Learning to watch for little things

Every so often at North Melbourne, the admin staff were fortunate enough to be taken through a match review by Brad Scott in exactly the same way as the players.

Aside from being able to watch behind the goals vision and confirming that even on a good day everyone outside the coaching staff knows about five percent of what’s happening on-field, the highlight was learning about little intricacies which have a major effect on results.

It’s the extreme positives and negatives which understandably tend to take the lion’s share of focus in public analysis – the kick off the side of the boot which goes 10 rows into the crowd, the dropped uncontested mark, the long mazy run through defenders which breaks lines.

But as we were shown in these reviews, it’s often the unspotted moments which create a domino effect, allowing the eye-catching highlights (or lowlights) to occur. One particular play still stands out to me.

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Scott played the following passage – from behind the goals vision – and asked for thoughts on how GWS was able to transition from one end of the ground to the other.

Among the suggestions from the room:

  • Hansen should have been tracking the Scully lead closer
  • Dumont should have applied more pressure on Scully
  • Goldstein should have paid closer attention to Lobb
  • One of the forwards should have followed Davis
  • A defender should have dropped into the space in front of Patton
  • Firrito should have done better with the attempted spoil

They were the obvious ones which jumped off the screen. As it turned out, they were all symptoms rather than the problem. So the question went out again, this time met with a long, long silence. When it was clear everyone in the room was either out of answers or wasn’t willing to speak up in front of people, the explanation came.

There was – and still is, league wide – an enormous focus on forcing opponents as wide as possible, to think of the corridor like a protected area to be guarded at all costs. Once this mindset was explained by Scott, he went back to the beginning of the clip and highlighted this:

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Please take my word that this was much clearer when watching from behind the goals

The domino which started the whole chain was when Anderson and Thomas failed to keep Williams wide and away from the inboard kick.

If Williams was forced to stay wide and ideally kick down the line – or even turn it over – it doesn’t matter whether Hansen was a step behind the Scully lead. It doesn’t matter whether Dumont applied enough pressure on Scully. On and on the chain went until Patton marked inside forward 50.

Something as innocuous as Anderson being a metre too close to the boundary instead of staying goal side, combined with Thomas’ positioning in a non-threatening area, and it led to a GWS scoring shot.

It’s a great lesson in looking away from the obvious to learn how it’s the things most of us don’t see which affect underappreciated moments effect play. Personally it was like a light bulb moment in how I watched the game, opening up a whole new perspective.

Instead of having the whole post focus on a negative example, let’s look at a game winning play where everything had to be just perfect for it to unfold the way it did – Robbie Gray’s match winning goal against St Kilda in 2017.

The plan was set going into the stoppage: Paddy Ryder wanted to place his tap over his back into space and Port Adelaide had set up perfectly.

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But if Power players are off just a fraction in their positioning, everything falls apart. If Polec is a metre closer to Ryder – if that – then Billings is close enough to Gray and likely is able to tackle instead of the flailing arm we end up seeing.

If Ebert hadn’t placed himself in a front and centre position as a semi-decoy, he and Steven are likely to get into Gray’s space and make it much tougher for him to break away.

Even something as small as no Power player matching up the loose Saint on the defensive 50 plays its part. It’s an extra body being positioned elsewhere, away from the set up space.

And of course, the starting position of the ruckmen combined with the throw in being a metre or two short inadvertently plays its part, giving Gray extra room to roll away in.

It all adds up to a brilliant piece of play; one of the best in recent years.

Whenever football comes back – whether it’s in two months’ time or we all end up watching AFL Evolution 2 simulcasts for the next year – do yourself a favour and look away from where the ball is from time to time. What you see may surprise you.

In the meantime, here’s a screenshot of the exact moment Seb Ross knew he was in deep strife at the final stoppage.

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