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Melbourne rising: What’s behind the Demons’ unbeaten start to 2021?

6-0 for the first time since 1965, comfortable wins over last year’s premiers and runner up, a defensive setup humming in all areas and genuine belief coursing through the playing group.

Whispering after Round 3 that Melbourne could be top-six good is looking like a slight undersell with every passing week.

The Demons couldn’t have asked for a better start; from the wins to the enviable continuity – only 27 players used once we eliminate the two unused medical substitutes – and even the depth bubbling along at VFL level with Casey.

It’s been a gradual process to get to this point, and now everything appears to be blooming at once…


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Melbourne’s pieces have been floating in orbit of each other for the last few years, almost like a puzzle you just can’t seem to finish. It’s Jake Lever’s fourth year for the Demons, Steven May’s third, Adam Tomlinson and Ed Langdon’s second, and Michael Hibberd’s fifth.

There’s the 2019 draft haul of Luke Jackson, Kossie Pickett and Trent Rivers, which has a distinct vibe of Port Adelaide’s a year prior when it comes to long term building blocks and 150+ game players.

We know all about the midfield talent who feel like they’ve been around for an eternity but really are only hitting their prime now – it’s easy to miss Clayton Oliver being the seventh youngest player in the Melbourne team which beat Richmond, along with Christian Petracca and Angus Brayshaw at 25 years old, and Jack Viney who only turned 27 a couple of weeks ago.

The run to the 2018 preliminary final appeared to be Melbourne’s dawn. But even at plenty of stages during the year, their defensive flaws were readily apparent; ones which opened wider over the following 18 months. Their forwards, particularly those at ground level, were inconsistent in their pressure, allowing sides too clean of a passage outside defensive 50.

Around the contest there’d often be an over reliance on players swarming and winning the ball, leaving the outside exposed when that didn’t happen – 15th in uncontested possession differential in 2020. In turn that led to a back six having to deal with high quality entries – 15th for scores conceded per inside 50 in 2019, and 10th in 2020.

Funnily enough, it was the back six – often an area heavily reliant on those further up the field for support – where the signs of improvement first started to become readily apparent.

The move of Tomlinson from a wing to the third tall defender, and Rivers finishing 2020 with form belying his youth, granted May and Lever significant support while allowing Christian Salem to focus more on his strengths in rebounding the ball.

Beating St Kilda in Round 14 was arguably the starting point for a turnaround, given the clear plan Melbourne came in with and executed to perfection. I wrote about the game for Stats Insider largely from a St Kilda perspective, but with hindsight it’s easy to spot that as the first major sign that Melbourne had the ability to craft a defensive plan and carry it out. 

It wasn’t a linear progression from there to the end of 2020; mishaps against Sydney and Fremantle put paid to any finals hopes and crystalised the need to be better defensively in the contest.

So when that 15th rank in uncontested differential last year morphed into fifth so far this year, it naturally raised the question of what’s caused such a drastic turnaround. Opponents so used to time and space after winning the ball against Melbourne now had none of it.

Midfield personnel remained largely the same, with only a couple of changes around the fringes. For the most part the usual faces have continued doing the heavy lifting – Oliver, Petracca and Jack Viney on ball plus Langdon and Angus Brayshaw as the first choice wingers, with players like Nathan Jones and James Jordon filling out the rotations.

There have been two midfield areas to help the leap – one individual and one team. First, we’ll start with the role Langdon is playing on his wing, now at home with his requirements in a Melbourne jumper during year two.

Wingers are the most underappreciated position on a football field, and Langdon is no exception, the external focus on what he can’t do downplaying the number of areas where he contributes strongly to Melbourne’s midfield.

Often his role around stoppages is to guard the dangerous areas, acting essentially as the last line of defence before the opposition breaks into space.

So often Langdon puts himself in the right place at the right time to shut down movement and bring play back to an even keel. Here he effectively holds his space and corrals instead of over-committing, forcing a long, high kick from Geelong instead of an easy exit:

In this clip he moves in from his starting position to smother and keep the ball bouncing around within the contest:

And here Langdon flips it around. With the throw in so deep in defence, there are already plenty of numbers in the pocket; his presence there would be unnecessary. Instead he elects to park in the space where rushed clearing kicks so often fall. His positioning allows Viney a target when Melbourne do win the ball and they’re able to clear thanks to Langdon.

It’s these types of little things which make Langdon so important to Melbourne. All three of these examples could have ended in clean Geelong possession but thanks to him it doesn’t happen. This isn’t to downplay the role Brayshaw is carrying out similarly, but more to highlight Langdon’s quality.

The second part of Melbourne’s improvement in not allowing opponents time and space is with their team defence as a whole.

To circle back to last year’s St Kilda victory once again, although we saw an intercept party from the defenders and the plan suited to how the Saints wanted to play, much of the remaining Demons sat too deep in their starting positions to make it a replicable week-to-week strategy for the entire team.

May, Lever and friends are absolutely good enough to read play and cut off opposition thrusts week after week, but to consistently generate enough opportunities for a winning score there needed to be a focus on playing higher up the ground for the remaining Demons.

It’s what Melbourne have clearly worked on over the summer and executed well so far in 2021. Because the Demons know their on ballers will allow first use more often than not – an area which hasn’t changed since their 2018 successes – they can set up in a position to dictate tempo:

Think of it this way – a defence set higher means there is less ground for players to cover, theoretically making their job easier. If it’s working well it takes away many of the short options available, which forces opponents to either go long or take a low percentage kick.

Opportunities to clearly illustrate this setup are unfortunately few and far between given the need for full ground access, but this screenshot – taken only 15 seconds after a centre bounce – at least gives us a peek at what Melbourne are trying to do.

Although the centre clearance resulted in a turnover and Hawthorn intercept at half back, notice how Melbourne have already pushed high up the ground while covering all exit points, so the only option left is to go wide. It’s a low percentage kick, which combined with pressure from those close to the ball, means it bounces harmlessly over the line.

If Hawthorn were to hold up from there and go slow, then that’s where May, Lever, Tomlinson and co all come into play to peel off and intercept. It’s a team effort to carry out Melbourne’s improved defence, with one crucial area left to highlight.

Forwards, particularly the ground level operators, are a team’s first line of defence. With the high press all teams operate, not being able to lock the ball in your front half is a sure fire method to conceding easy scores time and time again – as highlighted in Round 2’s Notebook by Carlton.

Stopping teams from transitioning out of your forward 50 is nearly as important as attacking responsibilities, and the trio of Pickett (12 tackles inside forward 50, 118 pressure acts), Alex Neal-Bullen (nine tackles iF50, 112 PA) and Charlie Spargo (eight tackles iF50, 96 PA) have the defensive side of things nailed down.

Whether all three can maintain the rage for an entire season remains to be seen, but for now they’re a terror in forming Melbourne’s first line of defence. There’s Pickett buzzing around and forcing Kamdyn McIntosh into a mistake:

Neal-Bullen slowing up Tom Mitchell before Petracca finishes the tackle:

And Spargo laying a tackle on Joel Hamling before backing up with a second effort and dishing a handball:

It’s not always the flashy acts, or in the Neal-Bullen example even one where he completely finishes the tackle, but all part of a group effort. It’s pointless if a small handful of players carry out these acts without the others following in behind. The key to Melbourne is that it’s a total group buy in and you can see it in the way players aren’t left on an island to complete their designated tasks.

All the above has made it incredibly tough for sides to score against Melbourne.

They’re only conceding a scoring shot from 31 percent of inside 50s, the league leader by a mile and on track to be the best of all time – again, by a mile – since the stat started to be tracked.

While it’d be unrealistic to expect that level of defensive excellence to continue – probably – the interesting thing is sides had actually been more accurate than expected against the Demons before Richmond’s string of missed opportunities brought those season numbers back to the pack.

2021Scoring shot % conceded per inside 50AFL Rank
Gold Coast40.4%3rd
Port Adelaide41.8%5th

For those who have made it this far you’ll have noticed all the talk has been about defensive improvements, offensive talk conspicuous in its absence.

Melbourne are hardly lighting the world on fire offensively; despite their great inside 50 differential they’re not regularly blowing teams off the park – just two quarters of more than four goals in six games, and approximately league average for both goals and scoring shots per inside 50.

However, it’d be surprising if this forward line is the Demons’ finished form. Sam Weideman and Ben Brown had been sitting in the VFL kicking bags for Casey before the latter’s call up this week; they offer genuine targets in variable ways to give a different look inside 50 when needed.

Obviously they are both too good to be a permanent fixture at VFL level and theoretically their presence can offset a drop in form among the other forwards if or when it comes, along with mixing and matching a forward approach dependent on opposition and conditions.

It’s no surprise Brown has come in for a game at Blundstone Arena, where lead up forwards are vital given the conditions which normally present.

It’s a great spot for Melbourne to be in, because very rarely does a team look exactly the same from start to finish and hit September as premiership contenders. There is room here for the Demons to naturally evolve and add different offensive looks to complement what is on the way to becoming an elite defensive unit.

That puzzle isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s closer now than at any time in the last two decades.

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