Round 7 v Melbourne: A clear sign of progress

Although wind in Hobart makes for an exponentially funnier game, from a long-term development perspective it was great for it to take a rare Sunday off.

Without it, we were able to watch a game in normal conditions and see whether North Melbourne could take a step forward against the only undefeated side in the competition.

Last week’s shortcomings were well-detailed, which made it extra promising to see those lessons taken on board and responded to with North’s best half of the season. This is probably the most positive post for a five-goal loss you’ll ever read.

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Lessons From Last Week

Melbourne are an outstanding contested side. Combine it with North coming off arguably their worst stoppage quarter of the season against Fremantle and it stood to reason that this area would be key on Sunday.

Because Melbourne are so good in tight, it’s never going to be a situation where you can stop their contested wins completely. What it has to be is making their wins as tough as possible, meaning their possessions are dirty, rushed and at higher risk of a turnover.

Last week Fremantle were frequently able to exit right out the front of stoppages, which was in turn a focus area for North to prevent this week. So alongside a general increase in defensive awareness, often the winger, without being sucked in too far, would come in a little closer like this:

Or sometimes North would bring an extra player up to a stoppage and park him on the defensive side like this:

And then it was coupled with an impressive willingness to keep a general defensive shape around contests in open play and then build from there, like this:

This was the type of structure which provided a foundation for all the excellent defensive efforts in the first half.

To state the obvious, it’s not as if this is a new baseline and it should be the minimum expectation every week. As nice – and relaxing – as it would be to see linear progression, there’ll be plenty more rollercoaster rides along the way.

What I do think is an excellent sign is how North were able to highlight what went wrong last week – during the week David Noble mentioned stoppage structure as the issue against Fremantle – and then put in place fixes the players were able to react to immediately.

Being able to identify what’s happening takes one skill set, figuring out how to change another, and communicating it in a way which gets the message through the most important – that’s the value of a coaching staff. This week is a massive tick in the big picture.

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

Round 3 v Western Bulldogs
Round 4 v Adelaide
Round 5 v Geelong
Round 6 v Fremantle

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Ball Movement

Melbourne’s defence is set up in a way where their strength is intercepting through their three talls of Steven May, Jake Lever and Adam Tomlinson, while their back six as a whole has been the last line of a team on pace for all-time records for scores conceded per inside 50. Last week I wrote all about it here.

North, as we’re all aware, have been working on their short kicking game; coincidentally exactly what they needed to do against Melbourne, alongside switching the angles of their play to spread the ground.

A major caveat is how Melbourne were clearly unsettled by the early loss of Tomlinson and didn’t fully recover until half time, but nevertheless they were still attempting to defend in the same manner all over the ground, particularly with their higher press.

North’s first half set season highs for most goals against Melbourne in a half (nine, previous best seven) and scoring shots (14, previous best 11). It was passages of play like this which helped.

Given Melbourne’s style of defending, you want to spread them out both around the ball and behind it if possible. After North win possession here, they’re set up both around and behind Melbourne’s on-ball defence.

Therefore when that initial press is broken, Cunnington has room to move and is immediately greeted by a couple of short leads. Even though the kick isn’t clean, there is enough separation where Melbourne numbers can’t intercept.

All the while behind the play Larkey is leading one way, Stephenson another and Zurhaar another. All the Melbourne defenders are stretched, making it impossible to intercept and Simpkin is able to trail in on the far side where Thomas hits the target.

Much like the section highlighting the defensive improvement from last week, this is the effect of a clear message and continued work on setups and structures. Obviously this wasn’t the scene for every inside 50, particularly in the second half, but it’s a clear sign of progress. At this stage that’s what to look out for, considering just a few weeks ago the forwards were literally running into each other.

For those who missed Sunday’s game and are reading this instead, you’d be forgiven for thinking North won by 10 goals. Unfortunately that wasn’t exactly the case.

The Second Half

Against probably the form team in the competition, running out four quarters of an aggressive style with a bunch of youngsters and players adjusting to increased roles was going to be a tough ask.

Melbourne put Tom McDonald back to replace Tomlinson and restore their three tall setup and had a noticeable focus on quickening their ball movement whenever they won possession, particularly in the third quarter.

Essentially they cranked it up to fifth gear for periods and North had little left in the tank to stop them. Take this centre bounce from the last quarter as an example.

Clayton Oliver gets a half step on Tom Powell and he is off to the races – Powell’s trying his best to keep up, but his legs won’t take him where he wants to go.

Regular readers will know this isn’t intended as a criticism of Powell given my endless praise of him over the year so far, but rather a glaring example of an established AFL player versus a rookie. It’s Year 6 v Year 1 demonstrated in a gif. Scenes like this kept happening over the ground with the younger players and ones who aren’t at the level of Kossie Pickett, who spent most of the second half doing ridiculous things.  

Odds & Ends

  • The week off for Charlie Lazzaro and his hamstring soreness seemed to have worked wonders. Although his time on ground is being kept relatively low – 66 percent again on Sunday – he has moments where he gets from contest to contest and then influences. Where that places him best in the long term, who knows, but there are definite tools to work with
  • The best teams defend their forward half like this for four quarters. You’d imagine this clip would be on repeat to show the group what they’re capable of:
  • Next up: Saturday afternoon v Collingwood at Marvel Stadium. Leading into the Adelaide game I theorised on how a winnable game would affect North’s approach. They were in it for three and a half quarters before fading away. The Crows were in much better form then compared to Collingwood now. Saturday. Maybe, just maybe…

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