2020 Finals Dossier: Port Adelaide

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 Port Adelaide.

There’s always one team which flies up the ladder unexpectedly. Port Adelaide has taken the honour in 2020, following on from Brisbane last year, Collingwood in 2018, Richmond in 2017, and so on.

Yet despite finishing on top of the ladder, with the second most points scored, the fewest conceded and the biggest inside 50 differential in the league, the Power sit a distant fourth in premiership favouritism.

So before delving into the finer details of what’s fuelled Port Adelaide’s 14-3 record, first it’s time to take a step back and explain the scepticism of many.

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Progressing ahead of schedule

Between 2015 and 2019, Port Adelaide never won fewer than 10 games but also failed to progress past the first week of finals. The latter largely thanks to Luke Shuey, but I digress.

We normally expect a rapid rise from teams who have spent their time at the cellar and replenished with top picks, not one which had been seemingly stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. Only seven players on the list born between 1993 (turning 27 this year) and 1996 (turning 24 this year) adds to the unlikely manner of the Power’s rise.

A charmed injury run – only 30 players used this year, the least of any side – has undoubtedly helped, but it wouldn’t have mattered much if the veterans weren’t still capable of producing at a high level. It’s allowed the beginning of an under the radar list slash-and-burn to bloom earlier than expected.

Of the 22 who took the field for Port Adelaide’s last game in 2018, nine are no longer at the club, while Jack Watts didn’t play a game this season. Overall there’s been 19 list changes during the last two off-seasons, leaving a list very much veterans and youth with little in between:

*Before recent delistings and retirement announcements*

It’s not the traditional list profile commonly accepted as a premiership contender, which is why the Power can sit top of the ladder for literally the entire season and still not be considered favourites.

But it’s working this year because the veterans are still producing. Charlie Dixon is having arguably a career best season, Travis Boak is a Brownlow contender, Robbie Gray continues to do Robbie Gray things, Hamish Hartlett is ultra-reliable while flying under the radar, while Tom Rockliff and Tom Jonas work as fulcrums for the midfield and defence respectively.

They provide the support to ease the less experienced players into AFL life, allowed to develop at whatever pace suits them.

Without Dixon, Todd Marshall is forced to take a higher calibre of defender. Scott Lycett’s presence allows Peter Ladhams to alternate between second ruck and secondary tall forward, at least when he’s not suspended for COVID breaches. Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma can … never mind, there’s exceptions to every rule.

It means while this current stint near the top projects as temporary given the veterans are bound to drop off sooner rather than later, in theory the drop time should be minimal because of the Power’s list profile.

Now for the on-field factors which has led to this year’s ladder leaders.

Forward half strengths

Once Port Adelaide has the ball trapped in its forward half, it’s an almighty struggle for opponents to get it out cleanly.

The inside 50 differential is comfortably the highest in the competition. Then the Power use this advantage to force a plethora of turnovers in dangerous areas and when that happens, they’re in the perfect position to pile pain onto the scoreboard. Some of these inside 50 totals look like scores at half time of Games 5-7 in the Clippers-Nuggets series, just without the inevitable comeback:

  • Round 2 v Adelaide: 57-30
  • Round 3 v Fremantle: 55-34
  • Round 6 v GWS: 51-33
  • Round 11 v Richmond: 51-24
  • Round 17 v Essendon: 45-32

The Richmond game stands out for two reasons – what happens when a side can find a way through the high press, and what it looks like when the Power are really on.

We’ll start with the latter before getting to the former because positivity > negativity.

Port Adelaide jumped out to a 26-point lead in the blink of an eye, with its first four goals coming from forward half turnovers. It’s a sign of success against anyone, but given how impressive Richmond’s transition can be, it takes on added significance.

As detailed in Brisbane’s finals dossier, when a high press works it forces turnovers close to goal or slows opposition ball movement down to the point where they only have one option remaining.

It was all on show in the early stages against Richmond:

Forcing these types of turnovers is what the Power look like when they’re on. And they have two home finals, allowing a genuine advantage only Brisbane can match.

Winning stoppages and contested ball

The importance of clearances can sometimes be overstated, but for Port Adelaide it’s a critical plank of success.

Without winning those and contested ball around the ground, it’s unable to set up an impressive high press, in turn leaving an undersized defence vulnerable against marking forwards.

No side has a better clearance differential than the Power, while only Geelong and Collingwood have a better contested possession differential.

Port Adelaide differentialsTotalAFL rank
Clearances+951st
Contested possessions+1173rd

It’s no coincidence Port Adelaide’s three worst quarters of the season – the second against Brisbane in Round 6, the last against St Kilda in Round 8, and the last against Geelong in Round 12 – all stemmed from being well beaten in the same areas.

Port Adelaide’s worst three quartersClearancesContested possessionsScoreboard
Q2 v Brisbane, R6-5-141.1 to 6.5
Q4 v St Kilda, R8-6-110.2 to 5.0
Q4 v Geelong, R12-5-151.0 to 7.0

It’s not a fatal flaw the Power can’t stem the flow; if anything for it to only happen three times during the season shows how good they are at winning first possession, even while opponents know how important it is.

But what it does highlight is how the Power rely on winning the ball at the source more than most. The other games provide a mountain of evidence detailing what happens when they do get on top in those areas.

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If you’ve missed the first two dossiers, you can catch up here with a reminder Richmond’s is still to come:

Tuesday: Brisbane
Wednesday: Geelong
Friday: Richmond

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

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Are sides breaking through the press easier?

From Round 1-10, Port Adelaide ranked first for goals conceded per inside 50. But since then, it ranks a lowly 15th, on face value a surprising slide given it has still won six of seven in the timeframe.

It hasn’t coincided with an opposition hot streak in front of goal either, with Stats Insider’s shot charting tool showing the Power haven’t conceded too much more than expected.

Dig a little deeper and two relevant games emerge – the ones against fellow top-four finishers Richmond and Geelong.

Given the way each team plays, they naturally broke the press in different ways. The Cats were more methodical:

While the Tigers broke through it at a million miles an hour, essentially ignoring any Power setup and playing with professional chaos. It’s like playing Super Mario 1 – once you go far enough forward, you’re not allowed to go backwards at all:

Dealing with Richmond’s movement compared to Geelong’s (and Brisbane’s) are two separate beasts, but they’ve both shown different ways in how to play against Port Adelaide’s high press.

When the Tigers and Cats are playing well, they possess arguably the two biggest challenges for any defence. Having a line of sight should help the Power’s preparations heading into October, particularly against the Cats first up. It’s a safe bet to expect a much improved method of combating Geelong’s control at Adelaide Oval.

Each provides a different angle of challenge for the Power to conquer, but figuring it out will go a long way towards a second premiership.

Summing it all up

This season’s surprise packets may have shot up the ladder earlier than everyone predicted, but there is a clear on-field method to fuel the rise.

It may only be a one-year opportunity to achieve something special with this group given the experienced core are due to have Father Time on their tails any time now (although some players may have figured a secret out).

But 2021 and beyond is irrelevant right now. Home ground advantage for a qualifying final against a Geelong side which has only won one of its last seven first-week finals, a fit and firing list and a team which has clearly been the best performed throughout the home and away season.

Why can’t it be Port Adelaide?

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