When something dies, you have to perform an autopsy.
With any lingering, last-gasp optimism for North’s 2019 snuffed out by yet another loss in Adelaide, now seems like an unfortunately perfect time to chart how it all came to this, step by step, just six rounds in.
One note for those who are hoping for hysteria, over-the-top proclamations and calls for departures – it’s not here. I’m sure there are plenty of other avenues to find those opinions.
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Step 1: 2018 Trade Period & National Draft
On the surface, North’s personnel moves during the off-season looked perfectly logical and reasonable. A summary, for those who missed it:
In: Polec, Pittard, Hall, Tyson, Thomas, Scott, Crocker, Taylor, McKenzie, Wilkinson, Campbell, Murphy
Out: Clarke, Hibberd, Morgan, Nielsen, Preuss, Williams, Hartung, Narrier, Waite, Mountford, Jeffries, Junker
In theory, the moves make sense. They address outside run, add depth to the midfield, extra ball-winners, continue investing in draft picks and don’t lose any players who screamed out as 10-year, 150-game projects.
Nevertheless, one of my favourite sports quotes comes from France’s World Cup-winning player and manager, Didier Deschamps, on the structure of a team:
“You can’t only have architects. You also need bricklayers.”
To put it in an AFL context – you can’t only have ball winners. You also need players who can consistently defend.
Step 2: Pre-Season Player Availability
The most I’ve smiled in recent memory was walking away from Arden St after February’s intra-club, when I was able to have a chat with Majak.
To see him smiling, laughing and in a good mood after what he’s been through makes any other worry in life seem trivial, and not worth wasting your breath on.
Coincidentally, it was a table tennis game between he and Ben Jacobs which I interrupted to have the chat. While I was so happy to see them both in good spirits, it was hard not to keep thinking about the enormous hole left in both the defensive and midfield structures.
Add in Ben Cunnington, Robbie Tarrant and Jed Anderson from both JLT Series games, and it left very little exposed form on which to judge North’s 2019 game plan. Speaking of the game plan…
Step 3: The JLT Series
Every team adjusts their game plan over the summer. Some are minor, some are major; North definitely qualified for the latter category.
In attempting to integrate the new arrivals of Polec, Hall and Pittard, the game plan shifted to a fast, high-possession, running style. And on the surface the decision can be defended. Why wouldn’t you want to play to their strengths and this new-found run?
There were patches against St Kilda and Port Adelaide where it clicked and looked promising. There were also patches when the ball use out of the back half and full-ground defending looked, to be blunt, VFL standard. A lot of architects…
It was, of sorts, a mini-fork in the road. Would there be confidence of the game style holding up when the first-choice personnel returned, or were there enough worrying signs to call for immediate tweaks?
In 2018, North had the benefit of facing two quality opponents in the JLT Series, and received immediate feedback the kamikaze style ball movement wouldn’t hold up. The way North used the ball in the first half of the home and away season was vastly different to what happened against Melbourne and Richmond.
This year, the jury was still out on St Kilda and Port Adelaide halfway through March. And with all the players North either missed or rested, the decision was made to solider on as planned during the summer.
Step 4: Round 1
The pre-season emergence of Bailey Scott and his too-good-to-ignore form forced North into a midfield reshuffle. Scott to a wing, Dumont on-ball.
Cunnington, Simpkin, Higgins, Tyson, Davies-Uniacke, Dumont. All range from serviceable, to good, to very good AFL players. How many of them are reliable with their defensive work out of stoppages?
In other words, how many of them are bricklayers? All the outside run and carry in the world is useless if the game plan and personnel can’t stop opposition midfielders waltzing away from stoppages.
Once Fremantle won the ball, they had free reign to breeze forward and lock the ball in their forward half.
On the odd occasion North won the ball back in their defensive half, the ‘fun’ really started. As I touched on in the Round 1 post, which you can read in full here:
“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 it over within 70 metres of the opposition goal almost guarantees a scoring shot against.”
The decision had been made to stick to the pre-season style, and it had backfired spectacularly. But the response was still to come.
Step 5: The Reaction To Round 1
Unfortunately, reacting to a slow start has been all too common in recent memory. You know the Round 1 record by now; 1-9 in the last ten seasons.
This one was different though. The problem here couldn’t be solved with a backs-to-the-wall performance to get things back on track. It boiled down to a simple question:
Stick with the current game plan, or change it?
North, spooked by an 82-point thumping which should have been larger, opted to change.
Step 6: Adjusting On The Fly
When players have been drilled for months to play a certain way, habits are formed and patterns are set. Asking to change them in the space of seven days is a tough sell.
Out went the excessive handballing. In came more use by foot. In theory this allowed for a better defensive setup because you’re ‘attacking with cover’.
As play frequently stops with kicking and marking, it allows everyone behind the ball to set up. Therefore, if the turnover comes – ideally in your forward half only – you’re in a better position to defend because it comes after a passage of slower play.
Again, it’s a sound theory. If you can win possession.
Step 7: Round 2
Two-point game. Only a few minutes left. Home crowd starting to make some noise. It all comes down to how the midfield performs from the centre bounces.
Brisbane centre clearance. Goal. Brisbane centre clearance. Goal. Brisbane centre clearance. Goal. Game over.
In general play North’s adjustments had worked well. For three and a half quarters Brisbane didn’t look threatening going forward from open play.
But those adjustments weren’t applicable to the centre square. To defend well out from there in today’s game, you need a balanced midfield.
Or in other words, architects and bricklayers. In the absence of Jacobs and Anderson, North didn’t have any other bricklayers, either in their match-day 22 or that they could have called upon in selection during the week.
Step 8: Round 3 & 4
Every club has one or two ‘swing games’ which can either propel or cruel a season. Win it and the confidence gained gets a team rolling downhill. Lose it and the negativity snowballs. For example, imagine if St Kilda had lost to Gold Coast in Round 1 instead of squeaking over the line.
For North the swing game was Round 3, and the absolute worst possible time to come up against Alastair Clarkson.
North actually played relatively well and at a level which would have beaten a handful of clubs on the day. The only problem was that Clarkson and his coaching staff expertly picked holes in the still adjusting North style, forcing them into areas they didn’t want to go.
Then there was the post-match press conference, which has already been covered in length. It added to the air of negativity around the club and it meant even when North did get past Adelaide, it was more of a relief rather than a circuit breaker. But if the win against the Crows meant a record of 2-2 instead of 1-3…
Step 9: The Fallout From Adjusting
In the last 12-15 months, I’ve frequently mentioned how important it is to see a process backed up by results, just often enough to keep spirits high. It’s human nature to start doubting a process which isn’t producing tangible results.
However, what’s crippled North since Round 1 – and particularly in the last fortnight – has been the very clear process for teams to take when playing against them, because they know it definitely produces results.
A task is much easier to complete when you know there’s no surprises. And for North’s opponents it means this simple equation, time and time again:
– When we’re not in possession, force North away from kick-mark, into open play, and they’ll turn the ball over more than enough for us to kick a winning score
– When we are in possession, keep the game as open as possible and we’ll have enough space to generate quality scoring chances and enough for a winning score
North established their habits over summer behind a fast, high-possession, high-handball style. Under pressure, the ‘new’ direction falls to the wayside and it’s back to the old. It’s human nature.
North have had long periods of controlling games since Round 1, and looked competent while doing so. 20 points up against Brisbane, 27 up against Hawthorn, six consecutive goals against Adelaide.
But because they’ve been adjusting on the fly since Round 1, there isn’t the innate ability to quickly react to an opponent’s strategy and get the game back into their comfort zone.
And it was brutally exposed by Essendon and Port Adelaide.
Step 10: Last Rites
These six matches don’t mean the playing list suddenly has no talent, or that there are significant holes requiring a full bottoming out and rebuild. I’d hope the recent year-to-year turnarounds of other clubs demonstrate that strongly enough.
What it does mean is an off-season of planning with a questionable game plan – married with an inability to tailor it for the skill sets on the list – means North is currently playing at a level matching its ladder position, and 2019 is gone.
I’ll be back in the coming days with another post about where to from here.