Round 10 v Melbourne: Grading on a curve

Two weeks ago, I delved deep into North Melbourne’s ball movement.

Among other things, my main concern was an unsustainable method and too few players being asked to carry out too much.

Against Melbourne, there appeared to be a few minor adjustments and the results looked much better to the eye.

Of course, given the respective standings of North and Melbourne, the scoreboard and stats didn’t necessarily agree with that.

But the process itself looked more realistic and that’s what today’s topic is all about.

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Here are two heat maps:

On the left is Nick Larkey against Carlton in Round 7, and the right is yesterday v Melbourne.

It’s veering a little towards over-simplification in holding Larkey up as the symbol of a team-wide shift, but his maps paint the clearest picture.

To refer to the ball movement post from a fortnight ago, a common trap was the forwards occupying overly aggressive positions too often. That meant they either:

a) Didn’t get used from backs and midfielders worried about the risk/reward equation, or
b) Did get used but were fighting a losing cause, with few extra options at their disposal, against teams set up to protect that space with their figurative lives

Alongside Larkey, the second ruck – whether that be Tristan Xerri or Todd Goldstein – and the mid-sized forwards of Cam Zurhaar and Jack Ziebell followed a similar sort of script.

By being wider, those players instantly became usable when half backs and mids are under pressure in the defensive half.

There’s no point making a compilation of clips about it, because I’d rather not force people to sit through a minute of kicks to contests forced out for throw-ins.

But even though the forwards didn’t get a heap of the ball, or to be fair even defeat their direct opponents consistently, they were moving to the right areas – both in width and depth.

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

Friday 20th: What To Watch For: Round 10
Tuesday 17th: How to beat Melbourne
Monday 16th: From The Notebook: Round 9
Sunday 15th: North’s Round 9 Review
Friday 13th: What To Watch For: Round 9

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During the week I penned one of my favourite posts in quite a while, detailing the things to do to beat Melbourne.

Key to it was doing everything possible to take away the intercept power of Melbourne’s defensive unit. That’s where this North forward positioning comes from.

Given the stage North is at as a team, expecting them to take on of Steven May, Jake Lever and Harry Petty and lead them a merry dance is wishful thinking at best.

What the forwards can do is occupy defenders with their presence. Add depth into it, consistently staying a kick or a kick and a half ahead of play, and it forces Melbourne’s backs to stay within reasonable distance at all times because they know their opponent is going to be a get-out target as soon as pressure arrives around the ball.

The flow on effect from that is opening up space closer to the ball when North gain possession.

It makes short, chip-chip play easier to execute because Melbourne – or any team really – can’t clamp down and restrict lanes when most of their back six is occupied with direct opponents.

Then when North find a mark and can control tempo, it allows backs and mids more time to spread, forcing Melbourne to cover even more space.

Those tear-your-hair-out turnovers of previous weeks when trying to exit defensive 50 became – almost – a thing of the past because there wasn’t outsized pressure to pinpoint short passes in a dangerous area. Instead, for the most part, the turnovers were relatively normal ones in the ebb and flow of an AFL game.

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The post has all been quite rosy so far, so to add some quick reality into proceedings before continuing:

– Melbourne didn’t move out of second gear all day
– Holding five or six forwards ahead of the play at almost all times asked a lot of the midfield, and they were handled comfortably by Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca (although a note for Luke Davies-Uniacke, who was very good again)
– The inside 50 count, 74-34, says a bit. Although the defensive unit held up quite well and didn’t give up as many high quality shots as you’d think given the numbers

Now on to one more note in finishing up.

Although North’s ball movement and forward structure was far from perfect, nothing of what they were asked to do screamed ‘unrealistic’.

Forwards, for the most part, were moving to useful areas to both occupy the defence and be usable if called on.

Because of their movement, it allowed midfielders and defenders to maintain possession and control tempo far more than any other game this season.

There are still so many areas to work on within that; finding the right balance between possession for possession sake and going forward looms as the main one, along with being careful not to devolve into bad habits which were on show the later the match went.

There does need to be a bit more focus on leading up at the ball carrier and, to use the same word again, balancing that with holding shape ahead of the ball and preventing the opponent’s ability to intercept.

But as a base, there’s really no reason why this shouldn’t be the foundation for a week-to-week setup. It was instantly viewable how it improved North on both sides of the ball, and it’s not asking too much physically to execute.

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