In the lead up to the 2019 finals series, I’ll be highlighting each team’s 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 Brisbane.
Like clockwork, there’s always one surprise packet each season.
While Brisbane were nearly the unanimous tip to improve, few expected that improvement to be so dramatic.
Even at the mid-season bye, it felt like a 7-5 record was already considered – externally, at least – as a box ticked for the year. And then a few tweaks shot Brisbane into the stratosphere.
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A season of two halves
Brisbane’s first half of 2019 was defined by quick ball movement, for better or worse.
When they had it up and running, it was thrilling. But if opponents could shut it down the Lions were often left exposed defensively.
No game summed it up better than their defeat to Collingwood in Round 5.
There were a string of plays which showed the best and worst of their ball movement. Here are two – the first leading to a turnover goal, and the second a goal beginning from their defensive half with zero marks along the way.
But there was a common trend – if Brisbane weren’t on top or breaking even in the contest, they’d struggle to defend and often give up scoring shots too easily.
Some sides – think Richmond and West Coast – can withstand losing contested ball. Brisbane couldn’t and it told on the scoreboard.
Then, with the loss to Carlton arguably the final straw – when
the Blues Patrick Cripps dominated the contest everything to such an extent it decided the match – Brisbane returned from the bye with a renewed focus on dominating contested ball all over the ground.
How contested ball drives Brisbane
The Lions’ turnaround in this area has been quite remarkable. At the bye, they were ranked 11th for contested ball. Since Round 14, they’ve been the best in the competition by a comfortable margin.
It’s worked hand in hand with their improved defence, as the numbers show:
|Brisbane||Round 1-12||Rank||Round 14-23||Rank|
|Scores conceded per inside 50||44.01%||15th||39.06%||2nd|
The two are linked because the dominance in contested ball has allowed Brisbane to scale back their reliance on the type of rapid ball movement we saw during the first half of the season.
Then by winning the contested ball, it allows Brisbane to be proactive with their defensive setup.
The back six, marshalled by Luke Hodge but featuring the key trio of Harris Andrews, Marcus Adams and Darcy Gardiner, can dictate with their positioning knowing the ball is heading in the other direction first.
Once the ball is in Brisbane’s forward half, those defenders set up extremely well behind the play. It makes it almost impossible for the opposition to move the ball out, often running into roadblocks.
And because teams often take the safe option in getting the ball out of their defensive half, things tend to devolve into a loop of attempted clearing kick -> turnover -> Brisbane inside 50, until they break a side and put scoreboard pressure on.
This is the final dossier, the final finals dossier if you will, at least until some combination of GWS, Essendon and the Bulldogs make the Grand Final. If you missed any of the previous four pieces, here are the links:
Part of Brisbane’s contested dominance can be attributed to how well their midfield moves as a collective around stoppages.
It’s most evident when they run a wrap play, which is continually run to perfection.
While it’s not a unique play – Hawthorn with Isaac Smith were masters at it during their premiership runs – the simplicity is devastating.
Because a team’s default setup at stoppages is to have an extra player on the defensive side of the contest, it leaves space around the outside to exploit.
In this example from Round 22 against Geelong, you can see it all come together with a simple block and a burst of pace.
Goals from forward 50 stoppages are the types of thing coaches love when it goes their way and detest when it’s against them.
Remember Nathan Buckley’s beard last season? It was due to a bet he made with the playing group – the longer they went without conceding a goal from defensive 50 stoppages, the longer he went without shaving.
How to beat Brisbane
In the two games to finish the home and away season, we saw differing methods attempted by Geelong and Richmond.
The Cats, in keeping with their modus operandi, were first and foremost content to put the handbrake on Brisbane’s ball movement from contests.
It worked for most of the game – it could be argued Geelong were the better side for three and a half quarters – but the Cats were unable to put the break on the scoreboard that their general play advantage deserved, often not getting high quality scoring shots down the other end.
The longer the season has gone, the more Brisbane like to move it around the boundary and conservatively. But when they were able to get on top in the stoppages and then look to move the ball forward as quickly as possible, Geelong’s handbrake disappeared, and the Lions stormed home with their new-found advantage.
Meanwhile, Richmond’s burst football in the first quarter was some of their best work in 2019.
The quick ball movement – from both turnovers and clearances – meant the Lions’ defence went into reactive mode, similar to what we witnessed earlier in the season. The early burst allowed the Tigers to control the tempo when it mattered.
However, there was one vital point of difference between the way Richmond and Geelong defended, and it related to the Charlie Cameron matchup.
Brisbane’s trump card in their forward setup is isolating Cameron deep, knowing very few teams in the league possess an ideal defender to play on the speedster.
Geelong didn’t … but Richmond did. The presence of Dylan Grimes – in concert with the Tigers’ team defending – meant the Lions had no joy from Cameron playing deep, which then caused a domino effect.
Without Cameron firing, Brisbane – playing from behind remember, so they had to chase the game – had to place an unhealthy reliance on their midfielders hitting the scoreboard largely because their remaining forwards haven’t been hitting the scoreboard regularly.
Hipwood hasn’t quite taken the next step yet. It’s a guarantee to happen eventually, so there shouldn’t be any panic stations, but as it relates to the now – he’s only kicked more than two goals in a game twice this year.
Oscar McInerney plays his role solidly as a secondary target and back up ruck, as does Dan McStay as the third tall, but their role isn’t to lead the forward line.
It meant all too often Brisbane looked a little toothless and forced into low quality shots. Yet that’s exactly what makes Saturday night’s qualifying final so fascinating.
Without Richmond’s early burst, could Brisbane still have won with a quiet Cameron? Will Brisbane’s advantage in contested ball translate to a better defensive effort, unlike what we saw in the first quarter?
With a fortnight to prepare, highlight what went wrong and figure out how to fix it, we’re bound to see some changes from the loss at the MCG.
If you’ve read this far, a big thank you to everyone who’s seen this piece or any of the other four. The reaction has been mind blowing and incredibly flattering to think so many people have been interested in this type of stuff.