Given some of the positional moves we’ve seen over the first month of the season – Cam Zurhaar as an extra defender, Lachie Young temporarily going forward and Aaron Hall from the middle to half-back just to name a few – it’s fair to say coach David Noble is firmly in experimental mode, and will be for some time yet.
On Sunday we saw the newest lever pulled, Kayne Turner moving on-ball in an attempt to quell Rory Laird’s influence after he had 10 first quarter disposals.
It’s a glimpse into the type of midfield North Melbourne are trying to build; one with flexibility, one with many options to turn to depending on the game state, and most importantly one which has serious depth. For the first time this year, there was an enticing preview of what it may look like long-term.
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For the last … long time, let’s say, too much has been left to too few on the ball. Even last year, when there were 39 players used and Ben Cunnington was missing for essentially the entire season, the core on-ball unit was too small.
In a short-term vacuum it’s explainable and makes perfect sense – after all, these are the best players and you want them to have their hands on the ball as much as possible – but if a team is playing the long game, it’s not an approach to eventually bring the desired level of success.
Now with eyes firmly on the future, Noble has the freedom to cast a net far and wide with the hope of settling on a deep line-up.
Right from the pre-season Noble was talking about balance inside and out, while also acknowledging a need to gain greater spread from stoppages.
In an ideal world that means every midfielder can play inside and out, on-ball and wing. Unfortunately we don’t live in a footballing utopia, so it’s all about crafting a rotation which accentuates strengths and minimises weaknesses.
A defensive midfielder – i.e. a tagger – can hide the deficiencies of many teammates who are instinctually ball-winners, simply by taking responsibility for the lead man in the opposition unit. Apologies for dredging up painful memories of what could have been, but it absolutely wasn’t a coincidence North had a 25-10 record with Ben Jacobs as a tagger, compared to 12-28 in the games he missed.
In the middle two quarters on Sunday, when Turner was able to slightly minimise the effect of Laird’s disposals – albeit not the number of them – and the remaining midfielders weren’t yet out on their feet, North had their best stretch of the game.
While Turner was allowing his midfield teammates to focus more on winning the ball – with fewer additional defensive responsibilities – the results were evident.
From quarter time to three quarter time, North went +14 in disposals, +7 in contested possessions, +8 in inside 50s, and turned an 18-point deficit into a four-point lead.
It doesn’t mean Turner is now the number one tagger at the club, a role solely earmarked for him every week. But it potentially adds another notch to his job description – considering Noble appeared to be enthused with how Turner acquitted himself – and adds to the depth North want to have around the ball.
A look at North’s 23 on Sunday showed the midfield minutes Noble is handing out. Once we remove the genuine key position players and rucks from the equation, 14 of the remaining 19 have spent at least some time either on-ball or on the wing this year, and that’s not considering Jack Ziebell and Luke McDonald (unluckily now out for some time).
It would be unrealistic to expect North to run a double-digit midfield rotation with each part of it receiving significant minutes once everything is bedded down; at some stage the best players need the chance to impose themselves.
But aside from a small group of tier one midfielders who play nearly exclusively through there – at this stage seemingly reserved for Jy Simpkin only – everyone else needs to play two roles. Whether it be on-ball and wing, or wing and half forward, or on-ball and pressure forward, the way the game is trending we’ll see the most successful teams avoid playing an armada of one dimensional players. Especially if the interchange cap keeps trending downwards.
A look at what North has done in the first month illustrates they’re attempting to move towards this model. An incomplete snapshot:
- Cunnington: On-ball and forward
- Charlie Lazzaro: Largely half forward, with spot minutes on the wing
- Tarryn Thomas: On-ball, wing and forward
- Jaidyn Stephenson: On-ball, wing and forward
- Tom Powell: On-ball, forward and handballer extraordinaire
- Bailey Scott: Half forward and wing
- Jack Mahony: Wing and forward
- Luke Davies-Uniacke: On-ball and forward
The list continues and will grow as the year(s) roll on if the draft picks continue to hit at a relatively high success rate. While right now it’s obviously a long way from the finished article, what it should offer is the constant promise of being able to mix and match until the right matchup presents.
There are dangers to having too many potential options for a coaching staff to play with – cut to Bulldogs fans knowingly nodding – but getting there is half the battle. Consider just a drop in the ocean of the hypotheticals once North get to a stage where they can mix and match:
- They want to turn a game into a grind, so they’re comfortable sending their half forwards up around the contest with their inbuilt stoppage knowledge
- A tag has taken a Roo out of the game, but he can easily roll forward and switch with one of the starting forwards to throw opposition structures out of shape
- It’s a smaller bodied opposition midfield, so the bigger North onballers get involved in an attempt to play bully ball
- Playing against a tall defence with question marks at ground level, they can use their ground level players and continually rotate in forward 50 to provide different looks
Given North have essentially decided to build from ground zero, these are the types of questions they have the potential to answer effectively when they get to the stage of being finals and top four contenders.
Turner’s mid-game switch onto Laird was an insight of what ideally becomes the long-term norm for North when there’s a conundrum which needs to be solved.
A couple of other things
- Seeing some mild grumbling in the discourse about Davies-Uniacke. There is zero – note the bold for emphasis – to worry about in the short term as long as his mistakes come from trying to take the game on. Think back to Cunnington’s attempted fend-offs before he had the strength to complete them, and then the catalogue he put together once it all came together. That will be Davies-Uniacke bursting through packs soon enough.
- Whoever Ben McKay’s manager is must be seeing his growth from week to week and counting the dollars from the commission coming his way on McKay’s next contract.
- This play is likely to be on repeat during the week inside the four walls at Arden Street as an example of what it looks like when North’s ball movement comes together: