Qualifying Final Preview #1

What an exciting time – the finals are here! The best time of the year for AFL fans. This is where the elite of the AFL go head to head and the champions of our game rise to the occasion. We have provided our most in depth analysis probably of the year!

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Geelong v Port Adelaide Qualifying Final Preview

This week at FTP, we are providing a deep dive preview into the two qualifying finals. Albeit a hardly a controversial take given the statistics, but one of these four teams will win the 2021 AFL premiership. Port Adelaide have given themselves the best chance to advance early with a home qualifying final with actual fans in attendance (what are they again?). Geelong collapsed last week against Melbourne – there’s no other way to describe it. But funnily enough, it may just be the best result for them in terms of match ups. Geelong are better placed against Port Adelaide than Brisbane. But finals are a different beast and both teams will look to leverage their strengths while concurrently minimising the strengths of their opponents. The finals are well and truly here! Lets get into it.

Which strength rises to the top?

We all know Geelong’s M.O by now. They control the pace and tempo of the game with their patented high kick/mark possession game. Most years they are at the top end for marks per game and this years no different (ranked 3rd). This is a mature team with patient and disciplined ball users. Geelong are willing to go backwards to go forwards and would rather keep the ball in their possession than kick long down the line. Down the line for Geelong is a last resort. When it works, they frustrate teams by not giving back possession. They will dart from one side of the ground to the other, back to the other side, find a corridor leading lane and then use hands to launch inside 50.

Geelong’s +/- Mark Differential

It’s methodical. Geelong offensively are a juggernaut – they rank in the top 5 for disposals, uncontested disposals, marks, marks inside 50, handballs, clearances and kicks per game. In most instances, Geelong get the game on their terms offensively early and keep it that way. The other benefit of this game style is that it allows Geelong’s defenders to set up behind the ball. An errant kick or mistake is rarely punishable because Geelong’s defenders are so well organised and are aggressive in their starting points. Geelong are the second stingiest team in the AFL for giving up inside 50’s to the opposition and their game style is the key reason why.

But this isn’t the regular season and they aren’t playing a team coming off a short break with ample time to prepare. Port Adelaide will be prepared for this and it actually suits how they’ve defended all year. In contrast, Port Adelaide rank 3rd this year for least opposition marks per game. They’re elite at generating pressure at the source of the ball to create rushed disposals and are disciplined in covering up leading space. They also have conceded the 3rd least inside 50’s this year. This will be a battle of strengths between how Geelong possess the ball with marks until the corridor opens up vs. Port Adelaide forcing them long down the line boundary side. For all of Geelong’s brilliance when it works, they can dangerously tow the line between controlling the tempo (what they want) and losing favourable field position with slow ball movement (what Port want). Port Adelaide will invite Geelong to look for their marks but they will sway them to beneficial areas of the ground for them – namely wide or backwards. Port cover off outlets on the open side so quickly that what was initially a smart kick to the open side actually results in Geelong being held up 15m back from where they originally started.

If Port Adelaide remain disciplined defensively, a high mark Geelong game will work to their advantage. Geelong are the worst side in the competition for conceding turnovers (18th) and are one of the worst clanger sides in the competition (16th). If Port can slow Geelong’s transition ball movement in the air, it creates a greater likelihood for turnovers and scores on the counter attack. Both will back in their systems. It will be about who can execute it efficiently for longer. A key emphasis on ‘for longer’ with Geelong. They’ve demonstrated both last week and the last time these two teams played that if you switch off for 10 minutes – they have the offensive firepower to make you pay and (in most cases) end the game there and then. Which leads us to our next discussion point…

Geelong’s 3 headed monster

Cameron, Hawkins and Rohan. This is where the biggest advantage lies for Geelong and its probably the widest gap in talent for a line group in both qualifying finals . We analysed Geelong’s three main targets earlier this year after the last time these two teams faced and much of the same still applies. Port’s defenders aren’t average by any stretch but they are undersized. McKenzie on Hawkins is something that Port continue to persist with but the advantage for Hawkins is clear. Port will note that McKenzie can work off Hawkins on the counter attack and be a metres gained threat. But no one can deny defensively it hasn’t worked. Hawkins leverages his strength and body work and punishes McKenzie for playing in front. He’s averaged 7.5 scoring shots (!) in their two match ups to date When Hawkins isn’t kicking for goal, he’s hitting corridor kicks or sweeping dangerous corridor handballs out to his midfielders in space. Geelong average the 3rd most marks inside 50 and Hawkins’ presence is the key reason why. Geelong will look to leverage this match up in their favour as much as possible.

And the other two? In their last match up, Rohan’s pace worried Jonas and Cameron kicked 5. Cameron is the wild card of this group – he has the most volatility in his performances week to week. He looks underdone given his recent hamstring setback and it’s a big opportunity for Port Adelaide to get this match up under control. Port should consider Jonas in a lockdown role on Cameron and allow Aliir Aliir to roam as the interceptor. Jonas has the strength and speed to really worry Cameron. If Cameron is kept quiet, all of a sudden the threat of Rohan and Hawkins seems less formidable.

Much like last week against Melbourne, Geelong kicked 3 goals in 3 minutes last time they played Port. When they get quick supply – they score in a hurry. Port won’t win if they give Geelong’s midfielders quality clearance exits through the front. (Geelong rank 3rd in clearances this year).

What Port Adelaide decide to do with Aliir Aliir will be fascinating and an important decision in the context of this game. Given the clear offensive advantage Geelong have in their forward line, Aliir Aliir is the man who can swing that advantage in Port’s favour with his intercept and attacking play. For all the match winners in Geelong’s forward line, they aren’t a defensively sound forward group. They conceded the most intercepts in the league this year. For Port Adelaide, the McKenzie – Hawkins match up should ONLY occur if it frees up Aliir Aliir to play on Dahlhaus and roam as an intercept defender (ie. Lever last week). Geelong are one of the worst teams at giving up rebound 50’s this year (14th) partly due to their dilemma of compromising forward pressure (Rohan and the corpse of Dahlhaus) for smart ball users (Higgins, Miers, Close, Simpson).

Aliir Aliir is so smart in reading the play before it happens. He also understands where the dangerous space is in the context of the kicker. If Aliir Aliir is able to roam and be aggressive with his starting points – it gives Port Adelaide a real advantage to counter attack out of their backline. This is where Burton, Houston, Amon and McKenzie will play a key role in generating offensive drive. When Port can go quickly through an Aliir intercept, they can catch out Geelong’s defensive set up as they do here with Aliir Aliir beginning the scoring launch.

From Geelong’s point of view, Dahlhaus may be used again in a forward tagging role. The tactic worked on Lever for three quarters but failed miserably when it mattered most. We may see Geelong try and engage Rohan with Aliir Aliir and drag him up the ground. Whatever they decide to do, it’s their most important match up to get right and win.

Port Adelaide’s Dynamo’s

Port Adelaide have dynamic players all over the ground. But the three Geelong will put the most time into is Butters, Rozee and Gray. All three are dangerous propositions for Geelong once the ball hits the ground inside forward 50. It was Greene in Round 21 and Pickett in Round 23 who did the damage against Geelong with 4 and 3 goals respectively. Geelong’s back six have difficulty defending dynamic players at ground level – something even more evident now that Stewart is out. Butters and Rozee are barometers for Port Adelaide and Geelong don’t need any reminders – Rozee kicked four goals in the first quarter against them in Round 13. Tuohy had that match up but Rozee’s pace and ellusiveness was too much. Bews is the best match up for Rozee.

In saying that, Geelong need to get on top around the ball or their defenders will struggle in open space with these three. Quick clearances for Port Adelaide give their dynamic forwards space to operate in. Rozee doesn’t need too much room to punish Geelong if they don’t pay him enough attention.

Butters didn’t play the last time these two teams met. Much like Cameron for Geelong, he’s the wildcard for Port. He hasn’t been his dazzling best, as to be expected given his serious injuries, yet Butters loves the big occasion. He lifts when the pressure of the game is at its highest. Geelong also don’t really have a match up for him. O’Connor is the likely one but he’s not agile enough for Butters. Atkin’s could be the match up but that’s a big responsibility for a player who was a forward not too long ago. Gray likely gets the last small defender and that’s a god send for Port Adelaide. Gray is so smart in manipulating his opponent. Defenders have to constantly be on alert, whether that be due to the timing of his body work to push his opponent under the flight of the ball or his smarts to push up high into a stoppage and spit forward to lose his man on the way back . Port Adelaide get easy goals because of how creative these three are (5th in goal assists per game) and without Tom Stewart organising the defence and taking one of these smalls – it’s a big opportunity for Port Adelaide to generate efficient shots on goal.

But even without Stewart, this is an organised and mature defensive group. Geelong has arguably the best defence in the AFL analogous to Melbourne. It isn’t so much their individual personnel but more so how they operate as a system established by Geelong champion Matthew Scarlett. They are organised in how they set up and because Geelong’s pressure at the source of the contest is solid, they are able to assume aggressive starting positions to intercept. They are the second best team in the AFL at limiting opponent marks inside 50. With Port averaging the 3rd most contested marks in the AFL this season, it’s going to be an interesting battle. One team will seek structure and organisation while the other will want chaos and live ball opportunities.

Key Matchups

Let’s have a look at a few midfield match ups. Wines and Dangerfield, Boak and Selwood. There’s going to be a few explosions when these four go head to head. They are all contested ball winning beasts. Add in Powell-Pepper (if he plays), Drew, Guthrie and Parfitt and it’s an exciting inside midfield duel. Geelong are the 3rd best clearance team in the league. It’s surprising that Port aren’t a better clearance team but they have a meaningful advantage winning contested possessions around the ground (4th to Geelong’s 9th). Port’s biggest strength is their ability to outnumber at the contest better than anyone else in the league. They are the first to leave the stoppage and provide support at the next one with great shape.

Where Port have a point of difference over Geelong is their mix of speed and outside spread in their midfield, especially given the emergence of Amon. He’s played an inside midfield role in the second half of this year and has been dynamic with his step out of traffic, change of direction and speed. Port need to leverage this speed on the outside against a midfield that is relatively slow. There are a few potential run with roles that could be important towards a result for either team. Drew has been tremendous this year and really embraces defensive midfield assignments. He’ll likely run with Selwood or Guthrie. O’Connor ran with Boak in Round 13 and did a good job for the first half before Boak scorched him with his aerobic work rate in the second half. Given where O’Connor has played recently – a midfield tag is unlikely. Whilst Geelong lack leg speed on the inside, they more than make up for it on the outside with their metres gained players in Smith and Menegola. Look for Geelong to utilise these players to transition from their back half to forward half.

As with any game – the midfield battle is the most important and it’s a contrast of styles with these two teams. Port will look to own the inside and generate favourable field position (similar to Brisbane) while Geelong will look to control the outside with uncontested possessions and the tempo of the game.

So who wins?

I’m taking Geelong by a whisker (no pun intended!). The forward line personnel against Port’s backline is just too much for Port to defend for four quarters. Geelong are simply going to get too many quality shots on goal. But Geelong’s recent form doesn’t exude confidence especially when you consider Port’s strengths. Geelong fell away completely last week and were taught a lesson on the inside late – getting smashed in the contested possession count. If Port Adelaide control the inside of the contest (as they likely will), they will dictate field position. If they are proactive in their defensive press, they should force enough turnovers to generate sufficient shots on goal. The key will be remaining disciplined defensively in transition for four quarters against this Geelong outfit. I don’t know about you – but I can’t wait for finals to begin!

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Check out the last Talking Points this year!

Our piece on Jake Lever

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

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