In Jarrad Waite’s injury-enforced absence, North Melbourne has opted for a smaller forward line for the last three matches. It’s seen just one genuine key position tall (Ben Brown) alongside a tweener (Mason Wood) and another who is midfield size but can play as a marking forward (Jack Ziebell).
It’s reignited a couple of questions I’ve been pondering for some time: Is there an optimum number of tall players for North to have in its side? Is there a line between playing to your strengths with a number of talls and lacking enough run and carry to move the ball?
Except for extreme outliers (everyone under 180 centimetres or everyone over 195 centimetres), there really aren’t any right or wrong answers. But before we get into this here are the ground rules I’m working by. Key position/talls meaning:
- Forward, back or in the ruck
- Not suited/unable to spend time on ball, whether inside or outside
- A tweener (Ed Vickers-Willis, Mason Wood) being someone who plays in a similar role to the tall, but doesn’t quite fit the same bill
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How has North structured its side this season?
A priority has been to always have a tall who can pinch-hit as a second ruckman, eschewing the Richmond/Sydney method of essentially conceding the hit-out while their first-choice ruck is resting. That means you’re already at two – currently Todd Goldstein and Majak Daw.
Robbie Tarrant and Scott Thompson are locks each week, which means once you add Daw to the mix you have three genuine tall defenders, and four talls overall.
At the other end of the ground it’s been Ben Brown and Waite for most of the season. However, Waite’s injury coincided with the introduction of Paul Ahern and Tom Murphy into the 22. Perhaps to shield the two inexperienced players from too heavy a workload in their first few games, Waite’s replacement hasn’t been a like-for-like; the match committee opting instead for an extra runner with Wood and Jack Ziebell essentially shifting up to handle the hole left by Waite.
This is how the side has lined up week-by-week.
Should the forward structure be changed?
Brown is the forward line’s fulcrum – rightfully so – which means any potential changes must be made with him in mind. It boils down to two options while Waite is out of the side:
- Can another key position forward divert enough attention from Brown?
- Will another key position forward be able to offer what Waite does at ground level?
We can rule out going smaller, because that would only happen if North’s hand was forced through further injuries.
Based on the side in the VFL each week, any tall complement to Brown boils down to an opinion on whether Nick Larkey is ready to make the step up, and whether the two could work in tandem.
He’s come on in leaps and bounds with a full pre-season behind him, and he almost always looks genuinely threatening at VFL level. I’d initially test him out in a low-pressure situation where he doesn’t have to be relied upon, and then proceed from there. Next week against Gold Coast is a potential opportunity.
But it’s not as if there’s a lack of aerial presence without Larkey or Waite. Brown, Wood and Ziebell is perfectly acceptable while the midfield is performing at its current level, and can also be a medium-term solution for life after Waite.
Verdict: No change needed
Should the back structure be changed?
Everywhere you look at Arden Street, key defenders pop up. They’re on the field, off the field; probably helping out with the coffee cart at reception and selling memberships as well.
Having Ben McKay, Sam Durdin, Dan Nielson and Declan Watson on the list – in addition to Tarrant, Thompson and Daw – seems to indicate the current trend of playing three talls down back is here to stay, with the only caveat being weather conditions.
Playing three defenders of 193cm or above raises natural concerns; not necessarily about those playing down back, but more in what they can physically cope with coming from further up the field.
In large part, the value of defenders is dictated by the pressure their midfield can apply on the ball carrier. If there’s a genuine one-on-one situation and the forward has the luxury of his teammate kicking it to him from an uncontested position, it’ll end up with a shot on goal more often than not.
It’s no coincidence the three highest scores North has conceded this season – Round 3 v Melbourne, Round 6 v Port Adelaide and Round 12 v Geelong – have come on days where the midfield pressure hasn’t been up to the desired standard. There is only so much any defender can do if they’re battling against quality entries all day.
It all illustrates the much-improved job of the midfield in 2018, compared to 2017. The current outfit is able to pressure around the ball in such a way to make opposition forward entries as laboured as possible, which then plays into the hands – literally – of Tarrant, Thompson and Daw.
However, it does raise an interesting counter point. If the midfield pressure drops away, and the match committee deems something needs to be done to fix it, is a tall defender sacrificed for an extra midfield rotation?
That brings about a whole extra set of questions around who becomes the second ruckman, and whether dragging Brown away affects the forward structure, but nevertheless it’s a discussion point to keep an eye on.
Verdict: Leave the three tall defenders as is, subject to the midfield performance
Is North playing the best possible way for this team?
When North had a taller side earlier in the season, its kick-to-handball ratio was naturally higher as it attempted to play to its advantages. In the last three weeks, with just the one true key forward, there has been a conscious shift to utilise more handball – yes, even despite what feels like three defenders swarming Brown from siren to siren.
The number for Rounds 11-14 is slightly skewed by the game against Brisbane. But even if you take that afternoon out of the equation, the last two matches are still significantly more handball happy than what we saw in the first 10 weeks.
To put these numbers in context and place it in the bigger picture, the fact the method of ball movement has shifted with the height of the side is the most promising point to take out of this discussion topic. It means there is a ‘Plan B’, as much as I dislike using that terminology.
Flexibility is being shown, and above all there is a clear plan put in place for each week, with the players responding to it. Without the ability to adapt, a team is nothing. By putting in these foundations now, at a time when half the list is still very much in the embryonic stages, it exposes them to what is needed to succeed at AFL level.
Guys like Luke Davies-Uniacke, Jy Simpkin, Will Walker, Kyron Hayden, Tom Murphy and company – they’re the ones whose first experiences in the system are based around the importance of being able to adapt to whatever is required.
If they can take these learnings to heart and use them to grow as footballers, ultimately it puts North in an enviable position going forward. The side can have one key forward, two key forwards, one key defender, two key defenders – whatever suits the upcoming matchup best and still have the confidence in their plan to get the four points.
But that part is in the future, and currently there is a race towards finals to take care of. We’ll be back on Sunday morning to preview the Essendon clash with Five Questions. Until then, you can find me over on Twitter @rickm18.