Round 18 v Essendon: Improving in the sun

Before we get into things today, a programming note for the next month or so on The Shinboner:

I’ll be neck deep in Olympic and Paralympic coverage on Channel 7 socials from now on, which will change the flow of posts on here. Given it’s my actual job which pays me actual money, it probably wouldn’t be wise to neglect that in favour of this.

It means from now until roughly the end of the regular season, I can’t make any promises on when the usual post-match reviews will arrive, and the Notebook will go on a short hiatus. Taking next week’s game against Carlton as an example, I won’t be able to watch that until Monday or Tuesday morning – assuming the Sunday 4.40 start time remains, and it doesn’t become something like Saturday 11am.

The finals dossiers of the last two years are about a 50-50 chance to reappear at this stage, and if they do it’ll definitely just be the top four regardless of which teams they are. In the meantime any non-North observations will be over on Twitter on an ad-hoc basis.

With that all out of the way, on to Sunday’s match at Metricon Stadium.

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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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A fortnight ago the match post was comparing this year’s games against the Bulldogs, and today’s will be much the same with Essendon with a near-exclusive focus on the first half.

When North play the Bombers, it’s all about preventing them from transitioning and using their speed to pinball it back over the Kangaroos’ heads. Or to describe it in simpler terms, try to avoid the story of basically every game between the two sides in the last four years.

Given Essendon’s slight tweaks under Ben Rutten now has their away-from-stoppage style in line with early Richmond, you can take lessons on how to cope with it from those times.

There are a few key ways to do that for North – all of equal importance as will become obvious – that we’ll go through step by step.

Spread Essendon’s defence

Essendon like to defend quite high, squeeze you in, and then use those numbers around the forced turnover to break at such a speed no-one can keep up with.

But because they’re not a finely tuned outfit at that just yet, there are opportunities to spread the defence out with patient ball movement and setups. That way when Essendon do regain possession, it’s not in their preferred position, and they don’t have the capability – yet – to score freely when it’s not in a Plan A situation.

So in an attempt to carry that out, there was a sharp focus on setting up in a way which stretched Essendon both vertically and horizontally. That way when there’s a turnover in North’s forward half, Essendon don’t have the ability to pinball forward in waves without a care in the world.

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

Round 14 v Brisbane
Round 15 v Gold Coast
Round 16 v Western Bulldogs
Round 17 v West Coast

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Here’s a contrast between Round 10 and Sunday. They’re both similar passages of play, where a not particularly pretty North forward thrust ends with a poor kick and turnover.

The difference is how at Metricon, North’s focus on having players available both sideways and forwards meant Essendon’s defence was stretched, whereas at Marvel the forward 50 turnover came into an area with multiple Bombers.

At Marvel the turnover ends with David Zaharakis strolling into an open goal, while here the Bombers’ movement is strained, slow, and finishes with a wide one-on-one that Shaun Atley wins.

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

Note in the clip how things looked behind the ball at Metricon. North were well set up to prevent Essendon rolling through the corridor, as opposed to Marvel where the first layer was flimsy and easily bypassed. It’s not an overly exciting thing to highlight, but it’s a crucial sign of progress, especially considering the preparation disadvantage North had compared to Essendon.

And speaking of things which aren’t overly exciting:

Manage the speed of the game

Some teams can play at Essendon’s preferred speed and put up a good showing. North, at least at this stage of their build, absolutely can not.

This is where the short kick-and-mark North have been working on comes into play. Confidence in this part of the game means when they have possession, they can use it to dictate the game’s tempo – bring it up when there’s a chance to go quick, take it down when there’s pressure and a need to settle.

At the risk of opening old wounds, finding the balance between fast and slow and understanding the game situation was something North struggled mightily with through the first half of 2021. There are too many examples from early in the year of needlessly aggressive kicks gifting opposition scores to highlight, but still the contrast from there to Sunday was significant.

In particular there was one elongated passage towards the end of the second term which stood out. Essendon had registered the previous five scoring shots, cutting their 15-point deficit to five and were dominating territory.

The Bombers were trying to swarm North from the kick out, but they weren’t able to because of patient ball movement, from side to side and inching forward.

From North’s kick in with 5:35 remaining, to a boundary throw in 50 out from their goal 106 seconds later, there were 15 possessions all designed with relatively low risk to take heat out of the game. When Essendon did gain possession from a ground ball in their back 50, North were well set up to force the throw in.

Essendon didn’t have a forward half possession from the start of that passage until an important Jack Mahony steadying goal shortly after, and North had seen off one of Essendon’s pushes.

Because no-one wants to spend nearly two minutes watching possession which ultimately leads to nothing, I won’t embed the clip, but in the big picture it’s a capital t, big Tick. Shifting through gears is something every good side has the ability to do.

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If you’ve missed any of the previous editions of Monday’s Notebook, although there probably won’t be too many more this season, you can catch up by clicking here and scrolling through the season so far:

2021’s From The Notebook

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Balancing on-ball pressure with the set up behind it and providing an offensive threat

The two points we’ve already highlighted play a role here, and make it easier to be an offensive thread when in possession. Think of it like this:

1. Managing the speed allows defenders behind play to set up more confidently
2. Spreading the opposition makes it easier to defend on-ball because there aren’t the numbers Essendon like to use to kickstart possession chains

Which then leads into:

3. If a turnover is forced, it’s easier to attack because the field is spread, and Essendon aren’t in a great position to defend

Remember the highlighted clip from earlier which ended in an Atley one-on-one win? Here’s what happens after it with Essendon players spread out all over Metricon.

As the Bombers are slow to get back into position, it takes minimal pushing from North to expose yawning gaps. Essendon’s on-ball defence isn’t great, and what’s behind the play is still all out of kilter. The end result is a Nick Larkey goal from the line:

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

This is how all parts of the game work in unison when a team is playing well, which is what happened for North in large parts of the first half.

The second half

For those who have read this far, know the final scores and are understandably a little confused, no North didn’t actually win by 10 goals.

At the risk of downplaying everything that happened after half time, what you take out of it largely depends on what you were expecting going into the game.

Personally, all I wanted to see was some evidence of a defensive structure which could hold up to Essendon’s style. Whether it was successful from siren to siren was largely immaterial given the enormous disadvantage in preparation compared to the Bombers and the effect it would – and did – inevitably have.

There were key minutes pumped into the younger players – Lazzaro on Stringer and Merrett at consecutive last quarter centre bounces, followed by Xerri rucking the next just to name a couple of key examples – the next tier of midfielders got a taste of life without Cunnington, and there was plenty of promising signs from the likes of Taylor and Scott. Overall a positive afternoon at Metricon Stadium.

One thought on “Round 18 v Essendon: Improving in the sun

  1. Really liked Taylor and Scott’s game. Both worked hard, and were classy. Really impressed with Charlie. It feels like he goes a million miles an hour. He may well develop into an X factor. Phillips was impressive in the main as well. His use by hand close in is very good. I hope Mahony is ok, he’s been great and starting to silence the haters (not one person on the “In the mix” called for him to be dropped this week.

    Be interested in your thoughts on fitting Jed back into team.

    Also really happy to see the VFL vision of charlie comben, he looks very mobile.

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