Given North Melbourne’s current status, it’s too simplistic to look at weekends as win = good, loss = bad.
Put matches into their proper context and it’s how North can walk away from Marvel Stadium with a 52-point loss still feeling relatively content with what happened.
At this stage of the list’s journey, there are different ways to lose a game. If a team can walk away knowing they stuck to their intended game style, with minimal instances of players looking lost and confused while whipping up a finger pointing storm, then it’s a tick.
For North, that means sticking to their plan of moving the ball decisively, through the corridor wherever possible, and relying on the defensive unit to stand up in their respective matchups. If the plan comes off, then it results in scoreboard pressure. If it doesn’t – spoiler alert – the turnovers will hurt, but it’s a necessary evil at this stage.
On to the examples.
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The whole point of North’s quicker ball movement is to stretch the game out, forcing teams to defend the full ground as often as possible. It’s a logical approach, given it’s obviously easier for 18 players to defend ball movement in straight lines.
By stretching the game out, there’ll theoretically be multiple options, leaving the decision on which one to take in the hands of the player with the ball.
At this early stage of play, with North being repeatedly drilled in ‘corridor, corridor, corridor’, it’s understandable players will default to that. Which – what a coincidence – brings us to our first play.
Here, North have moved from one back pocket to the opposite wing in quick time, leaving Port scrambling slightly to get back. You can see Stephenson streaming into forward 50, likewise Simpkin. Out of frame are a couple more targets.
Mahony, in possession, is faced with a decision. He chooses to look inboard, because that’s what’s been drilled, and attempts to find Scott.
However, the kick just isn’t on, and the result is a turnover and Power goal. It’s an example of everything working but the key disposal. There is quick movement and multiple options ahead of the ball, but the turnover cruels any chance of a score. It’ll fix with time.
The second clip involves the captain, which feels harsh given he was one of North’s better players on the day. Nevertheless, it’s a strong example of what the team wants to do without the ball and how the slightest error can result in a big punishment, especially against the top tier teams.
Offensively, North wants to stretch the ground out. Defensively, they want to compress it. Again, it’s simple reasoning – the less ground you have to cover, the easier it is to defend.
To do it well, those behind the ball have to pick the right moments to push up, intercept and send the ball the other way. Combine it with on-ball pressure and it’s the best way to create turnovers, arguably the most important part of the current AFL landscape.
Ziebell does everything almost to perfection. He comes up, reads the play well, has the chance to intercept the handball – but fumbles. If he gathered, worst case scenario is likely a holding the ball free kick to the Power, by which time North has their defence set up. Best case is a scoring shot earned from the inside 50 after the intercept.
Instead, the fumble allows Port to roll away at speed, where some impressive gut running from Bonner is rewarded with a goal. Again from a North perspective, all the steps of the process are there except for the execution, which is why in a big picture sense it’s not panic stations.
While it may be odd to highlight a stoppage setup when it was an area Port Adelaide often got on the move and used to advantage, this looks structurally sound from North.
Polec is set up on the defensive side as a sweeper in a better position than his equivalent in Amon, Scott is owning the corridor, and the dangerous space is free for North to use.
Of course it doesn’t guarantee wins from the majority of clearances. With the youth North is running through the on ball rotations, general defensive actions from stoppages and throw ins could arguably take the longest to bed down. But once again, the foundation looks sound – and it did for most of the afternoon. Sometimes the opposition is just better. No shame in that.
To finish off, let’s look at a passage of play where the ball movement through congestion worked.
Remembering the note about how teams want to defend by coming up at the ball carrier, it’s exactly what Port try to do to McKay.
McKay’s composed enough to break through the first swarming layer and find Corr, which is where the important moment happens.
If Corr doesn’t have options, all McKay’s work is for nothing as Port wrap him up and probably win a free kick.
But on one side there’s Stephenson, and the other is Powell.
The handball to Stephenson brings up Byrne-Jones, the next one to Powell brings Lycett in, Rockliff’s stranded in no man’s land, and the end result is Larkey with time to go inside 50.
It’s not necessarily a note perfect rendition – after all, ideally Larkey would be the one on the end of an inside 50 rather than delivering it – but it shows what North are trying to do. Options, quick ball movement, stretch a defence and then reap the rewards.
At stages this year things will look hopeless on the surface, and at some stage there’ll likely be a nagging feeling whether there’s an acceptance of losing.
But if you look closely you’ll find progress – albeit not necessarily linear. Next up, Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium on Saturday night.