Halfway through ‘Season 1’, what have North Melbourne learned

In the pre-season, I termed 2021 a ‘year of discovery’ for North Melbourne.

Now we’ve reached the halfway point of the season, it feels like a natural time to reset and reflect on what we’ve learned so far, coupled with what to look for to close the year.

We’ll start with individuals which have caught the eye, stretch it out to team play, and then bring it all together to close things off.

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Watching games this year has almost entirely been with an eye on what will place North in the best spot for 2023 and onwards. Who is playing where? Is that role sustainable? Are current performances a guarantee of future results?

The combination of injuries and rotation between positions makes it impossible to craft a full squad depth chart for the time being – try one if you’d like to waste an hour and not get anywhere – so let’s focus on individuals whose 2021 emergence we can safely put a tick next to.

Ben McKay: Towards the end of last season I said McKay’s trend had him not far away from being a definite long-term lock. Thrown into the deep end this season without his presumptive fellow first-choice tall defenders of Robbie Tarrant (zero games) or Aidan Corr (two games), he has excelled.

Since the first month of the season, McKay has lost just three out of 30 one-on-ones according to AFL Stats Pro. Considering the quality of entries he’s had to deal with – which we’ll get to later on – it’s a monster effort and one which portends well for when the pressure up field is more structured. It’ll allow McKay to continue working on those intercept glimpses we’ve seen at times.

Lock McKay in as the key position anchor of North’s defence.

Tom Powell: It probably shouldn’t be at the point where I’m running out of ways to praise a player halfway through his first season, but that’s about where I’m at with Powell.

Powell’s work in tight has been excellent, and you’d only expect that to improve as he continues to add size to his slight build. There have been glimpses of extra on-ball time – Rounds 9 and 10 were his highest for centre bounce attendances – which indicates the plan is to phase the 19-year-old into prime minutes wherever possible.

By the time Powell gets to 50 games, he’ll be entering the stage where he’ll expect to contribute week-in, week-out at contests. Coincidentally that’s when you’d probably expect to see a slight decline from Ben Cunnington as he hits 32 years of age. Their respective time frames align to where it wouldn’t be unexpected to see Powell slide into Cunnington’s role as the main, first-possession winner who starts chains out of stoppages and ground ball contests. Either way, it’s clear North have found a gem in Powell.

Tarryn Thomas + Jaidyn Stephenson: There’s a reason I’m putting Thomas and Stephenson in the same basket. Even though Thomas’ midfield minutes have been on-ball and Stephenson’s were on the wing before injury, they’re both still going to spend a fair share of time down forward along the journey.

Their roles tie into the flux with the undecided forward setup. Thomas’ last month has been superb, and as I’ve mentioned I believe the best use for him is to take the ‘big’ minutes on-ball before floating forward to be a tough matchup, not too dissimilar to Dustin Martin’s role really. (Before anyone loses their mind, I’m strictly comparing roles, not output)

Stephenson’s time on the wing has shown a player much smarter than advertised when it comes to holding space offensively and working to provide options and links in the chain going forward. Although it hasn’t fully translated to the defensive side yet, he reads the game well enough that I have little worries about it coming – especially now he’s at a place where he has the faith and trust of the coaching staff to work through it.

If we’re to assume there’ll be a rotation of approximately 10 or 11 midfielders once rotations are solidified in the future, Thomas and Stephenson as two of the floaters between midfield and forward allows such flexibility in game planning and matchups. Not to mention they’re both good at football, which is useful too.

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

Round 8 v Collingwood
Round 9 v Hawthorn
Round 10 v Essendon
Round 11 v St Kilda

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Naturally there’s still a lot of unknown, to say the very least. But by adding these four players to Jy Simpkin, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Cam Zurhaar, based only on exposed form, there’s already a promising start for 23s and under.

Some will wonder why a handful of other players haven’t been mentioned to add to that group of seven, and you’d think for some it will only be a matter of time – Will Phillips to name one, while I’m high on Aiden Bonar if he can stay fit along with Bailey Scott as a defensive winger/half forward hybrid; Nick Larkey’s game will look much better when he slides into being a number two option.

It’s Larkey’s game which highlights the conundrum facing North Melbourne right now. To hark right back to the Gold Coast game in Round 2:

“Without the personnel in the forward line, a true number one key option who can act as a fulcrum and that defences respect can do significant damage, it’s going to be a constant battle to get reward for effort.”

You can see the first steps in the offensive game plan North are trying to put together, prioritising that over defence although the two are more linked than you may think. And it’s fair enough to work offensively first with the way the AFL wants to take the game, every year there’s an attempt to make the game more open and free-flowing. The last thing you want to be is a year or two behind the curve, particularly in the situation North are right now.

What we see with the corridor focus and short, sharp kicking – when it comes off – is going to be a key plank of the game plan under David Noble, probably for as long as he coaches North Melbourne.

Here’s where it gets prickly in the short term though. Where it runs into trouble is that teams have naturally scouted it and can take care of it relatively comfortably for most of a match. And when that happens, North has no alternative because the forward personnel doesn’t lend itself to an aerial presence.

So what do you do now? It’s a fork in the road – do you change things to make the short term more palatable, maybe look to play a safer style, slower ball movement and have more numbers around and behind the ball? Or do you have faith that the corridor use + quick, short disposal will be around well into the future, and you might as well get a head start on it despite the excruciating teething problems?

Of course North have chosen the latter, which has made – and will continue to make – the side unavoidably one-dimensional for large parts of the year. That then leads us into the natural next question; what has to happen for this part of the game plan to pay dividends?

And here’s where the fun part begins.

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If you’ve missed any of the previous editions of Monday’s Notebook, you can catch up by clicking here and scrolling through the season so far:

From The Notebook, 2021 (and 2020)

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To take a short break from fantasy booking wrestling and move into armchair selecting North Melbourne’s forward line, the most pressing need is to find an aerial presence which defenders will respect.

In a perfect world with a two-tall setup, both can be capable of averaging around two contested marks a game. It’s what I’d be aiming for, but having one is acceptable. It’s hard to emphasise just how much this would open things up for North’s ball movement.

At the moment, teams have the short ball movement relatively well covered as already explained. Because they don’t fear Larkey as a number one option, or Tom Campbell as the number two, they’re more than comfortable pushing high up the ground as a defensive setup to cover North’s short disposal.

That then leaves such little space for North to move, they tend to be left with three choices: go sideways/backwards, take a high degree of difficulty option in a dangerous area, or a long clear where the defenders are in their element battling forwards they feel comfortable against.

All that changes with just one key forward capable of taking repeated contested marks. Let’s hypothesise for a moment and pretend someone like Harry McKay is in North colours. He instantly becomes the deepest forward – not stay-at-home in an old fashioned sense, but a kick to a kick-and-a-half away from play when it’s coming out of the defensive half – and suddenly defenders have a choice to make.

If they zone off too far and back themselves to work back and cut off the long ball, McKay is good enough to make them pay, giving North a viable long option. Or then if the defenders elect to sit a bit deeper in their zone to cover the threat of McKay, it then frees up the space in between for North to work through with the short movement that’s been an area of focus since Day 1.

All this changes with the addition of one hypothetical contested presence, whoever that may be. The flow on benefit is it then allows Larkey to settle into the second banana role which he’s suited for, Zurhaar isn’t overworked in a pseudo key forward and can settle into a more traditional mid-sized role which maximises his strengths, and suddenly the forward line is starting to take shape.

Just as important as the contested presence is figuring out the overall structure of the forward line, and how that translates defensively. Personal preferences will change from individual to individual, but for me I would like to see ‘three and a half’ permanent forwards – the two talls, one of which doubles as the second ruck, a genuine small, and Zurhaar – a mid-sizer who will largely be closer to home but can pinch hit in the middle if required.

Ideally the back seven stays as consistent as possible, which then leaves 10 ground level players to fill out the midfield and forward rotation.

A natural, unavoidable consequence of this discovery year is the state of flux in the midfield rotations then flows on to the forward structure.

One of the main reasons North concede so often when the ball enters their defensive 50 – 51% of the time, worst in the league – is because the pressure up the field isn’t good enough (also why McKay’s aforementioned efforts are so impressive). The less pressure a ball enters with, the more likely it is to find a forward target; not exactly classified information but important all the same.

If we use Melbourne as a comparison, they’re at a stage where roles are defined – Kossie Pickett, Charlie Spargo and Alex Neal-Bullen do most of their work in the forward half with occasional on-ball minutes, and their A-grade midfield of Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and co take care of the rest.

Their well defined roles flow into a defensive system they’re all comfortable with, and we see the result on the scoreboard every week – more than six percentage points ahead of the next best defence when it comes to scoring shot % conceded per inside 50.

North are a distance away from reaching that type of synergy, and there isn’t a short term fix on the horizon. It’s going to take time and different looks to settle on what suits the side best, plus a couple more draft cycles to continue the list churn. Nevertheless, they can take promise in the glimpses we’ve seen so far and look to more experimentation in the back half of 2021 to continue finding the little wins.

The second half of the year offers plenty of opportunities for North. Barring any last minute fixture changes there’s only one non-Tasmanian interstate trip scheduled before Round 23, which should allow a nice routine to develop from week to week.

In theory there should be players returning from injury, which is allegedly how things go for most people who don’t play at North Melbourne. If it does happen, it’s going to be vital to offset the natural fatigue that’ll occur in the younger players taking on added responsibility for the first time.

Think about how Simpkin’s second half of 2020 was quieter than the first as he worked through his initial full-time midfield campaign. You’d expect that same type of slight slippage to hit the bodies of players like Thomas, Davies-Uniacke, Powell, Taylor, Larkey, Lazzaro and company, through no fault of their own.

Just having more bodies available will allow roles to mix and match, continuing to go through and discover what the list is capable of. At time of writing there are (I believe) 18 players out of contract at the end of the season with the addition of Jacob Edwards and Charlie Ham. By the time we get to the last month of 2021 tough decisions will be racing towards deadline.

5 thoughts on “Halfway through ‘Season 1’, what have North Melbourne learned

  1. As you have presented, our key deficiencies are midfield pressure and forward marking options.

    Midfield pressure should increase with the addition of Jed and a chat to LDU’s on his workrate. As for the forward line can i suggest we relocate Tas in there and let him have some fun to finish of his career as we wont see comben or Edwards until next year in the forward line.

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