Round 2: The complications from an incomplete midfield mix

It’s funny how music has a way of so accurately capturing your mood. Yesterday I walked out of Marvel Stadium, turned the car on, plugged in the aux cable, and the first words that blared out of the speakers were “BURN IT ALL DOWN!” (Gasoline by I Prevail is the song, just for the record)

I’d wager I wasn’t the only one with those sentiments at about 4pm local time, having watched some promising moments fall to the wayside after conceding six of the last seven goals.

I wouldn’t have wagered that a few hours later I’d sit down to write this and start with positives which extended past the I Prevail album being top notch.

(If you’re after the negatives – and I don’t blame you – just scroll down a bit further)

Let’s start with the method of ball use. For those who either didn’t read last week or managed to successfully block it out of their mind, a refresher here on why handballing so much caused so much angst.

It was much better than last week, particularly early, approaching a 2:1 kick to handball ratio in the first quarter.

But more important than the raw numbers was how those disposals looked. Instead of those loopy, hospital handballs we saw so much of in Perth, there was swift, precise kicking with teammates moving into dangerous areas and then being decisive when it was their turn to go long.

A lot of that was because of Tom Campbell’s introduction into the team, and his presence a kick away from play when needed. Sometimes it just helps when you’re a really large human, and the associated benefits which come from that.

(Unrelated anecdote: I’ll never forget watching a pre-season game in Ballarat with Nathan Grima, who spent a whole half completely in awe at how big Campbell was. The words ‘large’ and ‘unit’ were uttered between 20-30 times.)

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It gave his teammates the confidence to use him and in turn that meant the Brisbane defenders had to respect him, opening up some space for the rest of North’s forwards.

To digress for a moment, if this isn’t the required kick in the teeth for Mason Wood, I’m not sure what will be. With all due respect to Campbell, he’s a 27-year-old ruckman who played 39 games in seven seasons on the Bulldogs list at times where a piñata may have offered more ruck presence than some of the options they tried.

Yet the North players instantly looked more comfortable with Campbell as the second forward target over almost any time Wood has been playing the same role. Far be it from me to assume the mindset of someone 1000x better at football than me, but I’d be livid at where I’m at if I was Wood.

But back to the point of ball use, and North being able to show such improvement in method and process in the space of a week is hugely encouraging, something which should be sustainable and able to be built on. The fair response to that is why something has to be built on after a fortnight instead of starting off that way in the first place, but if I can’t find positives then there’s no point in writing.

Next, the performance of Jared Polec and Aaron Hall on the wings. These two ran to good areas and provided outlets for their teammates in dangerous areas. I’d love to be able to illustrate it, but it’s not something the TV cameras can pick up, and without access to behind the goals vision we’re at a dead end.

And that sort of natural space the two provide allows the prime ball movers – Ben Cunnington and Shaun Higgins – room to work and start potential scoring chains. Add in Luke Davies-Uniacke taking steps forward and you could see the outline of a good midfield out there.

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However – and here’s where the positives stop – at the moment the midfield mix isn’t right. Or to be more accurate, it’s not complete.

There was an extra hole in it against Brisbane, and it was entirely of North’s own making. Trent Dumont was a late withdrawal due to calf tightness, and was replaced by Tarryn Thomas.

To be as painstakingly clear as possible, this next bit is nothing against Thomas. He’s going to have a long and successful career and he’s just the man caught in the middle of this.

I refuse to believe Dumont’s calf tightness materialised out of thin air on Sunday morning. By withdrawing a midfielder and replacing him with a 19-year-old debutant who’s been splitting time between forward and midfield, you’re almost completely sacrificing a midfield rotation. Then it leaves the remaining players shouldering a heavier workload, all while limiting your potential options late in the game … maybe when the opposition is getting a run-on from the centre bounce, or something wild along those lines.

For a moment, let’s continue to run along this same line of thought of Dumont’s calf tightness lingering for a few days prior to the game. If this was indeed the case, maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea for his closest like-for-like replacement from the emergencies to play a VFL practice match on Saturday afternoon.

Obviously I’m referring to Paul Ahern. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out he’s being sent a message, with the view of it paying off handsomely long-term. It’s the fine line coaches have to tread – how can you teach a player lessons to improve his game while making sure it’s not hurting the team’s ability to win games?

It’s very easy for you or me to sit back from the outside and claim, ‘this was wrong, fix it’. What’s almost impossible to know is how a player is responding to the messages and whether the coach feels like he’s getting through.

I say ‘almost impossible’ because next week the results will be plain to see. Jy Simpkin has been quiet. If Dumont returns, Bailey Scott may be on the outer because a three-man wing rotation of Dumont, Hall and Polec leaves no room for the youngster, through no fault of his own. If Thomas was a late inclusion, logically he’s on the fringe. Through two games, Dom Tyson has just been … there.

There are a hell of a lot of options for Ahern to come in for, especially after what was by all reports a good performance for the VFL side. So if it then ends up being another week on the sidelines, then it’s a bigger issue than we’ve realised.

Because while Tyson has seemingly been playing a semi-defensive role, it doesn’t seem to be something he’s best suited to. It raises another question of whether it’s best to put a square peg in a round hole, or let the players play to their strengths.

It’s where the absences of Jed Anderson and Ben Jacobs really, really sting. Those two and their defensive efforts provide the counter to the ball winners, and when (if?) they take the field again, it will fix a lot of problems.

But at 0-2, there’s already very little margin for error. Hawthorn, potentially minus both Liam Shiels and Shaun Burgoyne, is a monster game. There’s minimal respite after that, with Adelaide in Round 4 before Good Friday against Essendon and a trip to face bogey side Port Adelaide.

This midfield mix has to be fixed before it’s too late for 2019.

One thought on “Round 2: The complications from an incomplete midfield mix

  1. I’m surprised at the silence over the injuries of Anderson, Jacobs, Garner, and Wright. It would be good to know, are we talking weeks, months, (for ever, in the case of Jacobs).

    Given the hard work that Ahern has done over the summer, I wonder what the message is that is being relayed to him. Perhaps its about keeping hype under control.

    There’s clearly an issue with Mason. In the Freo game, apart from being absent, when he had the ball, he didn’t look confident.

    Good to see LDU starting to feel more comfortable on the big stage.

    I feel a it for Preuss, left the club for more opportunities, and the opportunities opened up at the club (through tragic circumstances, tho). Can’t help but feel that Melbourne were feeding his manager a line, because i saw recently that Goodwin said, oh no, our team structure revolves around one ruckman.

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