2022 Finals Dossier: Collingwood Magpies

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. We finish with the shock of the season, Collingwood.

The story of the season has been Collingwood’s improbable run to a double chance.

There are hundreds of stats and numbers that can be used to illustrate their wild ride, but my favourite is this:

Since Round 13, Collingwood have won eight of nine matches. In that time their percentage has gone … down.

This Finals Dossier will be structured a little differently to the other three. While Geelong, Melbourne and Sydney all followed similar beats in terms of strengths, weaknesses, how they beat you and how you beat them, this piece wraps those trends into one overarching theme…

How did Collingwood keep winning so many close games on route to finishing top four?

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What statistics tell us about Collingwood’s style

Let’s be honest when it comes to Collingwood: overall statistics don’t tell the story. These numbers usually suit the profile of a fringe finals team, instead of one with 16 wins.

Instead of big picture numbers, the plan here is to break everything down into smaller increments.

Collingwood’s games are prone to greater swings than their top-four counterparts:

Round 15-23Quarters won by >10 pointsQuarters lost by >10 points
Collingwood1110
Geelong194
Melbourne126
Sydney174

Digging deeper into those swings will unlock the reasons for Collingwood’s season.

How teams get on top of Collingwood

It all starts around the ball. When Collingwood’s pressure isn’t right on top of their game, opponents find plenty of success and it leads to some staggering contested possession differentials.

For the year, Collingwood rank 17th in that stat. There’s a direct line between their worst periods and a pummelling in this area. Some examples:

CollingwoodContested DifferentialScoreboard
Q3 v Carlton, R23-23-43 points
Q2+3 v Essendon, R19-27-51 points
Q2 v North Melbourne, R17-10-20 points
Q1+2 v Melbourne, R21-25-15 points

Collingwood’s on-ball rotations differ slightly to other teams. Since the bye, Scott Pendlebury has been just about the only consistent presence in there, with a Jordan De Goey/Taylor Adams combination as the second given they’ve rarely been available at the same time.

Jack Crisp spends his fair share of time in the midfield but is also deployed elsewhere, and the rest are second-string rotations rolling through for spot minutes: Josh Daicos, Patrick Lipinski, Jamie Elliott and even Brayden Maynard making an unlikely appearance in Round 23.

It’s not the settled rotations we see at Geelong, Melbourne and Sydney, which makes it understandable why opponents have success in this area.

How Collingwood stick around

In the above table, the last column showed Melbourne with a +25 contested differential edge, but only a 15-point advantage on the scoreboard.

The first half was a window into how Collingwood stay in games when outmatched in general play. There are two avenues:

The defensive unit

After an injury-interrupted first few years, Nathan Murphy’s inclusion as a third tall has helped round out Collingwood’s defence.

Murphy, playing alongside Darcy Moore and Jeremy Howe, with Brayden Maynard and Isaac Quaynor on the mid-sized and smaller types, form a daunting quintet.

All five are in the AFL’s top 35 for most intercept possessions per game. No other team has more than three.

Collingwood’s defendersIntercept Possessions Per GameAFL rank*
Darcy Moore7.215th
Brayden Maynard720th
Jeremy Howe6.824th
Nathan Murphy6.528th
Isaac Quaynor6.433rd
*minimum five games played

Normally when a team is dominated around the ball, it’s only a matter of time until the scoreboard reflects that.

With Collingwood and these five defenders patrolling behind the ball, they’re able to repel attacks just enough to keep their team in the game.

Then on occasions when they do have possession…

The ball movement

Every so often it’s like hopping in a time machine and heading straight to a Richmond game in 2017. Unsurprisingly given Craig McRae and Justin Leppitsch’s coaching history, Collingwood has leaned right into embracing chaos.

Collingwood’s defensive strength – forcing turnovers – works hand in hand with their offensive strength – scoring in transition.

No side has forced more turnovers this year than Collingwood. They’ve also conceded the sixth most turnovers, so their games exist in a perpetual state of openness.

Although this passage of play came during a hot spell, it’s still a great example of how Collingwood turn defence into attack at a rate of knots:

We’re left with:

1: A defensive unit which intercepts at a high rate and holds up under pressure – best in the league at scores conceded per inside 50 since this remarkable run began in Round 10.
2: Ball use which can score well from defensive half – behind only Geelong, Sydney and Richmond for total points from this source over the same Round 10-23 period.

That’s what counteracts the periods where Collingwood are under siege because of an outgunned midfield.

How Collingwood make the most of their advantage

So far we’ve covered:

– How Collingwood’s games have more swings than most
– How opponents get on top of Collingwood
– How Collingwood stays in the game during most of those moments

Which leaves us with one more topic – how Collingwood make the most of being on top. To delve into this, we’re going to highlight final quarters from the following games:

– Round 13 v Melbourne: 6.0 to 1.2 (the most conceded by Melbourne in a final term since R9, 2019)
– Round 17 v North Melbourne: 5.5 to 0.2 (26-point deficit to seven-point win)
– Round 19 v Essendon: 4.3 to 1.3 (last four goals, 21-point deficit to four-point win)
– Round 21 v Melbourne: 4.2 to 2.0 (Melbourne no inside 50s in last 6:30)

(Note: I’m leaving off the last quarter against Carlton because it was a 1-in-1000 job. -9 inside 50s, -7 contested ball, but 5.1 to 0.6. Out of the box and more because of what the Blues did rather than the opposite.)

If we investigate the reasons for this, a couple of trends emerge.

1. Teams can’t score after turnovers

In these four quarters, opponents have had 61 chances to score after Collingwood turnovers. They’ve scored a grand total of 12 points, an unheard of ratio. To put it into context:

Scoring from turnoversPoints Scored Per 100 Turnovers
v Collingwood, Q4 of R13, 17, 19 & 2119.7
2022 competition average71.3

Earlier I mentioned how when Collingwood’s pressure isn’t on, teams have a field day (or to be more accurate, quarter/half).

But when it is on, they’re instantly making up for mistakes and winning the ball right back. Soccer fans know it as ‘gegenpressing’, German for counter-press. As Jurgen Klopp explains:

“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation on where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”

To apply it in a football sense, roughly 60 percent of a team’s score comes from turnovers. By defending those well, you can wipe out the main route to joy on the scoreboard.

In these quarters, Collingwood have bypassed the ‘defending turnovers well’ step and graduated straight to ‘otherworldly’.

2. Balancing the contest

The first discovery on this journey was noting how teams found success against Collingwood by dominating contested ball.

In these successful last quarters the Pies have turned the trend around, either balancing the count or winning it handily.

CollingwoodContested DifferentialScoreboard
Q4 v Melbourne, R13-1+28 points
Q4 v North Melbourne, R17+8+33 points
Q4 v Essendon, R19+8+19 points
Q4 v Melbourne, R21+8+14 points

To combine steps one and two, naturally more turnovers are going to occur in a contested situation.

When Collingwood counter-press to create turnovers, they’re doing it in the contest and pushing forward from there.

And then when they have clean possession and can move with that rapid ball movement already highlighted, it’s a powerful one-two-three combination.

If it all clicks, teams are pinned in their defensive half and unable to move for long stretches – i.e. Melbourne in the closing stages of the Round 21 clash.

Mystery = solved. But what to make of it all?

What to make of Collingwood’s chances

It feels like a buzz kill to downplay Collingwood’s chances of a September run, not to mention coming at it from the wrong angle given how fun their season has been.

The Pies record against this year’s finalists is 3-5:

Round 3 v Geelong: 13-point defeat (after a 37-point lead)
Round 5 v Brisbane: 7-point loss (not within single figures from mid-second quarter to the last kick of the game)
Round 8 v Richmond: 27-point loss (late goals papered over the cracks)
Round 9 v Western Bulldogs: 48-point loss (never in the game)
Round 10 v Fremantle: 36-point win (an outstanding performance, their best of the season)
Round 13 v Melbourne: 26-point win (Ran over the top of them, #1)
Round 21 v Melbourne: 7-point win (Ran over the top of them, #2)
Round 22 v Sydney: 27-point loss (Swans controlled it nearly from start to finish)

Collingwood are playing with house money, and there’s the unknown of what their level looks like if they can spend longer than a quarter or two with the game on their terms.

Is that something they’re capable of finding this deep into the season?

If the matchups break right, they could face Fremantle in a semi-final and/or Melbourne in a preliminary final; the two finalists they’ve beaten this year.

Does that increase their chances?

Or, most likely, does the fairytale run end with a couple of gallant performances against favoured opposition? They’ve provided incredible value week after week; hopefully that continues for as long as they’re alive in September.

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