From The Notebook, Round 18: Possession games, stoppage defence, and quick hits

Round 18 felt like a weekend where tiers were established.

Geelong let Carlton know where they stand, Sydney reminded everyone their best football stands up to anyone, and further down the ladder St Kilda received a brutal reality check.

Today’s Notebook touches on the possession game in Fremantle v Sydney, Richmond’s stoppage defence, and finishes with quick hits on Melbourne, Hawthorn, and Gold Coast.

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Taking possession off Fremantle

This could be one of the great examples of confirmation bias, but I’m going to roll with the point regardless.

In the mid-season Notebook, I highlighted Fremantle’s tendency to operate as a high possession team and queried how they’d adjust if an opposition was able to hold the ball and control tempo.

We had our first sustained look at it on Saturday night at Optus Stadium, when Sydney took a whopping 138 marks. It was the Swans’ highest total of the year and the fourth most by any team in 2022, per AFL.com.au’s match centre.

Sydney ignored the handball game as well. 260 kicks to just 111 handballs is a ratio of 2.34. To illustrate how out of the ordinary that is, here’s how it compares to season ranks:

2022Kick:Handball RatioAFL rank
Sydney, Round 182.34
Gold Coast1.981st
Brisbane1.822nd
Sydney (pre-Round 18)1.733rd

Even with Gold Coast’s possession style standing as an anomaly in the league, Sydney’s approach on Saturday night was several levels above again.

We’re used to seeing Sydney slice teams open with their kicking at speed. This time it was as if they took that skill and stuck it – purposefully – in third gear.

Here’s a clip to demonstrate. Eight kicks, eight marks, and a set shot goal as the result:

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

Notice the mark taken by Joel Amartey: wide, and in a low percentage area. It’s why, even though some may look at the scoreboard and think ‘Sydney kicked 11.16, they should have won by more’, the reality is Sydney actually over performed their expected score by a half dozen points.

It’s a credit to Fremantle’s back six that they held up so well under a deluge of possession. Most teams’ last line would have buckled.

The home team’s issue came further up the field. Sydney’s kick-mark approach neutered the Fremantle pressure which has been so successful in 2022.

It’s not a tactic a lot of teams can pull off. For example, I’d be stunned if Richmond tried something similar on Friday night.

But judging by post-match comments from Justin Longmuir, the brains trust know exactly what happened in their setups and how to go about fixing it.

It’s a shame this was on at the same time as Carlton-Geelong and not on free to air nationwide, because people missed a fascinating battle.

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For those who have missed any posts or podcast appearances over the last week, here’s where to catch up:

Sunday 17th: North’s Round 18 Review (of a win!)
Friday 15th: What To Watch For: Round 18
Tuesday 12th: Farewell, David Noble
Monday 11th: From The Notebook, Round 17: Adelaide’s style, Richmond’s meltdown and what to take out of two key games
Sunday 10th: North’s Round 17 Review

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Richmond’s stoppage defence

It’s rare to have a Notebook entry on North Melbourne’s opponent, and rarer still for one team to make an appearance in consecutive weeks.

But I’m breaking self-imposed rules to talk about the key difference in Richmond’s wins compared to losses. Before Round 18, there was a clear trend: in the Tigers’ losses, they’ve struggled to defend after conceding clearances:

Richmond, 2022 (pre-Round 18)Points Conceded Per 100 Stoppages LostAFL rank (if maintained over full year)
Wins73.63rd
Losses106.918th

Now that’s a slightly arbitrary cut off, right? A kick the other way against Geelong, or a 50 metre penalty paid against Sydney, and the numbers potentially look a lot different.

Let’s shift the cut-off point and remove all single figure margins to see if this trend is real or just selectively applied stats. Here’s how it looks now:

Richmond, 2022Points Conceded Per 100 Stoppages LostAFL rank (if maintained over full year)
Wins by 10+ points73.6 (no wins <10 points)3rd
Losses by 10+ points113.7518th

Same deal. Now we’ve confirmed it’s actually an issue, on to analysing it.

Movement around stoppages is killing Richmond, and they’re unable to defend it at the level we became so accustomed to seeing between 2017-2020.

Assuming my manual counting is correct, 52 of North’s 92 points came from clearances on Saturday.

A normal ratio of clearance points to total points is roughly 35-38 percent. North ran at more than 55 against the Tigers.

Teams aren’t running convoluted plays with multiple screens and options to find joy. By and large they’re simple, regulation actions which all teams are well aware of.

A case in point is Cam Zurhaar’s match winner. It came off the heels of another simple action in the second quarter.

From a North point of view relative to their expectations, it was excellent play.

From a Richmond point of view relative to their expectations, it was a play which should have been snuffed out easily with their extra numbers at ground level.

Damien Hardwick wasn’t wrong when he said, ‘it’s Richmond beating Richmond’.

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Quick Hits

Melbourne’s clearances: For the second straight week, the Demons were hammered at stoppages. Port’s 40-27 edge came off the back of Geelong’s 54-36 count in Round 17.

Seven of the Power’s 10 goals came from clearances. Even allowing for Clayton Oliver’s absence, it’s worrying Melbourne can concede so heavily to the 17th ranked side at scoring from stoppages this season.

Next up, the Bulldogs: a team which definitely has the ability to cut stoppage defences apart.

Hawthorn’s scores from defensive half: Another reminder of how well Sam Mitchell has done to implement a cohesive offensive strategy into a bottom six team.

Against West Coast, the Hawks piled on 45 of their 102 points from possession chains starting in the defensive half. They’re a top eight team when it comes to scoring in this fashion, normally the exclusive domain of finals sides.

Gold Coast’s crash landing: Considering how the season-ending injuries have been piling on top of each other, I was expecting this type of performance sooner rather than later.

Hopefully the heavy loss to Essendon doesn’t take away from what (I think) was Gold Coast’s best nine-week stretch in their history. Six wins and three losses with two of the defeats by less than a goal, and the third was just a seven-point game deep into time on of the final term.

It’s a major step forward for the Suns. Winning four of their last five is probably a bridge too far for a first finals appearance, but when Ben King returns I’ll be tipping it to happen in 2023.

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