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Where to from here?

For those who read Saturday’s post about the ten steps to a lost season, I mentioned the follow up would be about where North Melbourne goes from here.

That time is now, as we sift through the list by structure, age demographic, contracts and playing position. I should point out before we get started – I’m coming from an angle where I don’t believe this is a bad playing list, at all, in terms of talent.

And I’ve already got your page view if you’re too disgusted by that statement to continue reading. On with the show.

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Should this list have been a top two or top four threat in 2019? We can all agree that’s wishful thinking. But I’d imagine most of us can also agree it should be eons better than 1-5, with a percentage of less than 70. 69.9 to be exact. Not nice.

A natural response is normally along the lines of ‘full rebuild’, ‘trade everyone’, ‘get lots of draft picks’. It’s understandable too, something bad happens and you want every precaution taken to make sure you don’t see it again.

The most important thing to make clear, is the main area for improvement with this side will come from consistently being drilled in a game style which accentuates strengths and, perhaps more importantly, hides weaknesses.

If there is one small, tiny, miniscule silver lining to what has happened this year, it’s using the remaining 16 games to figure out key areas on the list for said game style. All the below is with this question in mind:

“How can the rest of this year be used to hit the ground running in 2020?”

First up, the age profile of North’s list in 2019:

If you’re like me, the first thing which jumps out is the hole of best-22 players between the age of 22-25. For OG readers who were around the last time we checked this out, this is what I mentioned:

“In theory you could get away with a gap there for the next couple of seasons while the 26+ brigade carries the team. Then when the 22-25 range becomes 25-28, it’s approaching the sweet spot for free agency pickups. But all that falls into the wait-and-see basket at the moment.”

The ‘wait-and-see basket at the moment’ now becomes ‘trouble’, because when the 26+ basket is either injured (Williams, Jacobs, Daw), not best-22 (Tyson, Campbell), not impacting on games (Hall, Wright), down on confidence (Wood) or has to deal with a whole defensive unit all day (Brown), you’re left with a conundrum.

The 22-25 age bracket is so skinny there’s no other option but to turn to youngsters. But if too many of them are put in at once, you’re throwing them to the wolves and potentially doing long-term damage to their psyche and confidence. Rock, meet hard place. Hard place, meet rock.

‘Desperate’ may be too strong a word, but North really needs several players in this 19-21 age range to pop and become best-22 locks quickly. If they don’t, the 22-25 age range begins to stretch, and before you know it the list is almost exclusively filled by ageing players and untried rookies.

This is where using the rest of this year productively becomes crucial. There are clear areas where the 19-21 age bracket can help on-field now, while also shoring up list holes.

For the sake of this, we’re assuming Luke Davies-Uniacke is a lock to play as long as he’s fit, so he won’t be mentioned in the below.

There’s seven players 21 or under – and Durdin – who can either complement the more experienced types, or are vital to the list going forward. This is without mentioning Will Walker, who I assume is learning how to play football with a new leg after missing nine months with complications from a ‘minor’ PCL injury.

The team doesn’t have to be overthrown dramatically to get these players exposure, and you’re not asking for miracles because they’re still surrounded by experience who should be doing the heavy lifting. At the same time, it’s a crucial opportunity to look at players capable of filling a few questionable areas in the best-22.

If these players can develop into locks, alongside the likes of Dumont, Anderson, Ahern, McDonald and co, the list begins to look more balanced from an age perspective.

Meanwhile the remaining youngsters continue developing in the VFL, ideally building into roles which can help the AFL side for either the rest of this year, 2020, or beyond. Kyron Hayden’s current form as a defensive midfielder is a good start.

‘Desperate’ may be too strong a word, but North really needs several players in this 19-21 age range to pop and become best-22 locks quickly. If they don’t, the 22-25 age range begins to stretch, and before you know it the list is almost exclusively filled by ageing players and untried rookies.

Next up, the depth chart by position:

We touched on it briefly already, but the glaring hole is under the key defensive post. McKay and Durdin are literally the only two players under 28 years old with the requisite size to play there.

It’s not a position easy to find and fill, even if the performance of those defenders is strongly influenced by the quality of supply coming in. If the rest of the season isn’t used to figure out what the club has in McKay and particularly Durdin, given he’s out of contract at the end of the season, you’re placing an enormous amount of faith in one of two things:

a) Majak is going to recover to his 2018 level of play
b) There are key defenders out there at opposition clubs who are gettable

It’s extremely risky.

To look elsewhere on the list, there’s nothing new we don’t already know:

To finish up, let’s look at the contract status of the list:

This has been collated through a number of sources – website announcements, profiles, etc. The only two which seem unfindable are Pittard and Hall.

Assuming those two weren’t signed up on deals longer than two years, there don’t appear to be too many long-term pains with the exception of Tyson. North would be expecting all the players signed through 2021 to be at least a part of the best 25 by then – again, probably with the exception of Tyson.

If we continue with the mindset of how to use this year to benefit next, the key area is those out of contract at the end of 2019.

Daw, Goldstein, Larkey and Williams should be no-brainers to be extended for varying amounts of time. Thompson and Wright are likely to be situational, depending on the stocks in their position at the very end of trade period. Campbell and Hrovat are likely to be struggling, to be blunt.

It leaves Durdin, Hayden, McKenzie, Watson and Wilkinson to decide. Durdin should be priority A, because of the aforementioned key defender crunch. If Hayden continues his VFL form, he should be next up to keep balancing out the midfield between offence and defence. Or architects and bricklayers, if you missed the last post where I fluctuated between those two words about 50 times.

Wilkinson’s long-term ankle injury will probably give him another year on the rookie list unless his training standards aren’t up to scratch, while it’s too early to make any calls on McKenzie. While Watson showed plenty of promise in the intra-club as a leading forward, his VFL form hasn’t been promising, which is concerning.

But overall, the picture should be clear that there’s little room for drastic list changes.

To sum it up, there is plenty of youth on the list – some ready to contribute at AFL level already. There’s also a couple of holes with the age and key defensive posts that the youngsters will be looked to fill. Using the rest of this year to figure out what they’re capable of should mean there aren’t any rash decisions made in September.

But most importantly, there’s still an experienced core of good AFL players who are more than capable of carrying the load. It’s why there’s no need for the doomsday scenarios of full rebuild and trade everyone being bandied around, until you see what these younger players are capable of. All that’s needed is a clear direction for how to play and the roles for everyone to develop in.

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