What to make of Fremantle's 3-1 start, Nick Daicos Brilliance and Daniel Rioli the defender

What do we make of the Fremantle Dockers so far, Nick Dacios Brilliance and Rioli's move to defence

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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The Brilliance of Nick Daicos

Four rounds in and Nick Daicos is everything we could have imagined. He is quickly exceeding the lofty expectations we had of him when recruiters (or BT commentating Collingwood games) talked him up as the next big thing. Small sample size but the per game statistics are quite bonkers:

27 disposals, 3 inside 50’s, 3 clearances, 5 score involvements at 72% disposal efficiency per game.

Collingwood positioned Daicos at half back flank to start the year, a way of easing him into AFL life. He made a mockery of it. Daicos plays with such an air of confidence, consistently seeing the correct option by hand or foot before anyone else does. With the way he plays, it’s almost like he knows where to go next before he even has ball in hand. He changes angles constantly either to the open side or back into the corridor, which has added a new dynamic to Collingwood’s defensive transition.

This is such a simple thing but it's impressive. Daicos motions to exit on the outside, he has the easy option there to give the handball. But he sees something better, a more attacking pathway out of defence. He cuts inside and loops a handball to Quaynor. It’s a risk to turn back into traffic but Daicos sees the space. He knows he can run into the open space as long as he executes on the handball. He makes these reads all the time. He's already become the master at the give and go.

Daicos’s footy IQ is perfectly complemented with his creative foot skills. This little touch kick over Foley’s reach to Ginnivan is an example of his brilliance.

He’s only 4 games in. I’m not going to put a floor or a ceiling on what Daicos can become, though it does feel like his ceiling is limitless. The only knock on Daicos would be his size (182cm, 73kg) compared to most of the elite AFL midfielders and his disposal splits. 78% of Daicos’ disposals are uncontested. This is common for young players but that number needs to shift as he puts on more size. The attention from opposition teams will come and Daicos would struggle with his current style of play.

He has plenty of time to work on that aspect of his game and a recent use case of Josh Kelly shows how he can transform into a more balanced midfielder. I'm intrigued to watch his development - will he remain a classy yet outside dependant player like a Mitch Duncan or evolve into a more balanced midfielder like a Lachie Neale. Impossible to know, but the sky’s the limit.

What to make of Fremantle so far?

The Dockers were the pre season darlings of the AFL. A young team with exciting talent on every line who missed the finals by one win seem to always be destined to play finals the next year. Of course, we know that the progression of young AFL sides is never linear (ask the Demons in 2019).

Four rounds in and many in the AFL media have cooled off on Fremantle’s finals prospects. Some have been unimpressed with their performances regardless of the wins. But at 3-1, I find it baffling. All the teams they’ve beaten were considered to be in a similar region - fringe finals teams. Now, there’s evidently some gaps in how they score that have been covered up by other areas to date. These need to be addressed. But there’s plenty to like. Let’s do a little deep dive:

Restrict, Restrict, Restrict

I get this odd feeling when I watch this Fremantle team defend. It’s as if Ross Lyon’s spirit emanates over Optus Stadium. Not really through the unbreakable zone that Lyon introduced intothe modern AFL, but more so the general flavour of Fremantle’s ability to restrict their opposition. Fremantle give up the 3rd least disposals per game and the 2nd least I50’s in 2022. This suggests two things:

  1. They either win first possession or heavily restrict an oppositions ability to retain possession;
  2. More often than not, they are controlling the territory battle and ensuring loss of possession occurs in safer, defendable areas of the ground.

They aren’t winning possession at the source. They are 15th for clearances in the AFL. But it’s how they defend and win the ball post clearance. It’s partly a personnel thing for Fremantle - they don’t have big, inside midfielders that dominate a clearance shootout (Brayshaw their standout) but they provide consistent pressure (4th in tackles in the AFL) to ensure the opposition aren’t getting quality clearance exits.

They also control the outside of the contest, giving up the 5th least uncontested disposals in the AFL. Here’s an example. They lose the initial clearance but own the outside of the contest, outnumbering GWS and closing off exits before causing a free kick turnover.

Fremantle gave the Giants a lesson in the post clearance battle, both with and without the ball. They comfortably beat the Giants in the secondary possession chain. This allowed them to advance the ball forward and meant that upon turnover or change in possession, Fremantle were defending higher up the ground as opposed to just outside or inside their own D50.

All of this has set up Fremantle to turn a clear weakness in 2021 into a significant strength in 2022...

Intercepts are king

Fremantle ranked 17th in 2021 for intercepts. They were simply unable to generate turnovers and win the ball back off their opponents. Small sample size noted, Fremantle rank 3rd in the AFL for intercepts in 2022. A number of these are caused in the forward half (as we’ll discuss later) but it’s clear watching the tape that a significant portion are won in the back half.

Fremantle’s young defenders have all taken a leap defensively this year but also have the talent to win the ball back aerially (in particular Logue, Chapman and Young who we discussed last week). So Fremantle restrict possession both with their pressure around the ball but also through simply winning the ball back themselves in the air.

It comes as no surprise how influential these type of players can be (and why we are so high on Young). It allows a team to quickly transition from offence to defence and catches the opposition press out of position. The Grand Final winners are always strong scorers off intercept and it was the key difference on Saturday. All four of Fremantle's goals in the 4th quarter, when the game was well and truly on, came via intercept possessions. For the game, the Dockers outscored the Giants 68 to 20 from intercepts. This is a finals winning formula.

This is technically an intercept off a free kick but Young positions marks this ball if not impeded anyway. He goes quickly through the corridor. GWS were gassed at this point and Fremantle caught their defenders too high up the ground, particularly Switkowski's man Cumming. Easy goal.

How Freo’s forwards feed

I said last week that Fremantle’s forward line is unconventional. I stand by it. It works, but not how you’d expect, and it’s not always pretty. The Dockers are 15th for marks inside 50, a reliable indicator of how teams generate easy shots on goal. Freo have been efficient I50 - but they aren’t consistently generating easy shots on goal.

Lobb and Taberner are questionable 1st and 2nd option key position forwards. The top teams have multiple 2+ goal a game key forwards. Further, it’s debatable whether their current avenues to goal are sustainable. They rank 1st in the AFL for forward half intercepts, much of that attributed to the elite pressure applied by Frederick, Schultz and Switkowski (Freo are 5th for tackles inside 50). However, scores from forward half intercepts are not economical long term. Fremantle have to find more sustainable pathways to goal generated from their ball movement and midfielders, not from a heavy reliance on their smalls.

Fremantle are forcing opponents into low disposal, lower scoring games (ranked 2nd for least points scored against). This is a good thing. The difficulties in generating easy shots on goal are swept under the rug when you restrict a team to 54 points. But the turnovers, especially in the forward half, aren't always available especially against the more organised defences in the AFL. When things aren’t going Fremantle’s way, will they be able to find other avenues to goal?

Brayshaw's their only inside midfielder who’s kicked a goal this year. Additionally, we all know how much Fremantle have struggled for accuracy in front of goal. Will that haunt them again this year?

These are the questions that Fremantle will have to answer.

I think Fremantle’s forward line make up is their biggest cause for concern, alongside generating enough wins outside of WA and a potential form slump later from their younger defenders. But I love how this Fremantle team defends. At 3-1, they’ve set themselves up for an impressive 2022. They are heading in the right direction.

Let me know if you agree.

Daniel Rioli’s move to defence

It's been enjoyable to watch Daniel Rioli’s move to the backline. Rioli has struggled for consistency and impact the last couple of years after a terrific start as a small forward. After seemingly running out of options, having dropped and reinstated him numerous times, Hardwick trialled Rioli at half back towards the end of 2021.

There were signs. Some good, some bad and some disastrous. Learning to be accountable and reliable as a defender, especially against the elite athletes that are high half forwards, is always going to be an adjustment. The offensive side of things came easy for Rioli. He has the pace to break the lines which Richmond desperately need. Excluding Short, Richmond are sorely lacking in this area after the retirement of Houli. Rioli provides that. But it was apparent last year that his defensive mistakes outweighed any benefit on the offensive end.

However, it's clear he's gone to work in this area. A full pre season in defence helps, as some of those deficiencies have been ironed out. Some notes in the change from last year to this year-  he’s progressed in one on one scenarios to the point where Richmond are comfortable leaving him in those scenarios. He's making sounder decisions of when to come off his man and get involved offensively or when to remain accountable until the ball is won. Perfect example here, as he defends first then gets involved offensively (with a slick over the head handball if you don't mind)

He’s been damaging with the ball:

20 disposals, 7 marks, 2 inside 50’s, 4 rebound 50’s, 4 score involvements at 86% disposal efficiency a game.

86% disposal efficiency at 20 disposals a game is an absurdly good clip even if Rioli is taking kick outs. He has a great leg and is creative out of the back half. 4 score involvements per game for a small defender is a great return. Here, he surges out of half back after identifying Richmond have won the clearance and sets up a scoring chain.

This is a great example of a coach who’s open minded to positional changes and remains flexible in their initial assessment of a player. Such positional changes, especially from a forward to defensive role, can work wonders for a team if that player is given time to grow and adjust. Players can transform from a delisting candidate to a best 22 player (Laverde). Others can go from showing flashes to an All Australian star (Dale). Whilst Rioli is more likely the former than the latter, it’s a better position than where he was not too long ago. Teams should experiment with their players more often, especially when their output becomes stale in one position.

That’s all for this week. If you like our analysis, do us a favour and subscribe!

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