Round 16 v Western Bulldogs: A look back in the process forward

Sunday evening was another step in the process of learning about this North Melbourne team.

It marked the first time North had played an opponent twice at the same venue under David Noble, which offered an insight into adjustments and what’s being learned from meeting to meeting – especially when the first one against the Bulldogs was a 1,423-point loss.

In addition to learning about the team methods, it’s also time for the monthly player check-in. Today’s post will be a 50-50 split between both.

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For those reading via email who see a blank space where there are supposed to be clips, there’ll be a link to click so you can watch and not miss out on anything.

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Over the last few weeks a common discussion point in these posts has been analysing the back half of the field. Now there seems to be enough data on hand to conclude North are close to settling on their preferred defensive setup, at least in terms of player type.

The original selected team had Kyron Hayden in for Lachie Young. It made the defensive group a little smaller on paper given the former is a genuine small defender, compared to the latter who is more mid-sized.

Then even with Hayden’s late omission due to hamstring soreness, Young wasn’t the inclusion, North instead preferring to push Kayne Turner back and bring Bailey Scott into the front half.

Combine it with the team selection trend of previous weeks and it appears things are trending towards the following in a back seven:

  • Two genuine key position players: In this case it’s Robbie Tarrant and Ben McKay
  • A tall tweener: Josh Walker is occupying this spot as a placeholder at the moment, but it’s obvious to all that a fit Aidan Corr slides straight in
  • Two mid-sized players; one with ‘bounce’ and another who intercepts: Currently it’s Jack Ziebell as the latter and Aaron Hall the former
  • Two who can play against smalls: Against the Bulldogs it was Shaun Atley and Turner

There are natural areas for improvement – for instance you’d like one of the two nominal smalls to offer more offensively than was on show against the Bulldogs, while that area can naturally mix with the mid-sized players more often if someone like Aiden Bonar and his versatility is available for selection.

Though with this setup seemingly close to being a weekly go-to, and a list obviously still under construction, having a clear path feeds nicely into off-season steps and what needs to be done next.

Player acquisition, player turnover, internal improvement and competition for spots. That can all start to build in the back half now.

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

What to take out of the first half-season
Round 13 v GWS
Round 14 v Brisbane
Round 15 v Gold Coast

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Before beginning to compare this game to Good Friday, it’s important to note it’s not exactly apples to apples given the Bulldogs weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders and had to deal with a mid-match injury to Aaron Naughton, while North had a handful of changes to Round 3.

But, and you knew there was a but coming, both systems were the same and it’s about as close to a straight line between games as you’re going to get.

So with that in mind, it was clear to see how North’s level of comfort has grown in how they’re being asked to play, coupled with a better understanding of putting players in positions to help the team.

Remember on Good Friday how North wanted to possess the ball, attempting to turn it into a ‘low-spread’ game and taking away the Bulldogs’ strengths of speed and space. As detailed at the time, the problem was a combination of a small forward line not versed in movement patterns yet, and the ball use not being ideal, to understate things.

Three months later, North had an extra tall forward on the field, a clearer understanding of roles and responsibilities which naturally comes with time, and more confidence in where and when to move the ball.

(Here would be the part where we could confirm a change in long v short kicks and direction of ball use if the private stats were available, but moving right on…)

This passage of play leading to Todd Goldstein’s first quarter goal was a nice demonstration of the improvement. While the broadcast footage doesn’t capture the off-ball movement which was going on to create space, what we can see is short, sharp movement, changing the angles slightly and subtly, and then targets ahead of the ball – and most importantly, the confidence to use those targets.

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

By making the game low-spread, it allowed North to use their strengths around the ball at stoppages. Although the Bulldogs were missing a couple of key midfielders compared to Good Friday, it hardly made those rotations no good, just a slight downgrade from A++ to A.

The clearance count was 37-24 the Bulldogs’ way on Good Friday. It flipped to 36-29 North’s way on Sunday. A lot of things were carried out well.

Of course there are still areas to work on; defending space and transition come to mind as the last and hardest box to tick. For now though, things are moving in the right direction.

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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:

2021’s From The Notebook

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As promised, let’s finish up with the monthly selected player check-in.

Shaun Atley

There have been quite a few requests to talk about Atley in recent weeks. To be clear, by a few, I mean a lot. And to be honest, it’s tricky for me to judge.

Most people reading this know, but for the select few who don’t, I spent six years at North as part of the media crew which meant plenty of time dealing with players. Atley was always nice and just a genuinely good human, which makes trying to judge his performances tough for me because it’s so tough to do with both eyes open.

On the other hand, there are the majority of fans on social media – and also at the game, shoutout to the man at the front of Aisle 46, Level 3 who looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel yelling after one turnover – who believe Atley can do no right.

As always with football, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two viewpoints. By this stage you know what you’re going to get with Atley.

He’s a solid defender beaten by Cody Weightman – who will make far better players than Atley look much worse over the journey – reliable with his availability, and has great physical attributes. Meanwhile the spatial awareness is his main flaw, which is what causes turnovers because all potential options aren’t considered.

It’s up to Hayden and/or Atu Bosenavulagi to perform to a level good enough to displace Atley. Do that and North become a better side. Until then Atley stays in the side. It’s a simple equation.

Trent Dumont

As North continue their midfield build, there’s going to be a distinct changing of the guard sooner rather than later.

Dumont is out of contract at the end of the season, and has been his usual reliable self from the moment he stepped back into the side in Round 9. He can play on a wing or on-ball, sets standards with his preparation and has done a mountain of work to transform himself from the dime-a-dozen inside midfielder he was at draft time.

The question – purely from an icky on-field perspective which transforms humans into assets – is this: Where does Dumont fit in the midfield long-term, and how is he rated internally against what’s coming through?

Dumont’s far, far from past it, only turning 26 last week with surely five years of good football left at least. But there are already a stack of young midfielders coming up or already established, and you’d imagine the first pick in this year’s draft will be used on another in Jason Horne.

For instance, Dumont would walk straight into Adelaide’s midfield if the Crows chased him. Either way, the decision he makes on his future will set off a couple of dominoes for North, along with hopefully setting himself up for the rest of his career.

Will Phillips

I don’t envy the coaching staff figuring out the best way to develop Phillips.

Obviously his interrupted 2020 means he’ll be a slower burn than others, and it’s clear enough that he’s a pure midfielder at AFL level.

But throwing him in there full-time when he’s not quite ready for the responsibility yet doesn’t accomplish much, and also takes away opportunity from established young midfielders.

Add the conundrum in of balancing competitiveness and development, and it’s enough to make your head spin.

Is the best way to continue a mix of midfield minutes and forward at AFL level? Is it as a full time inside midfielder at VFL level, shouldering the responsibility of being the number one ball winner? Or is there a way to give him more on-ball time in the AFL in a way which protects him?

The challenges of building a squad while making the right decision for every player all the time…

6 thoughts on “Round 16 v Western Bulldogs: A look back in the process forward

  1. I love my north Melbourne.Team. I’m 74 yrs old.
    My brother was a player in the 60s. And family friends on john Brady and Jock Spencer who them came to Shepparton as young players and starred .
    Some players at present have been given enough opportunities.
    They may have some skilled areas to their game, but no thought process. Tom Powell has the lot 💙 Shaun atley an athlete that cannot make or have the ability of that immediate decision of disposal. Everyone talks about Aaron Hall and stats,all useless, usually they end up in hands of opposition and an easy goal for bulldogs yesterday. We should have won the game. Jack Ziebell is in the same situation. Playing above his weight. T T is a star, when he is energetic, but a natural, and Tom Powell and Simpkin the same. And Cunnington has always been a classy thinker with Goldstein always trying . We have a coach who in working with good players, but must not preserve with Hall and Atley and ziebell .

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