What can you take out of a pre-season game?
For North Melbourne, with a handful of key players missing plus an opposition fielding a forward line far different to anything they’ll face in the early stages of the regular season, the focus is more internal instead of a comparison to how they stack up against the Western Bulldogs.
The key is to look at trends and styles while figuring out how – or if – they translate to Round 1 and beyond.
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1. Ball movement
Under Rhyce Shaw in the second half of 2019, we saw a simplified method which worked to the strengths of the list.
Based on what was rolled out at Marvel Stadium on Friday night, it appears there’ll only be changes around the edges of the style and no major overhaul.
Missing half a dozen players from the best 22 means it’ll take a little longer for it to become second nature, but the two changes we will see revolve around being more willing to change angles – by foot, not by hand thankfully – and trusting certain players to use their skills.
We saw glimpses of it with Tarryn Thomas, and once Shaun Higgins and Jared Polec return they’ll naturally be given that same freedom.
It comes across that there’s a clarity in how North want to play and that it’s in a method which is within the players’ capabilities to execute. At this stage of the year that’s the most important thing when talking about ball movement.
2. A dynamic forward line
Without Ben Brown, goals were obviously going to be hard to come by. That doesn’t automatically make the evening a write off when looking for signs from the forward line.
As we watched in the win over Port Adelaide last year, the goal is to have a dynamic forward line where defenders must respect too many options to peel off and block the lanes of Brown and Nick Larkey.
Given North’s preferred structure is to play with two tall forwards, we can wipe away the minutes with Larkey as the lone target because it doesn’t teach us anything about long-term plans.
What we can learn from are the minutes where Tristan Xerri was playing forward while interpreting his role as essentially a placeholder for Brown when he returns.
In lieu of six or seven screenshots showing the same thing, this was the base setup for North’s forwards once play settled following a centre bounce.
The two talls have acres of room to work in, along with Cam Zurhaar providing the ground presence – but importantly still keeping space between he and the talls.
Vitally, Zurhaar’s spot in this example can also be filled by a number of fellow forwards – Tarryn Thomas, Taylor Garner and Jack Ziebell just to name a few; assuming the latter will split his time in a forward/midfield role once again in 2020.
As the cavalry returns, we should see more flexibility and extra looks added into North’s setup. But of course, all those count for zero if the midfield is being cut up regularly.
3. Bontempelli brilliance or midfield instability?
Where you sit on this one depends if you’re a glass half full or glass half empty person.
Marcus Bontempelli had 37 disposals – which felt like 80 – and largely did as he pleased for the evening. It’s not a new occurrence for him, having polled more Brownlow votes against North than any other club.
The question from a North perspective is whether their own midfield was setup well enough defensively. Definitely not in this clip:
But then this is just Bontempelli being too good, helping to force a turnover with pressure and starting a chain which eventually led to a Bulldogs goal:
You’d like to think the first clip is an easily fixable issue, while the second one is something that’s going to happen every so often when you’re playing against a top-five player in the game. Completely eliminating the space in clip one is how North’s midfield can compete against those better than theirs.
Next up is the practice match against Melbourne on the 28th at Arden Street. Whether that trends more towards ‘practice’ or ‘match’ remains to be seen, but at the very least it should provide another opportunity to fine tune on what early weather forecasts are saying should be a perfect day for football.