FTP #17 (2021)

Welcome to the 17th edition of Footy Talking Points, featuring Brad Hill's move to defence, Brisbane's forward line without Hipwood and Collingwood's last quarters

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1. Brad Hill's move to defence - has it worked?

Brad Hill’s had a tough year. In fact, he’s struggled mightily since demanding a trade to St Kilda. Hill was never a high accumulator at Hawthorn yet the Hawks expressed Hill’s importance through his off ball running patterns. At Fremantle, his disposal rate increased yet he had three of his four worst disposal efficiency seasons. Both teams would vouch for Hill's value on their teams and whilst this may be true (Hill undoubtedly played an important role in Hawthorn’s dynasty with his defensive running), St Kilda brought in Hill to have an impact offensively with the ball. After a 2020 season with shortened quarters, the talk was how much more of an impact Hill would have given his running capacity. None of this eventuated at the beginning of this year. Hill struggled to not only find the football but when he did, he turned it over badly. It carried on for months. The game against Melbourne where he amassed 7 turnovers at 37% kicking efficiency, against West Coast where he went at 62% and 7 turnovers or the back to back weeks with a mere 10 disposals. Many called for him to be dropped. To St Kilda’s credit – they didn't. Instead, Hill has been played as an attacking defender. Has it worked? Lets discuss.

The short answer is yes and no.

Hill provides a point of difference to a backline that is quite slow and lacks offensive drive. Wilkie, Highmore (Due for a write up), Coffield, Geary, Paton (when healthy) are not huge offensive generators as defenders at the best of times (Webster as an exception). Hell, even Howard as a KPD provides more drive than those mentioned with his pace. They initially tried Hunter in the role given his creativity and ball use but I think we'd all agree he should be playing as a midfielder. So they needed to generate more offense from their backline. Hill (along with Sinclair who also moved to the backline) provide that running link up option and create an avenue to hurt teams off midfield turnovers. Hill on an intercept or turnover is usually the first to transition into offense. This makes him a dangerous player on the counter attack. He is currently 7th in the AFL for Inside 50's amongst defenders. He is rarely deep in defence, lingering in the opposition's 'dead zone' where turnovers are most likely to generate meaningful scoring opportunities on the counter attack.

Brad Hill's heat map

This is a midfield stoppage but it has the same effect. Both Hill and Sinclair combine out the back of the stoppage to create a scoring opportunity that ends in a goal.

This is Hill at his best – leveraging his leg speed and run and carry to find a target inside 50. This is what makes him so dangerous as a high half back.

Hill's shift is important because when St Kilda bring their high pressure game around the ball circa 2020, it creates more turnover opportunities. As a result, it Hill find the football without having to win it himself.

The second part of this is his kicking efficiency. It was always going to regress back to the mean (now at 76%) – he was simply butchering the ball too much for someone who should be better. But because he is able to receive the ball in more comfortable situations with the game faced in front of him, he can cut teams up. We saw this against Collingwood who completely disregarded him in the first quarter. (14 disposals, 3 Inside 50's at 92% DE in the first quarter). So he’s clearly having an impact on the game as an offensive generator. North wouldn’t have tagged him if he wasn't.

The thing with Hill as a defender is that he’s limited. At times, he forgets to defend first and ball watches – allowing his opponents too much space. It doesn’t result in anything but look at how far off he is from Daicos here in a forward 50 stoppage scenario. He gives him goal side easily. Hill got lucky.

Does it look a little familiar? Here’s Sinclair not getting so lucky last week.

He’s also not a reliable one on one defender although he’s improving in this area (rated below average in contested one on one scenarios although it's a small sample size).

Teams haven’t really caught on to how important the Hill match up is against St Kilda. St Kilda know and have made good use of this. Against Collingwood, they made sure Hill played on either Daicos or Bianco. He was able get dangerous offensively because neither of those players worked Hill to dangerous spots in general play to make him accountable. It wasn’t long after his blistering first quarter that Collingwood put Sidebottom on Hill.

I personally think the move of Sinclair and Hill has been a success. It has coincided well with St Kilda’s shift in form and they both provide value even with their defensive limitations. Though, it’s worth noting that this ‘success’ is relative and based on tempered expectations. Given what St Kilda gave up and how much they are paying Hill, Hill's circumstance is as an adequate alternative to ultimately a bad result. Either way, Hill has found a role he is comfortable with and his confidence has returned. St Kilda should play finals after a great three week patch and the Hill match up will be fascinating. It will either be exposed or provide a positive point of difference to a smokey finals challenger.

2. Brisbane's forward line without Hipwood

What a gut punch for the Brisbane Lions. Football’s a cruel game at the best of times but this one really hurts. Hipwood tearing his ACL along with Rayner in a premiership contending year. You never know how long a team’s premiership window remains open for so to have it impacted so severely by injuries to two important pieces is incredibly tough for the Lions to swallow. But it isn’t doom and gloom yet for Brisbane. If there was any silver lining from Hipwood’s injury, it’s that it occurred in Round 17 and not Round 23. Brisbane has time to see how their forward line shapes up for finals. And they’ll need it. Their forward line structure broke down on the weekend after Hipwood’s injury. His importance to Brisbane’s team can’t be understated. He has kicked 26 goals in 2021 as a marking threat (14th in the league for marks I50) but is also mobile and dangerous at ground level. He provides the most forward pressure out of Brisbane’s key talls.  

He can play high up the ground or assume the deeper role when Joe Daniher roams. Most importantly, he takes either the best or 2nd best defender (depending on which team they play) each week. Now, those defenders shift down to Daniher and McStay. It puts enormous pressure on Daniher to perform consistently – something he hasn’t done this year. We saw how ineffective the Bulldogs' key talls have been without Naughton and it could be a similar case here. For a forward line in a premiership contending year, it feels verry Joe Daniher dependant. Surprisingly, against the Saints Daniher was only targeted once after Hipwood went down – McStay nine times. This feels like an aberration but certainly something to track. Now McStay goes from playing on a 3rd tall to the 2nd best or even 1st when Daniher plays ruck (something Brisbane could conceivably scrap now). 

One of the difficult questions in all of this is who actually replaces Hipwood? This isn’t a Melbourne situation where you have a reliable back up in Weideman playing VFL. Is it Ballenden? Fullarton? Smith? Does Payne push forward? None of those options inspire confidence or are even known commodities at AFL level. Can any of them have a meaningful impact come finals time? Brisbane has seven games to find a solution. They need to see how it would work.

On the other hand, they may get creative with their forward six and go small. This is enticing and something they should definitely trial given how strong and versatile Brisbane’s smalls are aerially (Cameron, McCarthy, Ah Chee, Bailey when he’s down there). Yet, the risk in this is that pressure now deflects to their smalls to both be dangerous at ground level but compete in the air and bring the ball to ground.

It can be ineffective for bail out kicks.

Admittedly, it's a poor kick but because Joe is too lazy to come up at the ball - Robinson panics without having another tall option to kick to an elects for Cameron. Howard doesn't have to worry about a Hipwood presence elsewhere and comes over to help. Cameron’s never going to beat two key defenders like that no matter how good he is in the air.

The counter argument is that what you lose in the air you should gain with forward pressure. But that’s only IF the ball can be brought to ground consistently enough. This wasn’t the case on the weekend - as Highmore was able to intercept numerous times. 

Cameron is also susceptible to quiet and non-impactful games when given a lot of attention. We've seen it against the Swans, Bulldogs and now the Saints. If Cameron gets shut down like this in a final, it’s hard to see Brisbane going far.

And my left field crazy option? Marcus Adams (Edit: before his injury). He has been in amazing form as a defender so I understand why it makes zero sense given he hasn’t played the role before. Yet, with the impending return of Gardiner and Lester as a trusted mid-sized defender, Brisbane may be too tall in their backline. Adams has a great work rate to go alongside a strong intercept game. He would be a substantial aerial threat for Brisbane and may be able to play that high/low role that Hipwood played. I doubt we see it, but I think it’s worth a look if/when Gardiner returns (and Adam’s himself). 

In saying all of this, there’s a fine line between experimenting with a forward structure and still winning games. The loss on the weekend and Sydney’s win really tightens the top 4 and Brisbane know how important it’ll be to solidify a spot. As we saw with the upsets on the weekend, there is no such thing in the AFL as an easy win. How Brisbane’s forward line shapes up come finals times will be an interesting subplot in arguably the most open finals series in recent times. Can’t wait.

3. Collingwood's 4th quarters - a sign for the future?

How about Collingwood’s fourth quarters in the last two weeks? Here are the differentials:

There’s differences in both performances. One where they dominated St Kilda with their forward entry supply and the other where they controlled the tempo of the game. Yet, in both fourth quarters they dominated the disposal count and the scoreboard.

What do we make of all this? Harvey’s first week as coach was uninspiring. Much of the dour play style that we had seen under Buckley looked to continue under Harvey. This was quite disappointing not only for Collingwood fans but for general AFL onlookers because Collingwood have the type of players to be more aggressive offensively. It's clear that whatever was said at 3 quarter time at both the St Kilda and Richmond game has changed Collingwood’s outlook for the rest of this year and into the next. There was a clear instruction to play with more dare and risk (especially throughout a lot of the Richmond game). Look at how young Bianco executes this kick into the corridor to create space out the open side creating a goal.

Collingwood players looked inside and pulled the trigger at any opportunity they had. Look at how desperate Noble is to use the corridor rather than the long option – resulting in a dangerous forward 50 entry.

They lifted their uncontested marking game. They were happy to go backwards and control the tempo rather then give possession back to Richmond. They had 14 uncontested marks to 3 midway through the last quarter - starving Richmond of possession.

So what’s the plan for Collingwood? Are we going to see this attacking flair for the rest of the year? They’ve only really played this way out of necessity why they needed to kick goals. Again, they have the players to play this risk taking way. Adams, Pendlebury, De Goey (revived), Sidebottom, Crisp, Maynard. Even their young players like Bianco and Henry have shown smarts with ball in hand. For Collingwood it’s all about next year. They have 6 weeks to lay down a blueprint for a new coach (is Harvey even remotely a chance?) to continue on next year. There’s no reason why this can’t be a fringe finalist team next year with this list. Much of it comes down to a coach who endorses a game style suitable to their strengths. Sometimes you need to sacrifice some defence to bring out your offensive best. Collingwood’s at its best when it’s taking risks through the middle of the ground. Let’s hope they have that instruction before three quarter time in the final rounds of this season...

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