Round 6 v Geelong: Revisiting

North Melbourne’s 60-point loss to Geelong brought a number of talking points, but today’s post is going to be streamlined.

For me, two glaring issues stood out. Coincidentally – and no, this isn’t me retrofitting a storyline for a neat post fit – they were both topics I touched on in the pre-season checklist.

So today, we go back to pre-season words and analyse them through the lens of Sunday afternoon at Blundstone Arena.

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Finding out more about forwards

In pre-season, these were my (partial) words:

I’d imagine with the introduction of Callum Coleman-Jones, rewarding Tristan Xerri for his pre-season, feeding Todd Goldstein more forward minutes, not to mention hopefully Charlie Comben staying fit all year, there’s going to be a ton of experimentation with key forward planks alongside Nick Larkey.

There can’t be improved ball movement with no forward synergy … It looks like the route to start 2022 is two talls and a more even ruck split, but I’d be genuinely stunned if there’s no look at how three talls fare at some point.

If there are three talls it’d probably have to feature Comben; a setup with all of Coleman-Jones, Xerri and Goldstein with Larkey feels way too top-heavy.

The three-tall setup of Larkey, Coleman-Jones and the resting ruck has already been trialled and binned.

We’re now five games into Todd Goldstein as the second tall forward, and I think it’s fair to say there’s enough data to conclude it simply isn’t working.

Defences aren’t respecting Goldstein, because, to be harsh, they haven’t been given any reason to.

Once that happens, the flow on effect is fewer usable options going forward, which in turn obviously makes it harder to score.

It’s most evident after North cause turnovers, with Sunday a glaring example.

Most of a team’s score is supposed to come from turnovers. The exact number varies from club to club, but as a rough guide around 60 to 65 percent of a total tends to be around the mark.

On Sunday, North kicked a grand total of two goals from turnovers. Those two (2) goals were their final two of the game.

It’s all well and good being able to score from stoppages, which North can do relatively well. Forwards have time to position, it comes from set play, it’s the part of a game where you can plan the most.

But any team worth their salt scores from turnovers. It’s everyone’s bread and butter and it has to be North’s too, otherwise they’re stuck in the mud.

It’s where a forward – and whole offensive – setup gets a health check because it requires both movement and understanding.

When defence turns into offence, there should instantly be a clear understanding of both movement patterns and potential options.

Right now North are a long way away from that, which raises a natural question of what to try next. In my view there are three options for the game against Carlton, ranked here from unlikely to likely:

1. Comben replaces Goldstein: The most unlikely of the trio in my view, given Comben is rightfully being protected from ruck duties at VFL, only on spot duties while inside forward 50.

2. Coleman-Jones replaces Goldstein: Also unlikely, given the former has been playing as the main VFL ruck since his return to state level.

3. Comben comes in as a third tall: As long as Comben pulls up well from the VFL and his body is ready, this is the lever I’d pull. Now with four consecutive games under his belt, it’s a case of making sure his body is ready, not exposing him too early.

The calls to play Comben in recent weeks have been understandable, but this is a prime example of short term pain, long term gain if – if – he progresses as anticipated. Few things are as important to North’s forward line as Comben’s long term health and it’s all about coming up to AFL level with a solid foundation.

So to finish this note on a positive, at least North have tried two forward setups and received a definitive answer on whether they’re feasible.

In an ideal world it would have been a positive result instead of negative, but hey, baby steps.

(Also if anyone was wondering whether I was going to mention the elephant in the room when it comes to this topic, not today.)

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For those who have missed any posts over the last few days, here are links to catch up with – and share around.

Friday 22nd: What To Watch For: Round 6
Wednesday 20th: North’s VFL building blocks
Monday 18th: From The Notebook: Round 5
Saturday 16th: North’s Round 5 Review
Friday 15th: What To Watch For: Round 5

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The role of Aidan Corr

Once again, my partial words from pre-season:

Where Corr settles in North’s defensive system is going to have cascading effects for the rest of the unit.

Corr’s obviously a key defender, that much is for certain. And we know Ben McKay will be tasked with manning the best, or at least ‘biggest’, key forward while likely being the deepest in the setup.

The key here is whether North are comfortable having Corr take the second key forward every week, or whether they envision a role on the tweener types where he can peel off and attempt to intercept.

When going shopping in either the trade or draft periods, a third tall/tweener/intercepting type calls for a much different skill set compared to a ‘traditional’ second tall, and vice versa.

A part of the equation I completely missed here was how much Josh Walker is capable of. It’s all well and good figuring out where Corr fits long term, but North – this year at least – don’t have the luxury of making that decision for themselves each week.

Just so there’s no confusion, this section isn’t meant as a shot at Walker. He’s battling his heart out but putting him on Jeremy Cameron isn’t a fair fight, akin to asking me to run a two kilometre time trial without keeling over halfway through.

Luckily there won’t be this problem of multiple quality key forwards every week, including Saturday night when the one McKay will be playing back for North instead of forward for Carlton.

Regardless of those three paragraphs as an elaborate setup for a punchline of Ben and Harry McKay being the same person, this situation reflects the state of confusion with the general defensive setup at the moment.

If there’s a lack of confidence in Walker playing on medium types, don’t send him out as a lamb to the slaughter against Cameron instead.

If the plan was always to use Corr as the third tall, it’s list management negligence going into a season with Walker as the only second tall option, even allowing for winning not being a priority right now.

The requirements of defenders seemingly change from week to week with few through lines. If it wasn’t for McKay’s herculean effort – nine (!) intercept marks – things would have been much, much worse.

At least in the forward line, it’s easy to see big picture strokes of what’s being trialled, even though it largely hasn’t worked this year. Three talls (rucks), on to the next. Two talls (rucks), most likely now on to the next.

In the back half of the ground, what is the plan? Both defensively and transitioning out of the back half?

The ball use is a bit ‘chicken or the egg’ when it comes to the state of flux up forward and how that effects disposal, but ultimately it all comes back to one clear issue:

Confusion. In roles, in what’s being asked, in where players should be moving.

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The cliché issues for mainstream coverage to trot out during the week – ‘responses’, ‘effort’, and the like – don’t apply to North against Carlton.

What needs to be on show is, to be honest, boring. Running and movement patterns. An understanding of where to move both for yourself and your teammates – with and without the ball.

It’s not what makes headlines, but their absence provides ammo to create the lazy, attention-seeking takes already in abundance.

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