2022 Finals Dossier: Geelong Cats

After a one-year break, Finals Dossiers return for 2022. With one piece for each of the top four teams, the aim is to provide a comprehensive analysis of how a team plays and cover all angles. First up, the minor premiers.

Heading into 2022, it felt like the general vibe on Geelong was ‘still a finals side, not a premiership threat’.

Not anymore.

Riding into September on the back of a 13-game winning streak and two games clear on top, the Cats are well-deserved premiership favourites and the number one seed.

In previous years there’d always be a sense something was missing from Geelong’s output, something stopping them from the ultimate salute.

Subtle adjustments in 2022 have the Cats in their best position yet to bring home a flag and reverse the last decade of finals frustration. This is how they’ve done it.


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What statistics tell us about Geelong’s style

The key stat here – and it’ll be a common theme throughout the finals dossiers – is defending after turnovers.

In previous years Geelong’s ability to concede low scores was underpinned by their use of possession as a defensive measure. A large uncontested possession differential meant sides couldn’t get their hands on the ball enough to threaten the scoreboard.

Where it fell down was in September against the best of the best, when opponents brought their A-game and ramped up the pressure, not allowing Geelong to control tempo as easily.

This year Geelong have found a better balance between possession to attack, and possession to defend:

Geelong’s uncontested possession differential (H&A season)

2020: +607, 1st in the league (17 games)
2021: +1103, 1st in the league
2022: +159, 8th in the league

By attacking more – with improved personnel – it’s allowed the defensive setup, still as resolute as ever, to work from a more aggressive position.

It’s not as if Geelong suddenly transformed from tortoise to hare. But what they have done is found a middle ground between both, assisted by a handful of improvements to their best 22.

As a result they have a method with a greater chance of standing up under finals pressure.

How have Geelong improved in 2022?

From Geelong’s 2021 list changes, there was only one key departure from their best 22: Lachie Henderson.

In Henderson’s 21 games, he played 100 percent game time in 18 and more than 90 in the other three. As an ever-present in the Cats’ backline, it would have been understandable if finding his replacement took time.

‘Time’ turned out to be about two weeks. After a concussion cut short Sam De Koning’s season opener, he returned in Round 3 and never looked back. Labelled by Chris Scott as the ‘overnight success that took three years’, De Koning settled into Geelong’s backline so quickly he’s now an upgrade over Henderson’s 2021.

The second key has been a fit and firing Jeremy Cameron. Up until a week ago, anyway.

Cameron struggled to hit any consistent heights in 2021, hamstrung repeatedly and only playing 15 out of 25 games.

With no soft tissue injuries this year (again, up until a week ago), Cameron has played ~750 more minutes in 2022 and the difference in output has been noticeable.

Consistency in the Cameron-Hawkins partnership has allowed the pair to hit the scoreboard more and play their role in scoring chains:

Average per gameScore involvements: 2021Score involvements: 2022Scoring shots: 2021Scoring shots: 2022

Of course, it helps Cameron and Hawkins when an addition next to them has slotted in seamlessly.

Tyson Stengle has become the genuine ground level threat Geelong sorely missed over the last couple of years.

His presence has fixed one of Geelong’s main holes of 2020 and 2021, when no Cats small forward averaged more than a goal a game.

Stengle has immediately come in and averaged more than two a game, kicking 46 in 22 appearances.

It feels like Stengle’s season has been slightly under-recognised. Although no-one has ever questioned his talent, to go from a season out of the league – and only 16 games in the previous four, across two clubs – to a mainstay in 2022’s best team is a remarkable leap.

To echo an earlier point about Geelong’s game style, having Stengle’s presence underneath Hawkins and Cameron makes for a more sustainable method under pressure compared to the ‘forward by committee’ approach at ground level in previous years.

It would also be remiss not to mention all of Hawkins, Zach Tuohy, Isaac Smith and Joel Selwood staying at a high level. As four of Geelong’s oldest five players, it would have been understandable to see an age-related slippage. Instead they’ve continued as mainstays – with the benefit of more Mitch Duncan availability until the last fortnight – and it’s allowed incremental improvements around them.

Tom Atkins has excelled with more midfield time and Max Holmes has continued to develop strongly, the two countering Sam Menegola’s injury-interrupted campaign.

Consistently using Mark Blicavs as the second ruck/utility has clearly been an improvement on Esava Ratugolea’s output last year. Zach Guthrie has taken another step forward, as has Brad Close. All combined, it makes for a powerful potion.

The game where balance was found

This scene, after Geelong’s Round 8 win over GWS, said it all:

In the first seven rounds, there were understandable teething problems in Geelong’s quest for more aggression in their play.

Sometimes it worked all day – Round 1 v Essendon. Other times it didn’t work – Round 2 v Sydney. It could fluctuate wildly in the same game – Round 3 v Collingwood.

For the increased offence that it appeared to be bringing, the end result was also a side tracking to be mid-table defensively. Naturally that wasn’t good enough, so the game against the Giants was a course correction.

In scaling the aggressiveness back slightly, Geelong found a better balance in their all-around game.

They were still moving the ball in a better way than 2021, but by not going flat chat it allowed their defence more time to get set in dangerous positions.

Finding the best of both worlds proved to be the spark that lit Geelong’s season:

First 7 RoundsNext 16 Rounds
Geelong’s AFL rank in 2022Points ForPoints AgainstPoints ForPoints Against
Scores from stoppages7th12th7th5th
Scores from turnovers5th7th2nd1st
Scores from defensive half2nd10th1st1st
Scores from forward half3rd9th4th1st

We’ll probably never know exactly what Chris Scott was saying in that post-match message, but if I had to guess it was congratulations on a shift well done.

How Geelong beat you

There are the obvious, surface-level takeaways: two quality key forwards supported by an equally good small, and an elite defensive system honed over many years.

Let’s delve under the surface to find something more substantial.

When looking at the table in the previous section, we can see Geelong are solid in every area.

By both punishing opposition turnovers and limiting damage after their own, Geelong basically enter each game with a head start. They have the fewest turnovers and the fewest points conceded from turnovers.

It may sound self-explanatory for one to lead to the other, but a look around the league reveals the two don’t always match up. For instance, Essendon had the second fewest turnovers this year but conceded the third most points from them.

Since the Cats’ bye, they’ve come out on top of the turnover battle in every single game. Sydney are the only side who have come close to matching their output.

The extra string to Geelong’s ball use bow has allowed them to be the best side in the league at scoring from their back half – in quantity and efficiency, a rare double. It’s not necessarily a make-or-break tool, but nonetheless a valuable one to have against teams hellbent on locking it in their forward half.

Add it all together:

  • Elite key forwards
  • Elite small forward
  • Elite defensive system
  • The extra layer of ball use in 2022

No wonder they’re riding a 13-game winning streak.

How you beat Geelong

Not to give everyone whiplash after singing Geelong’s praises for 1500 words, but there is a question mark.

I’ve raved about the forward group, the defensive group, and sustainable game style adjustments. The one part I haven’t talked about much is the midfield.

It’s not to say Geelong’s midfield is a significant weakness; far from it. If anything, it’s nitpicking slightly and falling back on criticisms from prior years given the rude health they enter September with.

However, if we’re comparing midfield rotations to Melbourne and Sydney (the clear top three teams in my book) on a pure head-to-head basis, Geelong are my third pick:

Naturally this doesn’t consider all the intangibles which come with team system, conditions and form.

In Round 17 it was Geelong’s midfield which dismantled Melbourne’s in a beatdown at GMHBA Stadium. It was a clearance edge of +18 and scores from stoppages edge of +25; the latter Melbourne’s biggest single-game defeat of the year.

But, as we know, finals at the MCG are a different beast where the best players play the most minutes.

Geelong have made so many improvements in 2022. The ball use has gone up a notch, no longer falling into the possession for possession’s sake trap of previous years.

A fit Cameron and the addition of Stengle has meant a well-rounded forward unit, no longer falling into the ‘Hawkins or bust’ route to a winning score.

The defence … well the defence has always been great. No change there.

It’s not as if there are a heap of data points to investigate weaknesses. Over the last eight weeks, Geelong have lost a grand total of five quarters, and only three by double figures.

Two of those three are notable because they came due to opposing midfields with a convincing spell of dominance.

In Round 20, the Bulldogs jumped Geelong and actually led 26-0 at one point. It came from a dominance at clearance (11-4 during time-on of Q1) and contested possession (+14 at the same period) before the Cats got back on top and flexed their muscle.

A week earlier, it was a Port Adelaide blitz during the third term, kicking eight goals to one at Adelaide Oval. Of those eight goals, six came from stoppages.

When the Power and Bulldogs got on top through the midfield, it wasn’t through anything overly intricate. Taking territory with speed stopped Geelong’s defence from setting up behind the ball, and allowed forwards more opportunities for one-on-one contests.

It’s not reinventing the wheel, and it’s much easier said than done, but it does offer a glimpse into how teams can beat Geelong.

It is verging on nitpicking, but given the Cats’ dominance this year, that appears to be the only option available to analyse.

The only box left for Geelong to tick off is their midfield rising over challengers in September. And the journey all starts next Saturday v Collingwood at the MCG.

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