Friday night wins are always fun. It just sets up the entire weekend perfectly.
While this wasn’t a blockbuster by any means, it was still important for North Melbourne.
After the first true flat spot under Rhyce Shaw – followed by an eventful week – there was a natural question of whether the playing group had anything left in the tank.
The continued growth of the group from week to week showed itself after quarter time, and there was plenty to take out of the 22-point victory.
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The reasons for the first quarter
The first quarter was very much clearance based. Both teams set up well behind the ball – and neither team moves the ball overly quickly – which meant clean stoppage wins were vital to get space to work in before the structures took hold.
Early, North looked just as flat – and flat-footed – as last week and when that happens, it’s an invitation to get massacred from both clearances and the spread from there.
That had the flow on effect of collapsing the structure because the natural instincts from the forwards were to come up and help out.
Hawthorn are structured too well to fall into that, so they kept their shape at the same time North lost theirs. That was the first quarter in a nutshell.
How the game changed
Most importantly, the midfield started moving around the ball. It’s simple, but movement changes everything – the first quarter burst against Brisbane was predicated on that around stoppages.
It’s important to remember Hawthorn are a middling side – and I’d argue they’d be bottom four without Clarkson – so they’re limited in how to can respond to things, just because the talent isn’t there at this stage.
The midfield movement led to clearance wins (+9 in the second quarter), which then allowed North to lock the ball in their forward half, and in turn meant there was a starting point in which to increase the pressure.
To touch on it again, Hawthorn don’t move the ball quickly. So if a team can pin them in the back half and switch the pressure on, they’ll struggle to move from one end of the ground to the other with any effectiveness.
Because the midfield was now winning their fair share of the ball, the forwards were able to hold their positions, giving Higgins and co plenty of targets to use.
It was all straightforward in the end – win the ball, lock it in the forward half, deny Hawthorn uncontested marks with pressure. I probably could have typed that instead of the previous 200 words, but we’re here now.
Ahern off half back
Seemingly innocuous kick, but a big reason why I’m intrigued by continuing to play Ahern off half back:
The TV cameras don’t capture it quite right, but as the Scully kick comes to the pack, Ahern looks to where the ball has come from and sees Zurhaar now in space.
Now the thought is in his mind – Zurhaar’s an option. The ball comes to ground and everyone competes while Ahern is already one step ahead, knowing what to do if/when he gets possession.
Aside from Higgins, no-one else on the list can read the play like that and deliver.
Ahern absolutely has to continue working on his defending if it’s going to be a long-term play, because teams will try to exploit him. But ball use off half back has to be a key area of improvement for North, and Ahern playing there goes a long way to fixing it.
The forward setup
We touched on the forward setup earlier, and I want to revisit it here.
Earlier in the year, I mentioned how the forward group is a nice, overlapping mix of types and sizes, and through the last couple of months we’ve seen it develop nicely.
There are marking options (Brown, Larkey, Wood), mid-sized options (Garner, Ziebell when he’s in there), pressure types who can play taller at a pinch (Zurhaar, Thomas) and a pure small/pressure forward (Turner). Then there are the midfielders (Simpkin, LDU, Higgins, etc) floating through there as well.
The great part about it is of the permanent forwards, Brown is the oldest – at 26. There should be plenty of improvement left in the unit as a whole, and plenty of time to learn how to play alongside each other.
And what we’ve seen over the last fortnight is an increased willingness to introduce the likes of Zurhaar and Thomas to the on-ball mix.
Without a deep midfield rotation, North aren’t contending for much. That shouldn’t shock anyone, but it bears repeating.
Whether it’s the first signs of a game style for 2020 or it’s just late season experimentation remains to be seen, but over the last fortnight we’ve seen the half forwards spend extra spot minutes around the ball.
Add that to Ahern at half back obviously being able to shift in there at a minute’s notice and – in theory – there’s not only a second-string midfield being built, but also options to change the game when it’s not going North’s way.
Getting bullied around the ball? Throw Zurhaar in there. Winning the ball but need extra polish? Throw Ahern in there. Need someone to do everything? Throw Thomas in there (that part will take another 18-24 months).
These players don’t have to do the heavy lifting, but when they do go on-ball it can act as a cue to play a certain way. Kind of like how Essendon throwing Cale Hooker forward always seems to be a sign to start moving the ball quicker.
Adaptability is a key plank for any good team, and it just seems to be happening ever so slightly, with each passing week.