Round 20 v Essendon: Development, environment, and roles

Originally this was going to be a relatively straight-forward review piece, covering Essendon’s half-backs having a day out and North’s inconsistency in stopping the Bombers’ transition.

Then, as I continued writing, it took a very different path.

Instead this is all about player development, different roles and how it all comes together.

(And an apology for the delay)


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Think back to Round 11, when North Melbourne lost to St Kilda, and you’ll remember a frustrated review post detailing how North set up in a way which allowed Jack Sinclair and Brad Hill to run riot.

On the surface, there appear to be plenty of similarities between that and the loss to Essendon.

Substitute Sinclair and Hill for Mason Redman (32 disposals, 607 metres gained) and Nick Hind (24 disposals, 553 metres gained) and it’s easy to come to the same conclusion: North weren’t set up to prevent Essendon’s main threat.

Not quite.

The difference here was a sound method from North, offset by a lack of experience and personnel.

According to Leigh Adams in his post-match press conference, North created 29 turnovers in their forward half. By way of comparison, that’s more than four times as many as Round 11, when they created a grand total of … seven.

Essendon also kicked 5.2 from possession chains beginning in their defensive 50, which is magnitudes higher than St Kilda’s 0.2.

At this point, there’s a logical question: why not sit deeper and make it harder for teams to scythe through and go end-to-end?

This is the trade off a team has to make if they want to score often enough to win.

Defending deeper means forcing turnovers further away from goal, and consistently starting so far from home means relying on going coast-to-coast more often than not.

By defending higher up the ground, a team can force more turnovers in positions it’s easier to score from.

North had 51 inside 50s against Essendon – their second highest since Round 4 – and an expected score of 85, their highest since Round 2.

Of course when there’s a forward line as inexperienced as North, the natural teething problems which come with defending so high mean mistakes are punished at a higher rate.

Which is the segue into a chat about personnel and rate of development.


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

Friday 29th: What To Watch For: Round 20
Thursday 28th: A bonus Notebook: Stats & Trends
Monday 25th: Round 19’s Notebook: Dissecting *that* Collingwood kick-in
Sunday 24th: North’s Round 19 Review
Friday 22nd: What To Watch For: Round 19


Player 1: #36, 2020 National Draft, outside midfielder/high half-forward
Player 2: #42, 2020 National Draft, small forward
Player 3: #35, 2021 National Draft, small forward

On face value, you’d expect these players to be at roughly the same level given their initial selections.

In reality, Paul Curtis (#35) is already an important part of North’s best 22. Phoenix Spicer (#42) has a long way to go before he starts contributing regularly at AFL level, and Charlie Lazzaro (#36) is still searching for his best position.

The key point to make here: All the above is completely normal.

Curtis’ absence against Essendon was his first match missed since debuting in Round 6, and the hole he left was immediately noticeable.

Some players can come in and make an impact straight away, rising above … however you want to describe North in 2022 to showcase their talent.

Curtis has merited regular mentions in these posts since his debut because he’s shown plenty at ground level, and even glimpses in the air. In a tough year he’s been able to write his name in the best 22 with permanent marker.

Spicer is a different case. Sometimes fans are spoiled by seeing small forwards come in around the league and contribute immediately, forgetting the development trends of players are wildly different from case to case.

Given how raw – and small – Spicer was when first drafted, it’s unrealistic to place him on the same timeline as others in the position.

While it may seem a bit odd, it’s more instructive to compare his path to a traditional key position player. You look at those players when they first come in and think, ‘has tools, still a long way away’.

‘A long way away’ would have been an understatement when applied to Spicer at draft time. To take a line from NBA land, ‘two years away from being two years away’ was closer to the mark.

Through that lens, Spicer’s progress over the last 18 months – in a time of enormous upheaval – has been hugely promising.

This is not to say Sunday’s performance was anywhere near at the level.

Redman barely acknowledged Spicer’s existence when the two were matched up, content to roam in the knowledge he wouldn’t be punished.

Then the Roo was pushed around in the contest time after time, his lack of size and physical nous evident every time. It was hard to watch at times, Essendon ruthlessly exploiting North’s weak point.

All the above shouldn’t take away from what Spicer has done to get to this point. Contracted to the end of 2023, it’s an enormous pre-season ahead of him. An extra six months of hard work on and off-field, combined with the natural physical and footy IQ gains which come with it, has the potential to be the making or breaking of his AFL career.


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For me, Lazzaro is the most interesting of this trio because of what his journey says about the importance of environment and stability.

Right from the outset, it’s been clear Lazzaro has an AFL-standard trait with how he can cover the field.

The conundrum has been where to utilise it and how to develop it. Lazzaro has spent time as a small forward, high half-forward, on the wing, and even at half back for a brief, promising period against Geelong.

Lazzaro’s case highlights the complexities of player development. There are players like Curtis, who can come in and contribute straight away. Spicer’s role and way forward is clear, so it’s an easier road to travel when you know the focus areas.

There are so many potential positions for Lazzaro it’s tricky to determine the best way forward. It’s a player who needs more nurturing than others – not because of the individual – but because it’s easy to drift down a path of trying to be a jack of all trades but master of none. For someone of Lazzaro’s stature, that’s not a route to consistent AFL games.

Add in the constant upheaval since arriving at the club and it’s no surprise Lazzaro has drifted along since those promising early glimpses. It’s far from panic stations given he’s contracted until the end of 2024, but time passes quickly.

Nailing my flag to the mast: I’d love to see Lazzaro given tape after tape of Ed Langdon and look to pattern his game after the Dee, aiming to make a wing his own.

It’s this type of development which is going to be key for North because a look at the list shows a clear path to improvement quicker than most external observers believe.

There are important planks dotted in place around the ground playing well right now, and a handful more (not mentioned in this piece) ready to explode if given the right roles, care and nurturing.

The key for the new coach and coaching staff is to immediately identify who those players are and hit the ground running with one of the most important pre-seasons in recent memory. And to keep Leigh Adams around, because the biggest takeaway of the last three weeks has been how he’s identified game trends, positives and negatives.

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