How to beat Melbourne, in four not-so-easy steps

9-0 in 2022. 16 wins in a row stretching back to late 2021. To really make the numbers pop, 31 wins and a draw from their last 36 matches.

Whichever way you look at it, Melbourne are a juggernaut.

Since Max Gawn’s kick after the siren in Round 23 last year, realistically no side has got close to the Demons. It raises a natural question…

How do you beat Melbourne?

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Given Melbourne’s defensive dominance and how nearly everything in their game starts from this base, this is going to largely be an offensive themed post until right at the end.

Without further ado, these are the four elements of a game which I think need to be carried out to perfection to beat Melbourne.

Or, if you scroll to the bottom, one of two alternate steps.

Compress *and* stretch

We’ll start with field positioning in general play and contests.

a) Compress
b) Stretch

They’re two completely different actions, so it’s right to be confused. Let’s go one at a time.

Compress comes into play around the ball.

Let’s face it, few midfields have a chance to beat Melbourne’s midfield mano a mano. For the rest, expecting to do so is waving the white flag before the game even begins.

So the focus should be two-fold: how to neutralise Melbourne’s strengths, while also giving the best opportunity to escape their clutches on occasions you win possession.

(It’s not often – only once has Melbourne lost the contested possession count this year, and their advantage has been double digits in seven of the remaining eight games)

I’d be looking at chances to bring the half forwards and one wing into the play as often as possible, effectively minimising the space Melbourne have to play in.

If it’s, say, four-on-four around the ball at ground level, we see the likes of Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and co break away more often than not.

Turn that four up to seven or eight and suddenly there’s little clean ball to be had for Melbourne. The messier it is around the ball, the harder it is for the Demons to gain territory easily, which in turn prevents them from locking it in their forward half: +102 in inside 50 differential, the best in the league.

(Why does everything always sound so simple on paper?)

Stretch comes into play ahead of the ball, and provides the glimpse to how tough a balance is to strike.

As often as possible there has to be forward targets occupying Steven May, Jake Lever and Harry Petty.

Without that there’s almost no point bothering. If any of those three have the luxury of space it’s game over for your forward entry.

By having targets ahead of play at all times and no Melbourne outnumber, it minimises the pressure to be clean with ball use out of contests.

It’s OK to be messy; if anything messy gives a better chance compared to structure and order against Melbourne’s defensive unit.

And speaking of Melbourne’s defensive unit…

Multiple forward marking options

Here’s a fascinating 50 second snippet of May from last week’s On The Couch, discussing defensive plans and strategies:

There’s a particular line I want to zero in on, bolded emphasis mine:

“Rather than playing a whole zone, we sort of play like a back three and a front three. The deeper guys, we trust each other playing on them … Naughton, Wright, all those sorts of big guys I’ll usually have to play on.”

The back three consists of – when fit – May, Lever and Petty, with Adam Tomlinson and Joel Smith deputising at various points this season.

PlayerR1R2R3R4R5R6R7R8R9
MayYYYYYYYYY
LeverYYYYY
PettyYYYY
TomlinsonYYYY
SmithYYYYY

If the trio are comfortable handing off opponents to each other left and right, it’s up to forwards to change the questions.

The ‘simplest’ (that word is doing a lot of work) way to do it is with a forward line capable of playing through multiple options, forcing Melbourne to play more of a one-on-one game.

May, Lever and Petty can’t hand opponents to each other – nor can the half backs – when it’s an unpredictable offence coming at them, capable of using any of three or four targets…

Which brings me to May’s second notable quote On The Couch, about teams attempting to drag their defence around:

If the clip doesn’t play for you, click here to watch

“I love to be involved in the contest … there’s not just me. There’s Jake Lever, Harry Petty, there’s guys like that who can intercept the ball so you can’t defend them all.”

The last part of that quote sounds more confrontational on paper than it actually was in practice, but what if a team can take away their chances to intercept?

On paper, a fit and firing Brisbane forward line have all the tools to do so, providing a perfect test case.

We saw it in action for a half last year. In Round 12 – off the back of +8 clearances and +11 contested possessions, it must be noted – Brisbane shot to a 20-point half time lead.

Their 14 scoring shots is still an equal first half high for any team against the Demons since the start of last year.

It was noticeable how – even allowing for the Demons not being at their final form yet – there was little willingness to peel off and intercept, and as a flow on it opened up opportunities for Brisbane.

There are five and a half weeks remaining until Melbourne v Brisbane at the MCG. With Joe Daniher (shoulder, listed as 3-5 weeks) and Dan McStay (ankle, listed as 3-4 weeks) still recovering from injury it’s unlikely we’ll see a fully fit Lions side by the time that rolls around.

Here’s a frame to demonstrate what Brisbane did so well in last year’s matchup before Melbourne got on top after half time:

Note how even if any Demon wanted to, there’d be no chance of intercepting because of all the one-on-one matchups and Brisbane holding their forwards ahead of the play with depth.

Here’s how the play panned out from the time Brisbane gained possession:

If the clip doesn’t play for you, click here to view

A sharp switch, ideal spacing, willingness to move with purpose and not enough time for Melbourne’s defence to recalibrate. All much easier said than done, but what teams need to do from start to finish against the Demons.

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For those who have missed any posts over the last week or so, here are links to catch up with:

Monday 16th: From The Notebook: Round 9
Sunday 15th: North’s Round 9 Review
Friday 13th: What To Watch For: Round 9
Tuesday 10th: North’s offensive woes explained
Monday 9th: From The Notebook: Round 8

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Trust your half backs

So much of Melbourne’s game is based on forward half turnovers, locking it in, pressing, until opponents succumb and turn it over in dangerous areas.

Neutralising that goes a long way to giving a team a chance against Melbourne.

There are a couple of ways to approach the task of exiting defensive 50, with no uniform best answer to whether it should be kick-mark, run and carry, a mix, or anything else.

What isn’t up for debate is how everything needs to be done with precision, and ideally with speed.

It’s vital to escape the clutches Melbourne put on when close to goal. Even if it’s a matter of clearing and then resetting once into the middle third of the ground, the most important thing is getting out as quickly as possible.

To do that there needs to be immense trust in the ball movers of a team’s back six. More often than not it’s the half backs, but it can sometimes be the smalls, or even a key every once in a while.

When coming up against teams at Melbourne’s level right now, opponents can be beaten mentally before the siren even sounds.

We see it all around the world of sport: Rafael Nadal at his best on clay, Roger Federer on grass, prime Golden State Warriors, the Australian Test team of the early 2000’s, just to name a few. So many wins purely from reputation.

For Melbourne’s opponents, stopping that comes with confidence placed in the hands of ball users by teammates, coaches and even fans at the ground. We all know what that nervous murmur sounds like at times and the effect it can have on a mentality.

Mistakes will happen, there’s no avoiding them. But the key is to keep pressing, pushing, and see what rewards come from it.

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Attack individuals

This one is a bit of an intangible because it brings up the unknown.

Somewhere, some place, there’s a weakness in Melbourne’s setup which hasn’t been exposed … yet.

To look at the last dominant team before Melbourne, the book was out on how to beat Richmond relatively early on. Which – considering it ended up being more of a natural decline from the Tigers rather than teams carrying out the playbook for 120 minutes – says more about their reign on top than most will give credit for, but that’s another story for another time.

In continuing on the Richmond theme and using an example from their time on top to illustrate, the famous 2018 preliminary final saw Collingwood play through Mason Cox to the extent it nullified the Tigers’ defenders strengths as a unit.

(Using the game of someone’s life as an example of how to beat Melbourne once says a bit about the level they’re on at the moment, but nevertheless)

There is something along those lines which hasn’t been uncovered yet, and no doubt coaches are working hard in the background to uncover any potential flaws.

Mark Robinson suggested running a triple tag against Petracca, Oliver and Ed Langdon, which, while intriguing, probably wouldn’t be sustainable because of how hard it becomes to create opportunities for yourself.

Maybe it’s taking a leaf out of football from a generation ago by stretching the ground as far as possible, and combining that approach with modern defensive knowledge?

What if it’s an ultra-attacking mindset and relying on the back six to hold up in individual contests when exposed after turnover?

Could there be a couple of matchups a team really likes and tries to play through as much as possible, forcing Melbourne to adjust some of their defensive tenets?

It’s an opportunity to get funky, especially for the lower teams, and see what domino effect it causes elsewhere.

The alternate step

In covering the above, I left one element out completely…

Defend better than Melbourne.

In other words, what we’re seeing Fremantle attempt to do. Through ninerounds, the Dockers are nearly on par with Melbourne when it comes to scoring shots conceded per inside 50, and actually concede fewer inside 50s per game.

2022FremantleMelbourne
Scoring shots conceded per inside 50 %37.95%37.20%
Inside 50s conceded per game43.346.9

Much like Melbourne early last year, there isn’t a huge amount of sophistication in Fremantle’s ball movement.

Most of the Dockers’ scoreboard joy comes from a forward half game and their ability to force turnovers with the ball close to goal.

It’s been on display against top half sides (Geelong in Geelong) and bottom half sides (North Melbourne in Perth) without wavering, which suggests their defensive method is legit and not a flash in the pan.

Melbourne-Fremantle in Round 11 looms as maybe the best defended game of all time. Perhaps it won’t be the most aesthetically pleasing match in history, but it’ll be one coaches hold up as Exhibit A for how they want teams to play without possession.

This leaves just one more method remaining for how to beat Melbourne.

If all else fails – if all else fails – just kidnap Jake Bowey and lock him in a room. Statistically it increases a team’s chances to something higher than zero.

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