1. Ben Brown's second time around - how's it going?
The Ben Brown / Sam Weideman dilemma has been an interesting discussion point to a surprising season for the Demons. A long unexpected winning streak to start the year coupled with injuries to key forwards gave Melbourne an opportunity to assess what their best team would look like come finals. Admittedly, Brown looked shakey when given his opportunity early. He wasn't competing well in the air nor covering the ground with any conviction - a bad combo for someone who's historically been a zero once the ball hits the ground. Add to that the poor forward 50 entry trend that has plagued the Demons the last couple of years and it's no surprise Brown looked out of place. But Weideman didn't take his opportunity - especially in big games against teams Melbourne defeated (Bulldogs, Lions). So the door opened again for Brown. And in this second time around, the results are promising. Brown looks more settled. Let's do a deep dive.
Ben Brown's (#50) found ways to play his role more effectively - probably through a reassessment of what the Demons need from him. He's getting to way more contests - especially ones he knows he can't mark from. And that's been really important for the Demons because Brown is bringing the ball to ground in a more consistent manner. This brings their smalls and medium forwards - Spargo, Pickett, Neal-Bullen and Fritsch - into the game. Brown knows in this circumstance that he isn't going to mark. But he competes knowing that a teammate (in this scenario Fritsch) is in the vicinity and that if isn't marked - there's a chance it stays alive.
It's poor from Farrar but he doesnt kill the ball and Fritsch is smart enough not to fly. An easy goal in the end because of Brown's competitiveness to stay involved. You'll also notice with Brown that because he's so tall with incredibly long arms (Wingspan measurements in the AFL should be a thing), he's the first to the peak of the ball in the air. Again, he knows he can't mark because of numbers formed around this marking contest but he can tap the ball either forward or back. He's been doing this kind of thing for weeks. Melbourne's forwards are instructed to stay on the move for this.
So he's been competing and bringing the ball to ground better. Yeah... not exactly what Melbourne fans were expecting from a player who has kicked 60+ goals three times. But in the context of how Melbourne's forward line functions - it's important.
Outside of competing in the air, the goal kicking and offensive side is starting to show. Brown had six shots on goal against the Bulldogs even though he was inaccurate (historically unlike Brown). He kicked four goals against Gold Coast which would have done wonders for his confidence (the poor Gold Coast Suns...). And we saw some of the Ben Brown of old.
His aerobic work rate was first class. At one point on the weekend he had pushed back into defence to provide cover on the open side. Once the ball had turned over, he pushed hard forward before Sharp seemingly decided he wasn't responsible for the big 200 cm player running back to goal. He got an easy mark and goal because of his desire to defend first. When Melbourne do have time and space in a quick play scenario, Brown comes at the football and makes it so easy for a hit up kick to be executed.
In saying all of this, I wouldn't call the Brown fit a genuine success or even an offensive advantage yet. Most key forwards would have kicked four goals against that Gold Coast outfit with the amount of supply and lack of midfield pressure up the ground. But the signs are positive and Brown did get six shot attempts the week before against the premiership favourite in unfavourable conditions. If he kicked straight, he would have been a huge positive out of an off game for Melbourne.
Brown's done more than enough now to hold his spot and barring an injury - Weideman is unlikely to be seen for the rest of the year. If Brown continues to consistently compete in the air whilst beginning to show more and more signs of his personal game thriving, the more you can trust Melbourne in a final. It's the one question in what is really a loaded team talented wise. It may be the finishing touches to their meteoric rise or their unfortunate downfall. Who else can't wait for finals?
2. What's going on with Tim Taranto?
There's some worrying signs regarding one of GWS's top midfielders. It's time to have a discussion about Tim Taranto (#14).
During their premiership contending years, Tim Taranto has been one GWS's best midfielders. He's an inside contested midfielder with contested marking ability and a really strong defensive game. In his best and fairest seaso,n he averaged 28 disposals (including 11 contested disposals), 6 tackles, 5 clearances and 6 score involvements a game. He was one of their best in their disastrous grand final. And at the beginning of this year, he started like a house on fire.
But things have changed as the years gone on. The last two weeks have been especially interesting - he's been pushed out of GWS's midfield entirely. He's attended three centre bounces (CBA) in the last two weeks as the Giants have elected for the younger Green, who's inside work and handball creativity compliments GWS's outside spread. Green makes sense - he has midfield star written all over him. But it's hard to explain the inclusion of other types like Daniels, who attended 18 CBA's on the weekend to Taranto's 2. Without being inside the GWS coaching brain trust, we can only speculate as to why he's fallen out of favour.
Before we get into it - a disclaimer. I've never been too high on Taranto. He's clearly a great AFL player (those per game numbers reflect this) but I've never considered him as a top AFL midfielder nor should he be until he improves in a few areas. Taranto's a little overrated for his output given that his high disposal numbers are not entirely impactful. Taranto fails to think through his disposals.
He often elects to kick long in situations where he has more time either to handball to a teammate to create a more dangerous stoppage exit or weight his kicks to the advantage of his forwards. He has little variety in his kicks with a lack of penetration that makes it easy for his forward 50 entries to be defended. Teams give up 30+ disposals to Taranto because they aren't overly damaging. There's a reason why Taranto never gets tagged. He's ranked 5th and 6th in the AFL for total turnovers and clangers respectively. Some of that is a byproduct of his ball winning capability but those figures add up when you watch the tape - Taranto often kicks aimlessly. In this example, he has a running Kelly on his preferred side but doesn't even consider this option, electing to kick forward without identifying Brisbane's numbers behind the ball.
He has a limited outside game and his spread from stoppages is poor. He isn't an overly quick or elusive player which hurts his versatility. For example, Taranto is ineffective on a wing, so when he's pushed out of the midfield group it's to play as a forward. Taranto's a better forward than outside midfielder. Over the years, he's been dangerous forward as a resting midfielder with the size and strength to take contested marks. That hasn't been the case this year but he's creative at ground level and is a good finisher snapping for goal.
However, his output in this area has dropped. He's on track for the least amount of goals in a season for his career (excluding last year where he only played 11 games + shorter quarters) even though he has played more of a permanent forward role.
Now for all those detractions, I will reiterate that Taranto is a really good AFL player. I just don't see him ever becoming an elite one. And now being banished from GWS's midfield raises questions. If I was to speculate, it probably represents two things:
1. The defensive side of his game has dropped off. His tackle numbers and defensive pressure acts have taken a slight hit compared to his best seasons but he still rates at an elite level for both. Maybe it's his defensive spread from stoppages - ball watching instead of locating a dangerous midfielder. GWS's plan hasn't worked in this regard - he hasn't a registered a tackle in the last two weeks in the forward line.
2. GWS feel they aren't generating much offensively from his presence in the midfield. Given his disposals aren't entirely damaging offensively and in some respects actually hurting GWS, they are trialing different players in their hence the inclusion of Daniels for his speed.
Will it last? I doubt it. GWS are susceptible to these kind of questionable positional changes. They played Kelly out of position for months before remembering that he's actually their best inside midfielder (who would have thought?). They also hampered Congilio's confidence by playing him as a deep forward.
If this isn't a short term thing like we believe, the long term effects of these kinds of decisions are hard to know. Kelly has taken it in his stride and is having a great year. But he may leave GWS after this year and it's hard not to see a key reason being that period where he was played out of position. The same can't be said for Conigilio. Even before his injury issues he seemed to be a shell of his former self - eventually resulting in the now infamous omission as captain last year. (I still have hope for Conigilio to get back there - he has the traits to be a top midfielder). So whilst it may seem minor on the surface, these decisions aren't as innocuous as they may seem. Tim Taranto's form and more importantly his position in the next three weeks is a big must watch in the context of GWS's quest to make the finals once again.
3. The Sydney Swans and 2nd Halves
What a year it's been for the Sydney Swans. And what an unbelievable rise from 3rd last to a genuine premiership contender. Initially, all the rage was their impressive young talent who were playing out of their skins with the Swans knocking off finalist teams. Most agreed that this was a nice story line early, but the phase would end. The kids will tire and the veterans would have father time pull them back into reality. It hasn't been the case. Whilst some of the kids have remained and are playing great football (Gulden) and Kennedy and Parker still continue to play like they're 26, it's been the improvement of their senior group coming through that has allowed this form to remain. Mills, Heeney, Florent, McCartin, Wicks, Papley, Blakely (excelling on the back flank!) to name a few. They've all improved significantly and it's now a core group that most AFL clubs would be jealous about. There's a certain level of maturity with this group that makes them a nightmare for a finals (Top 4?) team to get in the first week. Case in point the last three weeks. Sydney have been poor. They haven't really turned up for games in the first half and have been behind two goals in two of the three games. All three resulted in eventual wins. It takes a certain level of maturity to know the team isn't at the standard that's required or that they don't have it but find ways to play their best football when it counts and reset after half time. Let's have a look at the differentials after half time.
A few things jump out. Firstly, obviously the points scored. Sydney have obliterated their opponent in the second half of games. They've shaped into gear playing a more adventurous, attacking game style. They control the tempo of the game through their marks - as evidenced by the positive differentials above. They almost forget how dangerous they can be when they shift angles and emphasis corridor use + speed and run and carry off half back. They ramp up their pressure around the ball (Tackles +) which results in more favourable field position (Inside 50's +). The tackle numbers are quite staggering when considered against the high disposal differential. They have a midfielder who is so dangerous in the forward half of the ground given his strength and aerial capabilities (Parker) which makes field position and clearances even more valuable (+2 goals each in the last two weeks).
It also helps Sydney leverage certain match ups (Franklin, Papley or Heeney) deep 1v1 when they are on top in the midfield. Ridley is one of the best one on one defenders in the league and Papley makes him look second rate here.
They've controlled the airways. The Essendon game was specifically interesting. Essendon were so dangerous with the live ball and around the contest, but Sydney refused to give them the ball to play with. They possessed as much as possible and made sure they were set up if there was a turnover rebound 50. They used their offense to slow down the pace of the game and set up their defence. This isn't against second rate teams either. GWS, Essendon and Fremantle are all vying for a finals spot. To be able to flick a switch is difficult to do but Sydney has the belief and maturity to do it when it isn't their day. What's even more impressive about it is how they are able to do this with everything going on outside of football. No one would have excused Sydney for dropping games during this time.
The Swans have been in lockdown away from their family for over a month. They haven't flinched and are in a prime position now for a top four spot. The blood's culture is real and this team is the real deal. With all of that said, I'd still be be shocked if they went all the way. It just seems unfathomable even with their current form. And whilst they can put the foot down against fringe finalist teams, it's hard to see the best taking this much leg rope and allowing Sydney to come back with it.
But what else can Sydney do? They beat the premiership favourite Bulldogs away from home quite convincingly. Their game style holds up with the best. The other thing going for Sydney is that this isn't a normal rebuilding team who have gotten back to finals after a long hiatus They have 12 players in their best 22 who have either played or won a grand final in their career. So there will be no finals jitters - Sydney will be prepared. What these second half differentials display is that Sydney are never out of a game. Good luck to which ever teams have to go through them.
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