1. The revival of Ben Keays
We see it all the time at AFL level. Players are drafted by a team, some who are highly touted, and struggle mightily at their club. They are in and out of the side and when they’re in struggle to adapt to the pace of the game. They end up delisted after failing to show enough and most never make it back to the AFL.
Yet, there are a select few that get given another opportunity and it all begins to click. That is how you could describe Ben Keays' journey so far. Initially drafted by Brisbane with pick 24, he was a highly touted midfielder having captained Queensland’s U18 side and having been named an All-Australian in back to back underage years. After two seasons of double digit games played, Keays only played a combined 4 games in 2018 and 2019. By then, Brisbane’s midfield had strengthened and the opportunities for Keays dwindled. He was the emergency 26 times for the Lions! Eventually, he was shown the door.
After admitting he was preparing for VFL footy and Uni life, Adelaide gave him a lifeline with pick 7 in the 2019 rookie draft. With Adelaide, he found a club that believed in his strengths but was also in a rebuilding phase to excuse his deficiencies as a player.
Keays has notable strengths that make his weaknesses easier to accept. I’d describe Keays as a busy player. Part of that is probably in how he runs (he has an interesting, stutter step like running motion) but he does have a great work rate and tank which allows him to get to so many contests. This has helped him especially this year average 26.4 disposals – a significant increase from his career average of 16 disposals.
He is an incredible defensive midfielder – averaging 5.8 tackles a game (9th in total tackles in the AFL) and is 20th in the league for pressure acts. Part of the reason for his strong year this year must be the run with roles he has been given at Adelaide, where he has tagged a number of elite work rate midfielders (Neale, Gaff, Boak). Tagging these types of players listed who have really strong running patterns helps a young midfielder learn the work rate required to average 20+ disposals as well as know where and when to go to certain areas of the ground. This has helped Keays find the football in dangerous areas of the ground. Along with his career high in disposals, Keays is averaging 5.9 inside 50’s per game (10th in the league) and has a knack for knowing where the goals are.
One of the things that hurt Keays at his time in Brisbane and is a clear area for improvement is his kicking. His kicking execution is quite poor, sometimes electing to kick long without actually directing the ball to a teammate down the field - he can miss targets altogether or over kick the football.
His ball drop from his hand to his foot has too much deviation. He drops the ball too high and doesn’t guide it down to his boot for long enough - which hurts his execution to hit targets when he is under pressure.
Keays is also way too left foot dominant. Most left footers are – but Keays constantly puts himself under pressure by refusing to kick on his opposite foot – sometimes moving in a 360 degree direction just to get onto his left foot!
Still, the improvement from Keays is astounding. He is now a bonafide midfielder in an improving AFL team and is a walk up best 22 player. It’s quite a turnaround for a player who was delisted and lucky to get a lifeline in the rookie draft. Sometimes players need that opportunity at a club – especially ones at a different phase of their life cycle. More clubs should look at how Adelaide took a chance on Keays, who was a highly rated youngster, as a way to develop your list. Much of the credit should go to Keays – who has clearly put in significant amounts of work over the last two years to improve as a player. He is someone who always brings a strong work rate to each game he plays. The future is bright for Ben Keays.
2. Carlton's transition off turnovers
Another week, another game for Carlton that is there for the taking and they let it slip. This time against premiership contenders the Western Bulldogs. It must hurt for Carlton fans, as their team shows so much promise but once again fails to stop opposition momentum. This tendency with Carlton to give up big leads was one of the first talking points we ever discussed on our blog and it still holds true a third of the way into this season. Carlton gives up leads because they allow teams to score consecutive goals in a row.
On the weekend, they lead by 12 points at half time and even increased their lead to 14 at 3quarter time (it should have been more given they conceded two late goals to the Bulldogs). The Bulldogs then kicked 6 unanswered goals in the last quarter to win the game. I’ve noted the statistic twice already this year yet it keeps popping up in my mind every time you watch Carlton. Under David Teague, the Blue’s have conceded a 30-point swing in 20 of his 30 games (before the start of the year) (66% of games!). Add the game on the weekend to the stat sheet…
To be fair, if the expectation had never been placed on Carlton to make finals this year (Must note that this is a fair expectation given the recruits of Zac Williams and Saad for draft picks– both who have been incredibly poor for Carlton so far), you could be excused for remaining positive on their outlook as a club.
Whilst there are no such thing as honourable losses, the signs are there. Per Champion Data, as of last week, Carlton’s expected ladder position was 6th compared to their current position at 13th.
To make sense of this, essentially when you consider the amount of scoring shots a team has had, combined with the difficulty of those scoring shots, the expected ladder tells us where they should be placed based on the average AFL score conversion in the last decade. So Carlton are generating high quality shots on goal. It was evidenced on the weekend where they scored 56.8% of the time they went inside 50 – their highest conversion rate of the year.
Part of the reason they are letting teams score so easily with momentum whilst being able to generate good shots on target themselves is their ability to transition from turnover. As soon as a turnover has been committed (especially in the middle of the ground), Carlton’s off ball forwards surge forward. Look at Owies in the bottom of your screen and how he bolts forward off a turnover – eventually getting on the end of a goal.
This is risk / reward type football. Owies is lucky that Bontempelli doesn't spot Dale – who has 5 metres on him. He’s also lucky that the ball gets turned over leaving Dale out of position and allowing Owies to surge forward. Some would call this ‘front running’, where players either don’t run back or run ahead of the football anticipating a turnover before the turnover has occurred.
Yet, there are times where Carlton’s work rate from a free kick or turnover is defensively sound and challenges opponents.
Walsh pushes ahead of the contest once he realises Curnow has won the free. He runs a dangerous pattern through the corridor. However, it’s only once he is certain that Curnow hits that corridor kick that he bolts forward and out of defensive distance of Lipinski – not before the kick has been hit. By waiting until Walsh is sure the kick is effective, Walsh can still push back and defend Lipinski if it is a turnover. It’s less risk/reward than the previous example and is certainly better from a defensive perspective. Walsh’s man Lipinski trails and Walsh’s sets up a goal off his work rate.
There are significant learnings out of a game that you should have won. Again though, allowing teams to score multiple goals in a period of a game has been an issue for Carlton for years now and it still has not been rectified. At some point you have to question David Teague and whether Carlton will ever learn to halt opposition momentum by executing a game plan in that exact moment when the heat is on. They failed to control the tempo of the game when the momentum was turning and their leaders failed to step up in an area of the ground (lost centre clearances by 16) that relives pressure by having the football in your forward half.
It doesn’t get any easier this weekend against the Demons. Carlton should take a lesson out of Melbourne’s book – who have been challenged in every single game they have played this year yet have had the maturity and trust in their system to halt momentum and get the game back on their terms.
3. Tom Liberatore's year
The Bulldogs have the best midfield in the competition. That’s not a controversial statement (even though a valid argument could be made for the Demons when you factor in their two ruckmen). Even after Dunkley went down, the Bulldogs still have the best balance of midfielders who are either inside/outside players, efficient ball users or in-and-under contested typer players, players who are either strong defensively or can go forward and hit the scoreboard. Well, they also have a midfielder who can do all of those things (Bontempelli). The least flashy of them yet arguably the most important would be Tom Liberatore (#21).
I would say Liberatore is underrated but he’s starting to get the plaudits he deserves and it’s annoyingly fashionable to call players underrated these days (How many times do we have to hear ‘Shane Edwards is underrated’ when everyone who follows AFL acknowledges how good he is?) so I’ll steer clear of that and let the numbers do the talking.
This year, he is averaging 24.6 disposals including 14.6 contested disposals (3rd in the AFL), 9 clearances a game (1st in the AFL and 1st for centre clearances), 5.9 tackles per game (Ranked 6th in the AFL for total tackles this year). He is also 8th in the league in scoring launches – which is impressive given that most of the top 10 are ruckman (Naturally, a ruckmans numbers in scoring launches are skewed quite heavily given that their hit outs end in scoring opportunities).
Liberatore’s stoppage craft is elite – he is great at taking the front position from an opponent at stoppages and manufacturing a quick kick forward or handballing to a player in a better position. He has an interesting approach to stoppage scenario where starts behind his opponent and almost slides into position when the ball is in the air. He has incredibly timing to slide in and take the front position at the perfect time to shark the tap. Here are two examples.
To highlight how important Liberatore's stoppage work can be, his stoppage craft in the above ends in a Treloar goal.
He is tidy by foot without being super damaging. Again, he doesn’t need to be. He has players who are either great users by foot (Macrae, Bontempelli and Hunter who has improved in this area) or have the speed to burst out of contests and gain an extra 10-15 metres in their kick (Smith). The team compliments Liberatore’s strengths incredibly well but he is so valuable to this team because of the things he does. This is especially important now when you consider that the Bulldogs’ best defensive midfielder and 2nd best stoppage player in Dunkley will miss most of the year.
You could argue that because of the things he does for this team that Liberatore is the Bulldogs most important player. He allows the Bulldogs to play their fast, attacking brand of football because he ensures that they are winning or breaking even in the contest. Come finals time when the games tighten up and winning clearances are essential for field position – Liberatore will be the man for the Bulldogs inside who once again may take the Bulldogs to the promise land.
4. Flashes from Jamaine Jones
Jamaine Jones (#31) is an excitement machine. He’s only played 15 games in his AFL career including 6 for West Coast this year but he shows flashes of exciting football. Most people who aren’t West Coast or Geelong fans (where he was drafted) probably know much if anything at all about Jones. Yet when you watch him, he seems to do something every game or two that makes you ask the question…
Who is number #31 that just collected the ball from the Eagle’s back 50 and sprinted forward, hitting Josh Kennedy lace out, getting the ball back, fumbling with the ball in his hands as he is running too quickly before re-gathering the football at that same pace and then kicking a goal?
That’s Jones. Jones is a small forward with blistering pace and a crafty left foot kick who has been given more opportunity this year due to the injury of Liam Ryan. West Coast just seems to find these types – Willie Rioli, Ryan, Cripps (different kind of small forward but still valid). He has elite traits to break games open. A week earlier against Fremantle, he had 21 disposals, 5 inside 50’s and kicked two goals… not a bad return for a small forward… Oh, and one of his goals?
Consistency is the key for Jones. The difference between his best (which is still growing) and his worst is quite dramatic. For every game where he has a stat line like the above, he has had numerous games this year with less than 6 disposals, zero goals and less than 3 tackles. At the same time, it is understandable for a player learning to play the small forward role at AFL level.
With injuries comes opportunity. West Coast are remaining afloat with injuries to a significant core of their best 22 (Shuey, Yeo, Barrass, McGovern, Duggan, Ryan). Yet, it has allowed Simpson to see what he has in players like Jones who has shown flashes of brilliance, Brander in his new role as a defender who puts himself in dangerous attacking positions, Allen’s versatility as a key defender and so on.
Jones probably isn’t in the best 22 for the Eagles. There are at least 6 definite walk in’s to the team later in the year and Jones’ inconsistency week to week might hurt him. It’s also difficult when Liam Ryan (who plays the same position) has to come back into the team.
Regardless, Jones has shown plenty. For a player who is out of contract this year, it would be hard to see West Coast moving him on. He is playing his role in the team and shows really positive signs for the future. As the great teams do, West Coast has found another quality player to plug into their system.
5. Brisbane's Forward Line
The Lions have got going - winning four in a row. Their midfield has improved significantly defensively with greater emphasis on locating players when they don’t have the ball and putting on greater pressure around the ground (something that they lacked earlier in the year as discussed in Week 4). They are enjoying a career year from Hugh McCluggage (as discussed last week) with Lyons returning to his great form of the last couple of years.
Whilst a strong midfield is important, a bigger impact at Brisbane has been their forward line cohesion and pressure. Everyone looks at Brisbane’s talls in Daniher, Hipwood and McStay and note the marking prowess of all three. Yet, the most important thing that Brisbane’s forwards do when they aren’t marking the ball is bringing it to ground.
They are rarely out marked. This is really important because it allows Brisbane’s smalls to be dangerous at ground level. Brisbane has 3 players within the top 30 for total forward 50 ground ball gets (Bailey, McCarthy, Cameron). They position themselves perfectly once the ball hits the ground to gather the football.
Forward 50 ground ball gets is a really underrated and important statistic. If a player ranks highly in this area, it means they are constantly the first player to collect the ball in a very dangerous area of the ground for their team. Regardless of what happens, they have the first possession. They are in control. If it’s a player like Cameron who is incredibly strong and quick, more times than not a good thing will happen for Brisbane – either a shot on goal for Cameron directly, a chain of handballs leading to a scoring opportunity or a knock on to someone else in a dangerous position. This example could also be made for McCarthy.
Whilst this isn’t technically a forward 50 ground ball get (pretty much there) and it’s Ah Chee who is first to the ball, it is McCarthy who is able to extract it from the marking contest and use his vision and skill to handball (a Polly Farmer-esque handball) to Matheison in space who kicks a goal.
What about if they don’t get first possession?
That’s an area of strength as well – Brisbane has 4 players in the top 50 for total tackles inside 50 as well (Bailey, McCarthy, Lyons, Zorko) and they are 7th in the league for total tackles inside 50 Most teams want to be a forward half team. It’s pretty simple - this means playing the game in your forward half of the ground. Naturally the ball is in a more dangerous area of the ground to score from for your team. It also allows you to turn the ball in a dangerous area of the ground. Per Champion Data, the Lions in the last month are the #1 ranked team for scores from forward half intercepts. Their pressure creates more scoring opportunities.
A secondary benefit is that it allows your defence to set up behind the ball and play aggressively. What we mean by ‘aggressively’ as defenders is playing in front of your opponent, which squeezes the ground. This makes the ground smaller for opposition teams to navigate their way from a deep defensive 50 stoppage to their forward 50. In order to play forward half football, it’s important to win the clearances (or have strong pressure ratings post clearance) and to have pressure in your forward half of the ground – to either rush the disposal of the opposition rebounding out of defence or keep the ball locked in your forward half with tackles and pressure.
Brisbane has got the right balance. Their smalls are either winning the ball themselves or tackling opponents who get their first. It’s allowing Brisbane to set up and play the game on their terms. Currently 5th on the ladder, Brisbane will look to surge into the top 4 as they continue to rise each week.
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