’ (To me, that translates to boring, grind it out football)
Yet, when it doesn’t work or fatigue sets in (it’s a lot more tiring to break open an opposition press through handballs than kicking) the results can be disastrous. There were many other issues to the Essendon’s record breaking loss to Hawthorn such as their inability to play at different gears and play possession football when Hawthorn clearly had momentum in the third quarter or how they were beaten in clearances by a notoriously bad clearance team (Hawthorn have ranked 18th and 17th in clearances the last two years).
With the likes of McGrath, Merrett, Shiel, Smith and Hind (who looks like the steal of the trade period) they have the players to pull off fast paced, attacking football. It still doesn’t bode well that they gave up a big lead against a side no one expects to play finals. Rutten will need to ensure that the other aspects of their game are balanced to remain competitive this year.
3. The rule changes hurting teams that start slow
With the new rule changes, it’s more important than ever that teams are ready to go at the first bounce. We saw the consequences of teams starting slow in two games this week.
For those unaware, the AFL has implemented a number of rule changes that have been brought in this year to increase scoring and improve the general aesthetic of the game. None is more impactful than the new man on the mark rule. In previous years, after a mark was taken or a free kick granted, the man on the mark was able to move horizontally. Most players would move horizontally to the corridor (or middle of the ground) because that is the most dangerous area of the ground. If a player is able to hit that inside kick (or the ‘45’ as it is commonly referred to as), it opens up the entire ground. The player who receives can either go direct to goal or can kick to the other side of the ground (to the ‘open side’) to a defender pushing forward or a winger. Teams emphasised covering the corridor and allowing kicks closer to the boundary because it’s easier to defend. Below is an example of Cotchin doing this last year. Look at how he moves his position to the corridor from where the mark is initially taken.
So what is the new rule? Now, players are not allowed to deviate from their mark at all. Even a single step will warrant a 50 metre penalty! (You may have heard umpires screaming ‘stand’ for the entirety of Round 1) The implications of this are two-fold. Firstly, teams now have more space to hit that ‘45’ kick and open up the whole ground, allowing for quicker ball movement and an easier, direct access to goal. Secondly, a player is unable to move until an umpire calls play on. The player with the ball is therefore able to run off his line and essentially gain a running head start to goal before the player on the mark is able to move. We saw a number of instances on the weekend where players where able to shave 5 metres off their distance to goal by running around their goal kicking line without interference from the man on the mark.
On the weekend, the Bulldogs and West Coast kicked 3 goals in the first 4 minutes of the game against the Magpies and the Sun’s respectively. Both teams wrestled back momentum, but that 4 minute patch at the start of the game was the difference between winning and losing. The impact of these rule changes are even more intensified early in games because players are fresh - meaning the game is even more fast paced early on than before. This year more than ever teams cannot afford to be complacent at the start of games. We may see more games decided in the first ten minutes this year given players will tire with less interchanges (another rule change!).
4. Darcy Moore's balanced game
Darcy Moore is quickly becoming the best key position defender (KPD) in the AFL. He was brilliant in defence against the Bulldogs and was one of the sole reasons Collingwood stayed in the game. He had 18 disposals, 5 rebound 50’s, 6 contested marks and 9 intercepts.
Bontempelli noted after the game that the Bulldog’s players had to do a better job of simply not kicking it in Moore’s direction. I think we’ll see more teams try to isolate Moore by playing a forward that either tags him (Yep, he is that good) or make him accountable. How you make Moore accountable is to have his match up lead up the ground with a focus on kicking to that player as much as possible. It makes Moore think twice about letting that player lead up the ground free. He may decide to follow that player, limiting his ability to zone off and intercept the ball.
The versatility of Moore is what makes him a special player for a KPD. He is a freak athlete who uses unique traits to generate scoring opportunities for Collingwood in two ways.
First, his intercepting ability is a difference maker for a team that lacks avenues to goal (Collingwood is going to have to rely heavily on their midfielders kicking goals this year to be competitive). His ability to intercept mark puts teams out of position, as they are unable to set up in time behind the ball - leaving themselves open for a quick counter attack from the intercept.
Second, his long raking kick along with his explosive speed to break a line and generate scoring opportunities makes him a genuine problem for opposition teams. Look at how quickly he can turn a bad situation for Collingwood (a deep defensive 50) into a goal.
Moore is both defensively sound and offensively dangerous and the numbers back it up. In his All-Australian year last year, Moore was 4th for most intercept marks and 5th for spoils. Among KPD’s, he was 6th in the league for score launches (scoring opportunity generated by an intercept) and metres gained.
Collingwood are going to need career years from their defensive core if they want to play finals – Moore is showing that he is well and truly up for that challenge.
5. The Gold Coast Sun's working for each other
The Gold Coast Sun’s are a young team and everyone rightfully points towards their players with star potential as the reason they are so exciting. Yet, it is promising to see that they are playing football the right way. The Sun’s work for each other and there is an element of unselfishness in how they play.
No one would have said anything if Rankine went for that ball and tried to kick a goal there given his ability. Yet, he does the team thing. He sees the loose ball is closer to Sexton and realises that his opponent will get to that ball before he will. He decides to give his man a timely push in the side to get him off position – clearing the path for Sexton to rove the ball and snap a goal. These are the little things that add up to help win games of football.
What about Sexton later in the game?
It's the little tap ons and blocks that great sides like Richmond do so well. It is clear that Dew has made it an emphasis to play for one another - which is creating good habits for a young team on the rise.
I am bullish on Gold Coast in 2021. They play an exciting brand of football but are also extremely strong defensively with a number of impressive young defenders to compliment their defensive inside midfielders. They will take some scalps this year but it will be more so how they perform later in the year.
Under Stewart Dew, they are 2-29 in the back end of the year (defined as from Round 10 onwards) which can be attributed to a young team adjusting to the rigours of AFL football. Their progress in 2021 will be measured by their consistency in performances through Round 1 to Round 22.
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