Round 14 v Gold Coast: The importance of forward pressure

Over the last month of the season, what I’ll be doing is using each game to focus on a specific area* of the field. Sometimes it’ll be about a player or two and their effect, other times it will be a whole group.

Considering North Melbourne just lost by 63 points with only seven fewer inside 50s than Gold Coast, it seems an opportune time to focus on the forward group. In particular, just what happens when there’s next to no pressure applied.

(*Camera angle dependent of course)

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The last month of North Round Reviews: Round 9 | Round 10 | Round 12 | Round 13

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In an ideal world, the seven first-choice forwards North would likely have picked most weeks this year consists of Ben Brown, Nick Larkey, Jack Ziebell, Tarryn Thomas, Cam Zurhaar, and a floating sixth and seventh; usually made up of Kayne Turner and the likes of Curtis Taylor, Aaron Hall and Jack Mahony.

There’s a handy mix of marking power, mid-sized versatility, presence at ground level and promising younger players. We saw in the back half of 2019 what it looks like when clicking, most of it including the majority of those players.

It’s where your defence starts from as well, especially in today’s AFL. It’s no coincidence the best teams in the league all rank highly in inside 50 differential. Get the ball in your forward half, lock it in and go to work from there. Easier said than done, but a simple theory to understand.

So. Of the aforementioned list, there were (a minimum of) nine names to choose from. For the game against Gold Coast, only three were available. It was very much a makeshift unit left over.

If there can be a silver lining to a playing list running on the bare minimum of availability, it sharpens focus areas. There can be no cracks papered over, simply because there isn’t the personnel to do so.

At the heart of it, forward pressure is all about blocking a team’s outlets. Even if they win possession in their defensive 50, make sure there’s no time to think before rushing a disposal.

Ideally what you’d like – aside from a direct turnover within range of goal – is a kick dumped outside 50 into the waiting hands of defenders who have pushed up to form a wall.

What you most definitely do not want is a clean possession which then allows Gold Coast to progress up towards the wing and out of immediate danger.

Which brings us to our vision component of today’s post; too many examples of that exact thing happening.

We start with Jack Lukosius being allowed to wander over to a one-on-one contest after an admittedly risky kick inboard to Shaun Higgins.

But still, you see Jy Simpkin and Jed Anderson working across to cover. It’s a collective failure from the forward group to allow Lukosius that much room in his back 50, who then easily finds Ben Ainsworth forward of centre.

Later in the term the ball is scrambled inside 50. All 201 centimetres of Todd Goldstein – who deserves several statues outside Arden Street for his season – chases 185-centimetre Will Powell and forces him into a rushed handball.

Goldstein has done his job, and this is where personnel comes into it. A forward group who has played together often can recognise the situation and knows where to go, where to be.

Instead the setup is all over the shop, and once the ball is flicked to Jack Bowes the outcome is inevitable. An overload towards him doesn’t have any use if it’s too slow to effect possession.

Moments later, a Paul Ahern kick to 50 has a similarly dishevelled outcome. Ahern had signalled exactly where the ball was going, and it was from a slow play which left no room for confusion.

Yet by the time the ball gets to the pack, North has zero ground level presence and the Suns are lining up at the back to clear it out to the wing and reset.

It’s a simple breakdown which wouldn’t happen if North had close to a full complement of forwards – but also shouldn’t happen in any situation.

Shortly after that, as a Cam Zurhaar kick rolls through for a behind, David Swallow is working back to help his Suns’ defenders.

This is where a functioning forward group notices what’s happening and is on top of things. Communication, pointing Swallow out, stopping him from being the outlet from the kick-in. Instead…

These are a handful of the clearest breakdowns available to illustrate. There appeared to be several more which looked just as bad, but given they were impeded by a usual ill-timed camera cut they’ve been left out to err on the side of caution.

It’s how an inside 50 differential of seven can turn into a 63-point scoreboard margin. But to put it in the bigger picture of 2021 and beyond – how much it all means depends on what projects as North’s starting forward group come Round 1.

Ideally Ben Brown and Nick Larkey are the two key marking targets. Both at full fitness playing off each other creates problems for defenders.

Apart from that, all we have are questions. Does Tarryn Thomas remain mainly a forward-mid or transition to a mid-forward? Is Cam Zurhaar’s slight dip in form this year a symptom of what’s further up the field, or are opponents having greater success quietening him?

Does the captain slot straight back into his role as a pseudo-third tall? Where does Curtis Taylor fit in; one of 2020’s real finds before he was North’s 104th injury of the season?

All of the above doesn’t mention any genuine small forwards. Jack Mahony has great instincts and knows where to be; does another pre-season of work improve his physical attributes? Not to mention Turner, the forgotten (out of contract) man and whether he stays on the list.

And then there’s the biggest of wildcards to leave it on: Does the forward setup get revamped totally over a summer where we’re expecting significant list changes?

So in a vacuum, the performance of the forwards on Sunday was disappointing, frustrating, and any other adjective you’d like to use along those lines.

In the bigger picture though, it doesn’t mean too much when considering most of those forwards will be in different positions, well outside the best 22, or elsewhere when Round 1, 2021 arrives.

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