Lachie Neale, Carlton's Defensive Improvements and Jake Bowey

Lachie Neale is back to his Brownlow best, Carlton are good defensively? and Jake Bowey as a rising star sleeper.

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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1. Lachie Neale is back baby

PSA to every team in the AFL. Lachie Neale is well and truly back. Fresh off a Brownlow winning 2020 season, Neale struggled last year with lingering injuries that impeded his ability to cover the ground and win his usual split of contested ball. His metres gained were down significantly, suggesting he had lost some of that offensive drive that was so prevalent in 2020. It’s early days but it’s hard to deny - Neale looks fit and firing. He was a dominant force against Essendon:

41 disposals including 21 contested possessions, 12 clearances, 6 marks, 9(!) inside 50’s and 2 goals.

Of course, Neale isn't a secret. He's one of the top midfielders in the AFL and a Brownlow medalist, so most know the playbook on him. But in case you don’t -Neale’s the definition of a complete AFL midfielder. He can impact a game on the inside through his contested ball winning ability, which is tied to his elite body work and positioning around the contest. Additionally, Neale hurts opposition midfielders who give him space on the outside with his clean ball use and ability to spread from contest to contest. That spread from the contest was inconsistent last year but signs in these first two rounds show that he is back to his best:

Neale wraps around for the handball receive and hits up Cameron on the lead with a beautiful kick. Most midfielders have a tendency to ball watch after a kick like this. Not Neale. He follows up his work and pushes to the drop of the ball. The mark is dropped but Neale does his work early to follow up and strikes at the ball, shrugging a tackle and setting up a dangerous entry at the top of the goal square. This is how midfielders get 40+ disposals in the AFL. It is through sheer work rate and good habits.

Many know the old adage in football that if there is 100+ minutes in a football game, a 30+ possession getter may only touch the ball 1-2 minutes in the entirety of a game. The lesson being that a player should be more focused on what they are doing without the ball in those other 98 minutes. Well, Neale makes a mockery out of that lesson. He ups his work rate to another level and gets those extra 10+ disposals!

The two aspects of Neale’s game that counteract the ‘complete midfielder’ call are Neale’s aerial ability and the idea that Neale is more of an accumulator than a prototypical 'damaging' midfielder.

But even those points are less substantiated with what we saw on Saturday. Yes, Neale isn’t a tall midfielder and isn't going to ever take pack marks like other top midfielders in the AFL. However, Neale has the smarts and strength for his size and uses this to his advantage in the air. Against Essendon, he won a number of 1v1 marking contests through his body work - pushing his man under the ball with perfect timing.

It’s not going to be a clear strength of his game but it's evident he can hold his own in 1v1 marking situations and will continue to do so.

Secondly, any time a player amasses 9 inside 50’s in a game, it quickly dispels the notion that they are simply an accumulator. Neale won his possessions in dangerous positions on the ground and his impact resulted in genuine scoring opportunities (9 score involvements).

It begs the question. What were Essendon thinking letting Neale run around without any attention? Neale had 41 disposals. No other Lions midfielder had over 25 disposals (Zorko played as a loose back). With such a significant discrepancy in disposal tallies, why did Essendon not send anyone to Neale?

We saw Brisbane go straight to Merrett after Essendon’s first quarter blitz and it certainly helped the Lions comeback in the second quarter. No team is above putting time into a dominant midfielder and it’s frankly wild that Essendon let Neale run free and do his thing the entire game. Expect Petracca to receive some attention on Friday. Regardless, other teams will take note. The Lions are 2-0 and Lachie Neale is back to his Brownlow best.

2. Carlton are solid defensively?

What a start to 2022 for Carlton under new coach Michael Voss. It’s the first time Carlton have started 2-0 since 2012. It’s not like their opposition were pushovers either, with wins against Richmond (who beat 2021 finalists GWS on Sunday) and premiership finalists the Bulldogs. Many will point to a healthy Curnow, Cripps (who looks like a new man), the improvement of Kennedy and the addition of Cerra as key reasons for their offensive development (Carlton = 2nd for points scored in AFL).

But the surprising start is really to do with Voss and the system he has put in place. Defensively, this team is on another level right now. Their first half was the best I’ve seen in a long time in regards to their manic pressure around the ball and their desire to come forward and defend. The Bulldogs played their patented ‘break the lines through handball chains’ style and it fell straight into the lap of how the Blues forced turnovers.

Carlton hunted in waves but it was methodical. The D1/D2 principles I explained last year were on show as Carlton's closest player to the contest would nominate themselves to go at the ball carrier, the next player in the chain went to the opposition player most likely to receive the next handball and so on.

It isn’t pretty but look at how unrelenting the Blues are here. They come forward to defend multiple times to force a Bulldogs turnover and then continue to drive the momentum of the ball forward until they get through the front of the stoppage with an I50 kick. This is surge football at its finest. The Bulldogs didn’t want any part of this toughness around the ball in the first half and they paid for it.

The Blues scored from their defence. They had outscored the Bulldogs 19-1 in turnovers midway through the second quarter. With a pressure factor of 198 in the first half (AFL average is 182), it gave Carlton a large enough cushion for when the Bulldogs made their run late.

The Bulldogs tested Carlton through the corridor and the Blues punished them on turnover the other way.

I’m sure Voss would have reviewed Carlton’s last two years and came to a resounding conclusion that they had to improve defensively. The current trend in the AFL, especially for teams with dominant midfields, is that it is a game of momentum especially given the experience teams now have with the 6/6/6 rule. That was the key takeaway from last years grand final and it’s occurred a number of times in 2022.

I wrote last year about Carlton’s inability to stop momentum, conceding 4+ goals in a row in multiple games that ended in narrow loses. They didn’t control this game from start to finish, nor should they. But it’s about Carlton’s defensive identity and the confidence in their methodology. Their ability to execute and restrict scoring as much as possible, to ride out the momentum until it shifts favourably. We saw that in the Brisbane Essendon game where the Lions really should have been down by more than 22 points at quarter time if not for their defensive setup. They held on and were able to wrestle back momentum, kicking 6 goals in a row in the 2nd quarter.

Likewise, the Bulldogs made their run late but Carlton had done enough defensively in the first half. They held up late and didn’t allow an onslaught of 3-4 goals in quick succession. It's clear. This isn’t the Carlton of old.

3. Jake Bowey...AFL's pretty easy hey

Is there a luckier man in the AFL than Jake Bowey? Not only is the 9th gamer already a premiership player and has 2 rising star nominations, he’s yet to lose an AFL game!

But make no mistake. Bowey is a best 22 player for the Demons. Drafted with pick 21 as a midfielder with elite kicking skills, Bowey would have realised early that he was going to find it difficult to secure a spot as a midfielder at Melbourne.

Whilst undersized, Melbourne decided to play him at half back where his kicking skills could be best utilised. Defensively, like any draftee, Bowey was a work in progress. He didn’t play a defensive role at TAC Cup level and had to tighten up that aspect of his game, specifically his physicality and bodywork in marking contests, learning the importance of strong starting positions, making quick decisions whether to fly or stay at ground level and so on.

But offensively, Bowey is a dynamo. His weekend against the Gold Coast Suns was easily the best game of his career:

34 disposals including 18 contested disposals, 16 intercepts, 9 marks.

What jumps out at you immediately watching the tape on Bowey is how clean he is. He rarely fumbles and is a one touch player below his knees. But he also has tricks. A nice spin out of traffic that he used a number of times last year and a step to buy himself time to get onto his dominant kicking leg.

He’s quickly drawn comparisons to Caleb Daniel due to his kicking skills and similar size. Whilst Daniel is the better kick and has more variations in the type of kicks in his repertoire, Bowey seems far more composed at this early stage of his career and is actually a better small defender. Bowey’s disciplined, he always kicks through the ball and never lazily kicks off one step. With his zip out of the backline, he set up a number of scoring opportunities like this:

With Salem out for an extended period of time, it’s a great opportunity for Bowey and Melbourne to explore Bowey’s offensive output. You already see Melbourne players look for Bowey and find him to exit the ball out of Melbourne’s D50.

It's worth noting. There must be something in the water down at Melbourne Recruiting HQ. They've found another one in Bowey. It’s one of the better recruiting efforts in AFL history by Taylor and his staff. Jackson, Sparrow, Rivers, Pickett, Jordon and Bowey are all best 22 players for a Melbourne side that just won a premiership. That’s 6 players with less than 50 games played. The future is bright down at Demon land.

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