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. Today it’s Sydney’s turn.
Only four teams hand a greater percentage of minutes to players aged 22 and under than Sydney.
Of those four teams – Adelaide (first), Gold Coast (second), North Melbourne (third) and Hawthorn (fourth) – only the Suns sniffed finals contention at any stage, and ultimately the highest finish for any of the quartet was 12th.
This is all a long-winded way of saying Sydney, with a double chance and 6-2 record against top-eight teams this year, have shot up a little earlier than expected.
Does it affect their chance of ultimate success in 2022?
Let’s dig in and find out.
During the week, Patreon subscribers will have first access to these Finals Dossiers for a longer period of time than normal to show my appreciation. Here’s the schedule:
What statistics tell us about Sydney’s style
We’ll get to Sydney’s defence in a moment, but to start it’s clear their strength lies in offensive capabilities and how they slice through teams time and time again.
For the last 18 months the Swans have consistently sat at or near the top of the league for scores per inside 50, their offensive style causing all sorts of headaches for defenders. That’ll be explained further in the ‘how Sydney beat you’ section.
The contested, grunt area of the game had naturally been a little slower to come along – as is to be expected with a young outfit.
But since Sydney’s bye they’ve turned from a middling contested group into one of the very best in the league.
|Sydney||Contested Possession Differential||AFL Rank|
|2021 H&A Season||-27||11th|
|2022, Round 1-12||-13||11th|
|2022, Round 14-23||+104||3rd|
That extra layer to Sydney’s game has allowed for a stronger foundation underneath blistering ball movement.
For the most part, Sydney’s ability to score will be there. The benefit of extra contest wins is more forward half time, in turn making it harder for opponents to score heavily.
|Sydney||Inside 50 Differential||AFL Rank|
Offence + improved contest = a more well-rounded game than 12 months ago.
How have Sydney evolved during 2022?
The unique part about Sydney’s 2022 is watching a young team play at a high level and figure individual roles out on the run.
There have been the obvious individual constants: 13 players with either 21 or 22 games to their name, and a further three as automatic selections whenever fit (Franklin 20 games, McInerney 19, Papley 16).
Then to fill out the 22 it’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of player responsibilities. In no particular order:
Ryan Clarke: Hand up in the air to admit I thought Clarke was playing out the days until his contract expired. Nearly two years between full games and plugging away in the VFL with suspect disposal: it’s not the best recipe for another deal.
Redeploying Clarke as a defensive forward has proven a masterstroke. Given his running capacity has never been under question, utilising those skills to blanket the opposition’s best back-half mover has led to a laundry list of scalps over the last couple of months.
The improved inside 50 differential over the second half of the season works hand in hand with the opposition’s inability to use their best mover to rebound.
Sam Reid: Reid’s body hasn’t been his greatest friend. Since 2011 he’s fluctuated between pristine availability (six seasons of 20+ games) and the rehab room (four seasons of 10 games or less).
It looked like 2022 was heading towards the latter category, but Reid has played every game since Round 11. It’s his longest stretch of uninterrupted games since 2019 and has had a two-fold benefit for Sydney.
With Reid as the second ruck, it’s allowed the Swans to play only one of Hickey or Ladhams (the former preferred whenever fit), and meant just one available tall forward spot – either Joel Amartey or Logan McDonald, with the latter favoured heading into finals.
Robbie Fox: Hand up in the air to admit I thought Fox was playing out the days until his contract expired. A 29-year-old half-back flanker with no senior game time in the first half of the season: it’s not the best recipe for another deal.
(Getting a little déjà vu with my words here. Anyway…)
It’s not a flashy role for Fox to carry out; not a high metres gained player on offence or always taking the most dangerous ground level forward.
But every successful side needs role players who know their limitations, play within themselves and keep team setups ticking along. Fox has filled that role with aplomb in the second half of the year.
Dylan Stephens: It’s taken a while for 2019’s pick five to cement a spot in Sydney’s side. Eight games in his debut season was followed by seven in 2021, and a long VFL stint this year.
Since earning a recall in Round 15, Stephens has made a wing his home and bolstered the outside rotations, also allowing Oliver Florent to settle in a half-back role after he started the season higher up the field.
As a domino effect with those two roles and Fox settled down back, Harry Cunningham – for so long a best 22 regular – has been pushed out of the side. After an early season injury forced him out of action, Cunningham has found no spot waiting for him on return.
The result is legitimate AFL-ready depth and competition for spots. If an injury forces a reshuffle, Cunningham is ready to go and more than capable of filling a hole.
To finish the evolution off, there’s been a midfield leap.
We saw a glimpse of extra Tom Papley midfield minutes in the last month of 2021 and after a delayed start to 2022, he picked up where he left off. Filling those second-string rotations with a player of Papley’s skill set is a tool few teams can match.
Chad Warner has graduated from promising young player to genuine A-grader, adding extra company for Callum Mills and Luke Parker.
The surprise packet has been James Rowbottom. While the defensive side of his game has always been there, in the last five weeks he’s added the ability to accumulate:
|James Rowbottom||Games of 20+ disposals|
|First 61 Games||10|
|Last 5 Games||5|
From the players on the fringe to the ones in the engine room, it’s all come together for Sydney at a rapid speed.
How Sydney beat you
The part I’ve been most keen to dig into: Sydney’s ball movement.
The foundation is their kicking. It’s not the first time I’ll say this, but comparing Sydney to the other top four teams reveals a big difference.
|2022||Kick:Handball Ratio||AFL Rank|
It’s a case of playing to the list’s strengths. With a team of smart ball users, Sydney can use their kicking to move up or down gears depending on match situation.
In the Round 18 Notebook, I explained how Sydney stayed in a low gear to push and pull Fremantle around, toying with their defence. From the time, slightly edited for clarity:
Sydney took a whopping 138 marks, their highest total of the year and the fourth most by any team in 2022. They also ignored the handball game, with 260 kicks to just 111 handballs at a ratio of 2.34.
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:
Then there’s times when Sydney recognise they can put it into fifth gear and move at speed. By picking the right field position and moment for it better than most, it’s why their full ground ball movement is the most entertaining in the league.
Sydney have won their last five games against 2022 finalists: Richmond (R11), Melbourne (R12), Western Bulldogs (R17), Fremantle (R18) and Collingwood (R22).
Because their ball use is so good, particularly out of the defensive half, it doesn’t allow opponents to play a forward half game. Consider the following:
If we break a team’s scoring chains down into two halves of the ground, we find it’s roughly three times easier to score from your forward half:
|Points Per 100 Chains||From Defensive Half||From Forward Half|
Now in those five consecutive Sydney wins against finalists, the Swans have changed the script. They’ve scored more from their defensive half than opponents from their forward half.
What it means is Sydney’s ball use allows them to score heavily and neutralise an opponent’s easiest avenue to the scoreboard.
Does it matter if Sydney are ahead of schedule?
In the intro I touched on how Sydney are a much younger team than most. If we drill deeper and (here comes the same line) compare their list to top-four counterparts down a dividing line, the difference is stark:
In Sydney’s best 22 at the moment:
– Two 20-year-olds (Errol Gulden, Logan McDonald)
– Three 21-year-olds (Chad Warner, Dylan Stephens, James Rowbottom)
– Three 22-year-olds (Justin McInerney, Nick Blakey, Tom McCartin)
More than a third of the team playing key roles, and with significant improvement still to come.
If most things go to plan with fitness and player availability, we really should see Sydney contending for close to the rest of the decade.
As it relates to 2022 though, recent premiers have had the benefit of either one deep finals run with large parts of their core before ultimate success (Melbourne 2018), a string of consecutive finals appearances (Richmond 2013-2015), or both (West Coast 2015-2017).
Before Sydney routinely terrorise teams year after year, I think it does matter they’re slightly ahead of schedule, because…
The unknown of Sydney’s finals experience
As much as this cliché drives me insane, it feels relevant in this case.
It’s not to discount the likes of Franklin, Parker and Rampe, who are experienced as they come and have seen it all before.
My point is about the core entering their first September driving a side who are a genuine contender.
The likes of Warner, Gulden, Blakey, the McCartin brothers, Rowbottom, and even Mills – they haven’t had this responsibility before.
Some players instantly rise up to the challenge, while others need a campaign to experience it and learn, but either way it’s still going to be a September where Sydney learn a lot about themselves.
Can they still go all the way? Time will tell.