There was an element of the unknown walking into Marvel Stadium on Friday night.
A new coach for the first time in a decade, prime time against a very, very good side, and the lingering question of how the playing group would respond after a week unlike anything they’d experienced before.
Handily, Richmond is a side I enjoy watching and feel I have a good grasp on in terms of game style, so North Melbourne’s adjustments were able to really stand out.
You can subscribe to The Shinboner via email on your right (on desktop) or below this post (on mobile). A big thank you to the recent increase in subscribers. If you’re on Twitter you can follow me @rickm18 and to share this post on social media, you can use any of the buttons at the bottom of this post.
And I’m always open to suggestions for posts and topics you’d like to see covered. Feel free to hit me up any time. I know this part is copied and pasted every time but I’m always genuinely grateful people choose to read.
To venture into really dangerous, look-at-me areas after just one game, I want to toot my own horn by going back to what I wrote after Round 6 in debating where North should go from here:
“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.”
While there were no wholesale changes to the overall game style, there were subtle tweaks which paid off handsomely. Three of them in fact, to go with arguably the most striking thing – how clear every player was with their role, and most importantly how disciplined everyone was.
Let’s start with the general game plan.
North’s objective was to stop Richmond from getting out into space and swarming forward in waves like they do so well at their best.
That started from the contest. Richmond opted to drop an extra behind the ball, which leaves an opposition with three options:
- Go and man it up
- Have your own extra defender
- Use your extra around the contest
North opted to go with number three. The theory from North was their pressure around the ball would be good enough to stop Richmond from getting to the outside and surging forward. This renewed focus on intense pressure was the first subtle tweak to the style.
It worked to perfection. Richmond’s seven goals in the first three quarters came from, in chronological order: a free kick, a Dusty special, a scrambled in-board kick, a downfield free, a push in the back against Dusty which wasn’t paid, a Dusty snap from nowhere, and a contested Castagna mark from slow play. Very little from structure or system, just individual moments, and an opposition will live with that.
Then when North had the ball, the second and third tweaks revealed themselves. And ‘tweak’ probably isn’t even the right word; the more accurate description would be to call it a simplification.
A common theme of mine is to put players in the best possible position to highlight their strengths. North has marking power, relishes the contest, and isn’t the fastest team.
So, when North had possession, they went direct – to the marking power. They went to pack situations – where marking power has the best chance to shine. They brought numbers to the fall of the ball – to make it a contest, and stop Richmond from any quick rebound. Football can be very simple sometimes.
The key to making this direct play work was for the forwards to do the dirty work and lose as few aerial contests as possible when they were outnumbered.
It largely fell to Ben Brown, and as the great man @RestingPlayers pointed out on Twitter, Brown did just that, losing only one of seven contests. This wasn’t an Aliir situation from a fortnight ago.
And perhaps the most important tweak, especially as it pertains to playing Richmond, was how the handball was used.
North had a higher kick-to-handball ratio than most weeks this season, but of more importance was when they did handball, it was with purpose.
I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say Richmond’s first layer of pressure around the ball has influenced the last three years of the competition. It’s incredibly suffocating when on point, and attempting to handball through it is football suicide.
But if you break that first layer of pressure (easier said than done), suddenly you can control the game. Because then there’s open space to play with, and Richmond are scrambling, playing catch up to try and chase you down.
This is just one of many passages of play which illustrate how North used the handball. The first handball from Cunnington to Atley has the Richmond layer moving out wide, and then Atley’s return finds Cunnington in plenty of space to deliver a long ball forward.
(This passage of play would have been perfect to show with behind the goals vision, because North’s defensive work after Richmond gained possession was superb. Alas.)
It’s just one week and it’s best not to get carried away – unless you’re me and want to highlight a few lines which you believe were proven right, but I digress.
Ultimately the most promising thing to take out of Friday night was the game style simplifications put the players in the best possible position to show their strengths.
To change that in the space of six days is a massive tick to the coaching staff.