Defending at Blundstone Arena is a unique challenge – especially when it’s windy.
North Melbourne, entering Saturday’s game against Hawthorn riding the high of a thrilling win, were too slow to adjust to the different requirements.
Today’s post is going to be all about how to defend against a team with the wind, followed by some stray individual observations on Ben McKay, Lachie Young, Jason Horne-Francis, and Jy Simpkin.
Those are down the bottom if you’d prefer to scroll.
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When defending against a team with the wind in Hobart, most of the normal positioning rules are thrown out the window.
While all kicks gain extra metreage, there are certain pockets of the ground more susceptible to the wind than others.
It means the standard practice of dropping a player a half-kick behind the play from contests becomes largely irrelevant. A hack kick out of congestion with the wind travels well over said player, not to mention what happens if the team with the wind gets clean possession out of a contest.
What may look like this at nine out of ten grounds:
Should be more like this at Blundstone Arena when defending against a team with the wind:
Think back to the 2015-2018 period in Hobart, where North won 10 out of 12 games. So often it’d be Ben Brown, Jarrad Waite and co playing from quite deep. The midfielders would either happily go as long as possible, or take shots from distances they’d never normally consider. Sometimes both!
Normally for windy games at Blundstone Arena, it’d be North with the institutional knowledge of how to exploit conditions.
So many times their opponents looked lost as they were forced to figure things out on the fly, wasting valuable minutes in the process. Before they knew it, a quarter with the wind had gone, or a quarter against the wind had yielded too many goals North’s way.
The script flipped on Saturday. It was Hawthorn, with stability under Sam Mitchell and a consistent system, able to exploit North’s rawness under a second-game interim coach.
(If there’s a Hawthorn equivalent of this blog, they should be shouting from the rooftops about Mitchell’s coaching. In my book he’s in the running for coach of the year alongside Justin Longmuir and Craig McRae.)
To counter the wind, North’s first layer in their defensive setup had to be very high and tight, while the second one had to be deep. As foreign as it seems normally to leave such a gap in between, that’s how it works in Hobart.
For the first goal, Aaron Hall had the temporary responsibility for Tom Mitchell in transition. He was content to drop off into the half-space, a tactic which would be serviceable elsewhere. But that drop off, combined with the turnover moments prior, allowed Mitchell the time to pick out Jack Gunston.
Here Hall should have pressed up on Mitchell earlier, delaying the disposal and allowing time for teammates to enter proceedings.
For those who have missed any posts or podcast appearances over the last week, here’s where to catch up:
Friday 22nd: What To Watch For: Round 19
Tuesday 19th: The Hashtag Kangaroos Podcast
Monday 18th: Round 18’s Notebook: Possession games, stoppage defence, and quick hits
Sunday 17th: North’s Round 18 Review (of a win!)
Friday 15th: What To Watch For: Round 18
Part of the challenge in defending is quickly identifying when opponents want to take territory, and setting up to repel it.
For Hawthorn’s second goal, a messy coast-to-coast scrum from a kick-in, North were too slow to spot a long kick coming.
Again if you cast your mind back a few years, so often one of the secondary tall defenders or interceptors would recognise the threat and be in the right position to quell the threat.
It’s simply a lack of experience in how to play conditions. Instead of Hardwick’s kick either being marked or punched back towards 50, it gets over the back and Hawthorn are able to run it to the line.
The third goal, again, comes from not reading the conditions. When defending against a team hellbent on going as long as possible with wind, it’s important to play on the back shoulder. But here it’s Gunston who takes that position and edges Aiden Bonar out.
It’s the act which kickstarts the passage that leads to Jai Newcombe’s goal. In regulation conditions, Bonar was absolutely doing the right thing. In Blundstone Arena conditions, not so much.
For the passage which led to Hawthorn’s sixth goal, here’s Horne-Francis getting a leg to the face while in possession but the umpire ignoring it:
No there wasn’t any structural error from North there, just thought it warranted mentioning.
Flash forward a few minutes to Hawthorn’s seventh goal, and again you see a player caught in no-man’s land.
The frustrating part here is I can’t be definitive in saying whether Horne-Francis should have been higher up or deeper, because the preceding 10 seconds consist of extreme close ups. Either way, as already explained, caught in the middle is the last place you want to be.
As a consequence, Finn Maginness is able to bypass the extra Roo and go straight to a one-on-one.
Adjustments were made after quarter time, which should undoubtedly be viewed as a positive in my opinion. So many times this year we’ve seen the same setups tried again and again even when it was clear they had no chance of success.
Hawthorn still got their inside 50 entries – 51 in the final three quarters – but they were under better pressure. On another day that would have helped make the score look a little more respectable. But on this day the Hawks kept slotting goals from all angles and distances.
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– Ben McKay took another eight intercept marks and had Mitch Lewis in his pocket, to the extent Hawthorn deployed Lewis in a decoy role after half time.
Of course, Hawthorn were able to do that because they had Jack Gunston running amok. But if you look into the future it’s easy to see a time where the second key defender position is upgraded, North roll into games confident with their individual matchups, and opponents don’t have this type of luxury.
As discussed on here at various stages this year, Aidan Corr clearly works better as a third, which leaves a big gap. In a fantasy land, that player becomes Griffin Logue but that’s a discussion for another time.
– Lachie Young continues to grow. I’ll happily put my hand up and admit that at the start of the season I had Young earmarked as a fringe player at best, one who would struggle to find a spot in the best 22.
But, backed by regular games, Young’s been a solid presence and a serviceable addition to the defensive unit. He’s now more than deserving of a spot on the list for 2023.
At the start of the year, Young wouldn’t have had the confidence in his game to run like this and provide an option. It’s a sign of his growth.
– The importance of on-field leaders will be demonstrated in how they nurture Jason Horne-Francis. He was on the end of some baffling decisions; ones where it’s really easy for an inexperienced teenager to drop the head in response.
For example, according to commentary this free kick was allegedly given away for ‘handing the ball back too firmly’. Watch the tape and decide for yourself whether that’s appropriate:
That’s where it’s important for the leaders to get around Horne-Francis, acknowledge it was a terrible decision but there’s nothing that can be done about it now.
23, 24, 25-year-old footballers can understand and compartmentalise the situation. Short tempered 19-year-olds – and 90 percent of people on social media – need help to do the same.
– Although the result was a foregone conclusion by the time it happened, I liked the lateral thinking to push Jy Simpkin to a wing in response to his tag.
As other midfielders develop and North have more options to find the best in-game midfield combination, moves like this will have to be at the forefront of their mind.
Looking ahead to next week against Essendon, the Bombers have rolled with a defensive midfielder – albeit not a tag as such – the last fortnight. There could be attention coming either Simpkin or Luke Davies-Uniacke’s way.