2020 Finals Dossier: Brisbane Lions

In the lead up to the 2019 finals, I introduced a series of dossiers on the top five teams. How they play, strengths, weaknesses, and everything in between. It seemed to go over well so it’s all the excuse I needed to bring it back for a second time. Let’s call it the 2nd Annual Shinboner Finals Dossiers.

This week I’ll be looking at each of the top four sides and the legitimacy of their premiership contention. First up, it’s Brisbane.

A handful of Brisbane facts, from the beginning of 2019:

  • Only Richmond has more wins (31 to Brisbane’s 30)
  • Beaten every team except one (Richmond)
  • 19-3 record at the Gabba
  • Seven-game winning streak
  • The Grand Final is at the Gabba

In theory it’s set up perfectly for the Lions to make a premiership run, yet they’re third* in current markets and it seems to be commonly accepted among most.

(*On Thursday we’ll get to why Port Adelaide is a world away in fourth)

It’s a tricky conundrum to figure out, but first let’s start with the positives – what’s propelled Brisbane to a second consecutive top-four finish.

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A strong forward half team

It’ll be a common theme throughout these dossiers, mainly because it’s a fundamental plank of a successful modern style.

There’s no coincidence this year’s top four all feature in the top five for inside 50 differential. The lone team out – Collingwood – would have also been a top four contender with a functioning forward line, but that is a story for another time.

TeamInside 50 differentialAFL rankLadder position
Port Adelaide+1701st1st
Brisbane+1233rd2nd
Richmond+1562nd3rd
Geelong+745th4th

Having ‘a forward half game’ is just a different way of describing a high press. The benefits are straightforward:

a) Can win the ball back closer to goal
b) Stops teams from transitioning into their own forward half easily
c) If working well, protects own defenders from high quality entries (more on that later)

In theory, this is how a high press works:

And in practice it works like this, forcing a turnover and a scoring shot:

By squeezing in with a high press, in theory there’s less ground for a defence to cover. When that happens, it’s easier to restrict opposition ball movement and transition as well as generating more scoring shots from turnovers.

With two seasons of evidence before us, it’s clear Brisbane is one of the best sides at it.

An attacking edge and well-rounded offensive style

During Brisbane’s rise up the ladder in 2019, it tended to focus ball movement on a long and wide method, particularly out of the defensive half.

The next evolution in 2020 has been to include the corridor whenever possible. It’s added another layer to the offensive side of Brisbane’s game – now there’s flexibility with which lever to pull.

When the attacking option is available, Brisbane can blow teams away with the click of a finger. Five goals in nine minutes against Port Adelaide, five goals in 12 minutes against the Bulldogs, five goals in 16 minutes against Collingwood, four goals in 11 minutes against Sydney and four goals in nine minutes against Carlton.

It’s quick, no-frills movement which is aimed to get into its forward half where opponents are then stuck, unable to get out.

TeamScoring shot % per inside 50AFL rank
Brisbane45.39%1st
Geelong44.31%2nd
Port Adelaide44.12%3rd
Richmond39.72%12th

But then if Brisbane feels under siege, it’s able to revert back to a more conservative method, designed to soak up pressure when on the back foot.

The Lions have a 4-0 record in games decided by 10 points or less this season. In all of them – Melbourne in Round 8, North Melbourne in Round 12, St Kilda in Round 13 and Collingwood in Round 15 – they were most definitely on the back foot late.

A benefit of having the highest kick to handball ratio in the competition – yes, even more than West Coast – means Brisbane has a greater capability than most sides to control tempo if needed.

TeamRecord in games decided by < 10 points
Brisbane4-0
Port Adelaide1-0
Geelong2-2
Richmond1-1-0

Brisbane’s movement around stoppages

It’s graduated from a highlight in 2019 to a feature in 2020, with large thanks to Brisbane’s continuity.

The shallow injury list of the last two seasons has allowed key players to constantly be on the field with each other, building nearly a telepathic understanding of where everyone will be and how to release teammates into space.

In 2019, 18 Lions played at least 20 of 24 games. So far this year 20 Lions have played at least 13 of 17 games.

The continuity is most evident at set plays; i.e. stoppages. A combination of simple movement and more intricate blocking passages keeps opponents on the back foot. Not only does it achieve the obvious goal of putting Brisbane into scoring positions when it all works out, there’s also a lesser realised benefit of working as a line of defence.

If opponents’ first mode is to defend against movement, attacking can tend to be an afterthought and Brisbane already has a subtle advantage.

Here are three passages of play from the season to illustrate. First, it’s a set play executed to perfection, then a simple passage being created, and finally a series of blocks.

It’s all bases covered and methods of attacking from a variety of angles. Tough to defend for any side.

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This is the first of the dossier series, with the remainder coming one per day:

Wednesday: Geelong
Thursday: Port Adelaide
Friday: Richmond

They’ll pop up first in your inbox if you subscribe to The Shinboner via email on your right (on computer) or below this post (on mobile).

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The inaccuracy problem

Recently over on Stats Insider, I delved into the reasons for Brisbane’s inaccuracy throughout the year.

To oversimplify the piece, essentially the Lions are content to take harder shots on goal than most teams, rely on their midfielders to hit the scoreboard more than most, and it results in high variance on the scoreboard.

It played a significant role in both 2019 finals losses, and also had a heavy influence in this year’s losses to Geelong and Richmond.

The million dollar question is whether it has a mental effect in these finals. It’s impossible to quantify and only something applicable if the Lions get off to a poor start in front of goals. Nevertheless, something to keep in mind.

The steadily improving defence

(Assumption: Recent reports about Harris Andrews recovering for the first final will prove to be correct.)

Chris Fagan’s ‘we’re not the Harris Andrews Football Club’ will take some beating for line of the season.

When the best key defender in the game went down, naturally there was conjecture over how much Brisbane would miss him.

The point overlooked is that the longer the season has gone, the more Brisbane has stemmed the quality of inside 50s conceded, coincidentally much like last season.

When mentioning the high press earlier, a consequence of not getting it right is conceding too many high-quality entries.

When it’s on – as we’ve seen more and more from Brisbane – the lower quality of inside 50 entries means its defenders start with an advantage. The result is fewer scoring shots conceded.

2019Scoring shot % conceded per inside 50Rank2020Scoring shot % conceded per inside 50Rank
Round 1-1244.01%15thRound 1-1043.38%12th
Round 14-2339.06%2ndRound 11-1830.39%1st

It’s an experienced defensive core which does the job. With Andrews’ likely return, he’ll join Darcy Gardiner, Ryan Lester, Grant Birchall and also Daniel Rich when he’s not floating further up the field.

That core helps set the team up and keep everything balanced, providing plenty of cover for youngsters Brandon Starcevich and Noah Answerth (when the latter plays), along with allowing Callum Ah Chee to roam and intercept as he did so well against Carlton.

If those further up the field can do their job well and restrict the quality of ball coming into its defensive 50, the Lions can avoid the key failing from last year’s finals series. After not taking their opportunities against Richmond (+10 inside 50s) and GWS (+17 inside 50s), they were countered against way too easily, losing structure behind the ball:

Instead of a potential home preliminary final, it was a straight sets exit.

What is this year’s ceiling for the forward group?

(Disclaimer: I’m aware this is the section which can blow up in my face. Just roll with the theory for a moment please.)

Charlie Cameron – indisputable A-grader.

Aside from Cameron, which forwards have the ability to strike fear into Geelong and Richmond’s defensive units?* Brisbane will have to beat at least one and possibly both teams for a premiership.

(*Port Adelaide is left off this list because we saw what happened earlier in the year at the Gabba)

Eric Hipwood may be inching towards it, but he’s only kicked two goals in his last four matches against the Tigers and three in three against the Cats.

Expecting a bag from Dan McStay doesn’t mesh with his role as part of the current forward structure. It also looms as a position targeted for an upgrade in the future, but that’s one for the off-season.

Lincoln McCarthy can be relied upon for a goal a game and pressure, while Zac Bailey has been the big improver of 2020 but would be over-extended to be relied on for a game-changing performance at this stage. Keidean Coleman has shown flashes over his first month at AFL level, but it’d be unrealistic to expect a lot from him on the finals stage – as much as the puns with his surname would make it all worthwhile.

Coleman’s introduction over the last month has led to Cam Rayner spending more time up the field. It raises the question of whether the forward setup stays the same during the finals because a Rayner breakout changes Brisbane’s whole look.

You know it has to come at some point; Rayner has all the tools to do so and too much talent not to. He’s built steadily year on year, steadily impacting matches for longer. The key question: Is his time now, or next year?

This is all obviously nitpicking of the highest order, because it’s a nice forward line. But it’s these minuscule differences which differentiate between a very good side and a premiership side.

Summing it all up

It’s clear there are three key areas for Brisbane in this year’s finals series:

a) Assuming they continue to be content with taking shots with a higher degree of difficulty, hoping the conversion progresses to 2019 levels rather than continues at 2020 levels
b) If capable of it, the forward group stepping up against the best defensive units
c) Executing the high press to protect against high quality inside 50s

If it all clicks, then the Lions deserve to be spoken about in the top tier. If not, then it’ll be back to tinkering around the edges of a successful system for 2021.

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