The adapting Geelong Cats, Isaac Cumming and a young gun with all the traits to become a star

Footy Talking Points this week with AFL analysis on the Geelong Cats, Chad Warner and Isaac Cumming

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The adaptation of Geelong in 2022

Geelong, hey. Without fail, every year they seem to make the finals and while it's early days, they look destined for another flag push again.

Yet, this year feels a little different. You have to admire Chris Scott’s flexibility to tweak Geelong’s game style this year. Some would point out that it's a necessity, given their recent shortcomings in September.

However, the open mindedness to try new things, especially with an older, more experienced group, tells me that Geelong won’t die wondering playing one style. When you factor in Geelong’s list demographic, it’s a smart move. They may only have one or two more legitimate chances at holding the cup up with this group.

So what are the Cats doing?

Geelong are switching gears both within games and week to week, depending on the opposition. They’re playing far less of a possession game style this year. Instead, they are electing for faster paced, more direct ball movement. Why's that the case?

In previous years, Geelong were desperate to take the ball away from their opponent, a way of suffocating any continuity or rhythm with the ball. It's an odd reference, but it often reminded me of the great Barcelona FC and Spanish national teams of the last decade. They would crush the soul of opposition clubs by not allowing them to touch the ball, dominating the possession percentages.

In practice, it sounds smart. In theory, it’s a lot harder to execute, especially in the finals. This is because the top teams are so good at making the ground smaller, squeezing a teams space with their defensive press and their discipline to cover the exits on the open side.

It often forces Geelong into a trade off of possession vs. territory. Ie. They would often go backwards to remain in possession. When that next mark isn’t available, a long kick to a 50/50 contest is suddenly far less favourable 20 metres from where the initial possession was won.

So that's the first big change. Geelong have cut back on their marks - the hallmark of their style over Scott’s journey (11th in 2022 vs. 5th in 2021). At times, they revert to their old ways, like this passage against Fremantle which resulted in a costly back half turnover.

But for most of 2022, Geelong have been far more direct and it’s benefitted their key forwards in Hawkins and Cameron with far more 1v1 opportunities (both Cameron and Hawkins are top 5 in the Coleman). The statistics back it up. Geelong rank 1st in the AFL for inside 50’s at 58 per game - 8 more than in 2021 (ranked 8th).

They are ranked 4th in metres gained, after 13th in 2021. They are taking territory rather than conceding. They were always an efficient team going I50, but they’ve taken it up a notch this year. They average the most marks inside 50 in the AFL (1st) and are generating higher quality shots in transition.

The directive is clear. See here how Hawkins refuses to kick long down the line on a slow play, holding onto the ball until the last second before something opens up in the corridor.

Yet, what I love most about Geelong’s method in 2022 is their maturity to change week to week. In the early rounds of the season, Geelong were direct and took territory. They didn’t over possess it, in fact, they rarely went at over 100 marks.

But against GWS on the weekend, they identified an opportunity. They played with a blend of possession and attacking football. They starved GWS of the ball and shifted the angles consistently. 141 marks to 84 is a blood bath in controlling the uncontested battle.

For a team that now only averages 93 marks a game, Geelong saw an opportunity to exploit GWS’s poor defensive organisation and press, something we identified here. Geelong game planned to keep possession off GWS and break the game open with the right opportunities through the corridor. This resulted in a score 45% of the time Geelong went inside 50, a very high clip.

Defensively, they’ve also made tweaks. Geelong’s defenders are playing higher up the ground with aggressive starting points by owning the front position on their forwards in general play. I've been impressed with the defensive buy in from Geelong's midfielders as well, with greater organisation around stoppages and general play.

This has to be one the biggest improvements in the AFL:

Geelong are 5th in intercepts in 2022 after being the worst side in the AFL last year. They killed the Giants in the points off turnover battle, +32. This results in higher quality shots on goal off turnover, which is one of the most reliable scoring avenues in the AFL. Grand Final winners in the last five years are always around the top of the AFL for intercepts generated.

Geelong are building nicely and far more under the radar this year compared to previous years. Scott has them playing in different modes and gears, which is a breath of fresh air.

That adaptability will be crucial for finals, where they’ll be challenged by younger, faster sides who will look to take Geelong out of their comfort zone. But don’t sleep on the Cats, they aren’t finished yet.

The Chad

Chad Warner, or referred to by me as ‘the Chad’ (it’ll stick...), is a special talent. He has one of the highest upsides in the AFL. That means a lot, given the unbelievable influx of young talent in the league right now.

What’s apparent about Warner and his potential is that he has all the physical tools to become a star.

He is a superb athlete, powerful and explosive in exiting stoppages with pace but has great lateral movement to find exit situations. There are plenty of athletes in the AFL - that doesn't make a player special.

What makes Warner such a tantalising prospect is the other side of his game - the subtle class, cleanliness at ground level, the footwork out of traffic and the touch and power on his kicking. It’s not often you see a great athlete be so fluid in his lateral movements and touch with the ball.

This gather and lateral movement to create space is special. Even if it looks inconsequential, it's not. Warner turns a 50/50 ground ball turning boundary side into a forward 50 entry through the corridor.

I get it... you want to see the more tangible stuff.

Warner hits the scoreboard often for a midfielder and has the ability to kick goals outside 50. When you combine that with his pace, it makes him a dangerous midfielder around stoppages in that sweet spot of 60-70m out. Not many midfielders have the class to steady and finish this goal from outside 50.

This goal from just his 5th game last year screams of Patrick Dangerfield.

Warner’s per game numbers have increased steadily in most areas, yet dramatically in others:

22 disposals (+5), 4 marks (+1.5), 5 tackles (+1.1), 4 inside 50’s (+0.2), 0.9 (+0.3) goals per game.

Warner’s aerobic fitness has clearly improved and needed to if he wanted to play more inside midfield time. He's getting to more ground balls and is spreading hard on the outside.  

Warner’s etching closer to the esteemed 20-10-1 club (20 disposals, 10 contested possessions and a goal a game), a club that only Petracca and Bontempelli were in last year. That speaks volumes to the type of player Warner can become - a dominant inside midfielder who has the class and power to be a goal kicking threat every game.

Warner has it all. It’s now a matter of him putting it altogether and him deciding how good he wants to be. He has all the traits to become a superstar of the competition. Keep your eye on the Chad.

Isaac Cumming’s gone to another level

I’ve loved the development of Isaac Cumming’s game over the last 12 months... it’s clear GWS have too. Three years into his AFL career, Cumming had only played ten games of senior football. Last year, he played every game and it became apparent as the year progressed that he could be a quality AFL player. This year, he’s gone to another level.

The first thing to raise is an observation that emphasises his improvement. GWS have seemed comfortable moving one of their best offensive players, Lachie Whitfield, higher up the ground into a wing/forward role. This is partly due to GWS needing better foot skills entering I50 (GWS are 15th for marks I50), but I suspect it's also because of Cumming. He is now just as good of an offensive driver out of the back half.

Cumming is ranked 6th in the AFL for rebound 50’s and they are quality rebound exits. He has a long, booming kick, complimented by his quickness in foot. This is a deadly combination, as discussed last week with Jayden Short, because it opens up Cumming’s offensive capability to impact the game with either strength.

A metres gained threat (17th in the AFL), Cumming consistently kicks over zones and creates fast play transition opportunities for GWS from the back half. This creativity and ability to execute the kick results in a shot on goal for GWS in three kicks.

In his last four games, Cumming is averaging 28 disposals. He’s building trust among Giants players, as they look to distribute the ball to him. They are beginning to recognise how lethal his dash and penetration is from the back half.

The other thing that catches my eye about Cumming is his kicking action. It's one of the best in the AFL, especially because it's so quick hand to foot. If he can’t drive with his legs, Cumming's kicking motion helps him get out of sticky situations. He’s able to quickly but effectively get distance on his kicks with little time or space around him. Cumming often turns a certain turnover into, at worst, a turnover higher up the ground in a far more defendable area. It’s even more impactful when he has to make that quick decision going inside 50.

The value add for a player like Cumming is that his ball use is in addition to his versatility as a defender. At 185cm and a big frame, Cumming has the flexbility to play small or tall (although GWS have preferred him on smalls in 2022 to naturally get him higher up the ground). The positional versatility means teams are unable to target Cumming or take him away from his offensive game (which Whitfield was more susceptible to) because he’s a strong defender.

That defend first mentality is something Leon Cameron credited to Cumming’s first years at the club, which Cameron viewed as an ‘apprenticeship’.

Cumming’s a bright spot for a team that has badly regressed this year. He’s quickly becoming one of the best half back flanks in the league and deserves some recognition.

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