Qualifying Final Preview #2 (2021)

The AFL finals are here! The second qualifying final between Melbourne and Brisbane is sure to be a hot contest. Both sides are incredible contested winning teams and possess stars on every line. We provide in depth analysis on the game and predict who should win.

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Melbourne vs Brisbane Qualifying Final Preview

This is a match up made in heaven. Two teams with dominant midfields and exciting players on every line. There are well over ten match winners on either side. Whilst that may be common given the very nature of teams who finish in the top 4, this matchup feels like it has that extra layer of talent. Gawn, Oliver, Petracca, Neale, Lyons, McCluggage and Zorko are all top 30 players in the AFL and that's just in the midfield of this matchup.

Brisbane and Melbourne have similar styles in many respects and value the same metrics in how they want the game to look. Given that they have similar strengths - expect fireworks. Both teams will look to get on top in similar areas of the game which should result in an extremely high standard of football. Let's do a deep dive into game styles, potential match ups and our prediction:

In the clinches

Brisbane and Melbourne value winning the ball inside. Unlike Richmond and their premiership team who were mediocre in winning contested possessions, both Melbourne and the Lions emphasis their inside work to generate forward 50 entries. Melbourne are ranked 1st in the AFL for contested possessions with Brisbane ranked 2nd. This ties in mostly to the personnel in their midfields and how both coaches want to control the territory battle. Oliver's the best contested ball winner in the AFL but Lyons isn't too far behind. Petracca, Viney, Neale and Zorko are all solid contested ball winners. Expect heat around the ball early. Whichever midfield group can settle first will have a big advantage.

As we saw last week in the crazy Geelong Melbourne game, clearances and especially quality clearances are king. Geelong kicked four goals in the space of three minutes purely because they were able to exit through the front of the stoppage. Teams who are able to come through the front give their forwards quick supply with 1v1 match ups. This creates a range of positive outcomes for that team, including a greater likelihood for contested marks, free kicks or a dangerous live ball scenario.

Melbourne will take a lot of learnings from that Geelong purple patch but so should Brisbane. Melbourne at times are unbalanced in how they set up and Brisbane will look to attack this. Letting teams come through the front of the stoppage is death and Melbourne can become care free because of their dominance in the ruck. Gawn likes this back hit to a midfielder running into his 6 o'clock but it's dangerous with pressure on that midfielder given there's space for Brisbane's sweeper to work into (McCluggage) if they obtain possession. Cutting through the back of a centre clearance is effective when it works but opens a team up completely on the opposite side if it doesn't result in a clean possession.

Because Gawn wins most hit outs, Melbourne's midfielders set up assuming either a possession gain or forward momentum of the ball. This at times exposes the front of their stoppage. Melbourne need to change this up - Oliver is far too aggressive for someone in the sweeper role here. Brisbane will make you pay for these mistakes just as much as Geelong did.

It may be surprising given their midfield talent and ruck dominance but Melbourne struggle to restrict opposition clearances. Yes, they rank 5th in the AFL for clearance differential which puts them with the better sides of the AFL. Yet, compare that to Brisbane who are 2nd in that area and are the best clearance winning team on average - it's a point of difference for the Lions. Especially around centre clearances where Brisbane are dominant, ranked 1st in the AFL compared to Melbourne's 7th. They are disciplined in how they set up and given their blend of smaller, stockier midfielders (Neale, Lyons) to go with outside pace and class (Zorko, McCluggage) they have balance in their attributes.

Even with Gawn's likely dominance over McInerney, Brisbane must win this area of the game to beat Melbourne. Much of Melbourne's score generation occurs out of their defensive 50 rebound and intercept game. In the second half dismantling of Brisbane in Round 12, Melbourne outscored Brisbane 36 to 1 from intercepts. Brisbane can't allow Melbourne to win the clearance count and thus control the territory battle because they will naturally find other ways to score outside of winning clearances anyway. It gives Brisbane little margin for error to kick a winning score if they lose this metric. We can't stress enough the importance of Brisbane winning the clearance count as a starting point because of this second fact. Winning the clearance count and generating quality clearances are two very separate things. All year, Melbourne have made it difficult for opposition teams to consistently get the latter.

Melbourne rank 1st for tackles in the AFL even though they are 4th in the league for disposals. They hunt opposition teams and force them into rushed disposals, which in turn allows May, Lever and Petty to feast on ill directed kicks. But they are susceptible to lapses - especially in centre clearances. Brisbane will get on top in this area but it'll be about the quality of their clearances. This is where their kick to mark ratio (as discussed below) is important. There will be heat around the ball but if Brisbane can refrain from quick kicks and use hands out of stoppage when necessary, it gives their forwards a better chance with favourable kicks. These are scenarios where rushed kicks worked to Melbourne's advantage even though clear handball options were there.

The added benefit for Brisbane in winning the clearance battle is that it puts Melbourne in the difficult position to work their way through Brisbane's defensive press. This is not an easy task with Andrews setting up behind the ball. These are the two best midfields in the AFL and given how important the field territory battle is to both sides - whichever group wins in this area will likely win the game.

Around the Ground

Here is where the match up highlights a key dichotomy between these two teams. Brisbane prefer to generate forward momentum through kicking whilst Melbourne enjoy a blend of kicks and handballs. Brisbane's kick-to-handball split is 64/36% - Melbourne's is 59/41%. Brisbane rarely over possess the ball by hand.

Handball chains in tight pressurised scenarios are a real high risk high reward scenario. Brisbane prefer quick kicks and hope for reset stoppages even if those kicks aren't to a forwards advantage. Whilst Melbourne are certainly happy to do the same - they are far more likely to chain out with handballs in that same scenario. Multiple handball chains can lead to an obvious benefit - a player who gets put into time and space to direct their kick.

But Melbourne need to be careful to not over possess by hand and it'll be interesting to see their split on Saturday. Brisbane will invite those handballs because their pressure around the ball is elite. If Melbourne over use handballs, Brisbane will cause mid ground turnovers and catch Melbourne's defence out in 1v1 scenarios. This gives them the best chance of scoring against this defence. For Brisbane to generate a winning score their scores from turnovers must be high. Melbourne's defence is too sound with elite defensive players who rarely make mistakes in the air (Lever, May, Petty). Brisbane just aren't going to get many easy looks. Melbourne have conceded the least amount of points this year for a reason - they don't give up easy goals. But Melbourne need to make sure they don't shoot themselves in the foot with their kick to handball ratio and I expect their kicking splits to come up as the pressure of finals is evident.

It surprised me that Brisbane actually generate more marks around the ground than Melbourne. As stated, Brisbane value the territory game with their kicking. But this is a really mature Brisbane team who have pivoted from their initial schematics under Fagan. They understand that one style won't fit all and that's been so evident this year. When they've felt momentum go against them, they've shifted from their territory game at all costs to a more controlled possession game. They are comfortable generating continuous marks for periods at a time and using the corridor as an avenue to switch between gears.

In 2019, they were too stagnant with their ball movement and didn't generate enough viable scoring opportunities through the corridor. They ranked 11th for marks that year. Last year, they went drastically the other way - ranking 3rd in marks per game. This placed emphasis on an attacking game style where they incorporated high mark tallies and used the corridor aggressively. This worked well until they came across a team far more advanced in that play style than them in the preliminary final. This year is a healthy blend (ranked 7th) and gives them flexibility to hold up in different match ups.

Melbourne are happy for Brisbane  to play this way. They feast on mid ground turnovers. The more Brisbane decide to possess the ball rather than play their territory game, the greater opportunity for Melbourne to punish them on the counter attack. It's going to be an intriguing battle of give and take between these two teams.

Defensive Control

As alluded to earlier, both defences are a byproduct of their midfield output. If Brisbane create advantageous field position, it allows their defenders to be aggressive with their starting positions. This is because if Brisbane horde an opposition team in their forward half of the ground, it allows for their defensive press to squeeze teams in with less of the ground to cover. Hence they can be aggressive in how they set up.

Both Melbourne and Brisbane are so organised in how they set up defensively with their positioning and intercept players. They block exits out of defence and place so much pressure around the ball that it forces teams into numerous turnovers until they usually score. It's no surprise that these two teams are ranked in the top 4 for Inside 50 differential (Brisbane 2nd Melbourne 3rd).

Melbourne's back 6 deservedly get the praise and most of the attention when we discuss them as the best defence in the league. But Melbourne are really good at defending the length and width of the entire ground, which brings their defenders into the game. As we saw against Geelong, they cover off exits quickly and rarely leave themselves open for teams to take advantage with a switch on the open side. Look at how well they zone off Brisbane here before forcing Bailey down the line where May is waiting.

Key Match Ups

I could write an entire piece just on the match ups for this game. I'm going to steer clear of the midfield given most discussion points in this article have related to quite a few of the superstars in this area.

The usual suspects for Melbourne are May and Lever. We've gone in depth about Lever's impact so we won't repeat ourselves but obviously his match up is important. Melbourne will no doubt look to generate the favourable match up on a small so he can play off him and intercept. But Brisbane's small's need sufficient attention given their aerial capacity. Geelong played Dahlhaus on Lever and it was effective for three quarters. He worked high up the ground and got Lever out of his comfort zone by making him respect his leads. But game planning for Lever takes discipline over four quarters. Lever was instrumental in the last quarter comeback for Melbourne. I like the McCarthy match up for Brisbane. Lever will have to respect McCarthy's aerial talents and has the pace to drag him up the ground. Just don't expect Lever to follow him. Lever will look to engage Cockatoo most likely.

May played on Daniher last time but could go to Cameron. He enjoys the match ups on medium forwards although he has struggled with those types recently. Cameron will look to play higher up the ground and beat May back with his pace but May will let him roam up the ground. Cameron needs to ensure when he pushes high that he puts himself in dangerous positions otherwise May will cut off most of Brisbanes advances further down the ground. Cameron's been hit and miss in the finals - he's either one of Brisbane's best or is unsighted and struggles with the added attention. Given Hipwood's absence, Cameron has to play well for Brisbane to generate a winning score. If May doesn't take Cameron, expect Salem to have that role. Petty should take Daniher whereas Smith will take McStay / Fullarton. Smith's been preferred over Hibberd in recent weeks because of his positional versatility. So don't be surprised if Smith plays on both a small and a tall in this game to free up either May or Lever to intercept. Hipwood's absence will be unfortunately noticeable for Brisbane - a player who has gotten hold of Melbourne's defence in recent years.

On the other side of the ground, how Brisbane decide to use Andrews will be pivotal. Brown's form is too hard to deny and Gardiner will struggle with his length. Brown didn't play the last time these two teams faced but Andrews seems like the natural match up. It's likely Andrews takes Brown early but looks to zone off him depending on how Brisbane set up the ground from their midfield play. Starcevich should take Pickett even though he had Fritsch last game. This will be an important match up. Starcevich should have Pickett's measure as he's such a disciplined defender yet Pickett was electric against Brisbane last time with three goals in the second half. Pickett in recent months has struggled with the physicality of lockdown defenders who pay him far more attention but with his X-factor, he only needs a pocket of space to change the game.

Adams on McDonald, Gardiner on Fritsch. If Gardiner can bother Fritsch with his physicality and deter his impact at ground level - it's a big tick for Brisbane's chances. When Fritsch is one of Melbourne's best players - they rarely lose. He's one of Melbourne's best ball users, averages the most shots on goal a game in the team (3.5) and is dangerous both in the air and at ground level. This is one of those match ups that won't get discussed much but is so imperative for Brisbane to get right to win the game.

So who wins?

Let's preface this by saying it's the finals, anything can happen. But Melbourne are favourites and deserve to be. Melbourne's defence is so impenetrable and is playing with such great cohesion that Melbourne can afford to play a bad game and still win. Actually, most of their wins this year have been been through the method of grind it out defensively, restrict opposition scores and frustrate them into mistakes and turnovers. Brisbane as a starting point need to win the clearance and territory battle. If they do this, they are more likely to force turnovers in dangerous areas of the ground where Melbourne's defence can't squeeze them in. Additionally, winning the clearance battle may force Melbourne's defenders into 1v1 scenarios which will give them every chance to kick a winning score. Still, it'll be a tall order and the loss of Hipwood cannot be understated given his importance to Brisbane's forward structure. What a match up. Expect fireworks.

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