We’ve heard plenty about how Richmond is currently cutting a swathe through the league, and with good reason – the Tigers are streets ahead of any other team in the AFL at the moment.
As we’ve seen in all their MCG games, every opponent has had at least a 15 to 20-minute period where they’ve been simply unable to stop the Tigers’ juggernaut. In Brisbane’s case it was closer to 120 minutes, but I digress.
So what do the Tigers do which makes them so hard to play against?
What follows is the basic outline of how they play, what they want to force you into doing, and what the options are to beat them. And to be clear, those options are much, much easier said than done.
If you enjoy this piece, you can find similar breakdowns on North’s centre bounce strategy against Hawthorn here, and why Blundstone Arena is a fortress here.
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Part 1: How Richmond defends
Richmond’s game is based around forcing turnovers through pressure around the ball. Now this isn’t a unique concept in the current AFL landscape – it’s what all teams attempt to do.
It’s the Tigers’ method of doing so which is better than anyone else, and what leaves teams with next to no margin for error with their ball movement. It’s all based around what I’ll call a two-layer system.
The first layer – the most important one – is around the ball. This is the one which you’ll see most on TV when the ball is either in dispute or after the opposition has just taken possession, and what rightfully gets most of the plaudits.
When the opposition gains possession in the back half of the ground, the Richmond layer around the ball tends to have three aims. In order of importance:
1: Force a turnover immediately
2: If a turnover can’t be forced, push the ball back and into a ‘corner’ for a stoppage
3: If there is no turnover or stoppage, make the opposition kick long and high
Watch this passage of play. Fremantle actually wins clean possession from the stoppage, but you wouldn’t know it by the speed Richmond’s players around the ball clamp down, tackle and force a turnover.
The ‘long and high’ part mentioned above in step three is where the second layer comes into effect. While Richmond has a much-talked about small forward line, it’s actually been playing quite a tall backline and the two work hand-in-hand.
In each of the last three wins, all four of David Astbury (195cm), Alex Rance (194cm), Dylan Grimes (193cm) and Nathan Broad (192cm) have been in the back six. Unsurprisingly it creates an aerial vacuum which is perfectly placed to take advantage of the work further up the field.
It’s because the second Richmond layer is a kick behind the play, ready to mop up any forced and rushed long kicks. You can have any forward line you like, but if the ball is coming to them high, slow and under pressure, they’ll lose most of their contests as the Richmond unit peels off their unused opponents to intercept mark.
Although the below screenshot is from Round 2 – before Broad came into the side – it illustrates the basic setup behind the play.
(Feel free to show this to someone when you’re trying to explain why ‘JUST KICK IT!!’ isn’t the best way to play)
The genius of the plan is in its simplicity. At its most basic level, Richmond is required to:
1: Swarm the contest with small forwards and midfielders to force the opposition into a turnover.
2: If the opposition does get possession away from the first layer, do everything possible to make those possessions long and rushed so the taller players in the second layer can use their aerial advantage.
What’s not to understand about that?
Part 2: Your options to beat Richmond’s defence
Richmond’s first layer around the ball is extremely aggressive as it pushes you back and essentially into a corner; as much as you can have a ‘corner’ on an oval anyway.
There are three options to escape the first layer. The first is through it with short handball, but it’s a kamikaze mission if you want to do that for four quarters. This leaves two choices – over it or around, which sounds self-explanatory until you realise how little margin for error there is.
If you go wide or switch – either by hand or foot – it has to be quick and decisive. Otherwise Richmond just shifts its first layer across and you’re back to square one with the ball in hand – if you haven’t turned it over already.
You have to be comfortable with your marking ability across all 22 players if you’re content to go wide slowly and assess options. Someone will be required to take a contested mark to keep the possession chain going sooner rather than later.
Going wide is the safer of the two options, while both the risk and reward are higher if you go over the first layer, but in front of the second.
As I touched on in the pre-season, if you kick over the first layer and hit a target, you’re in control of play. This kick has wiped out at least half of Richmond’s defensive setup and you’re likely to have one-on-one’s the rest of the way home, if not better.
If you elect to go over the initial press with handball, you have zero margin for error. Richmond has the option to swarm on you with everyone from both layers; it means if the handball is even slightly off, the Tigers at ground level significantly outnumber and stream down the field in waves for a shot on goal.
So those are your options to beat an intimidating defensive setup which is taking all before it. Which one is the best to take?
Part 3: Kick or handball?
Here is the opinion part of proceedings, which is where the fun begins.
What we can all agree on is whichever one you decide on, it must be decisive. Hesitation is death against Richmond.
The Tigers break opponents in last quarters; the gas tank hits empty in trying to stick with the premiers for 120 minutes.
It means any strategy has to be sustainable from siren to siren, which is why I believe a predominantly kicking-based style is the best way to approach moving the ball.
Using a kick-mark plan has two benefits. Not only does it – in theory – make it easier for you to control possession, it also allows you to control the tempo and take the Tigers out of their preferred style if you’re good enough to do so.
One game of Richmond’s 2018 stands as an outlier – when it lost to Adelaide in Round 2. It’s the only time this season the Tigers have scored less than 100, the only time the opposition has scored more than 100 and the Tigers’ lowest scoring final quarter.
How did Adelaide do it? Don Pyke has coached 56 games for the Crows. Only once have they had more kicks in a game than they did in Round 2. Never have they won the contested ball by as much as they did on that night – a whopping +48.
Adelaide won the ball and then maintained it, which restricted Richmond’s ability to score via turnovers. It meant the Crows controlled the tempo and the night was played on their terms.
Sounds easy on paper doesn’t it? Win the contest, maintain possession via foot so you can control the tempo, and Richmond won’t run over the top of you.
Then you realise Adelaide had to basically set Pyke-era records just to win the game on its own home ground, and the enormity of the task dawns.
If you’ve made it all this way, firstly congratulations and secondly thank you for reading. If you’d like to see more of these types of topics and posts, I’m always open for ideas over on Twitter @rickm18. I’ll be back on Sunday morning with the Five Questions preview. Until next time.