Let’s set the scene for what we watched unfold at Blundstone Arena on Saturday night.
Sydney’s game style is normally a defensive one, even when they have their full complement of players.
They went into the game undermanned, and then had another blow late when Josh Kennedy was ruled out.
So the Swans (correctly) assumed their best chance of winning would be to lean further into a defensive mindset. They based everything around their pressure in the contest, defended deep, and played reactively.
While the word reactive may conjure negative connotations, in this case it was just a matter of waiting for North Melbourne to make mistakes.
And Sydney were rewarded handsomely.
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Sydney ran dual defensive matchups in the middle, which you rarely see. George Hewett went to Ben Cunnington, and Ryan Clarke went to Shaun Higgins. Hewett was still able to win his own ball quite well, but the matchups were always with a defence-first mindset.
The Swans’ plan was to neutralise any North creativity around contests and stoppages, to have a two-fold effect: a) Put the ball in hands of players who aren’t the best line-breakers, and b) Rely on the pressure forcing North to be rushed going forward.
In theory, the effect of the above mean North’s forward entries devolve into slow, high balls for Aliir and … mainly Aliir to have a field day with.
Despite what North’s forward entries devolved into, the early signs were actually relatively promising. After you stop laughing at that statement, here are the first two goals of the night and how they came about.
For Turner’s first, you can see adequate spacing between Brown and the remaining forwards. It’s still early in the game, so Aliir has to respect Larkey’s positioning just enough for Turner to be able to float in and take advantage of the space, and Ziebell picks him out with a simple kick.
For Turner’s second, note how Williams kicks the ball away from Aliir and to a situation where there are even numbers in the pack.
Normally those early successes prove a harbinger of what’s to come, in terms of how North was moving the ball around and spreading the Sydney defence.
Not so. Sydney’s pressure increased around the ball, and North proved unable to work through it. It meant the forward entries were largely the same thing time and time again – long, high, and deep.
It allowed the Sydney defenders (Aliir) to adjust. Think of it this way – if you’re playing on a forward, but you know he’s not going to be used, wouldn’t you just go to where you know the ball is going to be? Seems like pretty simple logic.
In lieu of an enormously long video showing every time Sydney were able to read the play, here are the three clearest times by Aliir from the second quarter horror show.
Even though they all weren’t clean intercept marks, it shows how predictable North was going forward.
Nevertheless, despite Sydney having the better of general play for the second quarter, it shouldn’t have been seven goals to two. It continues North’s ineptitude in the term for the year:
- 1-8 record
- -97 points
- No team has a worse performing quarter in 2019
By continuing to run Cunnington and Higgins through the middle while their respective tags were working, it exposed a lack of creativity from the remaining non-Simpkin on-ballers.
That’s not to say Anderson and Ziebell were playing poorly. Far from it. But usually their role doesn’t call to be innovative with ball in hand, and Sydney’s plan forced them into roles outside their comfort zone. Could positional changes have made a difference? Unfortunately, it’ll be something we never know.
Let’s fast forward to the final term, and the near-comeback. To get the obligatory umpire comment out of the way before moving on, they weren’t great and changed the flow of the game.
Overall, there wasn’t actually that much change from North in style during the last 10-15 minutes, aside from a sheer weight of numbers and a couple of quality finishes. The one exception was Zurhaar’s goal. Here’s how the play unfolded.
North was able to spread the Sydney defence by switching, which then nullified any extra Swans players behind the ball. There wasn’t enough of that, and then once it got into the last five minutes it was understandably a free-for-all.
The most frustrating thing about what we saw was that usually North is able to get a relatively good amount of success from their forward 50 entries – coming into the round they ranked fourth for scoring shots per inside 50. Even last year when they beat Sydney at the SCG, I spent a large portion of the post-match piece talking about how the ball use was composed and measured. Ironically conditions on that night were very similar to what we saw here.
If there is a lesson to be taken out of the night, it’s to trust the forward group as a whole, and to be comfortable using all of them to kick a winning score.
Luckily there’ll be a perfect opportunity to see if the message sinks in, because next up is the Western Bulldogs, and a Luke Beveridge game plan which has typically frustrated North forwards recently.