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. To finish things off, it’s Richmond.
With the dossiers for each of Brisbane, Geelong and Port Adelaide, there were plenty of new tweaks and an overall freshness to keep things interesting.
Richmond on the other hand has been playing more or less the same way for four straight years, taking all before it with no drastic shifts in style.
It means this dossier will be a little different to the previous three. There’s next to no point detailing how Richmond plays, because everyone knows that.
What we’ll look at is the bigger picture: Why Richmond’s style is so successful in the current AFL landscape.
What follows are the key points for most game styles around the competition and why Richmond fares so well against them.
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#1a: The forward half game
The goal of a high press is to keep the ball locked into the forward half of the ground, blocking all potential exits for the opposition.
When it’s working well, there’s no way out and the opposition repeatedly turns it over before conceding a goal.
Very few teams willingly elect to sit deep and invite pressure – unless you’re Essendon in the Dreamtime game – so the high press is what Richmond comes up against nearly every week when trying to rebound from defensive 50.
To be a top-tier team, you have to find a sustainable way through a high press. Some teams attempt to control exits with kick-mark. Other teams flick it sideways and backwards, trying to find routes around the outside. The Tigers do neither.
#1b: How Richmond breaks a forward half game
Richmond’s method is essentially professional chaos, going forward at all costs. But for as frenzied as it can look from the outside, it’s predictable to all the Tigers, which in turn gives everyone great trust in where to be at what times.
In Geelong’s finals dossier, looking at a passage of play from the Cats’ perspective showed how their defensive setup could be broken. Watch the same thing through Tiger glasses and take note of a complete lack of hesitation.
If one player in the chain doesn’t know their role, everything collapses:
– If Grimes hesitates to handball, Geelong swarms
– If Balta even momentarily flinches for the kick to Markov or misses the target, opportunity lost
– If Castagna doesn’t keep running in support, Markov doesn’t have the lane to run and kick long
– If Martin, Rioli and Lynch don’t run inside 50, Riewoldt’s only option is to mark instead of tap on
Because it all looks to come together so easily, it’s easy to forget how much work goes into refining the offensive style.
It’s tailored to the playing list’s strengths, with very few – if any – square pegs in round holes. Combine it all and there’s the foundation for breaking the high press of teams.
#2a: Turnovers and transition
There are three scoring sources in a game of football – clearances, turnovers and kick-ins.
Turnovers are where the majority of scores come from, which means if you can create them and prevent your own turning into goals you’ll be in good shape.
But as defences become ever tighter, 18-man setups moving on a string all over the ground, opportunities to take advantage of an unsettled structure can feel few and far between.
Finding the right openings and using them before they disappear can be all the difference between a narrow win or loss, especially in finals where the margins are razor thin.
Just as vital is keeping your own structure rock solid and not getting sucked into play higher up the field, leaving teams with acres of open space to run into when a chance presents.
#2b: How Richmond comes out on top of both turnovers and transition
By stopping transition, Richmond also puts itself in the best position to create turnovers.
Turnovers are inevitable in football. While the best teams don’t have the groan-inducing moments belonging to those lower down the ladder, there’ll be moments where they’re caught out.
For the Tigers, their ability to stop transition and create turnovers are nearly one and the same, and done with the same mentality of stopping the opposition having any fluency with their ball movement.
This really wasn’t supposed to turn into dissecting the Geelong game so thoroughly, but again another example from that night shows how Richmond does it best.
It all happens in the blink of an eye, but this is how the Tigers turn a potentially vulnerable situation into stopping transition, and then creating a turnover for a shot on goal:
It’s a perfect summary of why teams find it so tough to move the ball against Richmond. When the ball lobs over the pile of Tigers to find Luke Dahlhaus, the initial reaction is seeing an opportunity to counter.
But because Dahlhaus doesn’t go literally immediately, that split second is gone and he’s left with two options: long down the line where Tigers are waiting, or a low percentage kick inboard. Yes, the disposal looks terrible, but it’s in large part because he feels forced to push harder than normal due to the defence he sees.
Whatever option teams choose against Richmond, whether it be kick-mark, handball, run and carry, long to contests – it has to be done precisely, and with urgency. Hesitation is death.
If you missed any of the previous three dossiers, you can catch up here:
#3a: Covering your weaknesses
Ultimately not every game style can excel in all areas. Whether through personnel or one area being focused on more than another, there’s always going to be a soft spot somewhere.
Looking at other teams in the finals, the areas of concern are easy to find, although tougher to break. Port Adelaide has undersized defenders, Geelong’s ball movement can be slowed to a crawl, West Coast struggles to win ground balls, Collingwood’s barely functioning forward line – the list goes on.
For Richmond, it’s always been about winning clearances. It has barely sniffed a positive differential in each of the last three years, and only Adelaide has had worse numbers this year.
In theory it provides a (much easier said than done) roadmap to getting on top of Richmond – win the clearance, control possession to neutralise pressure and go from there.
#3b: How Richmond covers its weaknesses
The perfect example came in Round 17 (surprise). Geelong doubled Richmond up in the clearance count – 32-16 – but found little joy from an enormous numerical advantage.
It’s because the Tigers are set up to prevent opposition clearances from snowballing into further control, pressuring them into rushed disposals or direct turnovers.
Using a selection of stoppages from Richmond’s defeat of Geelong to provide an example, note the trend in these clips. It’s all the end result – no control for the Cats, whether it be through the form of a secondary stoppage or a ground ball slightly further up the field.
When the opposition wins possession but is forced into a turnover or dump kick, suddenly a vulnerable area is turned into a strength for the Tigers, able to play the game on their terms.
What makes a good side great is when an opposition knows what to do to win, but can’t do it. So when teams know Richmond’s vulnerability lies in clearances and still can’t take advantage after winning them, they know they have to deal with what’s coming everywhere else on the field. That’s a battle they’ll lose more often than not.
Summing it all up
Since the start of Richmond’s run, it’s had a 7-1 finals record with an average winning margin of 46 points; all victories by at least 19 points.
It has a game style which uses the best elements of the modern AFL while also knowing how to cover weak spots.
The Tigers start this year’s finals against a side they haven’t lost to since 2009; on the other side of the top four there’s a team they have already beaten twice in the 2017 and 2019 finals, with the other playing a qualifying final for the first time since 2007.
The tag of favourites is theirs for good reason.