2020 Finals Dossier: Geelong Cats

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. Next up, it’s Geelong.

Although the home and away ladder position – from top to fourth – and recent form – a heavy loss to Richmond and squeaking by Sydney – may not show it, Geelong is an improved team from 2019.

Another year of refining its offensive style, improvement from middle tier players, and the benefits which come from continuity in a year where everything else changes from week to week has all helped Geelong.

Much like all Cats discussions though, it tends to circle back to the same question – is what they’re doing enough to progress past preliminary final weekend?

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A controlled style of ball movement

There’s a fine line between controlled ball movement and slow ball movement.

The former is when a team knows what they’re trying to accomplish and can methodically move up and down gears depending on the situation. The latter is a static, stationary team which devolves into straight lines and slow, high bombs.

When the Cats are playing well, they are the former, not turning the ball over in their defensive half. In a situation like this, most teams would resort to bombing it up the line. Instead possession is methodically worked into the forward half of the ground:

Because teams can struggle to move it past Geelong’s defence, using this control allows its defensive unit to set up securely behind the ball.

Then even when opponents win the ball back in their defensive half, they look up the ground to see an organised, set defence while having to deal with heavy pressure around the ball.

When they can’t move the ball through those bodies, Geelong wins it back and put it on the scoreboard:

Control wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing which comes to mind when asked to describe the highest scoring team in the competition, but it clearly works well for Geelong.

Starting at the source

For Geelong to be methodical around the ground with its ball movement, first it has to win contests to establish control.

The uncontested possession dominance doesn’t come without winning contested possessions first:

Geelong in 2020Average per gameAFL rank
Contested possession differential+10.061st
Uncontested possession differential+35.711st

And the benefit of such a refined system, played over many years, is there’s no confusion for players in how to carry out their roles. There are countless examples to pick out each week, but for just one here’s a centre bounce against North Melbourne in Round 10.

As soon as the ball is bounced, Jack Steven immediately knows his responsibility is to neutralise Jy Simpkin…

Meanwhile Patrick Dangerfield has little interest in whoever’s on him because he knows his responsibility is to win the ball…

And Joel Selwood, realising Dangerfield’s advantage, essentially runs interference knowing he won’t take possession himself.

Here’s how it all played out in real time. It’s these type of examples all around the ground which help Geelong establish terms.

The improvement of Guthrie and Menegola

The improvement of Cam Guthrie and Sam Menengola Menegola has been vital for Geelong’s midfield balance.

Once Tim Kelly departed for West Coast, there was an opportunity to reshuffle responsibilities, turning his offensive skills into an even spread of two-way running (which isn’t a criticism of Kelly to be clear, if you have someone who plays like that it’d be negligent not to let him do what he does best).

Without Guthrie and Menegola taking their game up a level in 2020, Chris Scott wouldn’t have been as comfortable shuffling the magnets elsewhere.

If the pair hadn’t improved this season, would Dangerfield have pushed forward against Sydney, or would he have had to play those crunch minutes on ball instead?

Would Geelong have the same contested dominance which then allows it to set up its uncontested game and control tempo all over the field?

Raw disposal count simplifies the improvement a touch, but even in shorter quarters this year both Guthrie and Menegola have improved their tallies significantly.

Disposals Per Game20192020 (shorter quarters)
Cam Guthrie18.422
Sam Menegola1921.9

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If you missed Brisbane’s dossier and are wondering when the remaining two are coming, here’s what to know:

Tuesday: Brisbane
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 drawbacks of a controlled style

Geelong knows it can beat Brisbane and Port Adelaide playing this way. Of course it leaves one side lurking like boogeymen in the night.

It was all on display in Round 17 where Geelong’s control – which normally wears down opponents until they break – mattered little against Richmond.

Every worst fear for the Cats – even allowing for players missing on the night – materialised when they tried to move the ball.

A clearance advantage against Richmond doesn’t matter as much as other sides because the Tigers aren’t set up to dominate in that area.

But it does provide an avenue for Geelong to get the game on its terms. The problem was when it did attempt to progress up the field, it didn’t find the same holes in the defensive setup as it would against other teams.

Remember the earlier example against St Kilda? This is what a similar passage looked like against Richmond:

Playing with control gives little margin for error when coming up against a quality defensive setup. Without the Cats having a ton of pack marking options up the field as link options, if a defence is on it doesn’t necessarily have to worry about their heads being sat on, instead focusing more on covering space.

Or then there’s the example of when Geelong set up behind the ball to pin Brisbane in its back half. Against Richmond it was rendered irrelevant when things like this happened, the Tigers too easily able to pick holes in the seams of the Cats’ defensive setup:

Geelong’s back half of the ground isn’t the quickest, which means speed has the ability to trouble it when combined with precision. Once again easier said than done but the way to execute it is clear.

The hope for the Cats would be staying on the other side of the finals draw to the Tigers until a potential Grand Final rematch, before having a side at full strength rectifies enough offensive issues.

If Gary Rohan and Gary Ablett are fit and firing, in theory it’d mean the Tigers can’t collapse around Tom Hawkins as much, forced to play more one-on-one defence than they’d like.

Add in something Chris Scott will be holding up his sleeve for the next matchup – because that’s what tends to happen – and Geelong has areas to improve in if it runs into Richmond again.

Summing it all up

Considering how Geelong fared against Port Adelaide relatively recently and the individual matchups on offer for Tom Hawkins, it’s probably a preferred matchup over Brisbane to start their campaign.

But while the Power are heading into uncharted territory for their group – the first qualifying final since 2007 – we all know the Cats’ recent history. They’ve lost four of five qualifying finals since the 2011 premiership, simply not good enough to get the game on their terms.

As shown, the improvements Geelong has made are clear. By the same token, its vulnerabilities are just as visible, although exploiting them is easier said than done.

There’s nothing new left to talk about. All that’s left is to watch and see whether it’s enough to take another step forward.

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