Another edition of Footy Talking Points featuring Melbourne’s defensive structure, Travis Boak’s unique quality, the Zach Merrett v Caleb Serong duel and more!
1. Melbourne’s Defensive Structure and the +1
Melbourne defeated Carlton by 26 points on the weekend and never really looked like losing after quarter time. The main reason for that and the reason the Demons are still unbeaten is their strong defensive structure. Currently, Melbourne average the least points against in the AFL at 62.2 – well lower than the second placed Bulldogs at 67.4 points per game. They are also 1st in the competition for least opposition scores per inside 50 %. They structure up incredibly well behind the ball led by May and Lever (#8) and play with a great sense of connection and cohesion. Melbourne’s defenders are terrific at identifying which one of them will fly for the ball and which defender will engage their opponent and put in body work to place them out of position – making them unable to impact the contest. Lever as the +1 in this example uses his body position on Stocker to allow May to mark the ball unimpeded.
On the weekend, Carlton allowed Melbourne to generate a +1 (loose man) behind the ball (Lever). In exchange for allowing this, Carlton is able to play with an extra midfielder/forward at the stoppage. Carlton failed to make good use of that extra player around the ball.
When a team has a +1 at stoppages, it is imperative that the team is smart with their ball use and not rushed. Yet, when the pressure around the ball is high (as it has been with Melbourne all year) – this makes it easier said than done. But to rush kick forward is playing into Melbourne’s hands when they generate the loose with Jake Lever. It allows Melbourne to counter attack off an intercept mark and score in transition or kill any chance of a forward 50 mark. Look at how in the example below, Docherty (#15) is the +1 at the stoppage. He gets involved in the contest and it results in a forward 50 entry – which is a good result!
Yet, Lever as the +1 impacts the ball coming in:
Lever had arguably a best on ground performance with 5 intercept marks (10 intercept possessions) and 7 spoils (May had 9) to go alongside his 12 disposals and 85.7% kicking efficiency.
So isn’t the answer to just not allow Melbourne to generate a +1? Not necessarily. Melbourne’s balance within their team makes them hard to match up with. If you let them generate a +1 behind the ball, they have the pressure at the source of the ball (#1 team for post clearance contested possessions) and the intercepting players in Lever and May to dictate the game on their terms and cut off scoring drives like on the weekend. If you man up that +1 defender, Melbourne has a strong midfield brigade in Petracca, Oliver, Viney/Harmes, Jordon (who is quickly becoming if not already Melbourne’s best defensive midfielder) alongside Gawn and Jackson to beat you around the ball.
Teague said after the game that they allowed Melbourne to generate a +1 but had plans for it to be someone other than Lever and sit someone on him (Cunningham and then Owies). It was great for their contest – they won the clearance count by 15!
But because Melbourne applied enough forward half and midfield pressure, much of that dominance at the clearances resulted in quick kicks forward to Lever.
What about when Carlton decided to man up on Lever? Carlton at times played the much smaller Owies on Lever – an interesting and somewhat confusing tactic. To counteract an intercepting player like Lever, a team would usually use a similar sized player who can be dangerous leading up to the ball to force Lever to respect that lead and not zone off – something he has done all year. Sometimes, you can play a small on Lever to punish him when he makes the wrong decision to fly. It worked early when Owies gave a little nudge to Lever who mistakenly flew – Owies was able to kick the first goal of the day for Carlton.
But Lever doesn’t make nearly as many mistakes as he used to. After this? It was mostly these kinds of situations
Carlton allowed Melbourne to play the game on their terms – Goodwin after the game stating that he was fine losing the clearance count by such a large margin because it allowed them to set up the way they want to. Against the best teams it won’t be this easy – a team that has used a +1 at the stoppage a number of times this year and has punished teams is the Bulldogs. Because the Bulldogs work through pressurised situations with handballs and kick once in space with time – it makes a +1 behind the football less impactful (something we discussed in the Dunkley column). The Bulldogs game in two weeks will be Melbourne’s biggest challenge – to see whether such a tactic can hold up against the contrasting attacking style of the Bulldogs.
2. Cody Weightman
It’s hard not to talk about Weightman (#19) after his dazzling performance on Saturday night. Having played only 4 games in his rookie year after being taken with Pick 15, Weightman played his first game of the year on the weekend and had 12 disposals, 5 tackles and 3 goals.
Weightman is a really unique small forward because of his marking ability for his size. He has a big leap for a player listed at 177 cm which allows him to play above his height – just last week he took a mark of the year contender in the VFL.
To go with his big leap, he has incredible body control in the air to turn his body to the ball.
He is out of position on Hartlett here – yet knows he has the leap to impact the contest. It’s subtle but he uses his lower body to almost push Hartlett out of position. Weightman’s momentum makes it difficult for Hartlett to spoil whilst he gets enough air time to get his fingertips on the ball. Very few players possess this trait and the ones that do (Greene springs to mind) are match up nightmares because they are threats both in the air and on the ground and can mark the ball even when they are initially out of position. Another reason why Weightman’s performance was so impressive was that he kicked his 3 goals in completely different ways.
In addition to his goal from the mark above, Weightman kicked a composed on the run goal from a handball receive and a quick snap (behind his head if you don’t mind) from a quick pressurised situation – showing he has a nous for where the goals are.
Even more impressive, both goals were at important moments of the game. One to solidify the Bulldogs’ fast start in the first quarter and the other in the last quarter to seal the game. It’s also worth noting that he did all of this in a top 4 clash against a really good team on the road!
Part of the reason Weightman was able to come in for his first game of the year and perform so well is because of the Bulldogs’ process with their young players. The hallmark of a good club is one that allows their young players to develop at the lower level and bring consistency to their games for multiple weeks before being considered for the AFL.
Weightman as an example shows that the Bulldog’s are doing the best thing for Jamarra’s career. The increasing speculation each week on when he will play is poor by the media – stop putting expectation on a teenager who likely isn’t ready for AFL football and who has missed a whole year of footy.
Undoubtedly there will be games where Weightman is quiet and doesn’t hit the scoreboard. But it’s hard to keep players like Weightman out of the side when they have this kind of X factor. As he gets stronger and more comfortable at the level, he is going to pose match up headaches for opponents because of his ability in the air and at ground level. The Bulldog’s look like they’ve nailed this pick.
3. Travis Boak’s Gut Running
So many of the elite players in the AFL have their own unique tendency or skill that is celebrated and admired. The obvious ones that come to mind are Dusty’s fend off, Pendlebury’s vision, Fyfe’s contested marking ability or Natanui’s outside-the-bubble taps. One that should absolutely be more recognised is Travis Boak’s (#10) burst/gut running ability. It’s quite amazing to watch – and he does it so consistently. If you’ve never seen it before, watch Boak sprint forward from a stoppage once he knows Port Adelaide have won the ball. He does this in the first quarter just as much as he does in the last. He makes everyone around him look like they are running in slow motion – bolting forward and often (but not always) getting on the end of the ball.
What makes it so great is that Boak doesn’t always get the ball. It’s selfless running – he might not always get rewarded for it but it forces the opposition to defend and respect his run – which many times frees up a team mate to be used.
Boak’s having another terrific year after his career best year last year (at the age of 32!). He has gotten better with age and is one of the best midfielders in the competition this year. I hope we start to celebrate one of the more unique yet amazing traits of one of the best midfielders in our game.
4. Serong vs. Merrett
The Serong (#3) Merrett (#7) match up for the entirety of Sunday’s game was great to see. Two talented midfielders who went head to head for the entire day. One midfielder that is an established player at AFL level and another who is a rising star and trying to take his game to the next level.
Very rarely now do we see players have these 1 v 1 duels in the modern game. Due to the number of cross matching within the midfield and how many players go through there in any particular game, seeing two midfielders battle it out (even if Serong was technically tagging Merrett) was a great spectacle to watch.
Serong towed and overstepped the line a number of times, giving away downfield free kicks for hits off the ball. Whilst he was technically tagging Merrett, it was one of those match ups where Serong was tasked with restricting Merrett’s influence whist still having an impact with the ball himself (similar to what Jack Steele used to do for St Kilda).
Serong struggled with that balance – at times he was too defensive and almost completely disregarded the ball to focus on Merrett.
At other times he got the balance right. Defending Merrett initially at the stoppage but then getting dangerous by pushing Merrett under the ball to put himself in a better position to win the football.
Merrett had a few tricks of his own – dummying Serong one way before going the other way and setting up a dangerous inside 50 entry that resulted in a goal.
Ultimately though, Serong did a great job at restricting Merrett’s influence. Merrett had 22 disposals for the day (averaging 30.3 for the year). Still a solid game – yet he was unable to generate his usual creative attacking drives.
In the modern game where defensive presses, zones, cross matching and hand offs are the norm, once in a while it’s great to see a genuine one on one match up between two great midfielders who genuinely care about how much impact their direct opponent is having on the game.
5. Ben King’s Efficiency
It has gone under the radar given that the Gold Coast Sun’s have been underwhelming this year and have yet to look competitive against finalist teams but Ben King has been ultra efficient as a key forward. King is currently 6th in the Coleman this year having kicked 25 goals. He has been efficient not only in his goal conversion (65.8% – which is the highest among the top 6) but has been efficient in terms of his supply. The Gold Coast Suns are currently 14th in the league for Inside 50’s averaging 49.6 a game. Jack Darling is the only player currently in the top 10 for the Coleman that plays for a team that averages less I50’s.
In saying this, West Coast are a bit of an anomaly when it comes to their scoring efficiency going inside 50 – they average the second most goals in the competition with the 3rd worst Inside 50 rate! If we factor for this and put West Coast aside, King’s year is even more astonishing. Taking out West Coast players, his team averages less inside 50’s than the top 15 Coleman leaders.
Average Inside 50’s to Goals Kicked for the year
If we look at how many goals Gold Coast has kicked for the year, Ben King has kicked 27% of their goals! He has had an incredible year so far – taking his (limited) opportunities when they arise.
It’s pretty interesting that Ben King’s efficiency is the polar opposite of his twin brothers’ current form, who is struggling to convert on the scoreboard. One thing that differentiates Ben from his brother (they are both going to be superstars) is that Ben is incredibly mobile at ground level for his size. Look at how he competes aerially but then is able to make space for himself at ground level.
He is able to kick goals at ground level – which allows him to be a scoring avenue outside of his marking and set shot ability.
The Gold Coast Sun’s having taken a step back after a smashing against Brisbane in the Q-Clash. They’d want to turn their form around and prove to players like Ben King that the club is on the way up – otherwise the murmurings about him leaving for St Kilda may become more than just that. For the sake of the competition, lets hope Gold Coast can turn things around and take some scalps in the second half of the year.
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Check out last week’s column!
The author acknowledges that the footage is the courtesy of Foxtel and property of the AFL.