Just to get the obvious out of the way first, yes this is a post about Melbourne on a North Melbourne blog. Why? Because:
1) I wanted to write about what I’ve watched in the first three weeks
2) I have nowhere else to put this except here
On we go…
Outnumber and overwhelm. It was Melbourne’s core style in 2018, and not much has changed in 2019.
But where last year resulted in a first finals campaign for a decade and a run to the prelim, this year Melbourne has looked miles off the pace. What I’d like to do is explore some of the key themes behind the 0-3 start and how important each of them has been.
A decrease in contested ball
*Stats for this section via AFL Tables*
Last year Melbourne was far and away the best contested ball team in the competition, averaging 16.5 more contested possessions than its opposition per game. For reference, the second best was Collingwood at 9.5. Enormous difference.
This year Melbourne haven’t won the contested count in any of their three games. I’m reluctant to say ‘losing the contested ball means Melbourne lose’, because it’s lazy and too simplistic. However – and you knew that word was coming – nearly all their problems start from here.
It’s fair to say Melbourne isn’t the best side in the competition when it comes to the defensive capabilities of their midfield. Some of it is just physical limitations, some of it is by design for their game plan and some of it is just mindset.
(It’s no surprise a recent team meeting centred around their two-way running, as reported by Jay Clark in the Herald Sun)
When they’re winning the contested ball, they swarm forward and everything looks irresistible and … overwhelming, to use that word again.
But when they’re not, it’s been such a rare occurrence over the last 12-14 months it’s almost as if it’s a shock to the system. It’s such a tough mindset to change, because when you have such a good ball-winning group and a dominant ruckman, to me it’s completely understandable that you get into the groove of expecting to dictate terms.
There almost doesn’t seem to be a switch to flick when the team is losing the contest.
Winning the contested ball and overwhelming opponents has had the effect of covering up weaknesses at each end of the ground too. They’re both linked, but we’ll start back and then go forward…
A lack of defensive cover
*Stats for this section via HPN Footy*
When the game plan is to outnumber around the footy and then swarm forward, naturally losing the footy at the source will lead to wide open space in your defensive half.
Melbourne is conceding a scoring shot nearly half the time they allow an inside 50. Small sample size no doubt, but to put it in context – teams which concede this much finish bottom four, and often bottom two.
Mind you, this isn’t a new problem for Melbourne. Last year they conceded the fourth most goals per inside 50 entry. But they just had so many more entries themselves, sheer weight of numbers won out most of the time. No side had more inside 50’s than them in 2018.
But when you’re losing the ball more around the contest, the opposition’s quality of inside 50s will increase markedly. And when you’re already conceding scores against at a high rate before that, you’re gonna have a bad time.
A lack of efficiency going forward
*Stats for this section via HPN Footy*
By this stage, we’ve established that by losing contested ball at a higher rate than before, Melbourne haven’t been able to dictate tempo and their defensive flaws have been revealed more often.
The natural flow on effect from that is when you’re playing against the flow and not dictating terms, your own inside 50 entries will naturally become muddier and scrappier. The opposition is controlling tempo, is set up strongly behind the ball and it’s harder to transition against them.
It’s in these situations where a team has to lean on a strong forward system and structure to get it through tough times. For Melbourne, this has been a consistent problem which rears its head at ugly times.
On the surface, you look at 2018’s numbers and think, well – Melbourne kicked the second most goals per inside 50 for the year? And they had the fourth most scoring shots per inside 50? How is that a problem?
But it was in Melbourne’s losses that the forward structure repeatedly broke down. In each of their last five defeats in 2018, they had more inside 50’s.
And it was because the better sides (with the exception of St Kilda, which was just a straight shootout) were able to set up well and withstand the forward entries. In the absence of behind the goals vision to illustrate, here are the most egregious numbers:
|Round 14 v Port Adelaide|
|Melb: 69 inside 50’s, 20 scoring shots||Port Adelaide: 39 inside 50’s, 20 scoring shots|
|Round 15 v St Kilda|
|Melbourne: 62 inside 50’s, 27 scoring shots||St Kilda: 50 inside 50’s, 29 scoring shots|
|Round 21 v Sydney|
|Melbourne: 60 inside 50’s, 10.18||Sydney: 43 inside 50’s, 13.9|
This type of trend, finding ways not to maximise forward entries, has only continued in 2019. Melbourne is scoring from less than 30% of their inside 50’s. To put that number in context, the last side to score that little over a full season was…
Well, actually I’m not sure. HPN Footy’s statistic covers the last two decades and the next lowest is Carlton in 2016, at 36.7%. It’s nearly an eight percent difference between that and Melbourne in 2019.
The interrupted pre-season
This is the intangible, and probably impossible to accurately measure. Just how much has the spate of off-season injuries and staggered starts to 2019 hurt the players’ ability to cover the ground?
Save for a couple late junk time goals against Essendon, Melbourne would still be without a quarter win after half time. They’ve conceded a staggering 199 points in the six quarters after half time.
Often an interrupted pre-season to Melbourne’s extent isn’t something a side can catch up on once games begin. No doubt it’s had an impact to their ability to cover the ground.
Can Melbourne turn the season around? Away to Sydney – where there’s obviously less ground to cover – should help, in theory. And then, assuming they can contain St Kilda going full kamikaze ala last year’s meeting, they’ll start favourites there.
That will take them to 2-3 and give a little bit of room for error. And they’ll need it, because the Round 6-7 run against Richmond and Hawthorn looms as a season-defining fortnight.