Semi Final Preview #2 (2021)

The 2021 AFL Semi Finals are here! This week we provide AFL analysis on the Bulldogs vs Brisbane Lions. We discuss the dichotomy in play styles, key match ups and more!

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Brisbane vs Bulldogs Semi Final Preview

The Bulldogs will have a little extra motivation going into this game after what they had to endure watching that Brisbane-West Coast game in Round 23. The Lions quite literally stole a top four spot from the Bulldogs by the smallest of margins (to be fair, the Bulldogs have themselves to blame after their own performance that Friday). It negatively changed the entire trajectory of a pathway to a Bulldogs flag, a disappointing result given how unstoppable they were for most of the year. The Bulldogs are the 5th team in AFL history to be on top of the ladder and go 0-3 to end the reason per Swamp on Twitter. For the Lions, they had won their last three games heading into their Qualifying Final.

But as we stated in the Geelong-GWS analysis, a week is a long time in football. The Bulldogs looked like their old self in the second half against Essendon – The . Whereas the Lions failed to win the territory battle or navigate their way through Melbourne’s press after quarter time and were ultimately flattered by the scoreboard given Melbourne’s inaccuracy. An injury to a player important to their forward structure adds further woes to their poor performance. But it would be foolish to rule out a Brisbane team who made the preliminary final last year. So lets get into it:

To kick or handball?

Much of how Brisbane play was discussed in our deep dive preview of the Melbourne game here. One of the key points discussed was Brisbane’s desire to win the territory battle, which results in a high kick to handball ratio. While Melbourne preferred a blend of the two and in many respects are similar to how Brisbane want to play – the Bulldogs are the definition of a polar opposite. The Bulldogs rank 2nd in handballs but 15th in kicks. Brisbane are 1st in kicks and 15th in handballs. The Bulldogs look to slice teams up with continuous handball chains – each player drawing an opponent to them before releasing to another. Bulldog’s players instinctually run in waves. They don’t value a kick mark possession game (ranked 17th for marks) – only preferring to possess when required before playing on through the corridor via handballs. When it works, it looks amazing and it’s difficult to defend.

But similar to Geelong’s issues last week, the handball happy, offensive spread game style is only game breaking if the Bulldogs break even or win the inside contested battle. For most of this year, they’ve done that. They ranked 2nd in clearances per game and 5th in contested possessions but those measures dropped off in the last month of the season. Even against Essendon up until half time, the Bulldogs were down -13 in contested possessions, -5 inside 50 differential and -17 for marks. That changed in the second half as the Bulldogs put their foot down, winning the contested possession count +33, +10 clearances, +11 inside 50’s and 8 goals to nil. It was a dominant finals display by a team that wanted to make a statement that they are still a top four caliber finalist contender.

It’s a warning sign for the Lions but one that won’t cause too much concern. Brisbane has one of the best midfields in the league and is the best clearance team in the competition. They provide significant pressure around the ball – a fact that may get the Bulldogs unstuck if their handball happy style leaks mid ground turnovers. The Bulldogs can go to water when heat around the ball is applied – the Richmond and Melbourne games come to mind.

Undoubtedly, the difference in method is most noticeable in the midfield. On the one hand, Brisbane will look to gain territory at every opportunity they can and lock the ball in their forward half to set up their defensive press. Their midfield were well beaten by flag favourites Melbourne but the Lions have to be buoyed by the 46 disposal performance by Neale who has found his groove. Look for Neale and Lyons to impose themselves on this game early and generate forward momentum for Brisbane.

On the other hand, the Bulldogs will look to use hands at the stoppages and around the ground to run and carry the ball into their forward half. They have such damaging inside and outside players that if Brisbane don’t apply enough pressure around the source of the ball consistently, they’ll chase tail all game. Bontempelli, Liberatore, Macrae, Treloar, Dunkley, Smith, Hunter. The depth and combination of inside/outside ball winners is truly astounding. Seriously, has there been a deeper midfield in AFL history?

It’s going to be a fascinating battle. The one for me is Liberatore. If Liberatore has a big game and provides first access to his outside midfielders – the Bulldogs should get on top in this area. He just has a knack for winning the 50 50 balls that begins the handball chain to the outside.

The Liberatore Lyons head to head is going to be a great battle and a microcosm of these two sides. Both love to win the inside ball but one prefers to distribute by hand whereas the other prefers to gain territory by foot.

Defensive drive

I want to focus on four players who have the ability to shift the momentum of this game from the defensive half. It’s a juxtaposition at two ends of the ground. One consisting of Rich and Birchall and the other consisting of Daniel and Dale. Let’s start with the Bulldogs. There’s different nuances to Dale and Daniel’s game. Dale is a metres gained king. He averages 536 per game via his penetrative kick and speed, ranking him among the best in the AFL (8th). Daniel on the other hand, is precise by foot and opens up the corridor constantly for the Bulldogs. Daniel is so key to how the Bulldogs want to set up offensively because those corridor kicks open up running/handball lanes through the middle of the ground. Daniel’s bold but effective decision making provides even greater value due to the on flow of draw and release handballs. This draws defenders up the ground to come forward to defend which invites damaging forward handballs similar to the clip above. Brisbane have to put time into Daniel and McCarthy should look to engage him as much as possible. It’s a big opportunity for McCarthy to expose Daniel, who has improved but is quite limited as a defender. Daniel had a mere eight touches last time these two teams played – it’s an aberration and unlikely to occur again unless they put time into him. Given the impact these two players have, it’s almost shocking the Bulldogs ranked dead last for rebound 50’s! However, that metric is a little misleading when it’s noted that the Bulldogs rank 5th for Inside 50’s.

For Brisbane, the differences between Birchall and Rich are similar to the differences with Dale and Daniel. Rich, much like his All Australian counter part Dale, is a metres gained weapon for Brisbane (636.6 per game ranked 2nd in the AFL). His long, raking left foot kick punishes teams as he can kick over defensive presses and pin point targets within a zone.

Rich is adventurous in his kicking much like Daniel and whilst Dale generates more offensive run from the back half, Rich isn’t slow either and will take the space in front of him to gain extra meterage. Again, the Bulldogs need to put time into Rich or play someone on him who is defensively minded but will make Rich accountable (as Sparrow did last week). Hannan seems like a great match up for this. Birchall is the lesser figure of the three and probably would count himself lucky to be mentioned in this group. Let me reiterate, the 2021 Birchall. Birchall in his prime is right up there with the other three. But even at his old age, if Birchall is given time and space he can hurt teams with his kicking and has the courage to come through the corridor for Brisbane and mix up their forward 50 looks. (Averages 10 effectives kicks at 80% kicking efficiency)

The pair who has a better offensive game or the pair who is forced to defend the least by their opposition could be the difference in the outcome of this game.

Forward presence

It's hard not to feel for Brisbane. In a premiership contending year, they’ve suffered injuries to two significant players. One is essential to how Brisbane’s forward line operates in Hipwood. The other, Rayner, was by all reports ready to explode in the midfield. Now, in the biggest game of the year, they lose McStay as another key forward presence. This hurts for a team that has little depth in this area. Brisbane has brought in Payne who likely plays McStay’s role but he’s a defender with little experience as a forward. Brisbane are a chance to go small, playing Daniher as the sole tall with smalls around him. They are one of the few teams that can get away with this given that they have smalls in McCarthy and Cameron who are strong in the air but it’s a dangerous move if Brisbane’s midfield doesn’t adjust. Long rushed kicks looking for territory out of stoppage scenarios won’t cut it – they must emphasis more intended kicks to advantage if they’re going to go small. For the Bulldogs, it’s a positive because outside of Keath, they have questionable key position defender depth.

Last week, Cameron kicked five goals and had one of those games where he was untouchable and the Lions still lost. He had a mid sized defender for most of the game (Smith) but expect a Duryea or even Williams to get that match up and bother Cameron with their physicality. Conversely, Daniher was kept goalless for the first time this year. Given their current limitations in the forward line, Brisbane are unlikely to kick a winning score unless their midfielders hit the scoreboard. Bailey always does and McCluggage often but they’ll need scoreboard impact from probably two of Zorko, Lyons and Neale. I would love to see Bailey play a bit more forward this week – he has a knack for hitting the scoreboard when it matters.

At the other end, the obvious match up to discuss is Naughton v. Andrews. These two are arguably the best young key position players in the competition. The two have had some interesting battles already in their short rivalry. Andrews actually took Bruce last time these two teams faced with Adams taking Naughton. With Bruce out, I expect Andrews to go to Naughton or play that intercepting role and sit in the hole against Naughton. It’s an even rivalry – Andrews gets the upper hand in certain games or within a half before Naughton rips the game apart with his contested marking.

Andrews is a such strong player with great body work that he troubles Naughton. He understands Naughton is most effective when he is given a run and jump to launch at the ball and times his body work to divert Naughton from his line perfectly. He’s happy to play in front of Naughton and dictate his leading space but the reason Naughton gets on top is that it’s really taxing and takes discipline to do this for four quarters. Naughton is a max effort player – he’s going to run and jump at the ball all game. He has great hands and is one of the best contested marks in the AFL. The Bulldogs rank 1st for marks inside 50 in large part due to Naughton’s ability to take contested ones. When the pace of the ball is quick coming in, sometimes there’s nothing a defence can do to stop him. Brisbane need Andrews to win this match up.

A Bulldog who suddenly has the general publics attention is Cody Weightman. Weightman’s a player. It’s funny that the general AFL public are starting to realise Weightman’s game – he’s been doing this all year. No one loves the high tackle baiting or the flops but it shouldn’t distract people from the fact that he’s an exciting talent and a multi dimensional small forward who is dangerous both at ground level and in the air. Starcevich took Pickett last week – expect him to get Weightman this week. He’s become a semi important player for the Bulldogs given his ability to hit the scoreboard – something they’ve needed given the loss of Bruce. My pick this week for ‘the subtle player who will go under the radar but can be dynamic with a number of important passages’ (mouthful) is Vandermeer – I just love his smarts and pace around the ball in the forward line. He could be a difference maker for the Bulldogs.

Who wins?

In terms of final predictions, this game is easily the hardest to predict. You can make a case for either side and it would be valid. I still like Brisbane in this spot. No McStay hurts but they have a habit of finding a way to kick goals from other avenues. A home final helps and their midfield usually bounces back from a poor performance. But this game could go either way. Bulldogs fans will take solace in the fact that they have the best player on the ground and one that is due for a big finals performance after a so so month (by his lofty standards). Brisbane by 10 points.

Let us know if you agree.

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