Semi Final Preview #1 (2021)

The 2021 AFL Semi Finals are here! This week we discuss the Geelong Cats and the GWS Giants, the key focus areas, key match ups and our prediction

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Geelong vs GWS Semi Final Preview

Another week of finals footy is upon us.

First up, we have Geelong vs. GWS. What a difference one week can make on the outlook of a team and a season. Last week, I predicted Geelong to narrowly beat Port Adelaide. Now, they're at a real danger of being eliminated in straight sets. And what about GWS? A gallant finals victory after starting the season 0-3 in addition to a laughably bad injury list for most of this year.

But that's what we love about the AFL and finals specifically - a week is a long time. Most will overvalue the performance of the winners and misjudge the form of the losers. We won't do either. Let's deep dive into this matchup:

A little disclaimer

I'm going to preface this article by stating that last week we provided an extensive deep dive into Geelong's play style, their strengths, weaknesses and key players. As you can imagine, little will change in regards to these areas from last week. Do Geelong need to emphasis elements of their game which they were alarmingly poor in last week? Of course. Are they going to completely change their game style they've had for the better part of 5 years? Absolutely not. So without repeating myself, please read last weeks blog if you'd like an in depth look into the 2021 Geelong Cats here

Now to the game!

The inside of the contest - where it starts and ends

If we look towards the preparation and motivation for this week, the way Geelong were beaten on the inside, outside and almost any other metric a coach would value may be a blessing in disguise against the Giants. This is because what Geelong were so poor at last week (and will almost certainly rectify) is something the Giants do so well. Firstly, the Giants love a contested, stoppage game. They want to slow the pace of the game down to a crawl, electing for multiple stoppages where they can go to work as a midfield group. GWS provide great balance around the contest and are aptly aware of their role in any stoppage situation. If one player goes to win the ball, the others are providing outside shape to own both the inside and outside of the contest. Here, GWS have inside and outside balance - Sydney's midfielders get too sucked in to the inside of the contest. This ends in a goal.

This team is quite a contrast to the  'Ferrari' team back in 2016 where they played some of the most exciting, scintillating football in the last decade. They've pivoted now to a more contested, gain territory type of game style. I suspect Leon Cameron made the change given the type of midfielders the team now possesses - bigger bodied, defensive inside midfielders who can dictate the inside of the contest (Hopper, Taranto, Ward, Green). Let's not forget how many outside offensive weapons GWS have lost in the last 6 years to turn into this type of team. (Shiel, Cameron, Treloar, Williams, Smith, Scully, Wilson, Shaw)

Don't get me wrong, the team is still sprinkled with a few magicians on the outside (Whitfield and Kelly are the two key ones). The remnants of that 2016 side does appear in patches. GWS win this initial clearance but then outwork Sydney on the offensive spread - transitioning the ball easily from their defensive 50 to get a shot on goal.

Even without these flashes of offensive brilliance - GWS's inside game is effective. The Giants rank 5th for clearances and 6th for contested possessions. They kicked three important goals from stoppages and owned the inside of the contest against Sydney (who missed Josh Kennedy badly) for large portions of the game.

What a perfect storm this match up is for Geelong who were embarrassed last week. If you think 'embarrassed' is a bit harsh - lets have a look into the numbers. Geelong lost the tackle count to Port Adelaide by -15, yet Port Adelaide won the disposal count +64! Geelong played into Port Adelaide's hands by giving them the field territory battle early and allowing Port to get the game on their terms. This is demonstrated with Port outscoring Geelong 50-12 from forward half chains. Geelong didn't want to get their hands dirty and defend. A number of instances like this occurred where they didn't kill a live ball when they should have and Port made them pay. Here are two in ten seconds.

So Geelong were dominated without the ball but were also out tackled. Many would defend that by validly pointing out Port have the edge in their ability to outnumber at contests whilst Geelong are more about owning the outside. But that wasn't the case either. Port smashed Geelong at their own game - winning the mark differential by +29. When Geelong did control the tempo of the ball, Port invited Geelong to over possess by going backwards and losing territory - something we flagged last week. GWS will look at these statistics as a big opportunity to dictate the control of the game. As much as Geelong love taking the possession away from teams with their marking style, it's impossible to do this if the opposition is doing the same via their intent at being first to the ball.

And that's the danger of being so reliant on uncontested possessions to win games because finals are inherently more contested given the pressure around the ball and lift in intensity. Geelong wanted a bruise free game in a final that was never going to be so.

We discussed the trade off that Geelong is making in its forward line with its personnel - unsure on whether to prioritise good ball users or players who will provide pressure. Ideally, Geelong want a balance of the two but right now they aren't getting that, registering only 3 tackles inside 50 on Friday compared to Port's 12. The ease in which Port Adelaide were able to transition this ball from a deep defensive 50 scenario to a shot on goal would be worrying for Chris Scott. For a player who is a metres gained threat and has a thumping kick, Burton was given absolutely no attention here by Geelong.

On the offensive side, some commentators have questioned Geelong's style entirely and urged them to go into a more safe, long down the line contest team. It would be negligent to change their offensive play style now. And it's no even about changing the way they attack on the outside in possession, it's about having a greater emphasis to own the inside. Everything about Geelong - from their kick mark style, quick ball movement in transition and deep forward 50 match ups leveraged by some of the best forwards in the game is dependent on them cleaning up the inside of the contest. And I'm bullish they will. Selwood, Dangerfield, Parfitt, Guthrie - that is an experienced and contested ball winning group that most teams dream about. Expect a response from a prideful club, especially from players like Dangerfield. Albeit a hand injury, he had one of the worst games in his finals history. I still believe in Dangerfield, but there's undoubtedly been some questionable finals performances over the years.

It's hard not to envision Geelong getting on top around the ground if they can control the inside of the contest or break even. GWS rank 15th for giving up opposition marks and 13th in opponent inside 50's per game - a statistic Geelong would be salivating over. If they can win their own ball at a higher clip - look for their mark tally to hit the 100's. This bodes well for Hawkins, Rohan and Cameron who should get plenty of supply. But this GWS team is frisky and we're not just talking about their midfield...

The opportunity for GWS

Firstly, GWS aren't Port Adelaide. Whilst similar tendencies on the inside, GWS's defensive press and around the ground defence is not at the same level. Nor do they possess an intercept maestro who completely changes how a team advances forward... although Nick Haynes is pretty damn solid. But what GWS do have is a deep back six. Half way through this year, GWS almost stumbled into the realisation that they possess a number of impressive strong, one on one defenders who are quickly coming into their own at AFL level. Taylor (more on him later), Stein, Idun, Cumming and Ash (when he played in defence). They are all strong, versatile, defensive first players and match up incredibly well against a deep Geelong forward line. They won't be afraid of the moment either given their relative inexperience to Geelong. Stein had arguably the best first quarter ever for a player in his 10th game. (10 disposals, 5 marks, 5 intercept possessions, 2 tackles)

It isn't just in the backline either. GWS have the best rebound 50 differential rank in the league. Once the ball is locked inside their forward 50, they are elite at forcing restarts. Per last week - GWS amassed 15 tackles inside 50 (almost double their season average). When you tie this into the fact that Geelong are really struggling to generate intercepts from their back half - it's clear GWS are going to get ground level opportunities. It's a worrying sign for Geelong who are feeling the loss of Stewart. They simply aren't generating enough counter attack opportunities in the air.

Then there's the elephant in the room regarding GWS's forward line. Greene's a ginormous loss for the Giants. He was the clear best on ground player for three quarters on Saturday and his four goals proved to be the difference between the two teams. Without his presence in the forward line, the Giants will heavily rely on Himmelberg and Hogan to kick a winning score. That doesn't exactly fill you with confidence as a GWS fan.

Without Greene, most won't give GWS a chance. Does this situation with these two clubs feel like deja vu? It should. Four weeks ago, GWS beat Geelong with practically half a VFL side. Extrapolating a regular season game to a semi final is never a good idea, but there's something to be said about this GWS team and their will to win. It would be foolish to rule out a team who has shown an aptitude to grind out huge finals results (Collingwood prelim).

Match ups

The Hawkins v. Taylor match up will be one of the more fascinating. Taylor dominated Hawkins last time. His recognition as one of the best defenders in the AFL has been apparent for a long time and was noted by us earlier this year but Round 21 felt like a statement game to say 'I've arrived'. No doubt, Hawkins will remember it and look to get a hold of Taylor. It'll be a fascinating duel. Taylor is a big bodied defender who won't get overawed by Hawkins' strength and will play him back shoulder, forcing Hawkins to beat him on the lead.

The interesting storyline of this game is Jeremy Cameron against his old side for the first time in Geelong's biggest game of the year. Expect Haynes to take Cameron, who would know all of his tricks. We stated last week how Cameron has a fair bit of volatility in his performance both week to week and in games. He kicked a superb goal in the first few minutes of last weeks game but was relatively quiet after that. Who knows what Jeremy Cameron we see against his old club. For how much Geelong gave up for him to be in this exact situation, expect a big response from Geelong and Cameron.

Are Geelong who we think they are?

If Geelong are serious about where they want to be and the moves they made to get there - they have to win this game. In recent years, they've given up draft capital and recruited older players as a win now strategy. It'd be nothing short of a disaster to go out in straight sets. The potentially scary thing is - they have everything to prove whilst their opponents GWS have nothing to lose. They scrapped home last week and given their injury toll, the finals alone was an achievement this year. Now GWS find themselves in a semi final against a team they beat just four weeks ago. Expect a convincing and strong performance by Geelong but don't expect GWS to roll over.

So who wins?

I predict Geelong to win by five goals in an emphatic response. GWS have had a tremendous year given their circumstances and I am quite bullish on their future outlook as a premiership contender. But that isn't this year and unfortunately, the Greene suspension likely ruins any chance of an upset. But this is the AFL - expect the unexpected!

Let us know if you agree.

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