Round 23 v Adelaide: The next steps as a year of discovery ends

In pre-season, it was termed as a year of discovery.

Now we’re at the end of it – from an on-field perspective at least – what have North Melbourne come away with?

There’s a mountain to get through, and here’s the agenda:

– The collective game style
– Minutes played, sorted by age
– List demographic
– Depth chart by position
– Player contracts

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Firstly, a look at the game style which developed over the course of 2021. At the halfway stage, I went through why the offensive and ball movement elements were taking time to bed in; but after the bye it really showed the first consistent signs of improvement.

It was most evident in the way North were able to maintain possession and control tempo more often than not as the season wore on, reflected in the uncontested possession tally.

At North’s bye they were a whopping -342 in uncontested possession differential, comfortably the worst mark in the competition.

From their resumption until the end of the season – Round 13-23 – that differential improved to a mere -34, comfortably mid-tier in the competition.

Passages of play like this one against West Coast, working the ball from back to front (before the Eagles gave away 50 and gifted a goal), just weren’t happening with any regularity early in the year. It’s a major tick.

North’s uncontested possessionsDifferentialAFL rank
Round 1-11-34218th
Round 13-23-348th

The next major step offensively comes with the introduction of a genuine key forward partner for Nick Larkey. Pending fitness that’ll be Charlie Comben as he gets used to regular AFL life, and as he adjusts that will open the ground up for North.

As covered frequently on here during the year, having two natural forward targets will force defenders to respect the air while also trying to press up and cover the short movement which we’ve seen over the second half of 2021.

Only the very best defences can do both and – ideally – as 2022 rolls along we’ll start to see full-ground, aerial and ground level movement start to give sides problems.

Defensively there has been admittedly slower progress, but it’s here where I’d expect much bigger gains to come next year.

Again to focus on a forward half which is quite young, it’s here, somewhat counter-intuitively, where a team’s defence starts.

With most of the list discovery phase now complete, I’d imagine much of pre-season will be spent simplifying roles and responsibilities for the ground level forwards and midfielders. How they coexist and rotate with each other – i.e. how much time Tarryn Thomas spends on-ball compared to forward, Jaidyn Stephenson’s wing time – then dictates their requirements.

A summer spent repeating those requirements until the players are probably sick of them will see enormous benefits extremely quickly. At the moment the natural inconsistency in application which comes with inexperience hurts North in multiple areas:

– Unable to keep the ball locked in forward half
– Fewer scores gained from opposition turnovers
– Constantly starting possession chains from their back half, which is unsustainable
– Defenders under pressure having to cope with clean entries

Another off-season keyed in on improving these areas – along with natural age-related improvement which should come from players in key areas – and things will start to look promising on both sides of the ball.

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As for what’s coming next on The Shinboner, naturally posts will be in more of an ad hoc manner. There’ll be some finals content, some list management musings from across the league, and then of course it all feeds into trade period.

The drafts will be a bit of a lighter touch, but following that when lists are locked and loaded for 2022 – plus a (hopefully normal) fixture – it’ll be a good time to take stock and look forward.

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Speaking of age, a normal pattern of mine at the end of years is to look at games played by age and then use that as a profile for any promising or problem areas. The introduction of the sub changed that though.

For example if you look at Marc Murphy’s season for Carlton, on the surface it says 15 games played: seemingly a normal campaign. But then you dig a little deeper and see one where he was unused, three more he was substituted in, playing between 25-40 percent game time in all three, and one more where he was substituted out after only 10 percent game time.

Suddenly 15 games is effectively 10 and it looks a little different. So my lightbulb moment was to bite off way too much and figure out how many total minutes everyone played, and then sort that by age, rather than games played. Maybe I’m now overly attached to it after dedicating so much time to figuring it out, but it gives an interesting look:

For me that looks nearly exactly what you’d hope for a team in North’s position. About half the minutes this season were played by those 23 and under and it’d be a safe bet to assume that when you expand it to 24 and under in 2022, that percentage will grow to somewhere approaching two thirds.

There are very few players in their prime, which again should be expected given the ladder position and also, let’s be honest, the drafting misses across the relevant time period.

That leaves the age 29 year and over, responsible for approximately 30 percent of minutes. It can essentially be boiled down to eight players – Todd Goldstein, Robbie Tarrant, Aaron Hall, Jack Ziebell, Ben Cunnington, Josh Walker, Shaun Atley and Tom Campbell.

The first five, barring anything unexpected, are all set to be key planks of the team in 2022. In an ideal world, Aidan Corr would have played most of Walker’s minutes this year as the third tall/tweener type and I’d expect that to be the plan going forward with the latter probably hanging around as a backup depending on trade and draft moves.

Atley and Campbell are both out of contract and it appeared Noble looked at moving away from Atley down back as the season went on, a substitute for Round 20 and dropped for the next fortnight. He may be in a wait and see mode while it’d be nice to see Campbell stick around in some capacity even if he’s not on next year’s AFL list.

Once that’s all summed up, you’re left with a relatively clear position on list holes which will need filling sooner rather than later. Here’s where our next focus area is introduced – the list demographic.

Depending on how quickly list changes are announced, I’ll update this as it goes

Considering key position players take their time to develop, it’s evident the two most urgent needs are figuring out who eventually replaces Goldstein and Tarrant.

After thankfully having no further complications following his kidney surgery, Tarrant’s understandably looked a little off his normal high standards – while still being extremely important, it has to be emphasised. On one hand it’s easy to draw a straight link between the two and expect a full pre-season to do the trick. But then there’s also the valid argument that expecting Tarrant to improve from this year to next year – when he turns 33 – as equally unrealistic. Which point holds more water? I’m sitting on the fence.

The other areas – small forward, key forward depth, rebounding defender – have options, are easier to find solutions for and don’t necessarily have a pressing time requirement given they tend to impact quicker, or can be a plug and play stopgap if necessary.

When you get to the most subjective part of this post things become clearer – the positional depth chart. This will require some explaining:

There’s a natural overlap between positions and roles here. For example Jack Mahony is listed as a small forward but gets quite high up and even spends some time on the wing before pushing hard forward, while I made myself laugh by listing Thomas as the fourth (!) best on-baller purely he’ll spend less time there compared to the three above him.

Two of the general forwards tend to share time on a wing; as the season has rolled on we’ve seen Taylor do it more often than Stephenson, with the latter then being more of a focus closer to goal. This ties into the above point about the forwards’ roles becoming clearer over summer, which will lead to a defensive improvement. And more importantly, making it easier for me to fill out a depth chart.

Once again, this is before delistings so it will thin out quite quickly. Over the summer we’ll see some positional changes and natural improvement lead to rapidly shuffling rankings. My three main hopes:

1. Jed Anderson moving towards more of a primary small forward/secondary on-ball mix, still utilising his strengths while also freeing up valuable time for the younger brigade to learn and develop.
2. Flynn Perez to have an injury free year and quickly rocket up that general defender list.
3. Finding the right mix of bounce and defence amongst those defenders listed. If it wasn’t Hall or Ziebell this year attempting to clear, things looked very static.

Although it takes some time, putting together a depth chart like this gives you incredible clarity; both in how you see things and what you’re hoping for in the future. I can recommend it to anyone wanting to figure out where they stand on their team.

And now, we finish with the contract status of the playing list.

Much like the situation approaching the end of 2020, it’s quite clean when it comes to any long term albatrosses. The only one who stands out in terms of multiple years and seemingly sliding away from the best 22 is Jared Polec, and even then his deal at the time was reported to be heavily front ended. If that is indeed the case, it’s doubtful these last two years will be too onerous from a salary cap point of view.

Usually at this time of the year, clubs have deals in their back pocket ready to be announced on their website and social media (he says, speaking from experience). It’ll mean, much like a few of these graphics, this’ll change swiftly over the week when combined with the inevitable delistings.

When all the above is laid out – contracts, depth chart, demographics, minutes by age, game style progress – you can see the progress being made when it comes to setting the list up for the rest of the decade.

Like last off-season was crucial, this one will be just as important. *If* the list changes are nailed, followed by top-tier talent via the draft and then work is done to fill in the remaining list gaps, suddenly things start to move.

It’s an exciting time. Not quite as exciting as CM Punk being in AEW, but close. And that’s all you can ask for really.

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