All year, the question was asked. Who can beat Melbourne?
On Saturday afternoon at the MCG we had our answer, Fremantle rolling over the top of the Demons with the last 10 goals of the match.
It was a fascinating chess match, punctuated by in-game injuries, role changes and clear strategies from either side in an attempt to take opponents out of their comfort zone.
All these twists and turns presented the perfect opportunity to take a deep, deep dive into exactly what happened and pull apart reasons for Fremantle’s victory.
Think of this like the weekly North Melbourne match reviews, transported across to the end of Melbourne’s winning streak.
Some minor housekeeping before continuing on – this is the Notebook for Round 11, it’s not a multi-topic piece like usual.
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This year Fremantle have used a two-tall forward setup, with one of the talls usually doubling as the second ruck:
Right from the outset on Saturday, it was clear Fremantle had made a major change, aimed at doing everything possible to occupy all of Steven May, Jake Lever and Harrison Petty.
Griffin Logue, without a single scoring shot since the game of his only career goal in Round 5, 2017, was thrown forward to play a defensive role on May.
Logue, alongside Rory Lobb and Matt Taberner, looked to be under specific instructions to make their starting points as deep as possible.
This early frame from a boundary throw in paints the picture, with a three-on-three at the top of Fremantle’s goalsquare:
The funniest moment of the first quarter (to me, anyway) unfortunately wasn’t picked up on the broadcast cameras. At one stage when the ball was around the wing, Logue stood hands-on-hips on Fremantle’s goal line alongside May, completely disinterested – on purpose, obviously – from heading higher up the field to get involved in play.
Having the key forwards start from so deep provided a two-fold benefit.
1: It created more room for Fremantle to move methodically down the field in possession, knowing that there’d either be space for their midfielders to work in, or for forwards to lead up at the carrier
2: When they did get stuck in possession, forced to resort to a long, high ball, there was a mass of numbers in the target area, which made it tough for Melbourne to intercept cleanly:
Just as importantly, Fremantle accepted there wouldn’t be much clean ball from their entries and decided to rely on their setups and small forwards to help keep it locked in their forward half.
Having the confidence to trust your system is an unbelievable luxury when playing the best of the best. Lesser teams aim for perfection and have the tendency to be easily frustrated at early signs of adversity.
Not Fremantle, who set up smartly and came out of the blocks sharply. It was all working well – a 10-2 inside 50 edge at one stage – and then May went down, which changed everything.
For those who have missed any posts over the last week or so, here are links to catch up with:
Monday 30th: North’s Round 11 Review
Friday 27th: What To Watch For: Round 11
Thursday 26th: The inaugural North Melbourne mailbag
Monday 23rd: From The Notebook: Round 10
Sunday 22nd: North’s Round 10 Review
Fremantle had seven intercept marks in the first quarter, both their forward and ball use strategies clearly working to restrict Melbourne’s strengths.
After May went down, the game entered a state of flux for a period. Logue spent some time on Jayden Hunt, then Jake Bowey, before spending the second term cycling through half of Melbourne’s list. It appeared there was a little confusion on how to continue using Logue, since the main reason for his forward switch wasn’t there anymore.
For Melbourne, the loss of their main eraser behind the ball put so much more emphasis on what happened around it.
The absence of Tom McDonald, so often their safety blanket in the case of a mid-game injury, meant constant reshuffling to find a defensive setup Melbourne were comfortable with.
At times during the second term, it was left to either ruckman – whether that was Max Gawn or Luke Jackson – to drop behind the ball and cosplay as the third tall defender.
Ultimately, to jump Fremantle, Melbourne had to dominate around contests and stoppages and then make it count on the scoreboard.
That’s exactly what happened in the second quarter. A 9-4 clearance edge translated to 17-8 inside 50s, and four goals to one.
Even when those clearances didn’t result in scores, the territory gained by Melbourne allowed them to control game flow.
It wasn’t until late in the quarter that Fremantle found the passage of play which unlocked the way forward.
Without May, Melbourne lost a lot of things – but arguably the most important was their ability to have a goalkeeper.
So often, between either May, Lever or Petty, one sat deep as the last line of defence. Reduced to just Lever and Petty, that luxury disappeared.
It made Melbourne ‘just’ a normal defence. Fremantle, if they took it, now had more of a chance to break the lines and find space over the back.
This play – quick ball movement via a switch, carry through the middle and a long kick over the back to Rory Lobb – showed what was required.
Although Fremantle trailed by 25 points at half time, there was a clear way back into the game.
One more change helped put them on their way.
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To half time, Clayton Oliver had 24 disposals and was carrying the Melbourne midfield.
With Sean Darcy battling well against Gawn and Jackson, Justin Longmuir and the Fremantle coaching staff clearly realised the last remaining hurdle was Oliver’s influence.
The responsibility fell to James Aish, asked to curtail Oliver. It was a standard tag – nothing over the top with body contact or scragging – Aish’s aerobic capacity the key to getting from contest to contest.
Instantly the results were evident. No longer did Oliver have the space afforded in the first half, his disposals a lesser impact.
Now, suddenly, Melbourne had few options available around the ball. Gawn was neutralised, Oliver likewise, and Petracca unable to contribute as normal due to illness. The ingredients were there for Fremantle, who learned their lesson from the first half and added more speed into the ball movement.
The Dockers continued on with the same forward setup as the first half, but the extra speed in ball movement unlocked more options with leads at the ball carrier. It made it near impossible for Melbourne to stop when they conceded clean exits out of contests.
This clip, from a centre bounce win, was a sign of things to come:
A few minutes later, Hunt was caught in a one-on-one against Taberner in the goalsquare:
It was symptomatic of how Fremantle pushed and pulled Melbourne’s defence wherever they pleased, reaping the benefits.
As an example, normally teams don’t like to hit the central area between roughly 40 to 55 metres from goal. A turnover there gifts opponents the entire field width going the other way.
However, because of the way Freo’s forwards set up deep, that area actually became safer than normal when streaming from stoppages.
From this centre bounce, Michael Frederick’s gather is usually followed by a deep inside 50. In this case, Sean Darcy is able to roll forward into essentially an open area to take an uncontested mark, because he knows the Melbourne defenders aren’t going to be around him:
That Darcy goal – and Fremantle taking the lead – prompted Melbourne’s last roll of the dice.
Sam Weideman was pushed back in an attempt to replicate the Dees’ normal three-tall defence.
It led to a reshuffle on the fly, as Petty and Lever looked to educate Weideman in real time on positioning, how to read play, when to attack and when to drop back. What I would have given to hear their instructions.
The goal was obvious: free Petty and Lever up to intercept wherever possible:
For a few minutes the effect was noticeable. It allowed Melbourne to return to some semblance of a comfort zone behind the ball.
But just as quickly, it was equally obvious Fremantle reassessed and had no fear of what they were facing. Melbourne, with their disadvantages, now looked a ‘normal’ team. Not Melbourne.
The clearance count in Q3 was 9-1 Fremantle out of the centre, and 17-7 overall.
Add the dominance to the already established method forward of the ball – both in the air and on the ground to lock it in – and Fremantle had an advantage in every area of the game.
The loss of Matt Taberner at the final change threatened to alter the flow of proceedings, but Fremantle shifted modes in the last term.
All the check points from the first three quarters were still there – style of ball use, occupying Melbourne’s defenders, winning contests – but when Freo won possession, everything went into three-quarter-pace.
There was no need to be reckless with possession given the scoreboard advantage and Melbourne’s lack of tools to hurt them. The only thing left for the Dockers was making sure they didn’t retreat too far into their shell and invite pressure.
The balance was found expertly. Possession was either the safest of safe, or gaining significant metres.
110-61 was the disposal count Fremantle’s way in the last term, and there were only 10 total tackles for the period, underlining how the visitors took the steam out of the contest.
It was game over from the beginning of the quarter, and the scoreboard eventually caught up to the disparity in general play.
A high level chess match from both teams, full of intrigue and well worth a Saturday at the MCG.
After a solid 1,500+ words, it feels a bit rich to finish by downplaying any long-term conclusions.
Although it was a fascinating chess match, it’s important to remember that Melbourne had a succession of short term changes forced on them. In addition to May’s in-game concussion, Melbourne also had Petracca play through illness, along with the absence of Ed Langdon and McDonald.
You could say, ‘Melbourne struggle without May’: yes, every team would battle to replace their best key defender going down in the middle of a game.
Or if you claim, ‘Melbourne can be vulnerable around the middle’: yes, every team will struggle when their best midfielder is successfully tagged, their second All-Australian on-baller is battling illness, and one of the best wingers in the league is absent.
The game shouldn’t change any big picture expectations around either team, unless you weren’t convinced by Fremantle heading in (not me for the record, I was already convinced).
Melbourne are still the best team in the competition as it stands, with Fremantle in the tier below but a legitimate top four side.