Round 10 v Essendon: Defend fast

How do you defend against fast play?

That was the task which confronted North Melbourne on Sunday, and one they ultimately failed on route to a 72-point loss against Essendon.

While it’s important to note that a lot of North’s first half problems stemmed from Essendon simply being too good, there is one big picture question to explore from the performance.

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When North play Essendon, it’s all about congesting the game when defending, ideally stopping the Bombers from moving the ball with speed and width.

To do that, North need to have a sound defensive layer immediately around the ball to stop Essendon’s quick movement forward.

Simple in theory, tough to carry out. Perhaps even more so when you consider the whiplash in going from defending against Collingwood and Hawthorn’s preferred style of ball movement to Essendon’s; they’re barely the same sport.

Time and time again Essendon were able to carry the ball from end to end – or at least from a defensive position to an attacking one – because North were too slow to set up after losing possession. Some examples:

1) Here North are firstly too slow to offer options to Simpkin as he’s tackled, but then also aren’t in position to defend when the ball is turned over. One or the other would have helped stop this Essendon goal:

For those who can’t view the video, click here to watch

2) As North continue to build their ball movement and using the corridor, a key part of it is being able to defend if it goes awry – particularly with the shallow, central entries inside 50. Last week I touched on how the team was able to implement a setup to defend those turnovers.

On Sunday everything was just too slow to get into position. Here it’s Cunnington’s turnover which is marched straight downfield way too easily with minimal protection. While the kick is obviously not the greatest of his career, last week those kicks came in with defensive cover behind it. This time there was none – note the Bombers players able to freewheel down the ground from their starting defensive positions:

For those who can’t view the video, click here to watch

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

Round 6 v Fremantle
Round 7 v Melbourne
Round 8 v Collingwood
Round 9 v Hawthorn

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North tried a handful of different things to change it – the forwards pushed higher up the ground to minimise the open spaces available to Essendon. But then when North did gain possession, there was too little to use in offence, so that was quickly adjusted back.

Then there was an extra defender dropped back at certain times, with the theory being at least the final kick inside 50 could be impacted.

But for that to work, those Roos higher up the field have to work smartly to cover off the extra player Essendon has in possession. Again, as is the recurring theme, everything was a step slow. Take this passage of play for instance, where Essendon work it around, finding gaps everywhere as North look at sixes and sevens to deal with what’s coming:

For those who can’t view the video, click here to watch

Add up the combination of being slow to defend, adjustments not working, plus an opposition which feasts on the type of mistakes North were making and it was no surprise the half time margin was 50 points, the game done and dusted.

The dilemma is figuring out what these mistakes mean. By and large, it’s the first time this year the full-ground team defence has looked so consistently slow – previous games can largely be chalked up to other areas, whether it’s being clearly outmatched ala the Bulldogs, falling away late i.e. Adelaide, or the individual mistakes in certain games which in turn have had a compound effect on structures.

To reiterate what I said at the top, part of it was undoubtedly due to Essendon being so slick with their ball movement when they had the chance. Although there’s the temptation of falling into a ‘they were only like that because North were bad’ mentality, it’s important not to go too far into that well and keep an even balance between the two.

When talking about the team defence from Sunday purely from a North perspective, I wonder whether it’s an initial sign of the first 10 rounds coming back to bite the legs and sap a bit of bounce from the players’ running. I don’t need to go into dramatic detail about all the injuries, the players missing, and the oversized responsibility thrust on to youngsters.

Because this is a one-off (so far), I’m reluctant to launch into any talk about it being a red flag in terms of systems and structures. The playing group has proved to be relatively quick learners even if it hasn’t translated into a handful of wins, which will make it interesting to see what happens on Saturday against St Kilda.

The Saints aren’t in the greatest of form themselves, missing a bunch of key players and struggling with their own ball movement. It’s not going to be an apples to apples comparison with Essendon, but it’s a great opportunity to be switched on from the outset with the team defence. It’ll be one of those games where the longer North can hang around, the more the tension will rise.

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