I’d like to think over the last 12 months that readers have found me to be as balanced and level-headed as possible – maybe sometimes to a fault – and always trying to see how and why processes are being implemented on the field.
So with all that in mind, I’m not saying this lightly. After the performance against Fremantle, I’m very worried.
Not because of the final margin or how the scoreboard looked – although it was ugly – but because of the process for North Melbourne’s style of play.
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Before we get to North’s style of play against Fremantle, let’s take a step back and look at AFL trends. More specifically, how teams defend.
By and large, most clubs want to squeeze you in your defensive half, into a tighter and tighter space until you break and turn the ball over. In its best form, think of it like a boa constrictor.
It’s a large reason the AFL changed the kick-in rule, and why they constantly talk about making it easier for teams to take the ball from end to end. Clubs can be really good at defending in their forward half.
Now this isn’t to say it’s impossible to break a forward press. For example, West Coast do it by controlling possession through a kick-mark type game, whether short or long.
You can commit extra numbers around the ball and opt to use the extra space for slingshot type goals, ala Sydney of a few years ago; a tactic which has been adopted by almost every club at times since.
Those may be the most common methods – there are too many more to list – but the point here is to illustrate a variety of tactics which can be used, depending on what a playing list looks like and its respective skill sets.
The one tactic you rarely see is taking a running start and attempting to burst through a press, time and time again with quick hands and kamikaze style short kicking.
It’s because for this to work, everything has to be close to perfect. There is no margin for error, and if one does come, guess what? The ball goes straight back over your head for goals, time and time again.
Turning the ball over in any dangerous area is bad enough, but turning the ball over within 70 metres of the opposition goal almost guarantees a scoring shot against.
And if it has to be perfection to get through, your playing list better be something close to Geelong in 2007 to pull it off.
With that in mind, this tactic … this tactic is what North appeared to be attempting against Fremantle.
Here’s where the caveat comes. It may not have been North’s plan, but it ended up being Fremantle’s pressure which forced them into all sorts of rushed decisions. And if that’s the case, we can move from DEFCON 1 down to DEFCON 5. Because Fremantle was exceptional! It’s easy to forget the Dockers won six of their first eight at home against interstate sides last year.
But if it was North’s plan, alarm bells start to ring. The options to play across half-back all have their own unique set of skills which can help you win AFL games, but I’m willing to say very few are capable of pulling off a short, handball heavy, give and go type style through a press.
Especially when 2019’s early evidence suggests clubs have significantly improved their defensive structures across the board. This is what I wrote after JLT 1 against St Kilda:
“If we’re to file anything away, it’s how North’s half-backs struggled at times to rebound the ball coming out of the defensive 50. It’s nothing to spend too long thinking about given the lack of preparation time and a 124-degree day, but perhaps just something to keep in the back of your mind for down the track.”
Right now is ‘down the track’, and while St Kilda and Fremantle had good defensive afternoons against North, the fact is one (St Kilda) definitely won’t make the eight, and one (Fremantle) appears unlikely to. There are a heap of clubs which defend at a level above these two, which makes me wonder how North responds.
It’s almost impossible to change game style in-season. After a whole summer spent preparing to play in one fashion, to turn around and say, ‘actually, let’s try this instead’ rarely, if ever works.
So let’s hope it was just a hot opponent on a hot day which turned everything pear shaped, or I’ve misread things completely to the extent where we can look back on this post and laugh at it in a month or two.
Because the alternative isn’t worth thinking about.