The Winners and Losers of the 2021 Trade Period

Our first article of the off season! Let us know what kind of analysis / articles you’d like to see us write about throughout the summer. We want to write what our fans want to hear so let us know!

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2021 AFL Trade Period

We’re back in AFL off season mode. For some supporter bases, it’s arguably just as exciting as the home and away season. It’s the time where fanbases become optimistic and giddy about their newly traded in players and recent draftees. Picking winners and losers based on players and picks traded is always fraught with danger. Many exclaimed that Carlton’s trade period last year was a roaring success even with the draft capital they gave up. That was before Williams showed up unfit and Saad was completely unwilling to defend and change from his all out attacking game style. Many Essendon fans wouldn’t have even known who Nick Hind was last year, now they can’t stop talking about him. Whilst anyone watched enough Sydney games knew it was a bargain and high upside play, many fans were left wondering why Port would trade for an intercepting defender who struggled to make the best 22 in a non contending side. Now he’s an All Australian. There are a lot of unknowns about who really wins and loses but we’ll do our best to provide our analysis on who’s had a good trade period. It’s worth noting that this was one of the more quiet trade periods in recent years due to reductions in both list sizes and the salary cap. But make no mistake about it – this is a really important period for clubs and helps shape their list not only for next year but into the future.

Winners

Carlton

IN: Cerra, George Hewett, Lewis Young, 2021 3rd Round pick

OUT: Pick 6, Future 3rd Round pick, Pick 52

(Update: Updated to include Sam Petrevski-Seton – who has an opportunity to get a fresh start at a new club but simply didn’t show enough at Carlton)

Any time a team can add a 22 year old midfielder who just finished a year averaging 23 disposals, 5.2 marks (rated elite), 5 inside 50’s (elite) and 407 metres – it’s a big win. Yes, they gave up a bit to get Cerra. But teams draft a pick 6 at they eventuate into a Cerra like player. Cerra is an up and coming star that can help Carlton win now which is exactly what they need. The addition of Cerra is significant for a few reasons. Firstly, Carlton now have a well rounded and somewhat terrifying starting midfield.

These three will compliment each other perfectly. Cerra and Walsh are impactful both on the inside winning their own football and on the outside spread. Many Carlton fans lamented Cripps’ best year (2018) winning a staggering 17.6 contested possessions a game but with no outside talent or ball users to feed it to into space. How things have changed. Carlton now have two of the more damaging outside midfielders in the competition yet Cripps’ inside ball winning ability has decreased dramatically (-5.3 in 2021 compared to 2018). It’s a big year for Cripps with the addition of Cerra and under a new coach. Pressure will be on them again to make finals and Cripps’ leadership will be instrumental with Docherty’s expected absence. Hewett rounds out this midfield group nicely and is a solid defensive midfielder who is smart with his positioning around stoppages. Hewett as a lockdown midfielder is something Carlton have really lacked in the last 2-3 years and haven’t really had a capable one since likely Andrew Carrazzo. Quelling the oppositions best midfielders is important given how easily Carlton allowed opposition teams to score consecutively.

The other benefit of the Cerra addition is that it allows Carlton to settle Williams into a role. He was clearly too unfit to play midfield last year and he is more of a natural half back flanker anyway. Given what Carlton gave up for Williams, they need to start seeing some more consistent football from him. I have no doubt that he’ll rebound this year and provide a dangerous attacking option out of the backline for Carlton. Jones, Weitering, Docherty, Williams and Saad is an incredible defence. Add that to Walsh, Cerra and Cripps with the Coleman medal winner up forward and it’s enough talent on paper that should realistically push Carlton to a finals berth. But talent will only get you so far in the AFL. Carlton once again will be a big topic of conversation heading into 2022.

Adelaide

IN: Jordan Dawson, 2021 Picks 33, 42

OUT: Jake Kelly, Melbourne 1st Round Pick 2022, 2021 Picks 23, 37, 44

If you read FTP this year, you are well aware how highly we rate Jordan Dawson. It’s really flown under the radar but Adelaide came through with the steal of the draft. Not only is Dawson arguably the best kick in the AFL and is quickly becoming one of the best young players in the competition, Adelaide ensured it didn’t impact their draft hand this year. This is super important for a team in the midst of a rebuild – having the immediacy of bringing in a talented first rounder this year as opposed to next (Sydney wanted Adelaide’s Pick 17 this year). It’ll be interesting to see where Adelaide decide to play Dawson considering he can play practically every position (outside of ruck and key positions). He’ll likely settle on the wing where he did serious damage for Sydney using the ball inside 50. Dawson and Scholl on the two wings gives Adelaide two elite ball users on either side of the ground. If their inside midfielders continue to progress and improve as they did this year, Adelaide are going to be a scary proposition. We all saw how capable he can be as an attacking midfielder with his best game of the season against the Dogs amassing 26 disposals and 3 goals.

Jake Kelly’s a loss as an underrated defender. Like most key position players, Kelly is suspect by foot and hurt Adelaide at times with his ball use but his competitiveness couldn’t be questioned. It’s a player Adelaide certainly would have wanted to keep but given the rise of Murray and Butts in the latter part of 2021, it’s a departure that Adelaide should be able cover sufficiently.

Melbourne

IN: Dunstan, 2021 Picks 17, 32, 49

OUT: Picks 33, 45, Future 2022 First round selection

A small win but a win regardless. The premiers signed Luke Dunstan as a DFA. Dunstan has his limitations, namely that he is poor by foot and not overly quick. Yet, he’s an inside bull and showed what he is capable of this year at AFL level. He polled 11 Brownlow votes in 12 games! It’s the perfect midfield depth for a team who has been super lucky with injuries and are due for their luck to change. Internally, Melbourne rate Sparrow and Jordon highly and Dunstan would seemingly be behind both of them currently but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunstan is in the Round 1 side if Goodwin senses any inkling of a premiership hang over from some of their midfielders.

The other win is Melbourne trading back into the first round this year while giving up their pick for the next year. This is a strategy they’ve implemented a number of times in the last 5-6 years, resulting in Melbourne bringing in young talent a year earlier. The players that Melbourne have drafted using this strategy are either stars of the competition (Oliver), soon to be stars (Pickett) or have shown immediately they are capable at AFL level (Bowey). It’s a smart strategy because it allows Melbourne to draft players a year early and put them in defined groups and build them up together. Melbourne’s list management is starting to be envied by the competition. You only need to look at the players in their grand final side (6 players less than 50 games) to understand that Melbourne have a promising young cohort rising with their already established stars. Melbourne are the team to beat in 2022.

Losers

Hawthorn

IN: Max Lynch, 3rd and 4th Round Picks

OUT: Jonathan Ceglar, Tim O’Brien, Future Picks

For Hawthorn it wasn’t so much the ins and outs but their actions (or inaction?) which may cause long lasting issues for new coach Sam Mitchell. It started with Kennett notifying Hawthorn members in an email that they might be surprised with some of the decisions made in the trade period. While transparency is honourable, Hawthorn don’t owe their members an explanation for their current list management strategy. If their goal was to rebuild this offseason by offloading senior players for picks, they revealed their hand to every other club prematurely. But it didn’t stop there as reports started to surface that Sam Mitchell himself was contacting teams about trading for senior players Hawthorn players. One can only assume names like Tom Mitchell, O’Meara and Wingard, arguably Hawthorn’s 3 best players, were brought up. While Mitchell refuted the claims, it creates an awkward dynamic. None of the three were traded (Wingard definitely would have been if he gave the OK) even though we heard their names brought up countless times

This has the potential to create quite a divide between Sam Mitchell and his core senior players. Coming in as a new coach is hard enough let alone when reports start to circle that the coach is personally talking to other clubs about trading key players. It’s a great recipe to alienate your best players. Whilst this may be reading into it a little too much, it’s clear that Hawthorn are anything but a stable club at the moment. Even when they seem to want to pivot into a rebuild and change the direction of their list, their players stand in the way. The supposed deal with GWS to land Pick 13 (+ a swap of later picks) for Luke Bruest would have been tremendous value for Hawthorn. It’s unclear what they would have received for Wingard but again, the draft capital would have given Hawthorn a big opportunity to begin their rebuild and acquire multiple high draft picks in one season. It wasn’t to be and Hawthorn remain with players like Bruest and Gunston who are still solid, impactful AFL players but don’t make sense for Hawthorn’s long term landscape. Hawthorn have enough young talent, especially in their back half, but they are stuck in between strategies at the moment with no real direction as to whether they are pushing for finals or blooding youth.

I like the addition of Lynch who showed promise in his brief appearances at Collingwood. With McEvoy not getting any younger and Ceglar leaving, Lynch has a great opportunity to cement himself as the number ruck at Hawthorn and it’s a value pick up for Hawthorn.

Richmond

IN: Robbie Tarrant, End of 2nd round compensation pick, future second round picks

OUT: Mabior Chol, Callum Coleman Jones, Future 4th Round Pick, Two third round picks

The Tarrant signing is timely given the retirement of Astbury and should form a scary backline duo with Grimes and Vlaustin. But the loss of Chol and Callum Coleman Jones stings for a team who has limited key forward position depth. Riewoldt’s magnificent career is near the end and Lynch has battled with injuries the last few years. Whilst Jones or Chol aren’t necessarily a significant loss in regards to the short term aspirations of Richmond competing for a flag again next year, the loss of these two will hurt them long term. Key forwards don’t grow on trees and unless you are able to grab one early in the draft, they can be difficult to develop long term. It’s understandable how this happened for Richmond given that both were able to secure longer term deals and likely more money elsewhere. The impact of this trade period won’t be felt right away but may be a significant turning point for a team who may not get back to their contending best and have now just lost two important pieces of their future. Time will tell for Richmond.

Brisbane

IN: Darcy Fort

OUT: 2022 3rd Round Pick

It’s a little harsh given Brisbane’s hands are tied in the kind of moves they can make from a salary cap and pick perspective but Brisbane’s offseason or lack thereof is uninspiring for a team who went out in straight sets in the finals. Brisbane’s list is in a great place and there’s only so much a team can add but Darcy Fort simply doesn’t move the needle. Something that Kane Cornes brought up a few weeks ago which was a surprisingly good point was the lack of offseason activity from the top contending teams. Hardly any of them have gotten better. This is worrying for a team like Brisbane who were well off the mark from the benchmark in 2021. Understandably, Brisbane’s poor finals form was partly due to the injuries to key players who will return next year. But how much can we expect from Cam Rayner after an ACL tear? He is a player that relies on his strength and burst and it’s not unreasonable to expect he will start slow. Hipwood is another one that will be expected to make a comeback but will miss most of next year and may not be the same Hipwood immediately (although progressing ahead of schedule). Brisbane needed to add another key position forward and probably an outside midfielder but did neither during the trade period. Given Brisbane’s contending window is now, the draft is a great opportunity for a long term prospect but not for a player that can be reasonably relied upon in a final. We are by no means ruling out Brisbane next year – they will be good. All of their best players are in their prime. But not improving at all in the offseason perpetuates a state of staleness amongst the group and there are a few teams around the 5-8 range who will be better again next year (Bulldogs, Sydney and Essendon).

Let us know if you agree.

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Our Grand Final Preview

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

2021 AFL Grand Final

Before we get into the analysis, FTP is doing a $150 raffle giveaway for our loyal readers!!

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Now… lets get into the one of the most in depth, analytical articles covering the 2021 AFL Grand Final!

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Grand Final Preview – Demons vs Dogs

The Demons and the Bulldogs. The two best teams of the 2021 AFL season face off in the last dance. Here’s a statistic to perfectly encapsulate how dominant both of these teams have been for 2021. The Bulldogs were either 1st or 2nd on the ladder from Rounds 3-21 and the Demons were either 1st, 2nd or 3rd from Round 3-23. They have both beaten each other this year with plenty to take away from those encounters, yet both teams are quite different then to now. This is one of the more highly anticipated Grand Finals in recent years and it’s easy to see why. There is a ridiculous amount of elite AFL talent on display (six of the top eight ranked players in the AFL per AFL ratings). There is also just an inevitable feeling that this may be the start of a long finals rivalry between these two clubs given their list demographics. There’s plenty to discuss so lets get into it!

Mids, Mids and more Mids

Is there any surprise that these two teams made the Grand Final given the absurd talent and depth of their midfields? Recency bias aside, this may be the best Grand Final midfield battle we’ve had in the last decade.

Petracca, Oliver, Bontempelli, Macrae and Gawn. Five All Australian’s who are dominant in multiple facets of the game. Viney and Liberatore are two of the best inside midfielders in the AFL. We all know how talented Dunkley and Treloar are when fit and firing and Harmes is back to his versatile best with his move into the midfield. Smith, Hunter and Langdon are three of the best metres gained wingmen in the competition and Brayshaw plays an important defensive role that will be pivotal against the Bulldogs. The numbers paint the picture and emphasis the dominance of both midfields during the season.

 MelbourneBulldogs
Contested Possessions1st5th
Clearances4th2nd
Metres Gained1st6th
Inside 50 differential1st2nd

For all the subsequent analysis below regarding a number of important focus areas, it’d be careless not to make this point very clear. The midfield group who can get on top will more than likely win the Grand Final for their team. The benefits of winning the midfield battle are endless – quality F50 entries, favourable field position and multiple stoppages inside forward 50 resulting in quality scoring opportunities. Given how strong both midfields are, expect patches of dominance and waves of momentum from both sides. It’ll come down to the midfield group who can take advantage of that momentum for the longest.

The first thing that jumps out is the difference in styles. The Bulldogs are a handball happy, draw and release type of midfield. They are far more willing to work their way through a stoppage scenario with hands as opposed to quick kicks, sometimes diverting backwards as a mechanism to launch forward alongside their damaging half backs. They rank 3rd for handballs per game yet rank 15th for kicks and 17th for marks. They don’t value holding possession with marks like a Geelong or even Port Adelaide. They prefer live ball, fast play scenarios which caters to the strengths of their dynamic inside/outside mix. They run in waves both behind the ball carrier, laterally and forward of the ball carrier. Beveridge gives the Bulldogs a licence to use forward handballs at their own discretion. If the opposition doesn’t place enough pressure at the source, the Bulldogs make teams look silly and generate damaging post clearance opportunities like this one.

But this is where the midfield duel will be so fascinating. Who’s strength will hold up for long enough? The Bulldogs are aware that Melbourne are not only the best defensive team in the league, they are one of the best at applying pressure at the source. Melbourne rank 1st for tackles and 1st for midfield intercepts – an alarming combination given the excess use of hand balls invites such pressure and creates turnover opportunities. Melbourne were ruthless with their pressure last week against Geelong, forcing them into countless mistakes and hurting them on the counter attack.

Round 11 was an interesting case study where Melbourne brought the heat and the Bulldogs fell away quickly. Even after Melbourne’s pressure drop off, the Dogs fumbled for the rest of the night due to perceived pressure. Interestingly, the Bulldogs handballed far less that night at a K:H ratio of 1.49 (season average of 1.33). Round 19 was a different story – the Bulldogs won the game and were far more efficient in front of goal. They were able to hand ball chain more out of stoppages on the wider MCG and all of the Bulldogs midfielders had a significant impact on the game. In saying this, based on expected scores the Round 19 game should have been a draw. Sometimes it’s just as simple as taking your chances.

Melbourne offensively are balanced in their approach. They aren’t a metres gained at all costs team like Brisbane. They aren’t a mark possession control tempo team like Geelong nor are they the handball happy Bulldogs. They prefer a blend of all three (3rd in Kicks, 13th in Marks and 8th in handballs). They can score in multiple ways. In the Prelim, it was their scores from stoppage scenarios – kicking 101 points from that area of the ground against Geelong. All year, Melbourne has valued forward momentum and favourable field position because that’s how they get the game on their terms with their defence. But as said above, their ball movement isn’t about forward momentum at all costs. It’s so evident this year how much Petracca and Oliver have emphasised driving their legs out of stoppages and taking the space in front of them. Instead of quick kicks forward, Melbourne now implore that extra handball release when it’s there to put another player into space forward of the ball. This results in far more deeper, dangerous forward 50 entries (an issue of Melbourne’s since 2018). Here’s two examples against Geelong where both Petracca and Oliver drove with their legs to exit congestion which resulted in meaningful forward opportunities.

If the Bulldogs allow the Demons to get quality exits like this consistently, they can almost kiss the game goodbye. Melbourne are too good at suffocating their opponents inside forward 50 due to their pressure (1st in the AFL for tackles inside 50). Add this to the fact that they are organised defensively and can play either Gawn or Jackson as a loose ruckman behind the ball for added protection – it’ll be a tall order for the Dogs.

The Bulldogs had midfield issues prior to the finals with their positioning and players disregarding their defensive assignments. Hawthorn made them look second rate with how they set up and allowed players to come through the front of the stoppage. Obviously, they cleaned this up as noted here but it must be their top priority as a midfield group against Melbourne – a team who taps backwards frequently but surge forward from behind the stoppage.

It helps when you have the best player in the AFL leading your midfield. Bontempelli’s positioning the last two weeks has been a master class in football IQ. Against Brisbane, he adjusted his positioning to assume a deeper sweeper role when it was evident Brisbane were going to surge the ball forward via their ruck dominance. Last week, he played forward of the stoppage, equalising Port’s defensive sweeper, defending any handball chains out the back and acting as a facilitator to outside Bulldogs midfielders.

The Bulldogs are also a strong defensive midfield group and they’ll need to be at their best in this area. Melbourne will give the Bulldogs chances on turnover. Melbourne average the 3rd most turnovers in the AFL and in their Round 19 win, the Bulldogs forced Melbourne into a +26 clanger differential and tied Melbourne in the tackle count. That’s the blueprint to creating enough quality scoring opportunities. Specifically for Dunkley, Bontempelli and Liberatore, their defensive performance will be just as important as their offensive performance to winning the Grand Final.

The +1

This is one of the most tactically important decisions of the game for both coaches. Are the Bulldogs going to continue pushing a forward into the stoppage as a +1? (usually Smith or Treloar) If so, will Melbourne decide to create drop off or follow that player into the stoppage?

Last week, the Bulldogs destroyed Port Adelaide on the inside. Tactically, Port were disorganised and allowed Smith or Treloar to roll up into the stoppage while they opted to play a loose defender out the back. Here is one of the many examples of the Bulldogs taking advantage of that +1 with Byrnes Jones ineffective as the drop off in a sweeper role. (note that Smith is also the +1 as Port elected to play Jonas as a deeper drop off and affects the final kick)

Here’s what we think will happen. The Bulldogs will try a myriad of things – going with even numbers at the stoppage, one extra or sometimes even two. At least initially, Melbourne’s defenders will be instructed to drop off – something they’ve done for the entire year. When Melbourne are given time from a slow stoppage restart, look for them to generate the drop off they want. Ideally that’s Lever. Lever will look to play on a medium sized forward regardless, but if it’s Salem’s opponent who pushes into the stoppage, look for Lever to organise Salem to take his man and allow Lever to sit in the hole as that extra.

With no time to generate that, Melbourne have been happy for Salem to sit off the contest given his smarts and ability to find a quick mark from a releasing backwards handball. Because of that extra around the ball, the Bulldogs are far more likely to win that initial contest but if Melbourne’s pressure is solid and the Bulldogs are forced into rushed decisions, this is where Lever will take advantage. Melbourne and specifically Yze (Melbourne’s midfield coach) will be flexible in this approach. If the Bulldogs are generating quality clearances from that extra midfielder at the stoppage, they’ll change things up and neutralise the outnumber inside. But I fully expect Melbourne to begin with a drop off if the Bulldogs play a +1 at the stoppage.

Overall, Melbourne have more margin for error in the midfield given their ability to score from intercepts in the back half. But given how damaging the Dogs are both on the inside and outside, it’s a risk that Melbourne can’t afford to take. If Melbourne’s pressure is slightly off, the Bulldogs will generate quality inside 50 entries with their ability to use handballs to get their midfielders into open space. Who else can’t wait for this midfield battle?

Don’t Lever Jake Alone (…apologies)

Jake Lever has been discussed at length in the Demons finals previews and it’s both warranted and unwarranted. Warranted because he may go down as one of the best intercept defenders we’ve ever seen and is the leader and organiser of the best defensive team in the AFL. It’s somewhat unwarranted because it isn’t so much Lever’s individual brilliance that makes Melbourne great but their defensive system headed by May, Lever and Petty. It’s the best combination of key defensive position players in the league. However, Lever is the focal point given he is the most damaging offensively as a defender with his ability to intercept and begin counter attack launches. The Bulldogs are aware of how damaging intercept possessions in the back half are and it’s why they clearly game planned for it against a similar intercept defender in Aliir Aliir.

In the preliminary final, as we predicted, Josh Schache essentially tagged Aliir Aliir. He didn’t lead up at the ball or push high up the ground which made it impossible for Aliir to drop off. In marking contests, he took Aliir’s body legally with physicality and deterred Aliir’s ability to run and jump at the ball. Look at the Bulldogs players get into Aliir after the Naughton mark – this was a clear plan.

Aliir was taken out of his comfort zone and was visibility helpless but it wasn’t just Schache either. There was a clear plan for other Bulldogs forwards and midfielders up the ground. If a Bulldog forward other than Schache was matched up on Aliir, their role wasn’t to fly or crumb – it was to put your body in front of Aliir and ensure he couldn’t impact the contest. The Bulldogs midfielders had a clear strategy that if they had to kick, they would kick it to Aliir Aliir instead of avoiding him. Avoiding Aliir allows him to play to his strengths and read the ball in the air and mark coming in from the side of the contest – something Lever also does well. This approach allowed Schache to engage Aliir and forced him to defend 1v1. The Bulldogs were so disciplined in their approach that it worked magnificently.

They will attempt the same with Lever. If the Bulldogs can bring the same cohesiveness and discipline, Lever will struggle to play his natural intercepting game and will be forced to defend Schache 1v1. But there’s a couple of things to flag if I’m the Bulldogs.

Lever’s received similar attention for most of this year and is a far better one on one defender than Aliir. Lever will drop off at any opportuntiy he gets. Schache has to be super cautious of this because he isn’t going to get Lever as high up the ground . One of the mistakes Port made in the Prelim was continuing to use Aliir as a marking target exit out of kick outs. This meant he was immediately out of position when the ball came back in. Lever won’t give Schache this much space out the back. (side note but look at how methodical the Bulldogs midfielders are to not rush this kick to Aliir but work it through hands before kicking it on Aliir’s head out of position)

Lever is different in that regard. He is happy to play the goal keeper role for Melbourne behind the deepest match up on the ground and read the play forward of the ball to make smart decisions if the opposition get into a fast play. Lever is far more inclined to drop off and play the deepest defender and if Schache wants to follow him a hundred metres off the ball, Melbourne will take that as a win.

The other factor in tagging Lever is that it creates a greater reliance on English and in particular Naughton to provide a bail out marking option for the Bulldogs. Naughton was superb last week and tore the game apart early but going from McKenzie to May is a significant difference. May’s had Naughton’s measure in their previous match ups and is excellent at worrying Naughton with his physicality. If Schache is tasked with tagging Lever which creates effectively one less forward, it forces Naughton to play higher up the ground where May won’t mind assuming the intercepting role and dropping off on Naughton when appropriate. Most have seen the vision of Hannan seeking the May match up to expose Lever on Naughton but it won’t phase Melbourne – Lever still had 15 intercept possessions that night.

They also attempted such a tactic with Josh Bruce in the side who is a significant loss in the context of this mini battle. The Schache tactic is smart and the right one for the Bulldogs on Lever especially given how effective it was against Aliir. But they’ve played their hand now – Lever’s had two weeks to prepare for this. Of course, some things are impossible to stop even when a player knows it’s coming. But I have a feeling Lever and Melbourne’s defenders will be ready and adjust accordingly. Regardless, they are comfortable with May or even Petty playing as that intercept defender if Lever is forced into a lockdown role. This is a really important tactical battle in the context of this game. Look out for it in the Grand Final.

Match Ups

Lets start with the Bulldogs forward line. We’ve discussed the match ups of May and Naughton and Lever and Schache above. The other key one will be Petty on English. English hit the scoreboard against Melbourne in Round 19 switching between ruck and forward and poses as a threat for Melbourne as a more permanent forward given Martin’s back in the ruck. Petty’s quietly emerged as a really good defender – one that excels both in 1v1 scenarios and as an intercepter. Much like May with Naughton, Petty has to do his work early on English and not allow him a straight line jump at the ball. This is especially the case given English has 10cm on Petty and (likely) has a longer wingspan. Petty engaged Hawkins early and wasn’t afraid to play in front and dictate his leading space. This was easy because the pressure up the ground was good enough. If it isn’t on Saturday, Petty may lose English in the air which poses as a great opportunity for the Dogs to exploit this match up. Again, it must be noted that Bruce is a big out against Melbourne given he averages 1.6 goals against them and would have forced one of May, Lever or Petty to be accountable to him.

Salem seems the natural match up for Hannan. Both players were at their best for their respective teams in the Prelims finals. Salem had 29 disposals, 7 inside 50’s and 720 metres gained and Hannan had 14 disposals, 4 inside 50’s, 7 score involvements and 3 goals. The Bulldogs have to put time into Salem’s offensive game out of the backline. He’s too damaging and integral to how Melbourne score from the back half to let him roam all on his lonesome . He doesn’t need much time to hurt teams.

Hannan’s a great match up as a solid defensive forward who will make Salem accountable given he’s dangerous in the air and has an ability to finish around goals.

Rivers (who’s been shaky in his first finals series) took Weightman last time and both had their moments in that match up. Yet, Weightman’s grown as a player since and it’s a huge responsibility for Rivers. Ideally, Melbourne give Hibberd that match up but they’d much prefer to back in Rivers on Weightman and give Hibberd whichever midfielder out of Treloar/Smith/Dunkley is forward at the time.

Bailey Smith is the wildcard for the Bulldogs’ scoring potential. He’s moved from an inside midfield role to a hybrid wing / forward role and he’s excelled in the finals. He’s kicked 7 goals in the last two weeks! Melbourne must respect him – it’s been nothing short of insane watching both Brisbane and Port Adelaide allow Smith to push high up the ground but not track him on the way back to goal unaccounted. In these finals, there’s been numerous instances where he’s been unmarked running inside 50 and has kicked crucial goals. Hibberd seems the likely match up and he’ll have to be disciplined in his approach. Smith holds his shape outside the contest and bolts forward once the Bulldogs win a clearance. Hibberd can’t ball watch like McCluggage did here.

Given their multiple avenues to goal, if Smith kicks 3 the Bulldogs likely win this game.

The key discrepancy in the midfield is the ruck department. Gawn is in career best form and is starting to cement his legacy as one of the all time best Melbourne players AND rucks ever. I haven’t witnessed a better preliminary finals performance in my lifetime. Martin will do his best to negate and should be better for the run against Port but if Gawn starts to get on top around the ground, English will have to play more ruck minutes – something Beveridge has been reluctant to do. Both Gawn and Jackson will hurt the Bulldogs with their follow up work and act almost as another midfielder inside – another reason why Melbourne are happy to give the Bulldogs that +1. English’s tap work isn’t his strength but he needs to take advantage of this when he’s against Jackson in this facet of the game. It’ll be a luxury if he can tap it to his dynamic midfielders on the move.

The rest of the midfield battle will be head to head match ups with superstars everywhere. Bontempelli, Petracca, Oliver, Macrae and Liberatore are all capable of match winning performances. It’s a lock that one of these five players will have a legacy defining grand final performance which wins the game for their club. The one tag may come from Harmes who Melbourne sent to Liberatore in Round 11 and will do again (Sparrow if not Harmes). Liberatore was instrumental to the Bulldogs start in the prelim, amassing 5 contested possessions and a number of clearances early to drive them forward. Port again were disorganised in starting Drew on the bench. Expect Viney to start on Liberatore but a quick hand over with Harmes to occur early – Melbourne won’t make Port’s mistake. Liberatore will know the attention is coming. It’ll be important that he fights through the tag and that the Bulldog’s midfielders chop him out with blocks around stoppages.

Melbourne’s forward line vs. the Bulldogs backline is where the biggest discrepancy in quality lies even if it’s quite marginal. Melbourne have so many avenues to goal which will stretch this Bulldogs defence. In terms of kicking multiple goals, if it isn’t Brown or Fritsch, it’s Pickett or Spargo. McDonald looks to be returning closer to his best form. Every player is capable of kicking at least two goals in a game – a rare trait for any forward line. But the Bulldogs will be more confident with their best defender in Keath back who will take the Brown match up. Brown’s playing with more confidence and is starting to actually take contested marks now but Keath’s a superb defender in one on one scenarios (18% contested defence loss rate). Brown will look to leverage his aerobic tank to force Keath high up the ground and try to beat him back to goal.

Duryea on Pickett will be important and it’s a similar match up to Duryea’s superb lockdown role on Cameron a few weeks ago. He will have to be cautious not to overcommit with Pickett who is elusive and has a deadly step. Pickett’s a bit of a barometer for this Melbourne forward line that has struggled in the past to kick goals in patches of games. When Pickett kicks 2+ goals, Melbourne are 10-1-1 (that one loss against the Bulldogs!).

Dale and Daniel are the two offensive generators for the Bulldogs out of the back half. On average, they combine for 916 metres gained per game. The Demons need to be weary of Dale at all times – especially around stoppage situations in the Bulldogs’ front half. Dale has such a penetrating kick that he’s a threat out the back of contests to generate deep forward 50 entries which allow the Bulldogs to set up behind the ball. Sparrow seems the natural match up to play a defensive role on Dale but Sparrow loves to hunt the football and can lose his shape around the contest when the ball is in dispute. If he gets the match up, he’ll have strict orders to start on Dale as a reference point and work off him.

Spargo will get the Daniel match up and is a sound footballer both defensively and offensively. Daniel has hurt Melbourne in the past with his creative ball use and is the key player that opens up handball running lanes for the Bulldogs with his exquisite kicking skills through the middle of the ground. Spargo will look to force Daniel to defend but must be cautious of Daniel as the Bulldogs will go through him.

The other likely match ups are Wood on McDonald and Williams on Fritsch.

Prediction

It feels like Melbourne’s grand final to lose. All year we’ve talked ad nauseum about their ability to get the game on their terms by locking the ball in their forward half of the ground and setting up their defensive press to force forward half turnovers. The Bulldogs will have to be at their free flowing best – running in waves with consecutive, well timed handballs that beat Melbourne’s pressure. Not only do they have to be their risk taking best – there’s also an understanding that they have to control the tempo of the game when Lever or May are parked behind the ball. Isolating and winning the Lever match up with Schache/Hannan will go a long way to winning this game, especially if the Bulldogs can get on top around the ball and give their forwards quick access. The Demons just have less margin for error than the Bulldogs. If they win or break even in the midfield – they will get more scoring opportunities. The Bulldogs can’t afford to lose the midfield battle and expect to win this game given how Melbourne set up behind the ball. The difference is Melbourne can lose this area and still win given their ability to generate intercepts and create scoring opportunities from their back half. Now, more scoring opportunities doesn’t necessarily mean Melbourne win, as we’ve seen in past grand finals and Melbourne have been inaccurate in front of goal this year. If the Bulldogs take their chances early and Melbourne squander theirs – we could be in for a tight finish. And we can’t forget, the Bulldogs have the best player in the AFL on their side which means for something especially if the game is close at the end. Melbourne by 19.

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Our Prelim Final Previews

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

Preliminary Final #2

Port Adelaide vs Western Bulldogs – one more win to make the Grand Final. Who will it be?

  • For in depth analysis on Port Adelaide’s Qualifying Final – click here
  • For the Bulldogs Semi Final – click here

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Port Adelaide vs Western Bulldogs Preliminary Final Preview

I must say, it’s quite interesting that the two preliminary finalists both played each other only a month ago. The Bulldogs Port Round 23 match was a catalyst for how things would shape up in the finals. Port shocked most by coming back from a four goal deficit early to win the game, solidifying a home final (with fans!) in the process. Not many (including myself) believed in Port Adelaide to make it all the way to the grand final. That win against the Bulldogs changed the trajectory of Port Adelaide’s destiny and now they go into this game favourites to make the grand final. But Preliminary finals are unlike no other – many tipped as favourites fail to execute under the heat of pressure. You only have to look at the last few years (Brisbane vs Geelong in Brisbane, Collingwood vs GWS, Richmond vs Collingwood) for that point to really sink in. The Bulldogs wouldn’t have forgotten about Round 23 and while they’ve suffered injuries, they’ve found their mojo again in a few areas of the game that made them the best team for most of this year. Let’s not forget, the Bulldogs at their best earlier this year came into Adelaide and beat Port by 19 points. If Port think they’re halfway home, they could just as quickly be packing their bags. Let’s get into a some focus areas:

It’s a whole different ball game with the Dogs

Port Adelaide were ruthless against Geelong. They brought immense pressure around the ball but also suffocated Geelong with their defensive press and an organised locate mentality without the ball. They dared Geelong to possess by marks in order to hedge them backwards and give up field territory – something Port Adelaide cherish. This weeks a different kettle of fish though. The Bulldogs are a stark contrast to Geelong offensively. As discussed in length here, the Bulldogs generate offensive momentum via hands and are more risk averse through the corridor than Geelong, especially in live ball scenarios. This poses as a threat and opportunity for Port Adelaide. The threat is that if their pressure isn’t high or two players are rushing to the same ball carrier, the Bulldogs will cut them up. Their strength to outnumber teams at the next contest won’t matter because there won’t be a next contest – it’ll be a Western Bulldogs continuous handball chain to a deep forward 50 entry. Geelong were unadventurous in the qualifying final and went long from stoppages to a marking contest more often than not. This played into Port’s hands because they outnumbered Geelong at the next contest and launched on the counter attack often out through the open side. The Bulldogs won’t kick long unless absolutely necessary – they will use hands to take the space in front of them and kick over that contest. If Port don’t bring sufficient pressure and Aliir Aliir thinks the Bulldogs will blindly kick to him from a stoppage scenario time and time again like Geelong did, he’s going to be mistaken. It will likely sail over his head, like this Bontempelli shot on goal.

But handballing chains are risky because it creates live ball turnovers where players are out of position running ahead for the next handball. If Port’s pressure is to the same standard that they brought against Geelong, the Bulldogs will give them counter attack opportunities. The handballs invite pressure to the next player. Here they convert a forced mid ground turnover into a shot on goal,

For a team thats been maligned in recent years for their mentality, what an opportunity it is for Port to set the tone early with their pressure and force mistakes from the Bulldogs. Again, a threat or opportunity for Port Adelaide. We’ll be able to tell early on what they make of it.

Dogs have their bark back

If you’ve followed the AFL closely this year, the Bulldogs were the best for most of this year. They were dominant in the midfield with stars on the inside and outside, a dangerous forward line with a good blend of smalls and cohesive talls and a limited key defensive back group yet who were supported by AFL best offensive rebounders in their back half. But like any team, dominance starts and ends with an inside midfield group. More specifically, the requirement of having a consistent midfield who either:

a. Win their own football at a high level;

b. Place significant pressure at the source to impact the disposal of opponents who win the ball or;

c. Be the first to spread from the contest to the next disposal chain;

The Bulldogs were elite at a. and c. for most of this year – ranking 5th for contested possessions, 2nd in clearances and possessing three of the top 30 players for ground ball gets around the ground (Liberatore 3rd, Macrae 4th, Bont 26th).

But leading up to the finals (the last month of football) where the Bulldogs lost their last 3 games, they fell away in this area. Fatigue, the inclusion of inside midfielders who were clearly underdone (Treloar, Dunkley) and the loss of Bruce (forcing Bontempelli to spend more time forward) were all reasons for the drop off. The reasons didn’t matter, the results did. They started to get beat around the ball and their contest work dropped off. If Bontempelli is playing forward and Liberatore is getting tagged (as Drew did in Round 23), all of a sudden the Bulldogs become vulnerable on the inside and the rest of their offensive ball movement suffers.

To put this into context with numbers, a comparison between Round 22 and 23 and their first two finals.

Round 22 & 23Both finals
Contested disposals (differential)128 (-24)163 (+32)
Clearances30 (-9)46 (+10)

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the Bulldogs got back to a more defensive mindset in their midfield. Brashness in their own individual ability resulted in some Bulldogs midfielders swarming to win the same ball when they weren’t in the best position. This created instances where they lost their shape on the outside and gave up quality clearances through the front. They’ve cleaned this up now due to the next two points.

The Bulldogs opting to stick with Young (who has been dropped) and Schache as forward options to free up Bontempelli to play his permanent midfield role. If Liberatore is tagged (which has become far more popular now), Bontempelli can pick up the slack on the inside. The inclusion of Martin will allow English to play more of a forward role – freeing up Bontempelli.

Another reason for the inside improvement? The Bulldogs have narrowed down their midfield mix. We see it all the time in the NBA – when playoff teams reduce their rotation to the 6 or 7 most trusted guys. When a teams in in a do or die situation, they stick with their best players and ride it out. The Bulldogs must have come to the same realisation because Dunkley is spending far more time forward and Treloar hardly playing inside midfield at all now (attended 3 CBA’s vs. Lions). It’s a tough call but the right one. Both have missed significant time and whilst they are stars for different reasons when fully fit, they’re liabilities if they are playing significant midfield minutes in a preliminary final. While Treloar has struggled in the high half forward role (he has always lacked positional versatility) you can’t replace talent. Just look at Smith, a player who has been maligned for most of this year for his kicking (which is fair) but rises to the occasion with a huge fourth quarter last week from the half forward flank. I mean, the Bulldogs are so deep that their best players are playing out of position and still have the ability to have best on ground performances.

So this is a warning sign for Port Adelaide – this won’t be the same midfield battle they had in Round 23 and Hinkley would be well aware of that. Port Adelaide smashed Geelong with their spread post clearance (they lost the clearance count) and pressure to force wayward kicks to easily defendable areas of the ground. This week won’t necessarily require more effort than the qualifying final display but they’ll have to be smarter with their defensive principles on who provides pressure at the ball carrier.

Port Adelaide would have their own terminology but it’s commonly referred to as D1, D2, D3 etc. The closest player to the opposition ball carrier is D1 – who must close that space in front of him up to the ball carrier. That’s the easy part. The difficult role is being the D2 – who has to read the cues and close down the space of the next dangerous player in the handball chain. D3 reads the cues of D2 and D1 to assess where the next possession chain is going and so on. Port wouldn’t of had to flex these mental muscles too much against Geelong). This week, they’ll be required to do it at almost every contest.

I weirdly feel confident in Port Adelaide to get this right. When they are able to cause mid ground turnovers, they punish teams on the counter attack and I expect to see that from them this week. And now to the player who deserves his own discussion.

Allir Allir – Footballer so nice they named him twice

Make no mistake about it, Aliir Aliir will be the main name circled on the whiteboard at the Bulldogs this week. Geelong have shown that allowing Aliir Aliir to get comfortable roaming as a defender will short circuit a number of offensive opportunities for the Bulldogs. Geelong had the game on their terms for most of that first quarter but continued to kick it to Aliir Aliir. To be fair, Aliir Aliir is a master at reading the play two kicks before it happens and Port put enough pressure on down the field for his positioning to pay off. He amassed 3 contested marks and 5 intercept possessions in that first quarter – completing setting the game up for Port. The Bulldogs will put time into Aliir Aliir and it’ll be fascinating to see who gets the responsibility. In my opinion, there are two options. The first is to play Schache on him and treat it like a forward tag role. Wherever Aliir Aliir goes, Schache follows. His role is to compete in the air and bring the ball to ground in Aliir Aliir’s vicinity. It’s a luxury the Bulldogs can’t really afford given how small the Bulldogs already are. If Schache has this responsiblity, it means Naughton has to play deep for most of the night unless English is forward. If the Bulldogs are forced to kick long due to Port’s pressure around the ball, they don’t have much tall representation in the air. It’s give or take. They need representation for that rushed kick but can’t afford for Schache to play high up the ground and allow Aliir Aliir to drop off and intercept the next kick in the chain.

The other option is to play a medium sized player like Hannan and force Aliir Aliir to respect him up the ground. Much like Lever, Aliir Aliir will drop off on Hannan once he gets up the ground. If the Bulldogs have game planned and identified this match up, they will know instinctually that Hannan will be free on the lead. Game planning for this is risky because it takes buy in from every single player to get it right. If the Dogs kick long to this match up – Aliir will have his way.

But when it works, it forces Aliir Aliir to come out of his comfort zone and defend more up the ground. If the Dogs can’t trust Hannan for this role – isn’t this the perfect circumstance for Wallis to come in for? A defensive minded forward who is a leader and will play the role to the best of his ability. We wrote this before teams were out and I assume the fact that he hasn’t played an organised game in months has hurt his case but it seems like an opportunity gone begging.

Match ups

The big one for the Bulldogs is what to do with Ollie Wines. He has been either close to best on ground (Round 9) or clearly best on ground (Round 23) in their two match ups this year. The Bulldogs must send Dunkley to him from the bounce – a like for like player who will bother Wines as a defensive midfielder. For how strong Port’s midfield has been this year, they are reliant on Wines and Boak to play well. If the Bulldogs put time into Wines, it puts more responsibility on Boak, Drew and Butters to carry the load. This is an area of the ground the Bulldogs need to take advantage of given their depth. Expect Drew to go back to Liberatore, who was excellent last week but was quiet in Round 23. Amon’s the line breaker for Port and gives them a different look in their midfield. He’s moved back to the wing in finals but I would love to see him get some inside midfield minutes especially if Port start slow.

The forward/defender match ups are interesting. Both forward lines are quite small – especially Port Adelaide who have opted for only two talls (Dixon + Ladhams). Expect Cordy to get Dixon (Keath is a big out) with Wood dropping off a small at times to chop out. Butters, Rozee and Fantasia are all headaches for the Bulldogs defence. Expect Duryea to start on Rozee but take whoever has a fast start – similar to his phenomenal shut down role on Cameron after quarter time. Daniel for all of his offensive brilliance will be tested defensively on one of these three – an uneasy risk the Bulldogs must take.

Port’s defence is sound and should hold up well against this Bulldogs forward line. I expect Burton and Byrne Jones to take Smith or Treloar depending on which one is forward at the time (or if they are both forward). Smith is dangerous in forward 50 scenarios given his strength and burst of speed – Port have to be locked in defensively and not give him space. We saw last week what happens if teams don’t respect Smith. It’s pretty clear the Bulldogs will need something special from Naughton in the air on Saturday night. It’s likely McKenzie will get the role and Naughton will have him covered with his size and leap in the air but it’s difficult when both Aliir Aliir and Jonas slide in as a help defender. If Naughton can have one of those games where all of his marks stick and his contested marking prowess is unstoppable – it’ll go a long way to the Bulldogs kicking a winning score.

Prediction

It’s hard to go past Port Adelaide. Bontempelli’s can’t be downplayed. He’s their captain and the best player in the AFL. He does so much both with and without the ball that if he isn’t at 100% – it’s a tall order for the Dogs. But this midfield is deep and if Bontempelli is forced into a forward role, it affords a Smith or Treloar the opportunity to stand up. The advantage of Port playing in Adelaide can’t be understated either – Port plays the ground so well and will have 99% of Adelaide Oval cheering them on. But can we trust Port Adelaide after so many years of finals disappointment? Everything’s swung in their favour and the opportunity is there for the taking, which would make Port Adelaide fans nervous. I have faith they hold up and make it to the Grand Final. Port by 12.

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Last week’s Semi Final Previews

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

Preliminary Final #1

We are down to the final four. Who will be the first team to stamp their ticket to the 2021 Grand Final? Geelong or Melbourne?

  • For in depth analysis on Geelong’s Semi Final last week – click here
  • For the Melbourne Qualifying Final – click here

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Geelong vs Melbourne Preliminary Final Preview

It seems poetic that these two teams would meet in a Preliminary final. They’ve had a fair bit of history over the last few years. Where do we begin? Geelong thumping Melbourne by 111 points in Paul Roos’ farewell game, Max Gawn’s last minute miss in 2018, the 2018 elimination final, Tuohy’s winning goal after the siren, Tomlinson’s miss and of course, Gawn’s goal after the siren to win the minor premiership. It’s one of the more anticipated preliminary finals in recent years given their history.

Because Melbourne and Geelong met only three weeks ago and we’ve discussed their strengths, weaknesses and play styles here, here and here – our analysis this week will just be on match ups and key areas for both teams to focus on.

What do the Dees have to control?

There would be confidence in the Melbourne camp after last Friday’s game and I sense they feel well placed with where things sit. No injuries to their best 22 (the Smith injury hurts structurally), a week of rest and now going against a team who have a number of their best players banged up. Melbourne have shown an ability time and time again to get the game on their terms, squeezing opposition teams into their forward half and setting up aggressively behind the ball to make it almost impossible for opposition transition scores. Barring a 15 minute patch in Round 23 where Geelong generated quality clearances, Melbourne had the game on their terms.

But Geelong are a different proposition on a wider Optus stadium with two of their better ball users (Duncan & Tuohy) back since that Round 23 game. Geelong’s experience of already playing on Optus Stadium is important because of how they want to play. For all of Melbourne’s confidence, I also sense they didn’t want to face Geelong again until at least not until the Grand Final. Here are a few things Melbourne must get right on the night.

The first is to restrict Geelong’s marks. They must limit Geelong to under 100 marks to win the game. Goodwin’s ideal number is likely in the 80-90 range. Geelong are 11-2 when they have over 100+ marks. If Geelong are amassing 100+ marks, it means they are dictating the tempo of the game and keeping possession off the opposition. It would also signify that Melbourne’s defensive zone is being exploited. If Geelong are able to consistently exit their defensive 50 by finding a first mark, it restricts Melbourne’s ability to apply forward half pressure and cause forward half turnovers.

Generating that first mark allows Geelong to set up the ground and stretch Melbourne’s defensive press with both the length and width of the ground. The more Geelong possess by marks and force Melbourne to defend, the greater likelihood of both holes opening up through the corridor or a Melbourne playing missing their rotation assignment on the open side. The flow on effect down the ground is that if Geelong can identify these mistakes quickly, it leaves Melbourne’s defenders (who assume aggressive starting positions) caught out in transition.

The catch for Geelong is that this Melbourne team doesn’t make many mistakes defensively. They are a well oiled machine defending without the ball and are consistent in their midfield pressure -driven by Viney. Melbourne are probably the most organised defence in the league due to Jake Lever’s leadership behind the ball. They are extremely quick in setting up their defensive press and are excellent at restricting switches to the open side. Their forwards push up high to defend the corridor.

Melbourne’s forwards push up very high to cover the corridor

This was from their match up early in the year but look at how organised Melbourne are to firstly cover the switch once it shifts to the open side and then block off any corridor kick for Tuohy – forcing him long down the line where Melbourne’s key defenders are waiting.

The other focus area that Melbourne must get right and it goes without saying but is further emphasised with this Geelong forward line. Melbourne must restrict the quality of Geelong’s forward 50 entries and consequently the number of marks inside 50. Geelong average 12 marks inside 50 – 2nd in the AFL. Geelong’s forward line, specifically Hawkins, Rohan and Cameron, are impossible to defend if Geelong’s midfielders are given time to use the ball. Give them time and space and Selwood, Duncan and Tuohy especially will find Hawkins with kicks that are not defendable.

Again, this isn’t anything new for Melbourne’s defence and it’s why I’m bullish on their chances. Melbourne rank 1st in the AFL for limiting marks inside 50 and 2nd for goal assists conceded for the year. This highlights that goals kicked against Melbourne are hard to come by and not commonly generated via quality set shots or defensive breakdowns. Along with pressure at the source, Melbourne need to be both organised and proactive around the stoppages. We saw how smart Bontempelli was to switch his starting position to a deep sweeper role when he identified Brisbane were gaining forward yardage through their ruck dominance. Now that’s not going to occur in this game, but it raises the question of Melbourne’s ability to be flexible when things aren’t working in the middle.

We discussed Melbourne’s stoppage structure against Geelong a few weeks ago and Geelong will give them different stoppage looks – the most dangerous being Dangerfield owning the outside position and getting on the fly. Conceding quality exits through the front of the stoppage against Geelong is death – they are too efficient in finding the loose player on the outside. Melbourne’s wingers are quite sound structurally but look at how Duursma doesn’t hold his wing position and Dangerfield gets through the front – freeing up Miers.

A big factor in Geelong’s inside 50 mark dominance is undeniably how Melbourne intend to free up Jake Lever to lessen the damage of Geelong’s midfield entries. We’ll discuss that in matchups.

If Melbourne get these two areas right defensively, it won’t matter how well they move the ball or kick for goal (as highlighted against Brisbane). They should win the game. But Geelong have a big opportunity of their own. Few teams have flustered Melbourne and taken them out of their comfort zone. In a big preliminary final with an opportunity to dictate the game on their terms, Geelong may just do it.

Geelong’s focus areas

Melbourne love to win the forward territory battle. Because of the depth in their midfield and how they generate intercepts from their back half, they usually always control this area of the game. But one of Geelong’s biggest strengths is winning the clearance battle (2nd in the AFL for total clearance differential) which offers a great opportunity to dictate the field position of the ground from the initial contest and not allow Melbourne’s defenders to squeeze them in. Geelong rank 2nd for stoppage clearances in the AFL – Melbourne rank 15th in conceding opposition clearances. It may come as a bit of a surprise given how talented Melbourne’s midfield is but there’s a second part to this. If they aren’t winning the ball first, they are elite at providing pressure at the source of the ball to impact the quality of the disposal and win the secondary disputed disposal chain (rank 1st in contested possessions).

But clearances are king – especially for a Geelong team that play in waves of momentum. We saw how quickly Melbourne’s defenders went to water when Geelong generated quick centre clearances to isolated one on one match ups. There’s only so many one on one opportunities you can give Hawkins, Cameron and Rohan before they capitalise.

It’ll be an interesting battle and Geelong took advantage of some of Melbourne’s stoppage set ups last time around. We posted this clip a few weeks ago. Melbourne have a tendency to hit defensive side which gives up the back of their stoppage if it doesn’t work. It allows Geelong to ultimately come through the front.

This is an area of the ground Geelong must beat Melbourne in. If they begin to put Melbourne’s defenders on the back foot, all of a sudden Geelong place players like Bowey and Petty (33 total games played between them) in vulnerable scenarios and force Lever to play an isolated lock down role he doesn’t want any part of.

It must be noted that while it’s been a strength for them all year, Geelong have a few issues in this department. Firstly, Parfitt’s a big loss. He’s one of the best tacklers in the AFL and is Geelong’s 4th best clearance player this year (per total numbers). If it’s Holmes playing more midfield in Parfitt’s absence, that’s a big downgrade. Narkle simply has to play in place of Parfitt – he has so much X-factor and has the ability to do one or two spectacular things that could change the game. The other is Higgins but both suffer from the same worry – can they run out the game? And this isn’t a regular season fitness threshold either where both have had issues – this is a preliminary final where aerobically players are challenged to the brink. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Simpson that plays as a forward and Duncan pushes back into the midfield.

Selwood looks to have lost a step. He started like a house on fire against GWS but only amassed 14 disposals for the game – his lowest ever in a final. Dangerfield isn’t a 100% and it shows. Duncan and Guthrie are the two. If both can play to their strengths, Guthrie on the inside and Duncan on the outside, Geelong will get chances inside 50 to kick a winning score.

Match Ups

The midfield match up is quality with Geelong and Melbourne boasting a number of inside midfield bulls complimented with outside metres gained and defensively orientated players. Oliver, Petracca, Viney, Harmes, Sparrow, Langdon and Brayshaw vs. Dangerfield, Selwood, Guthrie, Duncan, Menegola, Smith and Holmes.

The first thing to note is that it’d be foolish for Geelong to leave Clayton Oliver untagged. He was magical in the second half of Round 23 (as he has been for most of this year) and provides much of Melbourne’s offensive drive with his quick hands and forward momentum out of stoppages. With O’Connor out, there’s no real lockdown player available. If I’m Geelong, I’m sacrificing Guthrie’s offensive game and giving him that responsibility. Oliver is too important to how Melbourne set up defensively because he creates so much of Melbourne’s forward momentum. Restrict Olivers presence at the stoppage and on the spread (where he is the first to every ground ball) and Geelong will slow down Melbourne’s transition game. It won’t happen but it should.

It may be an unpopular opinion but Stanley matches up well on Gawn as his size and athleticism bothers Gawn. In Round 23, Stanley won the match up for most of the night until Gawn got a hold of him in the last quarter with his work rate and physicality in the contest. It’s certainly not as big of an advantage as many would assume. However, it’s a lot of responsibility on Stanley especially given how different Gawn and Jackson are as ruckman. Both can hurt the opposition in their own unique way – Jackson at ground level with his follow up work and Gawn’s intercept play behind the ball and his ability to get to multiple contests.

Here’s how I see the forward/defensive match ups shaping up. The main ones are May on Hawkins, Petty on Cameron with Lever likely taking Ratagoleua and Hibberd on Rohan or Close. Prior to the Smith injury, Lever would have played small with Smith taking Esava. The casual fan wouldn’t think much of Smith’s injury but its crucia in the context of this game. Smith provides positional versatility to free up Lever to play his natural intercepting game. That’s more difficult now as Geelong go tall in their forward line.

We sound like a broken record but it continues to ring true, the Lever match up is key for Geelong. Geelong used Dahlhaus in Round 23 with varying results. It worked well in patches especially when Dahlhaus pushed Lever up the ground but failed miserably late when Geelong looked to play safe protecting their lead and kicked long to Lever who dropped off and intercepted. If Higgins is named instead of Narkle he could be an interesting choice for Lever albeit one fraught with danger given Higgins’ inability to provide forward half pressure. Esava gives Geelong a different look to the Round 23 team Melbourne faced and it’ll be interesting to see whether he engages Lever. It feels like Geelong are a little too tall with all three of Hawkins, Cameron and Esava but if it forces Lever to respect Esava on the lead and not drop off – it’s a win for Geelong.

If I’m Melbourne, I would look to generate the match up on Close most likely and give Salem the role on Rohan. If I’m Geelong, I want Rohan to engage Lever when Esava’s in the ruck given he’s quick on a lead and dangerous in the air. Rohan started quickly against GWS – if he can do the same against Melbourne with Lever matched up on him, Lever will begin to think twice about dropping off.

The other defender Geelong have to be weary of and put some time into is Salem. He creates so much of Melbourne’s offensive drive out of the backline and seems to always alleviate pressure for Melbourne by finding a mark.

The big one for Geelong is Cameron. He looked like himself last week and was so dangerous both in general play with his field kicking and his finishing ability for goal. Petty’s become a terrific defender for Melbourne and has hardly put a foot wrong but Cameron’s versatility at ground level will bother him. Again, this ties back into our points above. Melbourne want to eliminate any possibility of Cameron and Petty in a one on one scenario without defensive representation from another Melbourne defender. Hawkins got a hold of May in Round 23 – something that doesn’t happen often. After kicking 5 last week, he’s in good form and it feels like he needs to be for Geelong to kick a winning score. It’s going to be an exhilarating duel betweenarguably the best key defender and best key forward in the AFL.

And at the other end of the ground – Blicavs on Brown, Kolodjashnij on Fritsch, Henderson on McDonald, Henry on Neal-Bullen, Bews on Pickett and Tuohy on Spargo. Henry’s the interceptor for Geelong and has grown into one of the more underrated ones in the AFL. Melbourne will need to make sure that the ball is brought to ground in Henry’s vicinity especially because he’s going to drop off on Neal-Bullen. Neal-Bullen’s a good player though and is great at getting up the ground as a high half forward to both apply pressure and be involved in counter attack opportunities. He had 27 disposals in the qualifying final – an impressive feat and one that would seriously impress anyone who’s played that high half forward role before (easily the hardest position in football). Tuohy didn’t play in Round 23 and was Geelong’s best players last week. Expect Sparrow to spend time on him similar to his role on Rich last week to restrict his drive off half back.

Blicavs matches up on Brown and has the size and aerobic capacity to bother him in the air. McDonald’s been flat the last two weeks – the time off with injury has hurt his form. Melbourne would be hoping he can get back to his mid season form because if not, it places a lot of pressure on Brown and Fritsch to kick multiple scores. As we stated in the Brisbane Melbourne match up, Fritsch is the danger man and boy did he prove that against Brisbane (four goals). Kolodjashnij seems like the logical match up but Fristch’s elusiveness and smarts at ground level will trouble Kolodjashnij.

And now for the weekly FTP ‘subtle player who goes under radar but can be dynamic with a number of important passages’. I promise we’ll think of a better name! Last week, our man Vandermeer kicked the match winning point against the Lions – pretty important if you ask me.

This week it’s Charlie Spargo, who plays a similar position to Vandermeer. Spargo’s a really smart decision maker – arguably Melbourne’s best going inside 50. He also bobs up for really important goals – kicking a few against Geelong in Round 23. Much like Weightman, he can generate high tackle free kicks with a similar technique and often draws them in forward 50 scenarios resulting in shots on goal. He also kicked a few against Geelong in the 2018 elimination final and could have some big moments on Friday night.

Prediction

Something tells me the Demons won’t beat Geelong twice in the span of a month but based on everything we’ve seen, it’s hard to go past them. Besides an early goal for goal start, Melbourne controlled the Qualifying Final and were able to dictate favourable field position against a team who’s arguably better at it than them. The offensive/defensive battle will be super interesting and it’s going to be intriguing to see how well Geelong can control the outside of the contest and generate uncontested possessions and marks. Whilst they were better last week, Geelong were challenged by an undermanned GWS side and gave them multiple chances to get back into the game. Melbourne’s a whole different beast and one that will starve Geelong of valuable scoring opportunities. The one area that we failed to mention but is probably the biggest factor of them all is goal kicking accuracy. Melbourne have been one of the worst goal kicking sides this year and if they don’t take their chances early – Geelong are every chance. Melbourne by 17.

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Last week’s Semi Final Previews

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

Semi Final Preview #2

The AFL semi finals are here!

For in depth analysis on the second Qualifying final last week and a deep dive into Brisbane click here

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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 Sslow 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

Its 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.

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Last week’s Qualifying Final Previews

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

Semi Final Preview #1

FTP analysis on the Semi Final’s is here!

For our in depth analysis on the first Qualifying final – click here

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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!

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Last week’s Qualifying Final Previews

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

Qualifying Final Preview #2

FTP analysis on the second qualifying final between Melbourne and Brisbane!

For our analysis on the Geelong Port Adelaide final click here

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Melbourne vs Brisbane Qualifying Final Preview

This is a match up made in heaven. Two teams with dominant midfields and exciting players on every line. There are well over ten match winners on either side. Whilst that may be common given the very nature of teams who finish in the top 4, this matchup feels like it has that extra layer of talent. Gawn, Oliver, Petracca, Neale, Lyons, McCluggage and Zorko are all top 30 players in the AFL and that’s just in the midfield of this matchup.

Brisbane and Melbourne have similar styles in many respects and value the same metrics in how they want the game to look. Given that they have similar strengths – expect fireworks. Both teams will look to get on top in similar areas of the game which should result in an extremely high standard of football. Let’s do a deep dive into game styles, potential match ups and our prediction:

In the clinches

Brisbane and Melbourne value winning the ball inside. Unlike Richmond and their premiership team who were mediocre in winning contested possessions, both Melbourne and the Lions emphasis their inside work to generate forward 50 entries. Melbourne are ranked 1st in the AFL for contested possessions with Brisbane ranked 2nd. This ties in mostly to the personnel in their midfields and how both coaches want to control the territory battle. Oliver’s the best contested ball winner in the AFL but Lyons isn’t too far behind. Petracca, Viney, Neale and Zorko are all solid contested ball winners. Expect heat around the ball early. Whichever midfield group can settle first will have a big advantage.

As we saw last week in the crazy Geelong Melbourne game, clearances and especially quality clearances are king. Geelong kicked four goals in the space of three minutes purely because they were able to exit through the front of the stoppage. Teams who are able to come through the front give their forwards quick supply with 1v1 match ups. This creates a range of positive outcomes for that team, including a greater likelihood for contested marks, free kicks or a dangerous live ball scenario.

Melbourne will take a lot of learnings from that Geelong purple patch but so should Brisbane. Melbourne at times are unbalanced in how they set up and Brisbane will look to attack this. Letting teams come through the front of the stoppage is death and Melbourne can become care free because of their dominance in the ruck. Gawn likes this back hit to a midfielder running into his 6 o’clock but it’s dangerous with pressure on that midfielder given there’s space for Brisbane’s sweeper to work into (McCluggage) if they obtain possession. Cutting through the back of a centre clearance is effective when it works but opens a team up completely on the opposite side if it doesn’t result in a clean possession.

Because Gawn wins most hit outs, Melbourne’s midfielders set up assuming either a possession gain or forward momentum of the ball. This at times exposes the front of their stoppage. Melbourne need to change this up – Oliver is far too aggressive for someone in the sweeper role here. Brisbane will make you pay for these mistakes just as much as Geelong did.

It may be surprising given their midfield talent and ruck dominance but Melbourne struggle to restrict opposition clearances. Yes, they rank 5th in the AFL for clearance differential which puts them with the better sides of the AFL. Yet, compare that to Brisbane who are 2nd in that area and are the best clearance winning team on average – it’s a point of difference for the Lions. Especially around centre clearances where Brisbane are dominant, ranked 1st in the AFL compared to Melbourne’s 7th. They are disciplined in how they set up and given their blend of smaller, stockier midfielders (Neale, Lyons) to go with outside pace and class (Zorko, McCluggage) they have balance in their attributes.

Even with Gawn’s likely dominance over McInerney, Brisbane must win this area of the game to beat Melbourne. Much of Melbourne’s score generation occurs out of their defensive 50 rebound and intercept game. In the second half dismantling of Brisbane in Round 12, Melbourne outscored Brisbane 36 to 1 from intercepts. Brisbane can’t allow Melbourne to win the clearance count and thus control the territory battle because they will naturally find other ways to score outside of winning clearances anyway. It gives Brisbane little margin for error to kick a winning score if they lose this metric. We can’t stress enough the importance of Brisbane winning the clearance count as a starting point because of this second fact. Winning the clearance count and generating quality clearances are two very separate things. All year, Melbourne have made it difficult for opposition teams to consistently get the latter.

Melbourne rank 1st for tackles in the AFL even though they are 4th in the league for disposals. They hunt opposition teams and force them into rushed disposals, which in turn allows May, Lever and Petty to feast on ill directed kicks. But they are susceptible to lapses – especially in centre clearances. Brisbane will get on top in this area but it’ll be about the quality of their clearances. This is where their kick to mark ratio (as discussed below) is important. There will be heat around the ball but if Brisbane can refrain from quick kicks and use hands out of stoppage when necessary, it gives their forwards a better chance with favourable kicks. These are scenarios where rushed kicks worked to Melbourne’s advantage even though clear handball options were there.

The added benefit for Brisbane in winning the clearance battle is that it puts Melbourne in the difficult position to work their way through Brisbane’s defensive press. This is not an easy task with Andrews setting up behind the ball. These are the two best midfields in the AFL and given how important the field territory battle is to both sides – whichever group wins in this area will likely win the game.

Around the Ground

Here is where the match up highlights a key dichotomy between these two teams. Brisbane prefer to generate forward momentum through kicking whilst Melbourne enjoy a blend of kicks and handballs. Brisbane’s kick-to-handball split is 64/36% – Melbourne’s is 59/41%. Brisbane rarely over possess the ball by hand.

Handball chains in tight pressurised scenarios are a real high risk high reward scenario. Brisbane prefer quick kicks and hope for reset stoppages even if those kicks aren’t to a forwards advantage. Whilst Melbourne are certainly happy to do the same – they are far more likely to chain out with handballs in that same scenario. Multiple handball chains can lead to an obvious benefit – a player who gets put into time and space to direct their kick.

But Melbourne need to be careful to not over possess by hand and it’ll be interesting to see their split on Saturday. Brisbane will invite those handballs because their pressure around the ball is elite. If Melbourne over use handballs, Brisbane will cause mid ground turnovers and catch Melbourne’s defence out in 1v1 scenarios. This gives them the best chance of scoring against this defence. For Brisbane to generate a winning score their scores from turnovers must be high. Melbourne’s defence is too sound with elite defensive players who rarely make mistakes in the air (Lever, May, Petty). Brisbane just aren’t going to get many easy looks. Melbourne have conceded the least amount of points this year for a reason – they don’t give up easy goals. But Melbourne need to make sure they don’t shoot themselves in the foot with their kick to handball ratio and I expect their kicking splits to come up as the pressure of finals is evident.

It surprised me that Brisbane actually generate more marks around the ground than Melbourne. As stated, Brisbane value the territory game with their kicking. But this is a really mature Brisbane team who have pivoted from their initial schematics under Fagan. They understand that one style won’t fit all and that’s been so evident this year. When they’ve felt momentum go against them, they’ve shifted from their territory game at all costs to a more controlled possession game. They are comfortable generating continuous marks for periods at a time and using the corridor as an avenue to switch between gears.

In 2019, they were too stagnant with their ball movement and didn’t generate enough viable scoring opportunities through the corridor. They ranked 11th for marks that year. Last year, they went drastically the other way – ranking 3rd in marks per game. This placed emphasis on an attacking game style where they incorporated high mark tallies and used the corridor aggressively. This worked well until they came across a team far more advanced in that play style than them in the preliminary final. This year is a healthy blend (ranked 7th) and gives them flexibility to hold up in different match ups.

Melbourne are happy for Brisbane to play this way. They feast on mid ground turnovers. The more Brisbane decide to possess the ball rather than play their territory game, the greater opportunity for Melbourne to punish them on the counter attack. It’s going to be an intriguing battle of give and take between these two teams.

Defensive Control

As alluded to earlier, both defences are a byproduct of their midfield output. If Brisbane create advantageous field position, it allows their defenders to be aggressive with their starting positions. This is because if Brisbane horde an opposition team in their forward half of the ground, it allows for their defensive press to squeeze teams in with less of the ground to cover. Hence they can be aggressive in how they set up.

Both Melbourne and Brisbane are so organised in how they set up defensively with their positioning and intercept players. They block exits out of defence and place so much pressure around the ball that it forces teams into numerous turnovers until they usually score. It’s no surprise that these two teams are ranked in the top 4 for Inside 50 differential (Brisbane 2nd Melbourne 3rd).

Melbourne’s back 6 deservedly get the praise and most of the attention when we discuss them as the best defence in the league. But Melbourne are really good at defending the length and width of the entire ground, which brings their defenders into the game. As we saw against Geelong, they cover off exits quickly and rarely leave themselves open for teams to take advantage with a switch on the open side. Look at how well they zone off Brisbane here before forcing Bailey down the line where May is waiting.

Key Match Ups

I could write an entire piece just on the match ups for this game. I’m going to steer clear of the midfield given most discussion points in this article have related to quite a few of the superstars in this area.

The usual suspects for Melbourne are May and Lever. We’ve gone in depth about Lever’s impact so we won’t repeat ourselves but obviously his match up is important. Melbourne will no doubt look to generate the favourable match up on a small so he can play off him and intercept. But Brisbane’s small’s need sufficient attention given their aerial capacity. Geelong played Dahlhaus on Lever and it was effective for three quarters. He worked high up the ground and got Lever out of his comfort zone by making him respect his leads. But game planning for Lever takes discipline over four quarters. Lever was instrumental in the last quarter comeback for Melbourne. I like the McCarthy match up for Brisbane. Lever will have to respect McCarthy’s aerial talents and has the pace to drag him up the ground. Just don’t expect Lever to follow him. Lever will look to engage Cockatoo most likely.

May played on Daniher last time but could go to Cameron. He enjoys the match ups on medium forwards although he has struggled with those types recently. Cameron will look to play higher up the ground and beat May back with his pace but May will let him roam up the ground. Cameron needs to ensure when he pushes high that he puts himself in dangerous positions otherwise May will cut off most of Brisbanes advances further down the ground. Cameron’s been hit and miss in the finals – he’s either one of Brisbane’s best or is unsighted and struggles with the added attention. Given Hipwood’s absence, Cameron has to play well for Brisbane to generate a winning score. If May doesn’t take Cameron, expect Salem to have that role. Petty should take Daniher whereas Smith will take McStay / Fullarton. Smith’s been preferred over Hibberd in recent weeks because of his positional versatility. So don’t be surprised if Smith plays on both a small and a tall in this game to free up either May or Lever to intercept. Hipwood’s absence will be unfortunately noticeable for Brisbane – a player who has gotten hold of Melbourne’s defence in recent years.

On the other side of the ground, how Brisbane decide to use Andrews will be pivotal. Brown’s form is too hard to deny and Gardiner will struggle with his length. Brown didn’t play the last time these two teams faced but Andrews seems like the natural match up. It’s likely Andrews takes Brown early but looks to zone off him depending on how Brisbane set up the ground from their midfield play. Starcevich should take Pickett even though he had Fritsch last game. This will be an important match up. Starcevich should have Pickett’s measure as he’s such a disciplined defender yet Pickett was electric against Brisbane last time with three goals in the second half. Pickett in recent months has struggled with the physicality of lockdown defenders who pay him far more attention but with his X-factor, he only needs a pocket of space to change the game.

Adams on McDonald, Gardiner on Fritsch. If Gardiner can bother Fritsch with his physicality and deter his impact at ground level – it’s a big tick for Brisbane’s chances. When Fritsch is one of Melbourne’s best players – they rarely lose. He’s one of Melbourne’s best ball users, averages the most shots on goal a game in the team (3.5) and is dangerous both in the air and at ground level. This is one of those match ups that won’t get discussed much but is so imperative for Brisbane to get right to win the game.

So who wins?

Let’s preface this by saying it’s the finals, anything can happen. But Melbourne are favourites and deserve to be. Melbourne’s defence is so impenetrable and is playing with such great cohesion that Melbourne can afford to play a bad game and still win. Actually, most of their wins this year have been been through the method of grind it out defensively, restrict opposition scores and frustrate them into mistakes and turnovers. Brisbane as a starting point need to win the clearance and territory battle. If they do this, they are more likely to force turnovers in dangerous areas of the ground where Melbourne’s defence can’t squeeze them in. Additionally, winning the clearance battle may force Melbourne’s defenders into 1v1 scenarios which will give them every chance to kick a winning score. Still, it’ll be a tall order and the loss of Hipwood cannot be understated given his importance to Brisbane’s forward structure. What a match up. Expect fireworks.

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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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FTP # 22

FTP #22 is here!

We have an exciting edition this week – discussing the unicorn of the AFL, a talented high draft pick from GWS and a player who has revived his career with a positional move. If you enjoyed this article – please subscribe!

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1. Luke Jackson – Rising Star and Unicorn of the AFL

Luke Jackson (#6) is the 2021 Rising Star favourite as a ruck. Let that sink in for a second. No other Rising Star winner has played the ruck position (I’m not counting Koschitzke). It’s incredibly uncommon given the very nature of the position. It takes a long time for rucks to develop and physically mature to compete against their AFL contemporaries. We discussed English a few weeks ago and the strides he’s made but that occurred over multiple years. In just his second season, Jackson is exhibiting some terrifying signs for opposition teams. It isn’t just that he’s starting to show dominant patches but it’s how he’s doing it.

Jackson’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his ability at ground level. Jackson plays like an extra midfielder around the ground and at stoppages. It’s much of the same as Grundy – they aren’t a non-factor once the ball hits the ground. In fact, they are dangerous ground level players. But even Grundy didn’t show these kinds of signs this early on. Jackson averages 4.1 ground ball gets a game and whilst he only averages 13.4 disposals, that number will continue to rise to Grundy’s level around the 20’s. He’s shown flashes already with three games this year over 20+ disposals. Jackson has clean, quick hands and always follows up after a ruck contest. When he extracts the ball, he raises his arms above his head out of the reach of would be tacklers and is great at dishing the ball over his head to teammates.

Sometimes Jackson does things at ground level with such control and creativity. It doesn’t make sense for a midfielder let alone a ruckman to be doing it. The execution of this hit up kick will come with more experience.

Watching Jackson, it’s evident that he used to play basketball. He has great control on the move to tap the ball up to himself when he can’t grab it.

Where most of the improvement will arise for Jackson is in his ruck craft and tap work . He isn’t a tall enough ruck (199cm) to be a dominant tap ruckman but given his soft touch he should be able to finesse the ball to his midfielders as he continues to put on size. Jackson has put on 10kg over the summer and it shows during games. Whilst he is unable to push ruckman off the line and he does lose hitouts to taller ruckman, he’s agile. He’s started to realise that he can tap the ball to himself and exit the front of stoppages. This is so dangerous when a ruckman has this advantage to exit through the front. The percentages on this ending in a goal would be very high.

Around the ground, Jackson is becoming a genuine threat in the air. He is averaging 3.2 marks a game including 1 contested mark. Those numbers are identical to Grundy already. This is the area where Jackson has big upside given he wasn’t drafted as a natural forward. Yet, every once in a while he’ll take a mark like this – which makes you question where his ceiling ends.

This is quite frightening for a ruckman who already possesses such elite qualities at ground level. He’s beginning to hit the scoreboard too. Jackson’s averaging 0.8 goals a game – 1st in the AFL amongst ruckman. He does spend more time as a forward given Max Gawn plays for Melbourne. But this argument could be spun the other way. Tall forwards can take years to develop before they start to consistently hit the scoreboard. At 19, Jackson’s already doing this while playing a significant portion of his game in the ruck.

Jackson is a real unicorn in the AFL. For those that are a bit confused by the term ‘unicorn’, it originated in the NBA describing Kristaps Porzinigis. A unicorn is a player who is considered both versatile and dynamic. In Porzingis’s instance, a tall player at 7’3 but has (or used to have) the skills of a guard. We hadn’t really seen someone of his height shoot the 3 ball like that. Jackson is the same as a ruck.

He is versatile enough to play literally every position of the ground. Don’t be surprised when Melbourne play him as an actual midfielder at some point in his career. It’s definitely going to happen. Jackson has the upside to be the best ruckman in the AFL because of how balanced he is in multiple facets of the game whilst simultaneously possessing significant upside. At 19, his impact at AFL level as a ruck is unprecedented. Yet, his accomplishments may border on unprecedented as well. Jackson has a chance to be one of the most accomplished 2nd year players in league history if he wins the Rising Star and Melbourne win the premiership. He and Joel Selwood would be the only two players to both win a rising star and a premiership medal in the same year.

It was gusty for Melbourne to take a ruckman with pick 3 when they had one of the best in the league. Melbourne saw it differently, they weren’t taking just a ruckman, they were taking a player who was skilled enough to play any position on the ground. They had the opportunity to mold Jackson into who they wanted him to be. Jackson is a true unicorn of the AFL – a player that we haven’t quite seen before. I can’t wait to see what he eventually becomes.

2. Tanner Bruhn

Much of the process of analysing a high draft pick revolves around finding their identifiable AFL traits. Things they do in games that point to their high draft pick price tag. The one or two qualities that make them stand out from the pack. Early on, it may only be seen in moments or patches in games. It may even take an entire season before it starts to show. It’s a combination of experience, confidence, talent and an AFL environment conducive to positive development. Whilst they all play a role, the fourth factor far outweighs the other three in importance.

When those four factors are in unison, a player exhibits the traits that made them dominant junior footballers and they begin to execute them at AFL level. Yes, there are some that show it straight away and consistently in their first season. These are usually players that are destined to become stars of the AFL (Eg. Walsh). For others, it takes some time and patience for clubs and fans alike and that’s common. The only worry among a fanbase is that they may be confusing patience for blind optimism. In that scenario, it may be that their qualities never appear at AFL level.

Lets link this discussion to a young prospect – GWS’s pick 12 Tanner Bruhn (#5). Admittedly, it was a slow burn. As to be expected coming into a team stocked with young talent on every line. Now later in the season? We’re starting to see flashes of why he went at pick 12. The numbers aren’t eye catching, especially given Bruhn’s role has been predominantly as a small forward. As we pointed out about Taranto, this isn’t an easy midfield or team to break into. But he’s playing midfield minutes now. Whilst we’ll continue to question Leon Cameron and his decision to keep playing Taranto as a deep forward (one week after he was BOG as a midfielder), Bruhn has taken his opportunity with both hands. Against Richmond, Bruhn had 14 disposals and four clearances. Bruhn’s quick to gather a loose ball and has sharp hands out of a stoppage.

Compared to his first games, Bruhn looks more composed with ball in hand. He isn’t rushing his decisions. This outside of the foot kick to Hopper’s advantage is a difficult kick to execute and Bruhn does it with ease.

Bruhn is a classy player and it shows with his field kicking. Here, he has great penetration on his kick and keeps it low, allowing it to travel to Sproule quick enough before Vlaustin can impact.

Bruhn is confident in the air even if small in stature. He has great ball control and is able to keep the ball in front of him. Here, he is courageous in going back with the flight and is rewarded for it in a big moment of the game.

This is the exciting part for GWS fans. Bruhn has shown he is capable of damaging ball use and is starting to show he is an impactful stoppage player. The hope is that Bruhn continues to show more and more as his confidence grows. A player like Bruhn may go from having little impact at the start of the year to all of a sudden a number of qualities that will continues to grow. Such is the upside with high AFL draft talent. Bruhn and Green are the future of GWS’s midfielder – not that many of their stars in Kelly, Taranto and Hopper are going anywhere anytime soon. Bruhn has a chance to be the next midfield star for a team that continues to nail their draft picks and fight for finals. The future is bright for GWS.

3. Jayden Laverde – a career revival

Time and time again, we see players thrive in new roles and save their careers. It can happen when we least expect due to injuries, as we’ve seen with Josh Schache who has been solid as a key defender (wiping the Essendon game from our memory). An example of a move that was more orchestrated by design throughout the pre season but undoubtedly is the same in terms of circumstance is Jayden Laverde’s (#15) move to a key defender role. Originally, Laverde was an athletic medium forward who struggled with injuries and consistency. During his six years as a forward, he averaged 11 disposals, 3.7 marks, 1.9 inside 50’s and 0.8 goals a game. Hardly exciting numbers. It was hard for Laverde to have a great impact on games given that before this year he had only played 10 games in a season once and only averaged 7 games in his other seasons. I’d describe Laverde as an almost player. He would have moments in games that flash signs of an exciting forward prospect. He could also go games at a time without being noticed. He showed enough but injuries kept getting in the way. After a late game last year in defence and injuries at the start of the year to key defensive pillars (Hurley, Ambrose) Laverde was trialled as a defender in 2021.

The results have been overwhelming positive. Take the weekend as an example. Laverde matched up on Ben King and kept him scoreless with 5 disposals. Whilst it must be noted that Essendon did dominate most of the game and supply was limited for King, supply has been limited for him all year and he’s still 9th in the Coleman. Regardless of the oppositions play, Laverde was outstanding. He had 17 disposals, 3 contested marks and 9 intercepts.

This isn’t a one time scalp either. Laverde has been a shut down defender all year. Laverde even limited Buddy to two goals and we know how well he usually plays against Essendon! Much of the athleticism that generated glimpses of extraordinary highlights are evident in his defence. Because of his pace, he is able to make up ground quickly and close down leading space.

Laverde uses his strength to advantage. When his opponent is out of position, he’ll leverage this strength and move opponents out of the way. King struggled with this kind of physicality all day.

Laverde’s ball use isn’t much to write about but that’s not uncommon for most key defenders. He is reliable enough and can change the angles and switch the ball soundly as a key defender (he goes at 80% but most of these are kicks in the backline). With offensive generators like Heppell, Hind, Redman and Ridley, he doesn’t need to be adventurous by foot and plays within himself and his role. Whether it be a master stroke of wisdom or just luck, Essendon have pivoted well in this scenario. Not just with Laverde either. If there was a winner for a ‘saved their career’ award in the AFL, it’s likely a tie between Jayden Laverde and James Stewart. This article could be written about Stewart himself, who has had quite a similar pathway to Laverde given his background as an athletic forward. Nonetheless, Essendon took a risk playing both in new positions. Laverde has adjusted to the role perfectly and has now has made it his own. At 25 years old, Laverde can continue to expand his game. Some find a way to remain alive in the AFL by being open minded and flexible to adjusting their skillset to a different position. Laverde has shown us that he has those qualities and is now set to be rewarded with a new contract.

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Our piece on Jake Lever

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

The Intercept King

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Jake Lever – putting his year into context

Jake Lever’s (#8) an All Australian defender this year and one of the best in the AFL. The plaudits should come his way given he’s one of the most impactful players on one of the best teams in the AFL. Yet, it feels like he isn’t getting as much credit as he deserves. This is especially the case when you begin to put his year into context. Lever has averaged 4.2 intercept marks and 10.6 intercepts a game (Ranked 2nd and 1st in the AFL). Per Fox Footy, no other player in AFL history has averaged more than four a game for an entire season since statistics have been recorded (both Lever and Jones are on track to break this). It’s a historical feat for a defender that was first maligned and questioned when he came to Melbourne. Part of the scrutiny was warranted due to how much Melbourne paid to acquire Lever (two first round picks). Yet, his form and more importantly his chemistry with May are key reasons why Melbourne are a genuine premiership contender this year.

Much of Lever’s intercepting dominance is by design. Melbourne will often set up with a loose behind the ball given Lever’s marking ability and his ability to read the play. We explained earlier this year how Melbourne have tried to manufacture this as much as possible. But for this to be an advantage for Melbourne, it requires a player who has both the smarts and timing to pull it off. Lever has perfected this role. For NFL fans, Lever plays like a free safety. He roams an area of space to close down leading lanes or create hesitancy for the ball carrier when they look up and se Lever. Adelaide overassessed the ball by hand multiple times on the weekend because each time they’d look to kick, there was Lever in the perfect position to impact ahead of the ball.

Look at how he dictates Cripps’s decision making by hedging into Darling’s leading space. Lever defends both the corridor option and the boundary. He forces Cripps to think twice and ultimately hold onto the ball. This is a win for Melbourne in most instances given it was a fast play scenario for West Coast. (Yes, Cripps then kicks this goal with the wind behind him)

Melbourne have full confidence in Lever’s ability to read the play and provide an overall advantage to the team. Melbourne dare teams to allow them to generate a +1 with supreme confidence that Lever’s influence will outmatch any oppositions extra at either the stoppage or their own +1 defender. Lever’s role is eve more effective when Melbourne put enough pressure around the ball, as they have for most periods of this year.

What about when Lever can’t play as the extra? The intercepts still arise in a normal defensive scenario because Lever is aggressive in his starting position. He likes to play in front of his direct opponent and launches to mark. Lever has full confidence in his ability to read the ball better in the air than his opponent. Even when it isn’t in his opponents immediate vicinity, he has conviction in his decisions and backs himself to come off his own man to impact another contest.

The knock on Lever has always been his one on one defence. He may have been poor to begin his career, but it’s overstated now. The numbers suggest in defensive one on one scenarios Lever is solid with a contested defense loss rate of 29%. Whilst Andrews, May and Jones have lower loss rates, Lever is around the mark or better than Taylor, Collins and Grimes. Lever can get pushed off the ball by stronger forwards at times but it’s not a common occurrence nor is it a weakness. It’s more that he is so much more dominant as an intercept ‘come off his man and mark’ defender than he is assuming a one on one lockdown role. I have no doubt that May could play this role to the same level if not better than Lever. But May is a far better one on one defender thus providing better balance to Melbourne’s defence . This attests more to the all round brilliance of May as both a one on one and intercept defender than to Lever’s inability to defend 1v1.

There’s no selfishness to Lever’s game. He doesn’t launch for his marks when he is out of position. He often correctly decides when to spoil instead of mark, understanding that in certain scenarios a throw in is a better result for Melbourne than a risk that a difficult intercept mark isn’t taken and the ball remains alive at ground level.

Lever averages 6 spoils to go along with those intercept numbers. Only 4 other players average 3+ intercept marks and 6+ spoils a game – Andrews, Weitering, Jones and Taylor. All four are All-Australian possibilities. So not only does Lever generate counter attack opportunities through his marking prowess, he defends strongly in the air when required.

Lever’s ball use is sound for a key position player. He has a nice step out of traffic to give himself extra time and is reliable enough by foot (80% kicking efficiency). Believe it or not, Lever’s capable ball use is important considering he constantly wins possession back for Melbourne with his intercepts. He is commonly the first player in a new potential scoring chain so it’s essential that Lever can hit targets in order for Melbourne to take full advantage of their +1.

Here’s a prime example of this. Lever reads this Keays kick before anyone else and drifts back to mark. But then he also has the vision and ability to hit this aggressive kick and set up a scoring opportunity.

At the time, the price paid for Lever was a massive overpay by current AFL trading standards. Today, Melbourne would feel as if they easily won the trade and it’s hard to argue with them. Lever is a genuine match up nightmare for opposition teams as a defender! Most haven’t figured out how to quell his influence even with a forward tag. But how to stop his impact is a difficult problem for teams to solve. Teams have tried to isolate Lever away from the immediate vicinity of marking contests but Lever has shown that he’ll zone off on that player at every opportunity he gets. Getting the right match to make Lever accountable is difficult because he dictates who he plays on. If it isn’t a lead up forward that the opposition has emphasised going through it won’t make Lever accountable. He matched up a number of times on Murphy and McAdams on the weekend and knew exactly when to peel off them and impact in the air. Teams need to go in with a clear match up and plan for Lever otherwise he will continue to have a significant impact in the finals.

Outside of everything he does individually, the Demons would note that he provides so much more. Don’t be surprised if Lever is Melbourne’s next captain. He’s a general on the field and is always coordinating traffic from behind. This year, Lever has been interviewed a few times post game and he always seems to have lost his voice. His communication out on the ground is remarkable – it’s noticeable live at the ground. Melbourne are so organised as a back six group and Lever is the key reason why. How Melbourne are positioned behind the ball and how organised they are can’t be measured by statistics but it’s evident that Lever puts his stamp on the game both through his own play and his voice. The trade was worth it simply because of Lever’s leadership alone.

Jake Lever is arguably the most important player on the Demons for opposition teams to solve in the finals. Will teams allow Melbourne to generate Lever as the +1? Or put attention into him and not allow him to be comfortable in his free safety role? Lever is a master at this and will play even more of a pivotal role in the finals given the added pressure around the ball and higher amount of stoppages. It’s an exciting next month for the Melbourne Demons. They should be considered the favourite to win the flag from here. Lever is having a historical season – one that may result in the first Melbourne premiership since 1964. He has a chance to have a big say on whether that day finally eventuates.

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