1. Richmond, Flicking the Switch
We haven't discussed Richmond yet on the blog because there really isn't too much to say - they are still the same team that has been the benchmark of the competition for the last four years. In any sport, a team that has finals success and has played in the biggest games of the year usually coasts in the regular season. We see it in the NBA commonly and we have seen it with Richmond. At times you give up games purely because they don’t mean as much as important games later in the year. Hardwick loves to say that premierships aren't won in Round 4 and he's right - Richmond are just doing what needs to be done to win games early in the season.
Yet sometimes, like in the 2nd half against St Kilda, they give us a glimpse of what’s to come. Put simply, the second half against St Kilda was a demolition. Richmond upped their pressure around the ball and outworked St Kilda, winning the contested possession count 81-50, winning the centre clearance count in the 3rd quarter 8-0, out tackling them by 10 and only allowing 11 St Kilda inside 50's for the entire second half!
When Richmond is beating you in the clearances, you have to play almost the perfect game to win. Since 2019, Richmond are 11-1 when they win the clearance battle. Historically throughout this premiership run, Richmond has been poor in both contested possession and clearances because they don't emphasis those elements of the game. Richmond tend to lose clearances but pride themselves on their pressure at the source of the clearance. It means that they control the effectiveness of opponent clearances which makes it more likely that a clearance out of a Richmond stoppage is a rushed kick rather than a player streaming forward with space. Such pressure at the source increases the likelihood of either an intercept mark or turnover, allowing Richmond to attack you off counter attack. Richmond's game is based on pressure and work rate - beating you to the source of the ball. This is what they did against St Kilda and it only took them a quarter to completely dismantle them.
This is a snapshot just before Martin's goal. They caused Ben Long to turn it over - look at Richmond's numbers around the football. Note to the left where St Kilda's midfielders (Crouch, Dunstan) and defenders (Clark) are no where near the contest.
When you allow Richmond to also gain field position like the Saints did on Friday, it allows their defence to set up behind the ball where they are so organised. To work your way through such a strong defensive zone, it requires you to take risks with handballs or corridor kicks where Richmond are set up waiting to make you pay.
Rioli comes forward to defend, Pickett comes forward to defend - Richmond continued to come up and defend. St Kilda were forced into pressured handball after pressured handball before Richmond were able to turn it over and launch. It was a bad mistake by Crouch – you HAVE to hold that ball in against Richmond even if you get called for holding the ball. Handballing it into space where all the Richmond numbers are leads to results like the above.
People love to rave about Richmond's chaotic style of play where they run in numbers and knock the ball forward at all costs but there is an inherent system underlying the chaos. When they want to play that system in a unified way, we see results like the weekend. It's a taste of what's to come later in the year for the competition. We will see how an unbeaten Demons team will handle this kind of pressure in what looms as the biggest game of the year to date.
2. How the Bulldogs are using Josh Dunkley and his defensive effort
Josh Dunkley (#5) is in All Australian form this year. After his failed trade request to Essendon last year, many were questioning how he would perform this year in what could only be described as an awkward situation. It made matters worse when Beveridge admitted before Round 1 that Dunkley was not in the best form and there was pressure for his Round 1 spot. How quickly things have changed. The Bulldogs are 5-0 and are playing unstoppable football at the moment. They are destroying teams with their run and carry play style and dominance in possession assisted by their incredible midfield depth. One of the interesting wrinkles about the Bulldogs stoppage set up this year is that they are constantly playing an extra player around the stoppage. Dunkley has played a lot of high half forward this year but his numbers haven’t slid. We can assume that the reason for this is twofold:
1. Having the caliber of player like Dunkley position as a ‘forward’ is a luxury for the Bulldogs. They can gain a significant advantage having him push up into the stoppage where the Bulldogs suddenly have an extra player or;
2. Because of the handball happy way that the Bulldogs play, very rarely do they quick kick out of stoppage, meaning that the oppositions loose man who has let Dunkley go into the stoppage is mostly ineffective. Therefore the Bulldogs gain the advantage of having that extra player at the stoppage without being impacted by the oppositions loose defender
This allows Dunkley to be effective even as a forward where in past years he would go missing. Yet for all the discussion about their offensive output, it is the defensive side of the ball that the Bulldogs and specifically Dunkley are excelling in.
If Dunkley wanted to prove that he is committed to this team after his trade request, he is certainly showing that. Dunkley has been arguably the best defensive midfielder in the competition this year. He is averaging 6.2 tackles a game (6th in the AFL) and is the league leader in smothers. His long frame gives him the opportunity to impact kicks where others wouldn't be able to reach.
(Note that at this stoppage Dunkley is the +1 playing the high half forward role with Birchall being his match up)
Smothering is a pure effort thing but it also takes timing. Dunkley has to anticipate that the player with the ball has in fact committed to kicking. If Dunkley attempts a smother too early, he exposes himself to being stepped.
Smothering's a weird statistic in the sense that no one rarely tracks it or views it as an essential metric but they are just as important on the level of spoils or even an intercept mark. If you are able to smother a potential inside 50 kick and the ball stays live, a smother can provide counter attack potential. It’s the effort and hunger that Dunkley is showing without the ball that is quite unique for an established AFL player. He clearly feels he has a lot to prove this year.
Watch Dunkley and how he never gives up on this contest, providing 3 efforts consecutively before being rewarded with a goal.
Essendon are probably wondering whether Dunkley was worth the two first rounders the Bulldogs were demanding right about now…
3. Aliir Aliir
We talked about Nick Hind being the pick up of the year last week but Aliir Allir (#21) for Port Adelaide isn't too far off. Aliir has been a welcomed addition to a backline that was significantly undersized last year. They had the cannon, Trent McKenzie, playing on key forwards. Whilst he held his own, those are the kinds of match ups that get exposed come finals time. With Aliir down back, he allows Port Adelaide to match up better in the back half. As an example, Aliir matched up on McKay on the weekend, allowing Jonas to take McGovern and Clurey to take Casboult. Aliir taking the 1st opposition tall also frees up Jonas to play an intercepting role of his own – one he has been dominant at in the last couple of years. Aliir is a strong defender who can negate his opponent (Kept McKay to 5 disposals and a goal) but he is most damaging as a mobile intercepting defender.
On the weekend, Aliir had 6 intercept marks (Ranked 18th in the AFL) and 10 intercept possessions (ranked 12th in the AFL). Aliir has always been a great reader of the ball in the air but he looks more assured and confident this year under Hinkley.
He is back shoulder to McKay but reads the ball in the air far more quickly, positioning himself behind McKay to take the intercepting mark. This occurred a number of times – Aliir is more comfortable taking the assertive position, whether in front or behind his man – and reads it quicker off the boot than his opponent.
The hallmark of a great intercept defender is their ability to make quick decisions and come off their man and impact the football. It needs to be a quick and reactive decision because you’re leaving your opponent free to goal behind you. Aliir is making these kinds of decisions this year.
It’s a poor kick but look at how at the last second, Aliir notices that and decides to come off his man McGovern and impact the play. He is then skillful enough to hit the kick to Woodcock.
Port identified a weakness in their key position stocks and addressed it with Aliir Aliir. If he can continue in this kind of form with the cohesion of his other defenders, he will not only earn himself an All Australian jacket but may go a long way to a deep finals push for Port Adelaide once again this year – maybe with a different result to past years.
4. Jack Lukosius' Kicking
Jack Lukosius' (#13) precision kicking is worth turning on the television to watch
He has one of these kicks a game. It completely opens up the ground for Gold Coast to attack from the back half. It not only takes the vision to see the player and hit him but it takes the skill and execution to pull it off.
Lukosius is already one of if not the best kicks in the AFL. He has a long penetrative kick but is able to hit teammates with pinpoint precision. He averages 11.2 effective kicks a game, ranking 37th in the AFL. That number could easily be higher given the difficulty of the kicks he attempts – he constantly takes on kicks that pierce through opposition presses.
Lukosius is a rare player, he's key position sized but is known more for his kicking ability than defensive or intercepting traits, which makes him an asset for the Gold Coast Suns. It was promising to see that they used him higher up the ground this week on the wing. It allows them to use his kicking ability to navigate their way through opposition zones. Look at how he is able to find Swallow in a sea of Western Bulldogs players surrounding him.
Gold Coast have started the year poorly, only beating North out of their 5 games so far. They've all been winnable games as well - with losses to teams around their level in Adelaide and Carlton. It showed on the weekend how far off the mark they are for finals, barely mustering a goal against Bulldogs in the first half. Their scoring output has dropped dramatically, currently ranking 16th for points scored compared to 12th last year. Part of that is due to their supply. They simply aren’t giving their forwards enough chances this year, ranking 13th in Inside 50’s this year compared to last year where they were 8th. Part of the thinking around playing Lukosius higher up the ground is that if Gold Coast aren't able to provide enough supply to their forwards, they at least want their limited forward 50 entries to be quality entries. By playing Lukosius higher up the ground, it gives the Suns an opportunity to put the ball in his hands going inside 50 to hit a forward. Marks inside 50 are the most efficient avenue to goal - playing Lukosius higher up the ground can lead to results like below.
Everyone expects progression in young sides to be linear when it never is. Gold Coast showed so many positive signs last year and had some really impressive wins. They haven't looked up it so far this year, which is worrying given their history of poor second half finishes under Stewart Dew. The talent is there and they are well coached. Wins will come. But finals seemed a reach before the season and looks almost impossible now. Constant development and improvement from their young players like Bowes, Lukosius and Anderson should be the measures of their success this year. Yet, you could also argue that this has been a failure. More players have seemingly regressed (Rankine, Ainsworth, King, Brodie, Ah Chee) than progressed. We will learn a lot about the Gold Coast Suns in the next month of football.
5. Tom Green's Handballing
Tom Green (#12) is building after what can only be described as an odd start to his AFL career. He was highly coveted in the 2019 draft, taken at pick 10 by the Giants but bid on by Melbourne at Pick 3. An inside midfielder with impressive stoppage awareness and hands, Green has been dropped a number of times by GWS in his first couple of seasons, including once this year already. We can understand why that may be the case - he is quite slow for a modern day midfielder and is poor defensively spreading from contests. He isn't exactly the best or most adventurous kick either and his ToG average this year of 68% is too low to impact games meaningfully.
But they are so many positive aspects of his game - the main one being his vision to handball to players in space. On the weekend against Sydney, he had a few of these handballs.
He started the game well on the weekend - which allows him to feel comfortable with the flow and pace of the game. This leads to him playing with more confidence and holding onto the ball for that second longer, assessing his options with the ball in hand and making the right decision. Green has a big frame and is strong enough to hold up if he is tackled which gives him that extra time to use his handballs in a damaging way.
GWS have to persist with him - you took him that high for a reason so just play him. They had an impressive come from behind win on the weekend and Green was one of the key supporting players in the comeback. He may have deficiencies with his game but he provides a point of difference to their midfield with his hand balling vision. GWS won’t be playing finals this year – so they must have a viewpoint of developing their young talent like Green, Ash, Cumming, Bruhn etc to compliment the stars they have on their list.
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