What is wrong with North Melbourne’s ball movement?

Throughout North Melbourne’s last month, the common thread – apart from four losses – has been ball movement. Or to be more accurate, the lack of.

Just what is causing static, slow movement is a matter for debate though, and ideally by the end of this we’ll have our answers.

As we get into things, a reminder you can subscribe to The Shinboner via email on your right (on desktop) or below this post (on mobile). If you’re on Twitter you can follow me @rickm18 and to share this post on social media, you can use any of the buttons at the bottom of this post.


Before diving into the vision, I first looked at the numbers to see if they could tell me anything to either complement or disprove the eye test. When watching North’s last month of forward entries without stats, I’m not the only one to think something looks awry.

As you can see from the scores per inside 50 column, North has still hit the scoreboard regularly over the last month. To look at that in isolation could leave a thought there’s not an enormous problem. Seventh in the league? Seems acceptable.

But then there’s the goals per inside 50 column, raising some alarm bells. 16th over the last month – there’s almost no way to look at that and think everything’s ok. Unless it’s inaccuracy as the problem?

By turning to Stats Insider’s shot charting we can see that based on shot quality, North has been wildly inaccurate over the last month.

This complicates things. Is it just a matter of some simple shots being missed? Or is it a combination of that, plus the supply being to poor areas, along with a forward line missing key contributors?

Only one way to find out. To the vision…

Start with the good

To understand where the problems come from, first we have to define what good ball movement is.

The clearest example to use with the vision we have available to us is from late in North Melbourne’s win against GWS in Round 2, which we’ll look at from two angles.

First from the standard view, there are clear standouts.

There’s composure from Jy Simpkin to take just enough time and find a handball out to Trent Dumont instead of blazing away.

Then Dumont, instead of thumping the ball on the boot, looks inboard to find Tarryn Thomas who’s continued to run from half back to the wing.

Thomas, who could have wheeled around to pump it long inside 50, looks into the centre circle and sees Jared Polec, who marks and importantly has runners on each side.

After being in a position near the boundary on the half back line, North has moved into the very centre of Giants Stadium, opening up the whole field with options to run or kick.

Polec handballs to Jasper Pittard and even as he breaks a tackle, importantly he has support running from Aaron Hall. That way even if Pittard was caught, he wasn’t alone on an island with the GWS defence zeroing in.

The option to run draws the GWS defence up, allowing Pittard to find Thomas again, who’d kept pushing forward and is rewarded with a wide open shot on the run from 40 metres out.

Here’s how it unfolded from the conventional angle. Remember to note the movement from those Roos who don’t pick up a possession.


Now let’s switch to the behind the goals view, where we join proceedings as Thomas goes inboard to Polec.

The first thing to stand out is space. So much space. Changing directions – sharply – with ball movement means the Giants defence has to shuffle across while also trying to maintain pressure on the ball carrier.

Moving it into the centre just about eliminates Nick Haynes (bottom right) from proceedings. On the other flank, Sam Jacobs is dragged out of play by Todd Goldstein, leaving plenty of room up the middle.

Good 2

As Pittard does the work to break through, he has multiple options. Ben Brown has acres of space as Curtis Taylor is sure not to infringe on a potential lead, or Pittard can keep running himself.

Of course, he opts to handball to Thomas who uses the space created by the rest of the forward line to convert under little pressure:


To sum it all up, we saw movement, change of directions, smart decisions, support running and most importantly the potential to use multiple options going forward. There’s no one out of 10 chance kicks which miraculously succeed, while the team appears to be in a decent position to defend if there is a turnover.

Movement covers so many flaws. A slow side looks less so if they’re in constant flow, while skills are easier to execute when movement creates more room to hit targets and a larger margin for error.

It’s unrealistic to expect all that every single time a team goes forward – long towards the line can and does work if it’s done the right way – but it’s an indicator of what happens when a team is going forward well – it’s not necessarily just the last kick inside 50 that’s important.

And now for the not-so-fun part…

Where it breaks down

There’s no one single area to zero in on when figuring this out. Instead we have to take it step by step and find each individual area which adds up to the collective of what we’ve seen over the last month.

As we go through each step, remember to compare and contrast from the good example we just watched.

a) Decision making

This is the hardest part to illustrate because it usually requires a wider view of what’s down field. Without it there’s a fine line between bad decision and skill error.

(Side note: Isn’t a bad decision just a mental skill error anyway?)

However, from what we can see there are enough opportunities to demonstrate how decisions aren’t giving the forwards even a fighting chance inside 50.

Let’s isolate two examples. The first is out of a stoppage where Sydney’s Aliir Aliir is set up as a sweeper.

Jared Polec’s kick gives the North forwards no chance of neutralising Aliir, instead essentially kicking the ball straight to him. We can see it was a conscious decision to go in that direction, and that was where the ball was supposed to go.

Decision 1

The second play comes late in the Essendon game. Ben Brown finally – finally – has space.

Jy Simpkin appears not to see Brown and makes one of his rare bad decisions this year, opting to use an outnumbered Zurhaar instead.

Decision 2

b) Skill errors

The obvious part of the equation. Self-explanatory and well-covered ground. Plays like:

Skill 1


Skill 2

As well as:

Skill 3

Makes scoring much harder than it has to be.

c) Personnel

Jack Ziebell was hobbled from the opening stages against Hawthorn and then missed the following fortnight. Nick Larkey has been absent for a month.

Xerri was blooded for his first taste of AFL football – absolutely the right decision to make – before being rested/omitted for one week of Tom Campbell.

Xerri and Campbell have been asked to fill the second tall forward role without Ziebell as an experienced foil alongside them.

So instead of North being able to use Larkey or Ziebell – the latter capable of playing taller in bursts – when Brown is unavailable, they’ve been left with inferior options.

To be as clear as possible on this point, it’s not intended as a belittling of Xerri or Campbell. The former has played two (2) AFL games and the latter can be serviceable in the right setting.

But after watching this selection of clips, it’s easy to see how Larkey and/or Ziebell – depending on each situation – could perform a better role. Which is to be expected and perfectly normal! At this stage they’re better players with more exposure to AFL standards as a forward – where Xerri has every chance to be after another season or two of experience.


Mason Wood is the latest to get a chance, called back up for Saturday night’s game against Richmond. In what’ll likely be greasy conditions, that tweener role he plays looks to be the right call.

So, we have decision making, skill errors, and personnel. Add those three things up and it builds to the biggest point of the lot:

d) Mindset

If there’s a lack of confidence in the choices you’re making, you’re unsure whether you’ll be able to even carry out said choice, and ultimately not knowing if the players ahead of you will be able to bail you out – what’s left to do? Go back into your shell.

Here are two minutes of either static or slow ball movement – or both.


Remember the good ball movement we went through at the start of this post? There was movement, which in turn created multiple options and that allowed a change of directions if wanted – and all while still being in a relatively good spot to defend if there was a turnover. In that example there could have been a long, high ball into the 50 because all other areas were working well.

Now the natural inclination in most of this video is to blame the ball carrier. But instead of that, it’s actually the end result of when all lines break down.

Errors in decision making = Reluctance to be as aggressive next time
Skill errors = Forwards disheartened with unrewarded efforts
Personnel = Lack of confidence from those moving it forward
No support running/movement = Only one possible option to use
Overall lack of confidence/form slump = Inaccuracy as per the expected score

It’s almost like a perfect storm coalescing into the last month for North Melbourne. What we’ve gone through here is a form slump rather than a terminal flaw in the game style, because the last month has been vastly different to the remainder of Rhyce Shaw’s tenure.

With the exception of the loss to Geelong late last year, even when North had struggled to move the ball it’s not been because option A, B and C resembled a game of mark’s up in the schoolyard.

That gives me confidence it will be rectified in time. But until then, all this is why the last month has unfolded the way it has.

2 thoughts on “What is wrong with North Melbourne’s ball movement?

  1. Great analysis although my main interest is, so what? What needs to change?

    In almost all of these illustrations (except decision making which is a massive part of it), the issue is not the ball carrier but the rest of the team and the strategy we have for kicking goals.

    The idea of a leading full forward is gone unless you have a superstar and a forward line that knows how to clear out and deliver on a dime. We have neither.

    We attempt every inside 50 just like the last failed attempt. Look for a lead running straight at the ball. Every team plays the same defense to stop it. Have a spare back float across the target at point of impact Watch the Allir example. He’s UNMANNED.

    This is done week after week and we just keep trying to bring the ball into a 2 on 1.

    A good club has a strategy and a team that responds to this. Their extra man in the 50 means we have a spare man outside the 50. Where is he? He should be creating the movement up the ground to carry the ball into the 50.

    Once inside the 50 the pressure landscape on the back line changes. The spare man has to come forward leaving the full forward 1:1 or the man bringing the ball in can shoot for goal.

    Unfortunately, even if we fixed this, our general goal kicking skills are atrocious. Ben Brown has no confidence kicking from anywhere, Jack Ziebel can’t kick from a set shot, neither can Polec (the only guy we have who can take ad point from outside 50).

    What we need is a team who knows how to kick goals. We can build a pressure defense all we like, but without a side that can master the art of multiple pathways to goal, we’re screwed.

    Look at the great teams. Everyone of them has dominant forward (or two). A winger or flanker who kicks goals running into 50 and a dude that can long bomb from outside.

    Instead, all of our back movement happens in the back half of the ground. It’s great when Cunnington or Higgins get 30 possessions but when they are on the half back flank hand balling to slow midfielder, what’s the point? It fires on the next kick.

    After that, it’s learning how to play the bloody game. We mark. We stop. No man running past, no man running wide, very little switching and penetrating on the weak side.

    As demonstrated by Richmond, we have so far to go. It’s an absolute tragedy what has become of the club I’ve adored for my entire life.

    Add to that, we can’t get the back out of a pack to a player running wide. Instead we handball back, short it to a man under pressure. The game has changed in the Last 10 years to be intense around the ball. That means you need runners. People moving past the pack but outside of it ALL THE TIME. Our guys linger inside the congestion. When we get the ball, the pressure is still on and we either turn it over or kick long to nobody.

    Overall, these stats are great, but the numbers aren’t telling the real story. We don’t know how to play football the way it’s played today. We have built a team combined of good players coached to play an outdated strategy instead of being coached on how to think about The game in real time. As a result, they follow bad orders and keep plugging away at a strategy doomed to be overpowered by any half decent coach or player.

  2. Great analysis. What would make all the difference? Cunnington to put the ball on the path it needs to take; Larkey to take attention from Brown; Ziebell to get in the way of those trying to muck up the forward structure.

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