The final step of North Melbourne’s preseason meant one more chance to collect intel ahead of a winnable season opener against West Coast on March 18.
It’s clear North have come a long way over the summer, even though, yes, they were starting from that same long way back.
Today there are four points I want to touch on…
In case you missed it, The Shinboner’s launch for 2023 happened last week and you can find all the details here.
There are a handful of new features to enjoy, plus a refresh of some favourites, and simplified tiers. Of course, the old faithful North Melbourne match reviews will stay the same, the morning after each game.
With Ben Cunnington returning, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jy Simpkin already established, time needed for Tom Powell and Will Phillips, a wish to get Cam Zurhaar extra on-ball minutes – and the wings largely counted for already – my biggest query of the day was how it could all be juggled.
As it turned out, even allowing for Zurhaar playing less than a half, it’s all streamlined already with the sixth forward looking to be the place where an extra midfielder will rotate.
It’s Davies-Uniacke’s midfield. Even putting aside the centre bounce attendances for a moment, when on-ball around the ground he is usually looked for first before shifting elsewhere.
After that it’s a mix of matching parts. Cunnington’s on-ball minutes probably ended up higher than expected on Saturday due to Zurhaar’s early exit. By the looks of the first quarter and a bit, the plan appeared to be roughly a 70/30 mid-forward split for Cunnington, and vice-versa for Zurhaar.
Cunnington and Zurhaar will clearly rotate directly with each other. Zurhaar’s midfield time came when Cunnington was playing forward, the four centre bounce attendances coming with a combination of Davies-Uniacke, Phillips, Simpkin, and Powell.
It makes sense too; a forward line with two talls + Cunnington + Zurhaar probably doesn’t offer enough at ground level without possession, and the latter two on-ball at the same time arguably skews the balance too far towards ball-winning, especially given Zurhaar’s relative lack of experience in that area.
In general the sixth forward looks to be where the extra midfielder will rotate. At different times we saw Simpkin, Phillips or (more often) Powell start there and move up around the ball. Of those three it was Powell who caught my eye the most, continuing on from his performance in the intra club and match sim. As a big fan since game two, it’s great to see him take a step towards a breakout year.
After that all North are left with a (non-ruck) midfield rotation of Davies-Uniacke, Cunnington, Simpkin, Phillips, Powell and Zurhaar. On the outside it looks like it’ll be Liam Shiels and Bailey Scott to start with Curtis Taylor waiting in the … wings (sorry).
Wondering where that above screenshot comes from? It’s one of the new features for Patreon subscribers in 2023: the ability to create your own positional depth chart for every club.
It’s available for those on the $5 and $10 tiers, and hopefully everyone finds the tool as useful as I do.
Filling out the back seven
The Bulldogs present a unique challenge – more on that in the next point – but even so, filling out the mid-sized and smalls in the back seven looks to be a constantly evolving challenge.
Ben McKay* and Griffin Logue are naturally #1 and #2, with Aiden Bonar seemingly owning the inside track at #3 due to Aidan Corr’s interrupted pre-season.
(*I’ve seen some slight grumblings about McKay’s pre-season performances. I wouldn’t worry about it in the slightest)
Luke McDonald will most likely continue to take the number one mid-sized or small forward, but that still leaves three more spots to fill in a back seven (teams normally selecting seven defenders in their 22).
The two I’d like to focus on are Flynn Perez and Josh Goater and the balance to strike between getting games and covering for mistakes.
For Perez and Goater it’s quite literally their first time getting regular exposure to an AFL-standard system, so the learning curve will be steep. In this early stage, every positive act is usually matched by a subtle error – the type which causes a cascading effect on the rest of the defence. There were a handful against the Bulldogs which caused breakdowns; types which weren’t visible on broadcast but could be seen at the ground if you knew what to look for.
And to be clear, that’s perfectly normal and shouldn’t be a surprise. Not everyone can be Nick Daicos straight off the bat. The query is where to find the line between valuable experience and those mistakes becoming too costly – not only for the team, but their own confidence levels.
If I had to guess, both Perez and Goater will start the season in the 22 and Aaron Hall will come back to replace one of them when match-fit. The goal for the end of 2023 should be for Perez, Goater and/or even Miller Bergman to progress to the point where – as blunt as it sounds – both Hall and Jack Ziebell aren’t best 22.
If North can get to that stage through weight of performance, it’s been a strong year of growth.
The difficulty in playing the Bulldogs
For a team at North’s level, the Bulldogs are a terrible team to be tested against.
The reason I said the Bulldogs provide a unique challenge is because it appears they’ve ramped up their 2022 style. While some people (read: me) think the best way to improve a team is by upgrading your weakest area, the Bulldogs have opted to turn the dial to 11 on their strength and live that way.
What that means is, basically, Russian Roulette football – backing their midfield talent to dominate games and overwhelm opponents.
They win the ball and are off to the races, every single time. If there’s a turnover? Oh well, we’ll leave it up to our defenders – i.e. Liam Jones – to hopefully mop up the mess. We’ll score next time. The Bulldogs will massacre some poor bottom-four teams playing this way in-season.
No other top-eight team comes close to playing this way, so it’s not as if North can test out big-picture running and structural patterns to see how they’ll work in the home and away season. For example, at half time North had 23 fewer contested possessions and 29 fewer uncontested possessions, but still managed 34 inside 50s.
Does that say more about North’s improvement or the Bulldogs’ defence? I don’t know. Is it something which portends good or bad signs for North’s season? I don’t know! By and large the conditions a bottom-half team faces in a game against the Bulldogs aren’t replicable against any other team, for better or worse.
Another new Shinboner feature in 2023 is sharing my rolling notes. In short, it’s how I start looking at trends and how thoughts evolve.
The full explanation and how it works from week to week is available exclusively for those on the $10 tier, with the next update coming mid-week.
Using the second key forward
This is more of a look ahead to Round 1 than a hard-and-fast takeaway from Saturday, but if North don’t establish Charlie Comben as a viable threat early on against West Coast, there will be big trouble all afternoon.
It was notable how often midfield eyes looked directly towards Nick Larkey going forward at Ikon Park and as a result forward entries were often too predictable, Leigh Adams highlighting how North played too straight.
To an extent it’s understandable, given the tall forward targets over the last two years have been Larkey and … Larkey again. It’ll take some time to completely unlearn that habit in the heat of battle.
But Jeremy McGovern has looked extremely good in West Coast’s two pre-season games and he’ll likely be Comben’s matchup, with Tom Barrass taking Larkey.
If North don’t use Comben early to set a tone, McGovern will have a field day sitting in front of Larkey again and again, taking intercept mark after intercept mark.
In turn that’ll open up space for Larkey and Zurhaar, ideally separating the McGovern/Barrass/Hurn trio and forcing one-on-one contests.
The setup is there from the forwards to space out the ground and have multiple options, that much has been obvious over the pre-season. Now it’s just a matter of time and reps until it all becomes second nature.