How North Melbourne is showing the next step in AFLW’s evolution

The fun part about the early stages of AFLW is watching how the on-field product evolves from infancy to fully rounded competition.

Nearing the conclusion of AFLW’s fourth season – maybe – it’s the way North Melbourne plays offensively which could bring about the biggest change.

A quick look at the stats doesn’t reveal anything extraordinary about North’s ball movement, even though there is the outline of how it likes to play. Once you find said stats after clicking around the AFL website for half an hour, you see North is:

  • 2nd for disposals per game
  • 1st for kicks per game, but only by 1.8 to Adelaide and 4.3 to Carlton
  • 2nd for marks per game

There’s clearly a preference for retaining possession, but not by an outrageous level in relation to the rest of the competition. What’s important is how North uses this possession. But first, a detour.

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By and large, ball movement in AFLW is currently unsophisticated. And that’s not meant as a criticism but rather just how it is. If there was surviving footage of the VFL from 1900 to compare it to, I’d wager there’d be more than a few similarities.

Because there aren’t a lot of players with the ability to break lines by kicking, it allows teams the opportunity to defend in a narrow block and constricted space. Most teams – not all, but most – tend to find their scoreboard reward from run and carry or kicking to a contest, bringing it to ground and letting the ground level players do the heavy lifting from there.

This is an imperfect screenshot to use given the switch to this camera angle is fractionally after the ball has been kicked into Geelong’s forward 50. However, note there have been no attempts at leads out wide, everything’s in a straight line, and for the most part it’s relatively easy to defend. It’s no surprise that the longer the night wore on, the more Geelong was unable to generate clean any shots on goal.

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Please, more of these camera angles when watching the footy instead of ultra-zoom

The more things are played in a straight line, the easier it is to defend. It means the greatest reward comes from moving a defence around decisively, stretching it out and forcing it to cover as much ground as possible.

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Who knows what the next few months will hold and how much football we’ll get to watch. In the event of play being suspended, which looks ever more likely with each passing hour, there’ll be some rainy-day content and deep dives. However, if there’s anything in particular you’d like to see, I’m all ears.

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Sometimes possession can be used defensively, more as a means of preventing the other team from doing damage rather than looking to hit the scoreboard yourself.

North looks to use possession to hurt, and one particular passage of play against Geelong highlighted its benefits. Let’s break it down step by step.

As teams attack, they’re also set up to defend once they lose it. At least the good ones are. So from Geelong’s perspective, as it sees this is heading towards a turnover and North possession, there is the basic outline of a narrow defensive block.

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It’s a routine defensive setup and by the time a couple of handballs gets Danielle Hardiman in possession, Geelong is likely expecting the regulation AFLW play from North; going back down the line to numbers and turning play into a ground level contest.

Instantly Hardiman looks towards the centre, knowing she has the length on her kicks to break lines. Emma Humphries, making a smart lead through the centre, takes the mark and now the ground is wide, wide open.

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Teams defend the way Geelong is here because there’s no inclination opponents have the skill to attack by going around them. North, through smart recruiting and effective deployment of players in roles which suit them, have a handful of long kicks which can break lines from anywhere on the field.

Once Humphries takes the mark, Geelong is left to madly scramble, filling the gaps. But even though North has space available directly through the corridor, it flips the script again by going even wider. Abbatangelo’s lead to the outer edge of the centre square drags another Geelong defender out of position and look at the situation after just two kicks.

4

Abbatangelo goes to Jasmine Garner and Geelong scramble somewhat back into position, but again North having long kicks in its side comes to the fore.

Brittany Gibson is about 35 out, and a mark in her current position means a set shot from between 40 to 45 metres from goal. Most players struggle to get the distance from there and then the passage of play devolves into a kick to the top of the square and a fight for contested possession.

But Garner, the best player in the competition this season, knows Gibson is well within range and is comfortable dishing to her for a set shot which she converts.

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Here’s how the play unfolded in real time.

This is the next step in AFLW, having players who can break lines with their kicking and forcing the 16 on field players to cover ever more ground.

Like a rubber band, defences can only stretch so far out before they snap. The more they snap, the more holes there are in a structure, the more a game opens up, and it becomes easier to kick a winning score.

It’s not to say that North will win flag after flag until every side employs the same tactic, because the beauty of sport is how it always evolves and counters are applied. But the more variety in the game the better, and the way the Kangaroos are currently playing gives everyone a peek into the next step of AFLW’s evolution.

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