FTP # 18

This week we discuss the unique qualities of Josh Treacy, Tom Highmore’s emergence and North Melbourne’s rebuild.

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1. Josh Treacy – a unique player

Josh Treacy (#35) is not your prototypical key forward

Treacy displays rare attributes for someone of his stature. Sure, he does all the things you want from a young key forward. He leads hard up at the football and has great hands that allow him to mark the ball out in front at pace – away from would be spoiling defenders. If he knows he’s out of position, he’s willing to defend and fight to bring the ball to ground – a great habit to instill in a young key forward. And at 18, he already has a mature body (194 cm, 94 kg) to compete against the best key defenders in the AFL without getting out bodied.

But the thing that really draws us to Treacy is the other stuff. Stuff he really shouldn’t be doing at his size or age. He is incredibly clean below his knees – something you rarely see from a player at 194 cm.

He’s great at picking up these kinds of half volleys and has really quick hands. He isn’t afraid to rove packs either. How smart and clean is he here?

Another unique quality about Treacy is his forward pressure. When the ball hits the ground, he isn’t a liability (unlike many other of his other key position counterparts). He hunts the opposition and tackles with intent. He ranks 20th in the AFL for Inside 50 tackles per game – the only other key sniffing the top 20 is Hawkins. His pressure reminds me of a lesser version of a young Jack Darling – where it seems like they chase and tackle to prove the point that they actually can. We can’t understate how valuable this makes Treacy. This is because as a key forward that genuinely provides forward pressure, Treacy gives Fremantle the added leverage of playing that extra tall (Lobb + Taberner when healthy) without losing much once the ball hits the ground. How many key forwards put this much effort in once its out of their vicinity?

It’s easy to see how Treacy has kept his spot in this Fremantle side with both Lobb and Darcy. He’s multi dimensional both in the air and in the ground. When Darcy went down on the weekend, we saw how well Treacy applied himself in that ruck role after a quiet start. Now with Darcy set to miss time, it’ll be interesting to see whether Fremantle elect for Lobb, Treacy or even Meek to play ruck.

The other unique thing about Treacy? His tank. He had ran the most kilometres on the ground against Geelong going into the last quarter at 11.9km. This provides great upside for him not only as a deep forward presence but as a player that can roam higher up the ground with his tank.

All of this is great – but there’s something worth flagging. A common circumstance that can occur with young players is that they provide this kind of pressure and effort because they’re constantly fighting for their spot. The risk with Treacy is that this kind of work rate and the defensive side of his game drops off once he establishes him within the Fremantle team. Admittedly, he already does the other key forward stuff well enough that he may already be a best 22 player right now. But the best players never lose this kind of discipline regardless of whether they actually need to do it or not. Steph Curry remains the best player in the NBA at moving without the ball even though it isn’t required given his on ball and shoot off the dribble talents. Now I’m not comparing Treacy to Curry in terms of stature in their sports and it’s probably the first and last time that you’ll ever hear those names written in the same sentence! Yet, the point still stands. It’s important to his impact on a game, his versatility and Fremantle’s rise up the ladder that he continues to do this kind of stuff.

Upon first looking at Treacy, the last thing that screams out to you about him is his versatility. But he has it in every sense of the word. The potential is endless.

2. Tom Highmore

Tom Highmore (#34) has settled in beautifully in his first year at AFL level. After a couple of stints in and out of the side, the young defender has made the key defensive position spot his own along with Howard and Wilkie. It’s no secret that at FTP we love intercepting defenders and without a doubt that’s the first thing that jumps out about Highmore. This year, 5.5 intercepts and 1.7 intercept marks a game. Since Round 13, he’s averaging 8.2 intercepts and 3.4 intercept marks.

For St Kilda, who identified a need for more offensive generation from their back half (Brad Hill), it’s been a blessing that they’ve unearthed an intercept defender to further help generate St Kilda’s counter attack opportunities.

First up, Highmore’s disposal can be shaky. That’s going to happen with young key defenders. There aren’t many elite KPD ball users in the AFL. Though, the great thing about Highmore is that it doesn’t deter his approach to the game. Against Adelaide, (his breakout game before the real breakout game against Brisbane) he had two awful turnovers by foot early.

A lot of players (especially inexperienced ones) would go into their shells after those mistakes. Highmore didn’t. He continued to attack the ball in the air and positioned himself in smart areas of the ground for crucial marks. He often played as the drop off +1.

Smart is the word to describe Highmore. He isn’t overly big for a key position player (192 cm). He isn’t the most athletic or a big defender. Much of his intercepts come from his excellent timing and his ability to read the ball in the air better than his opponents.

Because of his smarts, St Kilda don’t mind if he plays on a small. Against Adelaide, he consistently played on either Rowe or Berry. He made sound decisions on when to drop off on Berry and take intercept marks or out body him in the air.

A couple of weeks later, the same thing – matching him up on Josh Thomas.

St Kilda trust Highmore to defend the smaller types well when the ball hits the ground and on a lead. If Highmore can do that consistently enough, St Kilda know they ultimately win the match up with Highmore’s aerial ability and decision making to know when to play off Thomas who isn’t in a position to impact.

He’s courageous as well. He isn’t afraid to launch back into packs and mark when he has momentum. Howard, Wilkie and Highmore already seem to have great chemistry and communication to call each other in, something that usually takes seasons to get right (see Lever and May).

He’s also shown an aptitude to be able to defend on the lead as well.

The emergence of Highmore has been timely for the Saints. Given the lack of depth for St Kilda in their key position stocks (Carlisle, Frawley, anyone else?), what a find Highmore has been. He has a long way to go to ascend into the top interceptors in the league but the signs are promising for a 10 game player. We’ll be keeping a watchful on his progression in the coming years.

3. North Melbourne – Glimpses of progression in a rebuild

The first season of Noble’s North Melbourne rebuild has nearly come to a close and what a roller coaster ride it’s been. 100 point losses, draws, emphatic and courageous wins away from home, brilliant halves followed by not so brilliant halves. It’s had it all. Ultimately, the signs are super encouraging. The methodology and game style that Noble has introduced over the off season is starting to be executed into existence on a more consistent basis. From the outside looking in, here’s what Noble has implemented:

Noble wants North to control the tempo of the game through marks. North have transitioned from being ranked 17th in marks per game in 2020 to 5th in 2021. Concurrently, there’s clear instructions to attack through the corridor as a source of entry inside 50 when the time is right. The key part of that sentence being “when the time is right”. Early on, North were exuberant in using the corridor at any leading 45 lane that (they thought) opened up. Teams preyed on this by playing tease distance to that player within their zone, luring North into that kick before pouncing on the turnover.

Now, North are playing with more patience and confidence in their system. They don’t mind possessing the ball in their back half if they control the pace. They can dictate when to go quick and when to take the speed out of the game. In hindsight, the move of Hall and Ziebell to defence makes so much sense (even if we were a little skeptical at first). The former as an offensive generator who takes on those corridor kicks with different angles and has the leg speed to break the lines and the latter a leader who understands the different situational paces within a game to make the right decision. Look at how controlled and unflustered this ball movement is. North ease the ball from one side of the ground to the other before finding the outlet on the open side wing, which should have resulted in a better shot on goal. This is really impressive stuff.

The corridor is North Melbourne’s friend. They love to hit that initial kick inside and then have clear instructions to draw defenders and use handballs (especially forward handballs) to get dangerous inside 50 entries or shots on goal.

Clearly, there are risks involved in playing this kind of way outside of just blatant turnovers and Noble would acknowledge this. For every clip like the one above, there’s numerous instances where North kick and mark in their backline without moving the needle from point A to B. It’s not uncommon for North to end up in a worse situation than what they originally started in (in regards to field position and kicking outlets). There’s a time to control the tempo of the game but there’s also a time to own favourable field position and give your players opportunities to be impactful in dangerous areas of the ground. It’s worth noting that for all their dominance in controlling the pace of the game through marks, North’s supply to their forwards is poor ranked 15th for Inside 50’s in the AFL. They are ranked last for points scored.

The change hasn’t just occurred on the offensive side of the ball either. As the year has gone on, North have defended the corridor and opposition switches better. They are far more organised in their stoppage set ups and are disciplined in referencing a man at stoppages before going to work. The smarter they are when deciding to go quick and slow, the easier it is for them to defend the ground both vertically and horizontally. The inclusion of experienced players in Tarrant, McDonald and Dumont have certainly helped in this area as well.

Lastly, the most important component of any rebuild – a team’s young talent. And North’s young talent is certainly eye catching. Can we please put to bed the long standing misconception that North never have any elite young talent? Simpkin, LDU, Thomas, Stephenson, Larkey, Zurhaar, Phillips and Horne (probably) is an incredible core for North to build around in the next 5+ years. Where this team ends goes is up to these players. However, it isn’t your typical list demographic of a full blown rebuild. On the weekend, North had more games played and were an older team than a fringe finalist team in Essendon. They still have many experienced and best 22 senior players with good years of football left in them.

A rebuild isn’t going to be linear – it never is. But the last month from North Melbourne has been encouraging. A spike up the ladder in the next two years is certainly plausible with the development of their young talent. A greater sense of clarity and comfort in executing Noble’s game style on a consistent basis will be key to how quickly the transformation will take. Let me put it this way. I wouldn’t want to be the team that will be heavily favoured against North Melbourne in Round 1 2022. The future is bright for the Kangaroos.

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Check out last week’s column!

Our piece on Jake Stringer

The author acknowledges that the footage is the courtesy of Foxtel and property of the AFL.

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