Round 2: Smash and grab – and smash again

If, not knowing Sunday’s result, you read a match report from Giants Stadium about an even contest before one side pulled away late, what percentage of people would have guessed North Melbourne as the victors?

That’s the situation we find ourselves in here, with a heap to unpack after a brilliant performance from players and coaches alike.

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Firstly, let’s set the scene for how North approached the trip to Giants Stadium. Willingly walking into a free-flowing, end-to-end game against GWS finishes with tails between legs and a significant hit to percentage.

So North knew to have a chance, it has to stop the ball from getting outside at any cost. If it gets there, the Giants cover the ground better and use their skills to cut the game apart. Prime example? The build up to their first goal.

To over-simplify a touch, it all comes down to three things:

  1. How well North can split the contests and clearances
  2. How the pressure holds up when GWS win first possession
  3. How North uses the ball to slow play down and reduce costly turnovers

Once the game settled down in the first quarter it was played at North’s preferred pace.

While it was slow, North was perhaps still a little lucky to see Jeremy Cameron, Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly miss snaps. On another day, a couple of them fly through – they certainly all did in Round 1 – and then the game takes on a different complexion.

However, the underlying statistics suggested North was right in the mix. Then Rhyce Shaw pulled his first midfield move at quarter time, shuffling Shaun Higgins into the mix after he’d started at half forward.

Higgins received the Matt de Boer tag – shifting over from Ben Cunnington – immediately after the move, GWS likely assuming that in a slow, grinding game the line breaker can do more damage than a contested specialist.

The problem for the Giants was de Boer on Higgins in the second quarter played out in much the same way as every single thing North tried on prime Gary Ablett – pointless. Higgins ran around like the tag wasn’t even happening, collecting 13 disposals at 92 percent efficiency including four clearances for the term.

To take a slight detour and focus on this move, on the surface it seemed a strange move to start Higgins at half forward and then get him more involved, but Shaw’s comments at half time to Fox Footy provided an inkling into his thinking:

“I’m not necessarily too worried about Cunners (five first-half disposals), he’s playing a role for us and it’s a really important role. And Higgo was doing the same thing in the first quarter.

For the last couple of years, the most typed phrase on this blog has been flexibility. On nearly a weekly basis. And here’s where it comes into practice.

Cunnington gets the de Boer tag in the first quarter and struggles while midfield matchups are relatively straightforward. Higgins’ introduction forces a reshuffle because GWS don’t want to let him get off the chain. Although Higgins gets de Boer’s attention it doesn’t pay any dividends for the Giants, who are now stuck between a rock and a hard place.

If they move the tag back to Cunnington, it means allowing Higgins to continue as he pleases, but then keeping the tag on Higgins allows Cunnington to focus on the second half knowing he won’t have de Boer as a shadow. In other words, GWS at half time:

3 Picture

The Giants tried to split the difference and the third quarter result is 10 disposals and four clearances for Cunnington. Now North’s best two midfielders are up and running, a plan perfectly carried out by Shaw, Cunnington and Higgins.

Back to the game at large though, and the second quarter was where North really locked down and took the pressure to another level while still winning its own share of ‘useful’ contested ball.

The word useful is in quotation marks because it provides the key difference between the midfield battle here compared to last year’s meeting. On that afternoon in Hobart, North’s midfield, containing an ineffective Cunnington and missing Higgins completely, simply wasn’t good enough to make an impact after winning possession. Pressure can only last so long when there’s minimal offensive threat.

Here it was Cunnington and Higgins up and about after slow starts, Jy Simpkin continuing to announce his arrival as a genuine AFL midfielder, Trent Dumont and Jared Polec being amazingly disciplined in their respective wing roles, and Todd Goldstein wearing Sam Jacobs down the longer the game goes.

Even as the scoreboard started to tick along after half time, it wasn’t because of North’s system breaking down. Of GWS’ three goals in the third quarter, one came after an errant Jed Anderson toe poke turned into the perfect cross for Callan Ward and another stemmed from a missed handball in space from the youngster Bailey Scott.

4 Gif

If anything, North cranked up the system and structure another beat and GWS really started to struggle to cope. As Shaw mentioned in his post-match press conference, only seven percent of the Giants’ rebound 50s became inside 50s of their own. An outrageously low number.

To put it n layman’s terms, once the ball got close to North’s goal it wasn’t departing cleanly. Here’s a perfect example from just before North’s run of five consecutive goals. GWS win possession from a stoppage and we’ve seen this script a million times before – flick it around, find some space, hit a target and off to the races.

Except this time there’s two rushed handballs before the ball falls to Nick Haynes, whose safest option is a 11/10 difficulty kick down the line while pressed against the boundary himself. As much of a star as Haynes is, he’s next to no chance to hit this target. Similar situations repeated themselves time and time again.

It’s a large part of why the uncontested possession numbers (North +54) looked as they did. GWS simply couldn’t get the ball outside.

The natural inclination when one team has a significant edge in uncontested numbers is a line about spread and pace. And indeed in some most nearly all of North’s losses, it’s exactly the case. But here it was in large part because North used possession as a defensive tactic. For example, here’s a passage of play where the ball is transferred from defensive 50 to the half forward flank.

Nothing about this play screams spread or pace. It’s calculated, methodical movement where the worst-case scenario is a throw in 70 metres out from goal. They all count as uncontested possessions though.

The final quarter was a validation of the foundation North had laid in the first three quarters. Early GWS pressure – the first five inside 50s – yielded only one pressured snap for a behind before Curtis Taylor (fourth game) and Scott (fifth game) kicked clutch goals.

Then a Harry Himmelberg purple patch kept GWS in it despite every underlying statistic showing North running all over the top of the Giants.

At this point it’d be easy to panic. Everything had been going right yet for all the positives, the lead had just been cut from 15 points to two in the blink of an eye.

Then in the last 7:40 of game time in the match, GWS had one inside 50. One.

This passage played a large part in deciding the game. Tarryn Thomas (22nd game) works all the way up from half forward to provide an option from the kick out, then doubles back to get on the end of a chain, run inside 50 and finish.

It’s what happens when a side is willing to work harder for longer. North essentially broke GWS in the final quarter and by sticking to what worked, saw the scoreboard rewards in the end. The Giants were held to just 42 possessions in the last, comfortably the lowest of any team in a term for the weekend.

The confidence it should give the group is immeasurable. While the wins under caretaker Shaw in 2019 were mightily impressive, it was tough to place an accurate gauge on how much it meant given the overall situation of the season.

This is different. While by no means should North be regarded as a premiership or top four contender yet, the system clearly works. Add in some natural improvement from the youngsters already contributing right now in key moments and there’s clear light on what’s to come.

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