1. Sam Taylor
So many promising players don't get the attention they deserve because they are hidden away at a non-Victorian club. A clear example of this is Sam Taylor (#15) - who is arguably the best young key position player in the game. Taken with Pick 28 in the 2017 draft, Taylor solidified himself early on with GWS in a strong backline featuring Davis, Haynes, Shaw, Kennedy and Corr. He famously saved the Giants in the dying moments of a preliminary final with a mammoth spoil out of defence against Collingwood to take the Giants to a grand final. That play is a representation of Taylor - he always seems to stand up in big moments. Whenever a team is surging forward and has momentum - there is Taylor standing up with a big intercept mark or spoil.
He is a rock down in defence. Taylor isn't a slouch when the ball hits the ground either - he loves to tackle.
Taylor is also willing to get involved offensively - here he sees the Giants win the ball out of a D50 stoppage and knows he has the athleticism over the slower Kennedy. He forces Kennedy to defend by pushing up the ground and gets used to generate a meaningful scoring drive.
This year, Taylor ranks 6th in the AFL for intercepts per game, 7th in spoils and 6th in one percenters. He has one of the best contested-defence-loss percentages in the league at 25.5% – beating out defenders like Harris Andrews, Darcy Moore and Dougal Howard. It shows in the vision – he rarely loses one on ones.
The Giants all of a sudden have a youthful and exciting backline. Buckley, Ash and Idun in particular have come on in leaps and bounds this year. The narrative has quickly shifted from GWS bottoming out after losing all of their young talent and high quality players to having a nice young core to once again build around. They are starting to create cohesion as a back 6 defensively whilst having the offensive weapons in Whitfield and Ash to generate their counter attack opportunities. The one knock on Taylor (and it’s not his fault) is his injury history. As of a couple of days ago, Taylor is now set to miss an extended period of time with a syndesmosis injury – another cruel injury blow for the Giants. In 2020, he missed 3 months of a footy with a rare bacterial disease that caused him to lose 11kg and made him unable to walk. When you look at it from a different angle, his development for a key position defender is quite astounding given the number of set backs he has had. At only 22, Taylor is quickly becoming one of GWS's most important players and one that the AFL should start paying more attention to - he is an out and out gun. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery.
2. The Bold Adelaide Crows
The Crows-Demons game on Saturday was arguably the best game of the year. Both teams were moving the ball quickly and trading goals late. Ben Keays and Clayton Oliver went head to head (the latter putting on a magical performance) with the pressure around the ball finals-like (Adelaide 65 tackles to Melbourne's 78 – both smashing their season averages). We also learnt quite a bit about both teams. Adelaide came in with a clear plan to beat the Demons and it worked. Adelaide targeted a strength in how the Demons like to defend in their back half (check out our blog last week detailing it) and turned it into a weakness.
Adelaide scored on 42.6% of their inside 50's - the largest percentage of any team by far against Melbourne this year. A reason for this was their risk taking approach through the middle of the ground - they used the corridor at every opportunity possible. Against a team like Melbourne who are great at forcing turnovers in their back half and counter attacking, there was inherent risk involved. But they executed it more successfully than not. Using the corridor grants you the fastest access to goal. It allowed Adelaide quicker entries inside their forward 50 where either May/Lever couldn't set up and help each other or where players were cross matched. Look at how Adelaide's willingness to use the corridor allowed Walker a 1v1 match up with the undersized Rivers.
If that kick stayed in the air for a millisecond longer, Brayshaw cuts it off and Melbourne are likely going the other way for a scoring opportunity. But it works - Berry holds onto the mark. The quick overlap hands and run doesn't give May (who is caught zoning off) enough time to get back to help out Rivers. The extra handball allows for further depth on the final kick - which ultimately means bypassing May.
Again, look at how Adelaide were able to transition from their literal goal line to a shot at goal by working the boundary before going straight through the corridor. It's the handball receive into a McKay bullet through the middle that opens everything up. Melbourne were scrambling like this all day defensively (and really the first time this year). They weren't able to put enough pressure on at the source of the ball which allowed the Crows time to find players inside. Because of the speed in which the ball transitioned - May, Lever and Petty were pushing back hard to zone off and defend the deep entry whilst Thilthorpe came back to the leg of the kicker for an easy mark.
This is a blueprint on how to get Melbourne out of how they want to play - fast and bold ball movement through the middle of the ground honouring hit up leads. Adelaide attacked and attacked all day and it set them up to win the game (albeit luckily with a few questionable umpiring decisions late).
It was clear going into this game that Adelaide emphasised both:
- Forwards leading at the kicker at every opportunity; and
- The kicker rewarding those leads at every opportunity to stop Melbourne from zoning off and impacting contests aerially
It’s an encouraging sign for a developing team that they can execute such a game plan and take a finalist contender out of their comfort zone.
3. Willem Drew
At FTP, we love to highlight the young players who are beginning to show signs of developing into reliable AFL players. Willem Drew (#28) is probably not a household name outside of Port Adelaide fans but he has been superb this year and is very important to Port Adelaide's midfield.
Eyebrows were raised in Round 1 when Drew was named as a starting on baller. Not so much the fact that he was starting on ball but more so that he had taken the place of Tom Rockliff - a player who was once a superstar at Brisbane but is still a super accumulator of the football and can still have a genuine impact on games for Port Adelaide. Hinkley stated that he merely named the best performing 22 from the preseason yet most were skeptical how long Drew would last before making way for Rockliff. Now that is no chance of happening (even if Rockliff hadn't unfortunately suffered two bad knee injuries). Drew took his opportunity and hasn't looked back. This year Drew is recording career highs in Disposals, Inside 50’s, Clearances and is ranked 9th in the AFL for total Tackles. All of this after not playing a single game last year due to injury and no SANFL league.
Drew is a tidy player who is strong around the contest - he is always in great position to read the drop of the ball and handball out to teammates. Look at how clean and clever he is here in a congested area. He taps the ball to himself away from the reach of Williams before distributing to Wines for a goal.
He is also incredibly brave - putting his body on the line in an important moment on the weekend.
His form over the last 4 rounds especially has seen him go up another level. He has an average AFL rating of 15 - ranking him in the top 25 in the AFL!*
*An explanation of how the AFL rating system works is detailed at the end of this article
Drew is still learning to have a consistent impact on games - these things will take time. But it’s quite apparent Drew has a strong mentality regardless of what’s occurring in games. I wrote in my notes over a month ago detailing how Drew has a strong mindset. This was after his impressive last quarter for Port Adelaide against Richmond where he had a crucial tackle and a number of critical disposals. The reason I wrote it down? He had 4 disposals up until 3 quarter time. He lifted in a close game when he needed to after having no impact at all in the first 60 minutes of the game. He had arguably the biggest two moments of the game, an inside 50 kick which led to a Robbie Gray goal and this tackle.
It was only his 14th game - the mental maturity and resiliency to acknowledge that it hasn't been your night yet find a way to stand up regardless is a really impressive feature of Drew's and one that will ensure he has a long standing AFL career. We saw it again on the weekend when it was his time to go – he went. You can trust players like Drew in the biggest games of the year.
4. Alarm Bells are ringing for the West Coast Eagles
The West Coast Eagles lost to the Giants on the weekend by 16 points on the road. On the surface, not really a disastrous loss against a team that is quite underrated. Yet, the way in which they lost is cause for concern. The Eagles simply didn’t want to work.
We've noted this statistical pairing a number of times this year because we believe it's the perfect measurement of when a team has minimal desire to defend. Here it is.
GWS won the disposal count by 101 (405 - 304) yet had 31 MORE tackles than the Eagles. They had the ball for a far greater portion of the game yet out-tackled the Eagles with far less opportunities. Finals are built on pressure around the ball - you only need to look at Richmond in recent times to see that. I understand the Eagles play a different game style, a kick-mark retention, contested marking reliant, ultra efficient going Inside 50 game style. But a lack of pressure will not hold up in finals regardless of how efficient they can be. In their 2016 premiership season, whilst they weren't league leading, they were 12th in tackles per game. Their pressure rating (Champion Data give us access to this please) was shown a number of times on the TV and it was well below that of the Giants.
It isn't just their pressure around the ball either. West Coast are really struggling to both stop scores and/or create counter attacking opportunities from defensive 50 entries.
Looking at these rankings - there's not a lot different to last year! Yet, the numbers when the ball is in their defensive 50 numbers are worrying. Per Fox Sports, West Coast is 17th for conceding scores when it enters their defensive 50. They are now 2nd worst in the league for rebound 50’s out of defence.
A poor rebound 50 ranking can be misleading because a team may just be on average getting more inside 50's than their opponent and therefore have less opportunities to rebound the ball. Yet, this isn't really the case for the Eagles. The Bulldogs are 18th for Rebound 50's - the only team worse than the Eagles. Yet that's because they have the highest Inside 50 team/opponent differential in 2021 - they average 13.6 more Inside 50's than their opponent (AFL best). To compare, the Eagles rank 9th and only average 0.4 more I50's than their opponents.
So whilst everyone talks about the Eagles' efficiency going inside 50, they are struggling to defend and rebound from their own defensive 50. Without having access to data detailing where the Eagles are scoring most from (D50, Turnover, Stoppage etc), it would be shocking if they generate any scoring opportunities from their D50 given those poor numbers.
West Coast have suffered from injuries all year and it must be noted. When you lose important players like McGovern, Shuey, Yeo, Ryan, Duggan and Barrass for long periods of the season so far no doubt this is going to have an impact on how the team performs.
But GWS weren't exactly light on injuries either. An injury list of Coniglio, Greene, Daniels, Hogan, Davis, De Boer, Perryman, Kennedy, Preuss etc is arguably the worst in the league - yet they came with the effort and intensity from the beginning that the Eagles sorely lacked.
An uncontested mark by one of GWS’s best players in the goal square was symbolic of the Eagles lack of desire or want to defend – Waterman didn’t want to go. At the moment that's the difference between a Deven Robertson at a premiership contender in Brisbane who is fighting for his spot and puts his body on the line for his team and a role player in Waterman who doesn't wish to defend as a forward.
It isn't panic stations by any stretch for West Coast - they are 6-4 and in the 8 even with a really poor away record. But the worrying signs are there. Poor defensive pressure is a fixable thing. But teams flirt with danger when they play with an on/off switch. The competition is too even to decide when to defend and when not too. It has to become a habit, something ingrained in the team. Expect a response against Essendon.
5. Deven Robertson
Deven Robertson (#2) is starting to show some things. Having slid in his draft year from a potential top 10 pick to being taken at 22 by Brisbane, it was always going to be a slow grind breaking into Brisbane's midfield. But with injuries comes opportunity and Neale and Berry's injuries opened the door for Robertson and like Drew, he has well and truly taken his opportunity. The numbers aren't eye popping but there are aspects of his game that are starting to shine at AFL level. A big one is his hands and vision to distribute to team mates outside the bubble of the initial contest. It's a valuable skill to have because it compliments his other team mates who are dangerous when given space, like a McCluggage or a Cameron. Robertson is skinny and is still growing into his frame but that doesn't deter him from attacking the football at pace, putting his body in line with the ball and being strong enough to gather and distribute.
Once he gets stronger, he'll be able to hold up better in tackles - making his handballing vision even more valuable. He has a great game sense in quickly reading the cues. The football will bounce a particular way or surge forward and Roberston is quick to anticipate that movement and position himself accordingly. It's a little thing but look at how he is positioned behind Baker when this ball gets punched forward yet he reads it so much quicker than him and puts himself in a position to gather and run.
Another example where he reads the drop of the ball quickly, gathering and stepping around King before dishing off to a team mate and then blocking.
He’s quite instinctual and clean in the way he plays but there’s a level of determination to it all. You can tell he's fully aware that his spot isn't safe week to week and is doing everything he can to keep himself in a successful side. Look at his second and third efforts (and even fourth effort with the subtle block for Coleman) to put pressure on Richmond players and allow Brisbane to surge forward.
It’ll be interesting to see whether he can keep his spot once Brisbane is at full strength. My guess is probably not – but the positive signs are there and he’s starting to make it a very difficult decision for Brisbane come later in the year.
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