Round 17 v West Coast: Small ticks graduate to a big tick

Aren’t there quite a few things to explore after that performance?

Yes, West Coast have well documented flaws and aren’t close to the top tier of teams. And yes, they aren’t in anywhere near their top gear. But it’s still the Eagles in Perth, both an opponent and location where North Melbourne have struggled mightily in recent memory.

For North Melbourne to go over there with a clear plan, withstand a barrage, execute down to a tee and earn the four points is an enormous tick in a year which had a lot of small ticks up until this point.

A note before we get into things: It’ll be impossible to cover everything from the game given all the positives. If there’s anything in particular you’d like to see which I haven’t covered, please drop a note in the comments or on Twitter @rickm18

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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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Before getting into big picture tickets, let’s start with intangibles.

It’s the little things which often signify how a group is feeling. West Coast were always going to come out steaming after their horrendous last fortnight, and that translated to a ferocious attack on the ball.

It would have been easy for North to take it and then move on, but instead they bit back and managed to withstand the barrage, flying the flag for teammates along the way. Two examples of many:

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

That’s the sign of an engaged group, genuinely committed to actions rather than treating it as a box ticking exercise.

The overall defence, both individual and team, was excellent all game but particularly in the first half.

The Eagles enjoyed a whopping 34-12 inside 50 count, yet they generated very few quality shots on goal as a result of their territorial advantage, eventually going into the main break with 3.10 on the scoreboard.

West Coast are more than capable of kicking goals from everywhere – on another day they would have been 9.4 at half time – but all you can ask for from North’s perspective is to defend smart when they have to, and it’s what they did.

When planning, all a team can focus on is what they can control. For North it’s making West Coast’s scoring shots as tough as possible, and if Kennedy and co can convert from Row 39 while the fan next to him is booing at an unpaid deliberate from eight minutes ago, then so be it. To be fair, most weeks they do convert.

Here is the Eagles’ shot chart from the first half. There are very few shots you’d classify as easy, and when it’s laid out like this 3.10 doesn’t seem overly unexpected.

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

Round 13 v GWS
Round 14 v Brisbane
Round 15 v Gold Coast
Round 16 v Western Bulldogs

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To return to the planning point, during the week there absolutely would have been a mention of how West Coast are unable to maintain the rage for anything close to four quarters.

Heading into the game, the Eagles had lost 11 quarters by three goals or more this season. For comparison that’s almost twice as much as Port Adelaide and Sydney (six each), the trio of teams hovering around a similar ladder bracket.

Having this in your back pocket can be a great mental boost when paired with a setup and method there’s confidence in. When North were pinned in their defensive half, knowing they’d get their turn, and they could move the ball in a way to find soft spots in West Coast’s defence – it’s the type of thing which keeps you going.

So when the second quarter turned into the third, and the midfield got on top, North were able to control the tempo. They knew if they kept probing, West Coast would gift them space to use as they prefer to sit deep and utilise their marking strengths.

Sometimes this style of ball movement can look a little tedious, but it pays off in such a low risk fashion. Ignoring the 50 which comes at the end of this clip, the 30 seconds leading up to it is a great example of a plan paying off. Maintain disposal, go side to side, be patient and pockets of space materialise because West Coast can’t defend this way for long enough without making mistakes.

Pretend the 50 didn’t happen for a moment, and the worst case scenario from Goldstein’s long entry kick would have been to a large pack in the pocket punched out for a stoppage and reset. Perfectly acceptable given the conditions, and achieved with next to no risk.

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

Then when there are times to move the ball a bit quicker – again utilising full width of the ground as often as possible to stretch West Coast’s defence out – North were picking the right time to go and reaping the rewards.

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

There’s no way North would have been capable of pulling a quarter out like the third earlier in the season. The confidence in style wasn’t there, nor were the reps and running patterns.

Consider North went from -22 first half inside 50s to +12 in the third quarter, had 30 more disposals in the term while also laying seven more tackles (a personal favourite combination to use when showing how far a side is on top) and held the Eagles to just two behinds – one rushed, and one set shot from 45 out on the boundary.

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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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The last quarter was fascinating for a number of reasons, but the main one I want to focus on actually has its roots in the closing stages of the GWS draw. At the time I wrote this (added emphasis in bold for today):

“It’s because for the first time this year, North were forced to cope with a team which had turned the offensive dial up to 11, repeatedly rolling the dice. GWS pushed it to the limit for really as long as possible, to a point where a more experienced team would have been able to adjust and turn the attacking mindset into a weakness.

The Eagles were all guns blazing at the start of the last. Saying the dial was turned up to 11 offensively would actually be doing them a bit of a disservice given how gung ho it was.

And it almost worked, but here was the key contrast to the draw – the Eagles went too early and kept the dial up for too long, which allowed North to hold on for just long enough to turn it back around, all stemming from a crucial stoppage which led to Cam Zurhaar’s goal.

Watch West Coast’s setup. Gaff streams past the play to the offensive side, Kelly overcommits instead of holding shape, and what’s left defensive side for Phillips to contend with after Stephenson wins possession? Next to nothing. The ball goes forward, Larkey brings it to ground and Zurhaar does the rest.

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

From the ensuing centre bounce the Eagles again went into full send mode but North won the clearance and from there the game was back in a more even mode.

But really, the previous 1300-odd words have all been a build up for one moment. First, the preamble, from Round 4’s post:

“Seeing some mild grumbling in the discourse about Luke Davies-Uniacke. There is zero – note the bold for emphasis – to worry about in the short term as long as his mistakes come from trying to take the game on. Think back to Cunnington’s attempted fend-offs before he had the strength to complete them, and then the catalogue he put together once it all came together. That will be Davies-Uniacke bursting through packs soon enough.”

And now the main event:

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

Davies-Uniacke turned most bystanders into statues, creating the crucial room which led to Stephenson and Cunnington’s go-ahead goal. And the best part is there’ll be plenty more of that to come.

And yet on a night where LDU showed his continuing progress, Jy Simpkin continued along his business with 32 disposals, Jaidyn Stephenson played arguably his career best game, along with a host of contributions from the younger crew and the team as a whole – it was Tarryn Thomas who I was most impressed with.

His stats don’t jump off the page at you – 19 disposals, a goal and a handful of marks. But it’s Thomas’ ability to constantly be in the right place and influence which smack you right in the face when you keep an eye out.

Here’s the passage of play which led to Todd Goldstein’s sealing goal and it’s Thomas as the glue to it all.

Cunnington’s clearing kick heads to a pack, where Thomas nudges his opponent Hurn to ground, then instantly realising the space he’s in.

Thomas doesn’t commit to the scrum which forms at centre half back, recognising North have enough numbers already and the best area for him to be in is outside.

When North win possession, it’s Thomas who’s in the best position to receive, having worked over to the far side providing Hall an option. If it wasn’t for Thomas assessing the situation perfectly, Hall likely doesn’t have a clear target and is forced to a contest.

And then just to cap it off, Thomas leaves McGovern sprawling on the ground before nailing Bailey Scott with a pinpoint pass.

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

The future is bright. Just a reminder that progress is not always linear when the inevitable bumps come very soon.

(One last thing, for real this time. If you’ve ever wondered what the starting point for these match posts look like, here is your answer)

3 thoughts on “Round 17 v West Coast: Small ticks graduate to a big tick

  1. Many thanks Ricky, this is brilliant as always.

    As a supporter there’s a satisfaction knowing that this is not all a fluke, that the good stuff that happens on the field is the result excellent coaching and fantastic buy-in from a group of really smart players.

    It should be no surprise to the ‘football world’ that the time that Noble and co have had with the boys, the freedom that Brady is having with the list, and the return of key players from injury, all culminates in good results.

    It’s embryonic, and as you say, there will be bumps (let’s hope not again against the unmentionables in this 100th anniversary of their pillage), but the ride will be exhilarating, as it has been already this season.

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