Round 6 v Essendon: A concealed step forward

It seems to be all the rage this week, so here were my pre-game notes on what I’d watch for when North Melbourne faced Essendon at Metricon Stadium:

  • Can North fix defending around contests and stoppages
  • Essendon offense is still finding its way, how many gifts does it get
  • Lower priority given conditions, but how does ball movement look

With the above three points in mind, away we go…

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Previously in North Round Reviews: Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Round 5

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Let’s start from the top. For those who read last week, a key point was how North was simply unable to defend around stoppages and contests. Given the midfield personnel isn’t the fleetest of foot, it’s imperative for North to make it as hard as possible for opponents to get outside of contests.

It makes the shape around those contests vital. If there’s a lack of cover in dangerous areas, it’s too easy for opponents to gain significant territory after winning the ball, half the battle in today’s game. Too many times against the Bulldogs, we saw a setup like this:

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There’s no-one guarding this dangerous area and no-one behind the ball either, too risky a move when playing against a team which thrives on that space

A simple change North made was to frequently commit an extra player on the defensive side of the stoppage, attempting to prevent any easy exits for the Bombers out the front of contests after they won possession.

It was a rotating cast of individuals but for the most part it looked similar to this:

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It restricted Essendon from having that same sort of easy passage from stoppages in the middle third of the ground like the Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium. By no means was it perfect, but it was a marked improvement.

Alongside the structural tweak, there was a significant increase in the pressure applied in general play. The words ‘effort’ and ‘pressure’ can be misused; the former is often useless unless there’s a system behind it, at which point it becomes the latter.

It’s easy to say the ‘effort’ was better than last week, but a player can try really hard and still provide next to nothing if they’re going to the wrong places.

Here there was a marked improvement in blocking off Essendon’s exits from contested passages of play when compared to the Bulldogs the previous weeks.

A prime example was this period late in the first quarter from a ground ball. Essendon wins possession but is quickly forced backwards, then sideways, then eventually out of bounds for a throw-in:

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Note both points introduced so far are defensive improvements, and for the majority of the night it worked well. Time for a quick detour.

For those who haven’t watched too much of Essendon this year, it’s a team developing a new game style much different to its bread and butter of the last few seasons.

The easiest comparison to make is by pointing at Richmond’s style, because seemingly half of the Tigers’ football department has migrated to Tullamarine in recent years.

However, the key difference is that while Essendon has just about nailed the defensive portion of the style, offensively it still needs a lot of work. Some of that is due to personnel, some due to lack of continuity because of how the season is unfolding, and the rest because of still needing more reps in playing this way. Always remember, offense is harder to teach than defence.

All the above means that until Essendon gets better at the offensive side of its new style and upgrades personnel, it tends to rely on its defence, pressure, and also gifts from opponents, whether from direct turnovers or structural brain fades.

For maybe 90 percent of the game, North was great in not allowing those gifts. But the other 10 percent…

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Here’s the disclaimer for any Essendon fans still reading – this next part is a pure focus on North’s side of things so there isn’t going to be a lot of credit for all the good done by Bombers and the missed opportunities elsewhere. I hope you don’t hold it against me.

Not only were there a slew of late goals, but throughout the night most of Essendon’s goals could have either been prevented or made significantly harder if North maintained the focus it had for large parts of the night.

For all the good done by the structural tweaks, it was undone with momentary lapses. One by one, here we go, starting with David Zaharakis’ first goal where he was allowed to run unimpeded in the forward 50:

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Next, the free kick given away by Shaun Atley to Kyle Langford right on the stroke of quarter time. Barely a push, arguable it should have even been given, but why put yourself in that position? Langford was already going to ground so wouldn’t have been dangerous, and all it takes is one clearing possession to escape the quarter without further damage.

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Next, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti is allowed to waltz into an advantage call and goal from the line after Jayden Laverde earns a free kick.

Would Laverde have kicked the set shot anyway? Probably. But given his inconsistency in front of goal it would have been far from a lock, and another instance where something simple – not playing until the umpire blows time off after a free kick – made things much easier for Essendon than it had to be.

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Zaharakis’ second goal arguably looked the worst of the lot, but it’s a natural play which happens from a scrambled turnover forced by Essendon pressure at a stoppage, so it gets a tick. However, Essendon’s goal after the half-time siren should have been prevented by not allowing the Bombers to take possession in the first place.

In the dying stages of the quarter, with play happening on the interchange side of the ground, everyone knows how long is left. There are signs on the bench, people calling out and no excuses. So this kick:

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It doesn’t need to happen. It’s the point of a quarter where a team shuts up shop, takes the percentage option and plays out the string. Even if the low percentage kick comes off, it doesn’t increase North’s chances of scoring to any notable degree. For all the good done by Jared Polec throughout the night both with and without ball in hand, it’s another decision by North which made things easier on Essendon.

Four out of Essendon’s nine goals, indisputably made much easier by simple, avoidable North errors. There could have been a couple more placed in here – Marley Williams selling Kyron Hayden short just before three quarter time, Zaharakis allowed to pick up too easily in the pocket for his third – but they can be debated much easier.

All this covers North’s defensive side of the game, with the good parts likely being what Rhyce Shaw referred to post-match when he said, ‘we found some of our game again’.

This leaves … the offensive side. Deliberately left to the end for two reasons – one because it was a lower priority due to conditions, but also due to there being so much to unpack over a four-week time period it’s impossible to do it all right here and now.

That will come in time, but until then the easy answer is to proclaim it all broken. I won’t be going that far, because plenty will be solved with Nick Larkey’s return, assumedly next week. Whether a 20-game key forward should be so important to help that much is a valid concern, but points more towards a system where two talls has been the order of the day all summer, pre-season and since resumption.

With Tristan Xerri still finding his footing at AFL level and Tom Campbell a stop-gap on Saturday night until Larkey’s return, they’re foils to Ben Brown which opposition defences simply don’t respect.

It leaves Brown justifiably low on confidence, which turns into him not making the most of opportunities on the (extremely) rare occasions he gets them. Even when the delivery is just average, Brown can still be trusted to bring the ball to ground and allow the ground level players to get to work, as evidenced here:

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While you’d obviously like Brown to take the mark in that situation, he still competed and got the ball to ground where the pressure created a Cam Zurhaar goal.

But as the night went on, this looked like a high water mark in terms of delivery. Much like how bad goalkicking can be contagious, so too can poor decision making.

It’s human nature to start to doubt a process which isn’t producing results. So, when there’s an ineffectual second key forward, a strong opposition defence and a lack of scoreboard pressure, naturally North players start to second guess things.

In the dying minutes, when Brown is finally in plenty of space there’s the perfect opportunity to use him. But instead…

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It’s like the camera switching to Zurhaar magnetised the ball there.

There’ll be more on the forward setup and ball movement inside 50 in the near future because it deserves a thorough, stand-alone examination.

But in the meantime, there shouldn’t be too much panic over this result. After Round 2, I said there’s no way North should be regarded as a premiership or top four contender despite the quality performance. And now, after four consecutive losses, there’s no way North should be regarded as one of the worst teams. The truth is somewhere in the middle and recent performances while undermanned don’t change that.

5 thoughts on “Round 6 v Essendon: A concealed step forward

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