In the lead up to the 2019 finals series, I’ll be delving into the top five teams and their style of play. How they attack, how they defend, their strengths, weaknesses, and much more. And yes, just to get the obvious out of the way; this is primarily a North Melbourne site – I have nowhere else to put this and it doesn’t affect the analysis. Today it’s everything West Coast.
The AFL, like most professional sports, is a copycat league.
It’s a mark of West Coast’s quality and unique style that after winning a premiership, no side has been able to accurately replicate the way the Eagles play.
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How West Coast attack
The key word for West Coast is control. For the Eagles that’s through a kick-mark game; it doesn’t necessarily mean slow ball movement, but it does mean a low turnover count when up and running.
With a higher and higher percentage of scoring coming from turnovers, it’s a logical way to remove the inherent chaos in an AFL match.
When a side is playing kick-mark, it’s a fine line in getting the right balance between having it as a form of defence (hello, Adelaide) and attack.
West Coast succeed because of two things: speed on the ground, and marking targets in the air.
They’re particularly handy if West Coast are held up and slowed down. For example, if they’re coming from the last line of defence, they can use the likes of Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass.
If it’s in the middle third of the ground they tend to use any of Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling, Oscar Allen, Tom Hickey or Nic Naitanui if he’s fit. And then in the forward 50 there are generally three marking targets at any one time.
It means at any time, in nearly any place on the ground, an Eagle knows he’ll have a get-out target who’ll be a good chance to either mark or at the very least prevent a direct turnover.
Speed on the ground
Kicking and marking to control the tempo is all well and good, but if it’s going to be used in an attacking fashion, then players have to be able to cover the ground well. Otherwise the ball movement ends up going nowhere. Again, hello Adelaide.
West Coast’s armada of half forwards – probably on the way to making up half of Perth in the near future – is a large part of this.
If the ball does go to ground in their vicinity, they’ll have the speed advantage over anyone. And if the play is stopped after marks, they’ll use that same speed to find pockets of space where they’re unmarked and can be used in transition.
Combine those two traits and West Coast has a way of attacking which can spread teams from pocket to pocket, side to side; all while controlling possession.
Here is a picture-perfect build up example from Round 22 against Richmond. Watch and note how the Tigers’ defence is being pulled from side to side, all while the Eagles remain in control.
This also doubles as essentially a set play for West Coast. If you’ve ever watched a game and wondered how on earth Liam Ryan finds space on the right forward flank so often, this is how.
How West Coast defend
Some teams rely primarily on pressure around the ball as their most important layer of defence. For the Eagles, everything starts from their marking defenders.
When they’re all available, the combination of McGovern, Barrass, Will Schofield and Shannon Hurn force opponents to change their ball use.
Teams don’t want to go long inside 50 because they’re convinced – rightfully – one of the above quartet will intercept and send it back the other way. For example:
McGovern’s disdain for these things called ‘opponents’ never fails to be entertaining.
The opposition’s response tends to be to shorten their kicking, aiming for more precision and to get within range of goal without risking anything long.
The catch in attacking West Coast in this manner is the speed they possess across half forward, which acts as a deterrent. It leaves a dilemma:
- If they go short and precise but turn it over, they’re in an area of the ground where it can quite easily trampoline back into West Coast’s forward 50.
- If they go long and high, they’ll most likely see one of the marking defenders gobble it up like a training session
The likes of Ryan, Willie Rioli and Jack Petruccelle streaming through a vacant middle third of the ground and delivering to Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling is enough to make any defence shudder.
It’s tough to pull off for four quarters, but it can work…
The dossiers for the remaining teams will be published one a day:
Now that I’ve guaranteed some combination of GWS, Essendon or the Western Bulldogs making the Grand Final, when that happens I’ll likely have posts about them during Grand Final week.
How to beat West Coast
Not that it can be planned for, but wet and/or greasy conditions help immensely. West Coast’s style is based around two key planks – precision kicking and marking.
The two hardest things to do in the wet? Precision kicking and marking.
But in a more realistic fashion, there are two key areas and the first revolves around the contest.
West Coast have these phases in games where they completely go to sleep around the contest and become very static, particularly at stoppages.
While it’s unrealistic to expect any side to dominate contests for four straight quarters, for the Eagles it’s been a weekly trend to cede all control and it’s why they sit 17th in contested possession differential.
I’ve made it this far without my usual lament of not being able to access more advanced stats, so here it is: narrow things down to most of the second quarter against Richmond and Adelaide, most of the first quarter and a half against Carlton, the second quarter against Melbourne and the last quarter against Collingwood, and there’ll be the same pattern: opposition getting on top through the contest and using it to put scoreboard pressure on. And that’s just a starting point.
The second is to deliberately make your forward entries messy, and take shots from longer range. On the surface, this seems counter intuitive – why willingly give up control and kick from lower percentage areas?
That’s because it takes away West Coast’s greatest strength in the back half; intercept marking. Although it was aided by greasy conditions, Port Adelaide demonstrated this excellently in their win at Optus Stadium in Round 5.
The Power had 10 different goal kickers for their 13 majors. Here is a perfect example of a messy ball forward, followed by a long-distance shot.
Of Port’s 30 attempts on goal for the night, only four came from within 25 metres.
This is the most extreme example of the lot, and you’ll see the many ways it could have gone wrong. But it’s the process I want to highlight here, not necessarily the result.
It’s all much easier said than done, and the way West Coast play makes for some tasty stylistic clashes if they progress deep into September.