Line By Line: North Melbourne’s midfield

It’s time for week three of the line-by-line look at North Melbourne.

First it was the forwards, then the defenders, and finally a look at the midfield today.

It was supposed to be through the lens of Saturday’s game against Fremantle, but there’s not a lot to be taken from a visibly exhausted, depleted team limping to the finish line with at least a handful of players who know they’ll either be elsewhere or barely sniffing the best 22 next year.

But even allowing for that, the midfield is still by far the area of the field with the most possibilities for future structure.

There are a lot of words coming up, but ideally by the end all potential decisions are covered.

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The last month of North Round Reviews: Round 12 | Round 13 | Round 14 | Round 16

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As a general guide, North tends to pick seven midfielders and Todd Goldstein as its first-choice on-ball rotation before giving spot minutes to the half forwards. It hasn’t shown any sign of changing recently, so it’s the foundation to work from here when looking at the short and medium term.

Naturally Goldstein is a lock, a set-and-forget who should be comfortably All-Australian this year, so it’s on to figuring out how the remaining seven midfielders set up assuming full fitness.

Four which will obviously be there are Ben Cunnington, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Jy Simpkin and Shaun Higgins. There should be a big step in natural improvement from both Simpkin and Davies-Uniacke, while Cunnington will be ‘like a new recruit’™ after 2020 was wrecked by injury. 

Higgins may not be a permanent fixture in the midfield rotation every week. Based on what we’ve watched this year it appears his role will continue to evolve into something similar to a Mr Fix It. That means he could also spend time off half back, or maybe even forward depending on needs.

But for now, it leaves three positions available in a best 22. Here is where the key decisions arrive. Five of them, to be exact.

Decision #1: The Polec conundrum

Jared Polec is a very good player. Jared Polec is also the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

He’ll make a good side better but won’t necessarily move the needle as much for the rest.

It leaves North in a tricky situation. There is clearly a want to have the likes of Bailey Scott and Will Walker pushing up through a wing as much as possible – the pair potentially rotating with each other between there and half forward – but that can’t happen with Polec in the side, because he can only play as a winger.

Combine it with the coaching staff clearly not liking Polec’s efforts this year. Then there is Higgins and Cunnington who will clearly be preferred as the experienced part of a midfield unit, and it all keeps coming back to the same question.

Is there a role for Polec in the side?

The cost originally paid to bring Polec to North Melbourne is largely irrelevant given it happened under previous management so there’s little attachment.

Whether this season has been used optimally to give Polec the best trade value is another story, but can be viewed as the coaching staff coming to a realisation in real time. From thinking an omission would be the lightbulb moment, to seeing how other options performed in his place, then seeing the same habits were still there on his reintegration, and ultimately concluding this version of Polec is the finished article.

It’s one of North’s pieces that has value elsewhere, while overall replacing a winger doesn’t have the same domino effect which would happen if a key position player were to depart.

The more it’s looked at, the more it becomes apparent that offering Polec to willing suitors may be the shrewdest long-term move. Although that’s only my opinion and to gauge the mood, here’s a poll:

And just to finish this section off, because trade talks inevitably detour into ‘what about Ben Brown’ discussion, don’t make me tap the sign:

Decision #2: Where does Trent Dumont play?

With Cunnington’s injury, Dumont moved from a wing to on-ball, essentially a straight replacement in terms of role.

Once Cunnington returns he’ll slide back into the spot, which leaves a dilemma. Having him and Dumont in the same on-ball rotation compromises the ability to defend – more on that in a little bit – so ideally it should be avoided.

The natural reaction is to move Dumont back to the wing, but if Higgins is on one and younger players rotating through the other, where does it leave Dumont’s minutes?

Barring an enormous midfield makeover in one summer, Dumont will be in the best 22 come Round 1, 2021. But looking at how roles for others are developing, it appears likely he’ll be asked to play with versatility.

If Dumont is needed on the wing one week, he’ll move there. Then if it’s predicted to be a contested slog the next week he can shift inside, and so on depending on opponent and conditions.

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For those who have been wondering where the Notebook pieces have disappeared to, they’ve been placed on the backburner for the time being.

The reason for that is to give myself enough time to prepare for finals content. More on that at the end of Round 18.

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Decision #3: What is Jed Anderson’s role?

Working under the assumption Anderson receives another contract – if it hasn’t been done already behind the scenes – he’s an important part of the short to medium term midfield because his hunt provides a point of difference.

If Cunnington does the grunt work, Simpkin has well-rounded efforts, and Davies-Uniacke capable of, well … everything, there’s a clear opening for a player with a defensive focus.

Let’s not get ‘defensive focus’ mixed up with ‘tag’, because there are subtle differences. Nevertheless, in theory asking Anderson to be that guy plays to his strengths. It suits his attributes and if it works it also gives a greater margin for error to the rest of the midfielders.

Not to invoke the memory of Ben Jacobs and bring everyone’s mood (further) down, but it’s not a coincidence North’s record was 25-10 over his 35 games in the midfield. In the 40 games he missed during the same time period, that win-loss ledger slipped to 12-28.

If building a team is all about maximising players’ strengths, it should be Anderson’s role to lead the way with physicality, tackling and pressure. Use an off-season to be crystal clear in what’s expected and hit Round 1 running. Or tackling, to be more accurate.

Intermission

The first three decisions centre around individual players. If we’re again to assume health improves from this year – shouldn’t be hard – there’s likely to be plenty of room to bring along players like Scott, Walker and new arrivals while having an improving unit.

These last two decisions are more around structure and management.

Decision #4: How will the midfield responsibilities be restructured?

In the process of reshaping North’s midfield, arguably the most important part of the puzzle is fixing how to defend after losing contests and stoppages.

Being set up to win those two areas as a list strength makes perfect sense. But ultimately it means less than nothing if opponents cut a swathe through North after winning possession from the same situation. All that advantage goes up in smoke.

It’s been a problem going back multiple years, but identifying a problem and figuring out how to solve it are two different skill sets.

With personnel clearly shifting, there’s never been a better chance to solve it than this summer. It’s by far the biggest structural issue – if it can be fixed it solves a major flaw and gives North a much greater margin for error in other areas of the game.

It’s why North is consistently near the bottom in terms of scoring shots conceded per inside 50s. Once teams win the ball and break away, defenders are left on an island. As long as the kick in isn’t a complete disaster, the likes of Robbie Tarrant and Ben McKay are on a hiding to nothing and in most losses it’s actually a credit to the defensive unit the final margin isn’t higher.

Decision #5: Will the draft and trade period play a heavy part in setups?

Let’s start with getting the obvious out of the way: This isn’t the place to come for draft analysis, and I won’t be bluffing my way through it.

Based off previous years’ reading, three I can recommend are Matt Balmer (Fox Sports), Callum Twomey (AFL Media) and Sam Landsberger (Herald Sun). No doubt I’ll have missed a handful though, so shout those people out and they can get a signal boost.

Working off the back of those who know much more about the draftees, the angle here will be more from a list management perspective. 

Last week I mentioned how North had been linked to Zac Williams and Aidan Corr, so there was at least a line of sight for plans on the defensive setup. When it comes to midfielders … not so much.

It leaves this area as very much a wait and see given draft picks will change, contracts are yet to be handed out and most importantly list sizes haven’t been locked in yet. Hypothetically everything could change if the list for 2021 is smaller than expected.

We’ll have to watch this space. And deal with a plethora of fake trades. I’ll start with Liam Anthony and a third round pick for <star player>.

Now that each on-field line has been covered, there’s only one thing left – a list management overview.

It won’t come on Friday morning after the West Coast game; instead arriving shortly after the first round of delistings, whenever they may be.

After that there’ll be a clearer picture of what plans are and next steps heading into the trade and free agency period.

4 thoughts on “Line By Line: North Melbourne’s midfield

  1. Not sure trading Polec is a good idea. Would send a terrible message to players that deals with NMFC count for nought. It’s incumbent on coaching staff to find a way to let Pollie play his idiosyncratic way within an overall team style rather than trade (ie force) him out.

  2. What do you think about the captaincy? Ziebs is a great leader but his value to the team as a player and best position is unclear. Is there someone you think could stand up or do you think he holds his place based on his leadership primarily?

    1. I’ve written this season off for him given all the injuries and whatnot, but if we get to early next year and it’s a similar situation to now I think the conversation has to be had. With every week I lean more and more towards McDonald as the next captain too.

      1. Yeah I think there is not an obvious candidate hopefully McDonald sustains his form and might bring a sense of fun that seems to be missing. I reckon Jed could be a smoky as he plays the right way but he may not like the off field attention.

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