What if I told you North Melbourne are on pace to become the worst offensive team in the 21st century?
Through eight rounds, North are scoring from just 34.82 percent of their inside 50s. Not only is it well behind everyone else this year (West Coast are 17th at 38.46 percent), a look through HPN Footy’s historical database reveals no side has had a lower conversion rate since records started being kept.
It’s not only because of the forwards, it’s not only because of the ball use.
It’s a team wide issue, and the problems influence every other area of the field.
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A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that at least you could see what North were experimenting with when it came to forward personnel.
Personnel ≠ method though, and from Round 1 to 8 there has been no consistent sign of a sustainable style.
After the 2021 bye, you could see the beginning outlines of an offensive style. As touched on in the pre-season checklist obviously it was far from a finished product, but control with ball in hand saw an uptick in quality forward chances. From the bye to Round 23, North were scoring at an acceptable rate and the hope was to build from there into 2022.
Instead it’s gone backwards. Control is gone, any attempts to move the ball with speed – save for brief flashes here and there – look haphazard, and as a result there seems to be team-wide confusion on what to do and what’s expected.
Let’s go through two passages to provide a big picture snapshot of my main worry: the patterns being asked of players this year aren’t easily repeatable, and need continued low percentage actions to complete.
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We’ll start with a passage from last Friday night against Fremantle. When facing a defensive structure so formidable, it stands to reason that mistakes will be punished at a higher rate than most other sides.
Yet time and time again when North were trapped in their defensive half, their options ahead of the ball were in outrageously aggressive areas. It was a continuation of the season so far. Take this for instance from a defensive 50 stoppage:
Without a clean stoppage win – a rarity when trapped so close to your own goal – the get out kick with this setup is going to fall between 50 to 60 metres out from goal, directly in front. The only realistic option to maintain possession is a pack mark while outnumbered.
Even halving the contest to bring it to ground won’t work most of the time, because Fremantle – or any team defending in this situation – are naturally set up to protect that area and will have numbers at hand.
Because it’s so central, there’s no chance of forcing it out for a throw in and reset. Then if Fremantle win possession, they have the entire width of their ground open to use, allowing a quality entry.
If we let the passage play out, we see a predictable pattern: Fremantle mop it up and have the lay of the land going back inside 50. Maybe it would have happened if the setup in front of the ball was shifted to one side, but the probability would be significantly less.
The second clip in focus actually resulted in a North goal late against the Bulldogs. Sometimes focusing on what looks like a little win is more instructive than the opposite, because results paper over process.
Curtis Taylor wins a free kick deep inside defensive 50, and it’s a slow play which means North have had time to set up ahead of the ball.
Once again the forward setup is central, but even once Taylor has ball in hand, no-one is moving towards him – from any angle.
Nick Larkey* retreats while staying central, while Jack Ziebell* moves back and wide to the flank, two kicks away. In theory either one should be the next link of the chain, but in following instructions they’re nowhere to be seen.
Instead it’s left for Jy Simpkin to get on his bike and present as the only realistic – albeit extremely low percentage – option for Taylor:
From there it’s a comedy of Bulldogs errors each step of the way. First it’s Bailey Dale dropping a mark and giving away a free kick.
Then Lachie Young is forced to kick it to an outnumbered Ziebell because, again, it’s the only option available. But Ryan Gardner drops a mark straight into Ziebell’s hands, who goes long to Larkey v Tim O’Brien. The latter loses his feet under minimal contact, which allows Larkey to stroll in while almost being run down.
The scoreboard says goal to North, but the process behind it isn’t causing any alarms for defenders unless they’ve just put their hands under running water.
Two linked takeaways from this passage: why are the forwards instructed to move into non-threatening positions when there is no concerted push from those around the ball to provide support? It’s a complete disconnect between each area of the field, which speaks to a lack of clarity on responsibilities.
(*Just to clarify if anyone was wondering how I knew Larkey and Ziebell’s positioning without seeing them on broadcast view, it’s because this play has been etched in my notes (and my brain) since seeing it unfold live)
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Forwards not coming up at the ball in an attempt to maintain depth – while far from ideal – can be worked around to an extent if there’s a clear understanding of what’s required.
Yet their positioning is somehow in a high risk area for North while simultaneously minimising any potential reward.
The corridor is the most valuable real estate on a ground – when there’s space in it.
By placing multiple numbers in there – as illustrated in the first screenshot against Fremantle – if North do win the ball, it’s instantly better defended because there’s less space compared to normal.
Not to mention footballers are trained most their life to avoid the corridor unless there’s time and space, which – by design – there now isn’t because of setups.
It means all those rushed wide kicks you see when trying to exit defensive half are by instinct, and as a consequence of instructions there just aren’t enough numbers in those areas to maintain possession.
So naturally it results in a turnover, the ball is pumped back in, North’s defence is under immense pressure and the cycle resets.
It’s why there’s a comical disparity in inside 50s (-92 over the last month) and uncontested possessions (-355 over the last month); the understanding between lines isn’t there, which means opposition control from start to finish.
While forwards are asked to play these roles, it leaves the bulk of ball movement responsibility on midfielders and defenders.
It’s an enormous task, one with no margin for error, and easily put under pressure.
Essentially, everything has to be short, whether by handball or kick. The key is opponents know that and it makes planning easier because movement is in a contained space.
Think of a defence like a rubber band. If it’s forced to cover more of the ground with the same number of players, eventually it snaps.
But if efforts can be limited to a small space, it’s really good at holding things in.
That’s the case when defending against North because the forwards are in tough to reach spaces and too much is left to the rest.
|North Melbourne’s last month||Differential/Percentage||AFL Rank|
|Scores per inside 50||33.54%||18th|
|Scores conceded per inside 50||49.22%||17th|
So … what should be the first steps to start fixing it?
For me (he says while sitting on the couch) it should be two-fold:
a) As a general pattern the forwards’ positioning should shift to less aggressive areas, out of the corridor and wider. This way they’re more likely to be used (as counter intuitive as it sounds, for reasons explained above), and gives those in the defensive half more confidence that the worst case scenario from their clearing possessions is a stoppage or throw in, rather than the ball pinballing back over their heads from directly in front of goal.
b) More of a focus on lead up forwards. There needs to be more of a link between each line on the ground. If we go back to Round 4 against Sydney, North’s best performance of the season, it’s no coincidence it came with a renewed focus on utilising and rewarding leads.
It lessens the load on midfielders and half backs to provide options and overall simplifies responsibilities to a more ‘traditional’ structure, for lack of a better term. The more complicated aspects can be added in time, but for the moment we can all agree the current requirements aren’t capable of being carried out to an acceptable level.
Those two combined should lead to:
c) Opposition defenders forced to cover multiple options, which stretches them and in turn leads to less pressure on North’s possession chains. Most of the diabolical turnovers – while not to be excused, for sure – have their roots in perceived pressure because of no time to control tempo.
With games in Hobart tending to move at speeds a touch slower than other venues, Saturday should provide the ideal starting point to make improvements.