As is becoming customary, there were plenty of little improvements on show for North Melbourne against Brisbane on Saturday. Sticking with a top four side for most of the game – even allowing for the conditions in Hobart turning things into a grind – was impressive.
But that’s not what today’s post is all about. Luke McDonald’s return was marked by a new role on the wing, and David Noble’s press conference comments about it got me thinking…
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“We played him in a different role, we played him on the wing. I’ve been keen since I landed to have a look with Luke through the wing. He got through well (and) we think if we can create some versatility with the wings and the backs, and then the other wing and the other forward on the other side, that lends itself to giving us much more versatility through our game.”
Those are Noble’s words on McDonald’s role, relatively unprompted by any specific questions about the change. Just a couple of sentences which leaves a lot to unpack.
Where are the wing rotations placed?
For the most part, wingers sit either in their own silos, part of the on-ball mix, or alternating with half forwards.
It’s extremely rare to see one as part of the defensive rotations. Think around the competition and the best wingers – the likes of Lachie Hunter, Hugh McCluggage, Ed Langdon and Andrew Gaff, just to name a few while overlooking others – sure they have defensive responsibilities, but they’re not part of the back group.
Why is it like this?
To state the obvious, teams want consistency in their backline unit. Clearly defined roles, clearly defined responsibilities and then working on continuity to build a formidable unit. The wingers have such a huge role in the structure of a side and are relied upon on both sides of the ball, so it makes sense to group them in with the rest of the 22.
So isn’t it silly for North to try something different to what everyone else does?
This is the fun part. As mentioned hundreds of times, 2021 is a blank canvas for North.
If you’re starting from scratch, what’s the obligation to stick with current trends while the foundation is built? Where’s the gain in following the grain?
It’s not as if the resources required to try this out turns into something with long-term consequences if it fails. If it was something like building a midfield of sub 180cm players, a conscious focus on athletes over skill, loading up on contested brutes or a game style which neglects creating turnovers – those are the types of decisions which deserve greater examination.
But if this doesn’t work, so what? You just go back to the tried and true and move on. Nothing gained, nothing lost and so on. It’s a low risk for potential great flexibility gain.
For those who have missed any North Melbourne recaps and ruminations from the last month, you can catch up here:
Round 10 v Essendon
Round 11 v St Kilda
What to take out of the first half-season
Round 13 v GWS
Where does the wing/defence rotation fit in?
There are two roles for a winger. Instead of me explaining it, let’s use the words of an actual AFL player. A condensed wrap of Mitch Robinson’s thoughts in a 2019 Fox Footy piece:
Skinny side winger
– Sit behind a stoppage to catch any midfielders who try and come out the front door
– Be the first midfielder to get back to help support the defenders on a stoppage loss … because you can outnumber the opposition forwards and create release options for your teammates
– You see a lot happening in the stoppage, so be that feedback (quarterback) option around contests
– If there’s a stoppage win, you must push forward hard to equalise the numbers because your direct opponent is more than likely doing the exact same tactics
– This is the most unrewarding part, but can be the most important role in today’s game … you see those two players standing alone on the far side of the ground during game play? Those two are the (corridor) wingers.
– Hold your width like your life depends on it, so teams can’t switch the ball and get easy inside 50s
– If there’s a stoppage loss, run hard back to support your defenders so they can play that intercept mark position on the forwards
– If there’s a stoppage win, (push forward to help) create forward-half turnovers, make the running defenders second guess themselves on exit kicks to buy those pressure forwards time to tackle
Why didn’t you answer the question?
Right, sorry. Stick with me for a second here.
My fence sitting option here is that it completely depends on the type of player involved at the time.
For example, my personal preference with McDonald is that I’d be comfortable with him in either wing position.
If there’s a younger player – let’s use 2020 Flynn Perez as a hypothetical example – I’d prefer them to be a corridor winger so they’re not outmuscled by bigger bodies when forced to come into the contest.
Again, that’s the potentially fascinating part of opening up a wing to the defensive rotations – you don’t have to lock it in every week. And then against other opponents you may see a weakness, so someone like Aaron Hall gets instructions to throw caution to the wind.
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:
How does this affect the rest of North’s defence?
Usually teams select seven defenders in their 22. Using Saturday as an example, North had their starting back six – Turner, McKay, Tarrant, Ziebell, Walker and Hall – plus Atley coming from the interchange while McDonald was all but a full-time winger.
If this rotation move sticks with one wing opening up to the backs, in theory the seven becomes eight.
Obviously not every defender is capable of playing on the wing, although McKay and Tarrant starting on either side at one centre bounce would be worth it purely for the visual.
It’s a blank page with many possibilities, but two of the eight being able to play on a wing seems like a nice middle ground, with potentially a third at an absolute stretch.
That way the foundation of the defence stays solid, and essentially all you’re asking is for one of the half backs to shuffle higher up the ground if a situation calls for it.
One more question – what can this actually achieve?
Saving the most important question, from me to myself, until last:
Flexibility. Flexibility. Flexibility.
If the move sticks – and succeeds – it opens up an extra dimension for North, allowing them to be both proactive and reactive depending on the situation.
Looking at it glass half full, weaknesses become easier to exploit. Then with a glass half empty, when a problem rears its head, there are more options at hand to deal with it.
It’s another development to keep an eye on in the back half of the season as time begins to draw thin.