Welcome to Look Back/Look Ahead, a series where every team is analysed in-depth, and their temperature taken. The plan here is to figure out where a team is at with their on-field style and overall list health before transitioning to their most pressing issue, and whether they can solve it over the off-season.
Finding a spot to start for beaten Grand Finalists is always a little tricky.
Naturally a lot went right to get to the last Saturday in September, but then there’s always a tendency to immediately place an outsized weight on one defeat.
Sometimes it can be justified too, if the match highlights a glaring weakness in the losing outfit. But for Sydney, it felt like they ran into a juggernaut on the day, with only minor issues to work on over the off-season.
Into the home stretch for the Look Back/Look Ahead series. Just one more post to come, finishing with the premiers on Thursday.
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As repeated ad nauseum throughout the season, Sydney are a young side by any measure. In comparison to those around them in the top four, they’re pre-schoolers.
To repeat a section from their Finals Dossier:
In Sydney’s best 22 at the moment:
– Two 20-year-olds (Errol Gulden, Logan McDonald) (suddenly I feel like it’s my fault McDonald was dropped for the Grand Final. My apologies to Logan if he’s reading this)
– 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 nearly the rest of the decade.
In adding Sydney’s list demographic to their split of minutes played by age, the picture becomes even clearer:
Sydney’s age 19 year crop – four National Draft selections and a 2022 mid-season pick – are relatively untried, with only one game from each of Sheldrick and Roberts this year.
As they continue to develop, they’ll (likely) be joined by a further two late first-round selections in this year’s draft, allowing Sydney to future proof against upcoming retirements in key positions. It’s a well-placed, and well stocked list.
Posts continue to come thick and fast. If you’ve missed anything recently, here are links to catch up:
Sunday 25th: 2022 Grand Final: A stoppage domination
Friday 23rd: Look Back/Ahead: Collingwood
Wednesday 21st: Look Back/Ahead: Brisbane
Tuesday 20th: Look Back/Ahead: Fremantle
Monday 19th: Look Back/Ahead: Melbourne
You’d expect the remaining out of contract players to be wrapped up relatively simply, either on short or medium term deals before the unlucky handful who are delisted.
At most other clubs, the external view of Will Gould would be approaching draft bust after three seasons and no AFL debut.
But this is Sydney and they’ve earned everyone’s trust; it feels like there’s a general acceptance Gould will eventually turn into a useful contributor.
The benefit of the doubt always goes to the well-run organisation.
2023’s big ticket item is Tom Papley. It feels like an eternity ago when he was apparently on the way to Carlton, and next year there’s the added shadow of free agency to complicate matters.
Given the family matters which prompted the initial trade request haven’t made the news since, it seems like Papley is settled and happy in Sydney and not agitating for a move again.
Elsewhere, the under-the-radar player for other teams to target may be Dylan Stephens if he continues his form from the second half of 2022.
Ultimately though, to echo the takeaway from the list demographic section, it’s a well-organised list.
With free agency and trades just a few days away, a reminder that the plan is to have a post for every move that involves a player.
As it stands, the plan is to post each day’s pieces at 7pm EST. First access goes to $7.50 & $10 Patrons for 24 hours from publishing and after that they’re free for all.
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Does a Grand Final loss change things for Sydney?
The track record of teams the year after a heavy Grand Final loss is sub-optimal, to say the least.
Of the 10 teams to lose a decider by more than 40 points this century, only one has finished in the top four the next year – and that was Sydney in 2015, who were promptly bundled out in straight sets.
None of those teams had the upward trajectory of Sydney though, and none had the same level of natural improvement in their list, not to mention the two minor flaws that should be fixed by the time 2023 rolls around.
First of those is the stoppage defence, which was much improved in the second half of 2022 but did have a handful of lapses. Aside from the obvious (Grand Final), North Melbourne were able to score 56 points from clearances in Round 21, and Essendon 50 points in Round 16.
It’s not breaking news to say, ‘defence struggles if midfield concedes clean clearance’, because every team is in the same boat. But the difference between a very good and premiership team is that the latter doesn’t often concede a clean clearance.
Of Geelong’s 33 clearances on Grand Final day, they retained possession from 32 of them. It’s a wild number.
The second point – which is more me jumping the gun than an actual issue right now – is ensuring the ball use doesn’t drop on the wrong side of a line between aggressive and defensive.
After their mid-season win over Fremantle, Sydney found a nice balance in their ball use, but in the preliminary final they shifted into conservative mode way too early and almost paid the ultimate price.
I’d imagine that was only a one-off and Sydney learn their lesson from it, but early in 2023 it’ll definitely be something to watch for. There’s a fine line between successful regular season ball movement and successful finals ball movement. Geelong can attest to that.