Well … that was definitely a game. A really, really frustrating game.
The battle lines were clearly drawn headed in. Everyone knew how both teams would play, and therefore there weren’t really any surprises in game style.
Nevertheless, there is still plenty to talk about, and I want to divide it into three different areas.
But one thing before we get into it. Please, a moment of silence for the poor Sherrin who was punched by Ben Cunnington.
No doubt that yellow Sherrin had a young family of size three synthetics, and now they don’t have their dad to come home to.
And as ridiculous as those two paragraphs are, it’s still not as ridiculous as the carry on from a moment where this was the primary point of impact.
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1: The Changes & Team Balance
The late withdrawal of Mason Wood for Nathan Hrovat meant North went in with one fewer marking target than usual, and it immediately showed.
Hrovat was serviceable, and this isn’t about his performance. But much of North’s success over the last few weeks has been built around the predictability of ball movement, and a third marking target has been vital for it.
There were a few minutes in each quarter – during Nick Larkey and Todd Goldstein’s rests – when instead of having the three marking targets of previous weeks, suddenly it was only one: Ben Brown.
It hurt North’s ability to move up the field from defensive 50 and probably tipped the balance too far from predictable to one-dimensional. But all the while, my thoughts kept on drifting back to Taylor Garner.
When Garner has been in the side, he’s been able to play as a link man if required. He averaged more than four marks a game in 2017, and in the matches against Carlton and GWS this year he forced defenders to respect his presence in the air.
Yet because of his own mistakes, and his own decision making, he’s languishing in the VFL serving a club suspension. It’s a hell of a lot of talent all going to waste when he could – should – be impacting AFL matches instead. Hopefully this suspension is what makes the penny drop.
2: The On-Ball Battle
It’s impossible to prove without access to the fancy stats, but it looked like having one fewer marking target changed North’s ball use ever so slightly.
As a consequence, the middle stages of the first quarter were typified by taking options that, to be blunt, weren’t on. It allowed Essendon to get back into the game, not get blown away early, and by the end of the first quarter have the game on their terms.
Despite two late goals giving North an 11-point quarter time lead, it really should have been somewhere in the vicinity of four goals.
Essendon would have gone into the first huddle knowing that their preferred method of play gets results against North, and to be 11 points down after having control for only a few minutes provided an immeasurable confidence boost.
Then the middle two quarters were, from a North perspective, reminiscent of the game against GWS in Hobart – but with less pressure.
When you consider these combined numbers from the second and third quarters, the margin only being 18 points at three quarter time was a minor miracle:
– Disposals: Essendon +51
– Uncontested Possessions: Essendon +43
– Clearances: Essendon +10
– Inside 50s: Essendon +16
It did look like Essendon were going to cruise to victory, but the Michael Hurley injury indisputably changed the flow of the game.
3: Post-Hurley Injury & The Last Quarter
After Hurley went off, Essendon’s mindset changed almost immediately. Up until that point, the game had largely been one-on-one around the ground, but now the Bombers shifted a player behind the ball.
For the last few minutes of the third quarter, it didn’t matter because the momentum was such that Essendon were able to keep winning the ball comfortably anyway.
But an attacking mindset had now turned defensive. And the three quarter time break allowed the North coaching staff a chance to take advantage of that.
It’s a subtle shift, but once a team subconsciously shifts down a gear, it’s very hard to bring it back up.
With Essendon in protection mode, North seized the opportunity to get back in the match.
Up until North hit the lead, it was approximately 84% time in forward half for the term. It’s a monumental number and one which would be more in keeping with a Gold Coast quarter from the last fortnight.
It was the cue for North to dial back slightly, but I thought the balance, for the next few minutes at least, was much better than what Essendon had. Up until about four minutes to go the midfielders were still attacking, and the right cover was set up a kick behind play.
But it only takes one possession for everything to change. In this case, it was innocuous:
Those dummy runs dragged North defenders wide, and allowed Essendon an easy way out of the defensive 50 where they’d been trapped for the previous few minutes.
From the point Brown put North in front, you can divide the last 7:58 neatly between this play.
From 7:58 remaining to 4:10 remaining, North had five inside 50s to one. After this passage of play, North didn’t go inside 50 again for the rest of the game.
For most of that period, it didn’t look like it was going to matter as Tarrant single-handedly repelled entries.
But the period between 1:11 and 0:58 remaining set in chain a motion of events which would leave to the confusion and McDonald-Tipungwuti’s game winner.
See here at this stoppage, Essendon drop Fantasia back to even up numbers in the 50. Tarrant, who had been the spare, is forced to pick him up.
Although the ball goes out to the wing for a throw in, Tarrant’s been dragged out of position to a place where it’s hard for him to impact.
And when the ball is thrown in, you can see Tarrant trying to reset and get back to where he’d dominated the closing stages of the match.
In the confusion between the throw in and Atley’s horrendous turnover, North are unable to restructure up. My kingdom for accessible behind the goals vision to accurately show what happened, instead of re-enacting Homer Simpson’s night out with the ‘scene missing’ slide, but this is what we’re stuck with.
And then it rolled straight into the final play, as detailed here:
Obviously the turnover from Atley is indefensible, but my main gripe comes from the defence not being able to reset during the slow play leading up to it. It was an absolute eternity in AFL terms.
It’s the first major setback since Rhyce Shaw became interim coach, and it’s heading into what will be a defining fortnight. Brisbane in Brisbane and then West Coast in Perth; by the end of it things will look a lot clearer.