In a year of discovery, what will North Melbourne look for

It’s hardly revealing a state secret in saying North Melbourne won’t be playing deep into September this year.

A first year coach, a list clean out half complete, and a real sense of starting fresh means everything is up for discussion.

2021 is the perfect time to throw things at the wall to see what sticks, considering there’s already a younger core primed to take on more responsibility.

Through two practice matches there have already been glimpses of what to expect – both from individuals and the team setup. That’s what we’ll go through here.


Given the year coming up, and results not necessarily being of the utmost importance, there’s every chance the blog will look a little different this year. Depending on how things play out, there may be less of a focus on full game analysis and more focus on players, smaller gains, and where everything fits in the medium to long term.

At least until North start 11-0, anyway.

In the meantime, a reminder you can subscribe to The Shinboner via email on your right (on desktop) or below this post (on mobile). If you’re on Twitter you can follow me @rickm18 and to share this post on social media, you can use any of the buttons at the bottom of this post.


Ball movement

Let’s start with the area which will cause the most headaches. For those who have hair, I suggest attending games wearing a beanie, or maybe even gloves, just so you don’t tear your hair out at some of the mistakes you’ll see early on. For those who don’t have hair – maybe have a chat to Ben Cunnington and see what can be arranged?

Nevertheless, learning this new quick, sharp, full-ground ball movement is a lesson in starting from scratch. Barely a player on the list has experience playing this way. Even if you think back to 2012-2014 and those who survive from that era, the play style was centred around triple towers up forward. This current outfit isn’t set up the same way, to say the very least.

When watching North this year, there will be plenty of moments staring at play in astonishment wondering something along the lines of, ‘what on earth are they trying to do?’ Maybe with a few extra words added in for emphasis as long as there aren’t any youngsters around.

The key words to remember when thinking about ball movement are patterns and repetition – both things North haven’t had in match situations.

The best teams in possession – think Richmond, Geelong, also West Coast when up and firing – are that way because the 18 on the field instantly recognise patterns of ball and body movement, drilled into them over a long period.

By contrast, North have had exactly two (2) practice matches to carry out one (1) abbreviated pre-season worth of instructions that are a complete 180 turn from how they were drilled in 2020.

To start off with, that potion will make for what appear to be a string of baffling mistakes while the older players retrain their mindset, and the younger ones acclimatise to AFL life. The intent will be there, but the execution won’t. A prime example from last Saturday at Arden Street:

It looks like a schoolboy error, but the intent is clearly visible. Turner makes the right decision to go inboard, where Lazzaro and Tyson are both viable options.

If the exact same opportunity presents itself halfway through the year, the end result is an inside 50 and potential scoring shot.

Most of the turnovers witnessed in the two practice games come because the style of play isn’t second nature, simple fixes which will come with time.

Using this play as an example, one minor change opens up play completely and gives North unfettered access to the corridor:

Or Bigfoot could be just out of frame in the centre circle. I don’t know.

When everyone’s patterns aren’t second nature, simple plays like this end up in a muddle, turnover, and extra opposition attacks.

There’ll be a plethora of examples to highlight through the early stages of the year – there were more than enough just against Hawthorn – but the key point is North made the mistake playing the way they want to.

Much like youngsters have to play through their mistakes, the team has to continue working out the kinks this way, working through groan worthy moments. The key point – and potential worry – is whether the group will retreat into their shell if (when?) early setbacks continue. That will determine how quickly North beds down their ball movement, a foundational piece of the rebuild.

Defending after turnovers

When a new style of ball movement is introduced, fine print reveals it’s a package deal and the other ‘gift’ is committing more turnovers.

Given AFL in 2021 is a turnover game, it’ll mean conceding heavy scores – again, particularly early in the season – while the lumps are ironed out. To make a recommendation, the quicker you get to the ‘acceptance’ stage of processing things, the easier it’ll be to watch games.

It’s a necessary hit which North will have to take, with an eye towards coming out the other side with an offensive style which spreads the ground out and is brutal to defend against.

The skipper and his role change

Ziebell the defender looms as one of North’s most talked about topics of the season, so in the interest of not driving it into the ground too early, we’ll keep it brief today.

The key behind any potential success will be how quickly Ziebell marries what he’s learned from midfield and forward experience, and matches it up with the patterns a defender must have.

It also means he’ll have to unlearn a few traits, namely when to hunt the ball and when he’s best at home on his opponent. There were quite a few positives – which for the most part fall frustratingly fell out of camera range when watching back the replay, making it impossible to highlight – which suggest the captain is picking things up steadily.

There were also moments which snap you back to reality:

Much like the earlier discussion about ball movement, these are the sorts of simple errors which happen at the beginning of a process. If these types of moments are still in Ziebell’s game through a month of the season, then it becomes a worrying discussion.

The potential positives of Ziebell as a defender make the move worth persisting with, because you can see the outline of a defensive unit which can control the skies, the skipper alongside Tarrant, McKay and Corr, with the two remaining players in the starting six tasked with the smaller types. Watch this space.

Five Miscellaneous Notes

– Don’t underestimate how much Polec will help North’s ball movement. This system suits him down to the ground, or at least to the wing

– Assuming Xerri has vanished into thin, tall air, Josh Walker needs to play as the second tall forward in the interim. A mature body next to Larkey is very much needed, and it helps straighten North up when they need a get-out option

– Stephenson is much smarter than advertised when it comes to his midfield minutes. His instincts when it comes to holding shape and then providing an option in the chain were immediately noticeable. Of the players North used as wingers at centre bounces, he topped the list (16, Thomas 12, Powell + Scott 11 according to my manual tally), which suggests he’ll be there regularly this year

– Maybe this is reading too much into it, but it’s an alarm bell for me that Bosenavulagi is traded in as a small forward and in a matter of a couple of months he’s already being tried down back. Hopefully a block of VFL games to start the year will allow him to find his feet there

– There’ll be acute growing pains when it comes to the likes of Thomas, Zurhaar and co’s extra on-ball minutes and the defensive responsibilities which come with it. But again, that’s what this year is all about – discovery

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