North Melbourne’s noteworthy experiment lasted about two and a half quarters against GWS on Sunday at Blundstone Arena.
Not replacing Shaun Higgins with another ball-winning midfielder entrusted greater responsibility to the younger midfielders in the side, asking them to step up to the challenge against the second-best team in the AFL this season.
It … uhh … didn’t work, but it most definitely should not be criticised. It’s these sorts of decisions which the rest of 2019 should be about.
A quick apology note for no post last week. Unfortunately real life work got in the way of this work I do in my own time. Rude, I know. Back to normal programming here though.
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Coming up against the likes of Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio and co in a game which was always going to be heavily contested – the week after the Giants got thumped in that area – already had North staring down the barrel of a monumental challenge.
This was before the absence of Higgins meant the Matt de Boer tag was 110% locked in on milestone man Ben Cunnington, and in turn meant the secondary midfielders would be relied on to do the heavy lifting.
As we discussed on the blog last year, games in Hobart tend to be slower than your average, which in turn makes a team’s performance from stoppages and clearances much more important than normal.
While North wasn’t able to win first possession too often in the first half, the pressure was so outstanding it almost didn’t matter.
The Giants were switched on, playing well, and North more than stuck with them up until half time despite the clearance and stoppage disparity.
I’d go as far as to say it was clearly North’s best pressure half for the year, and for quite a while before that as well. Of the Giants’ seven first-half goals, very few were system goals, and repeatable. Consider:
1: Advantage call after play had already stopped
2: Incredibly soft kicking in danger free kick
3: Excellent clearance work from the Giants midfielders
4: Incredibly soft 50 metre penalty paid against Simpkin
5: Dumont’s dropped mark he’d take 999 times out of 1000
6: Brilliant instinct play from Coniglio which only a handful of players would even contemplate
7: Kelly slotting a set shot from the pocket where players rarely score from, let alone goal. Although it appeared the only reason he was in so much space to take the mark was because North players forgot he didn’t actually come to Arden St, and is still a Giant
To go into the rooms at half time with the scores level was a great result, and yet the game swung there.
Despite those GWS goals not being repeatable, it was much the same for North being able to pressure manically while being second to the ball.
Essentially the second half would be decided by which team was good enough to make their adjustments. For GWS, it was maintaining their stoppage dominance and then converting it to sustainable play. Meanwhile North simply had to get first hands on the ball more often, and then use that to control the tempo a little better.
I’m reluctant to say North’s midfielders failed the challenge, because it feels like an overly harsh word to use, especially when coming up against such quality.
Nevertheless, pressure can cover up a multitude of things against a lot of teams. What it can’t do is cover up being second to the ball all afternoon against an elite midfield.
The Giants were able to maintain their stoppage dominance and kick more ‘traditional’ goals, based around gaining territory and then getting to work at ground level – basically the blueprint on how to win games in Hobart.
North were left to chase tail, until eventually the gap became too big. The easiest way to sum the game up is like this:
- Kelly: 35 disposals. Tim Taranto: 30 disposals. Jacob Hopper: 29 disposals. Coniglio: 27 disposals.
- Dumont: 17 disposals. Jed Anderson: 16 disposals. Cunnington: 16 disposals. Luke Davies-Uniacke: 13 disposals.
You can’t work with that type of disparity for four quarters and expect to come away with the points. But again, it was a move well worth trying to expose the current second-string midfielders to what an elite unit looks like.
A week off to reset, recharge and re-evaluate comes at the perfect time. Based on what we saw against the Giants, it appears the priority should be to bring another ball winner into the side to replace Higgins’ role.
To think big picture, using Paul Ahern in the role seems to be the logical fit. Even if – and I’m speculating here – the internal decision has been made that he can’t play in the same side as Cunnington and Higgins, that thought process is irrelevant while the latter is recovering from his shoulder injury.
Give him a month in the role until Higgins comes back, build his confidence up by saying the role is yours, and see how it unfolds. Aside from the human element to making him feel valued, he should undisputedly be an important asset piece for the club’s midfield in the short, medium and long-term.