Round 6 v Fremantle: Spread and defend

After the Adelaide game, Monday’s post was all about the beginning steps of building a midfield with depth; one which had multiple levers to pull depending on form, availability and the like.

The angle on that day was all about personnel. Today, following the loss to Fremantle, it’ll all be about midfield structure.

‘Structure’ can quickly devolve into one of those buzz words without much meaning behind it if it’s overused. In this case structure refers to everything North Melbourne want to do without the ball around stoppages.

Unfortunately it broke down too often in the first half of the second quarter, a period of play which essentially decided the match and what we’ll be delving into here.

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During pre-season, David Noble was at pains to highlight the midfield balance as an area of focus:

“Our balance at stoppages hasn’t been great the last few years. So I think now that we’ve got the speed element more on the outside, hopefully that balances out our midfield structure.”

And to be sure, there has been a noticeable improvement in raw speed across North’s entire midfield mix which is a big tick.

Yet all the speed in the world counts for nothing if opposition teams are allowed to waltz the ball away from stoppages and contests to then deliver service of the silver variety inside 50.

It’s what happened too often in the first half of the second quarter against Fremantle, where to be blunt, the stoppage structure was all over the shop.

It is – or at the very least, should be – the most important long-term focus area for North given a solid base there underpins all quality sides. Of course it won’t be completely fixed any time soon, but nevertheless there’ll be enough on the tape this week to work with for the next month.

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For those who have missed any recaps from the last month, you can catch up here:

Round 2 v Gold Coast
Round 3 v Western Bulldogs
Round 4 v Adelaide
Round 5 v Geelong

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As we start to break things down play by play, for newer readers there is a usual caveat that we’ll be unable to use a handful of potential examples given the ultra-zoom always in place.

Nevertheless, we start with essentially counted as a warning shot. From this boundary throw in, there is a lack of communication amongst the onballers which allows Nat Fyfe – Nat Fyfe – to roll forward unopposed.

Although the numbers aren’t available, it’s a safe bet the trio of Ben Cunnington, Tarryn Thomas and Curtis Taylor have logged minimal midfield minutes together. Ideally in this situation there’s talk which allows either Thomas or Taylor to immediately take responsibility for Fyfe.

An outstanding chase and tackle from Thomas mitigates the danger temporarily.

Second up, this David Mundy goal is important to highlight for what it signifies. Sometimes we’re all guilty – myself at the top of the chain – of neatly boxing every action to a positive and a negative.

Here it’s just Mundy, who is allegedly 35 years old although that seems tougher to believe by the week, reading the drop zone better than anyone else, selling poor Lachie Young into next week and then slamming home from the square. Not much a team can do about this:

The third example stems from inexperience in the wing position. While a wing can be the domain of flashy, headline-grabbing types, more often it’s the domain of unsung players. It’s why Sam Gibson was able to play five and a half seasons in a row there, or why Trent Dumont is a lock when fit.

Much of the role is about holding your shape defensively and offensively and doing a lot of unrewarded work which doesn’t show up on a stat sheet.

This is all a lengthy explanation to downplay Jack Mahony’s mistake as an easy one for a youngster to make. As the ball scuffs forward from the centre bounce, Mahony is drawn to the ball rather than holding shape on the outside against James Aish.

Aish – in game 104 and season eight – has the wing role down to a tee and knows exactly where he’s supposed to be. So when the ball does get outside the contest thanks to a bullet Mundy handball, Mahony is trapped too close to the contest and can’t get out to prevent Aish deliver inside 50:

Example number four comes from a team breakdown in structure. At this throw in North actually have an extra player, which should at the very least result in a secondary stoppage and ideally in a clearance of their own:

But instead the whole unit is slow to communicate and to cover ground. In the confusion and scramble to adjust, it ends with Fyfe gaining the crucial first possession and Fremantle clearing. It’s the type of mistake from North which is, dare I say, an easy fix, but glaring nonetheless.

These types of mistakes create a domino effect around the ground, and a constant state of scrambling. One person tries to fix what another has created, which then puts a third player under the pump and leaves those in the back half dealing with wave after wave of inside 50s.

A reactive team always looks much slower than it really is; chasing tails is harder to do than creating play yourself. Before you know it, an eight-point quarter time deficit has ballooned to 35 and it’s all but game over.

When you look back at the above clips, in isolation none of them prompt alarm bells that the midfield needs a complete overhaul. They’re all simple things – a lack of communication, Mundy doing Mundy things, inexperience in a certain position, and being slow to get into position after a slow passage of play.

They can all rectify themselves either instantly or with time, except for Mundy aging in reverse and being on track to break Boomer’s record.

To dip into mind-numbing corporate speak to finish off, there should be plenty of learnings for North to take away from their performance around stoppages and contests. As much as it would be nice to hit the fast forward button and magically add 15-20 games to a dozen players, this is the crucial period where a foundation has to be laid and good habits formed.

9 thoughts on “Round 6 v Fremantle: Spread and defend

  1. Great stuff ( again). Reactive is a very good way to describe much of our play vs Freo. We waited for Fyfe & Mundy and were too slow/late to prevent the inevitable.

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