It was the corresponding match last year when I first started thinking things were beyond repair.
The post-match analysis was philosophical and a little existential, setting a tone for the following two months as things travelled further and further downhill.
So as North Melbourne prepared to face a Fremantle side coming off one of their most disappointing performances under Justin Longmuir, I couldn’t help but think back to last year’s belting and pondered what story Saturday night would tell.
What we saw was a performance drilled and executed to near perfection for a team at North’s current level; so drastically different to 2022 you’d have a tough time convincing someone new to AFL this was actually the same team.
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Regular readers of the Notebook will know Fremantle is a team I regularly check in on. Their progress is intriguing to follow, with a talented list but attempting to add extra offensive layers to their game.
In Round 1, it went … poorly, to say the least. Ball movement was sub-par and a response was expected. Freo went from four marking forwards to three by dropping Josh Treacy, and Nat Fyfe’s late withdrawal meant Jye Amiss came in for his fourth career game.
So there was considerable change in the forward half, which meant the Dockers were vulnerable to a lack of connection between their lines – and this is where the first significant difference between North 2023 and North 2022 came into play.
North 2022 defended deep, sat back, and invited pressure. North 2023 comes up at the ball, attempts to force turnovers and stifle ball movement further up the field.
In the first quarter on Saturday night, when North established a lead it never gave up, Fremantle had nine rebound 50s. Of those nine (please note, manual tracking so my definition might be slightly different to Champion Data):
– Only one became a Dockers inside 50
– They only retained possession from three
– The other six were turnovers
Forcing six turnovers out of nine attempts is an enormous result for any team, let alone North and where they’re building from.
This specific example is from the second quarter but it’s the easiest one to use to illustrate what I’m talking about, so roll with me for a second.
From the stoppage on North’s 50, it looks like Fremantle are out in space. But the point of defending high is to create turnovers in dangerous areas. To do that you have to do your role and trust teammates to push up behind and fill the gaps.
In this case it’s that man Harry Sheezel – but every defender had their turn with this all night – who comes up to intercept the handball and keep it locked in forward 50.
It’s risky, it’s not always clean, but it’s also how to defend – especially against a team who are struggling with their own ball movement. It’s all about holding the game up as close to goal as possible.
Another example from a team perspective came later in the second quarter. Fremantle gain possession right on defensive 50 and they have a wave of numbers that they can theoretically use to sweep forward.
But again, watch how North – thanks to a useful wide angle – form a line and force Fremantle into a series of possessions which are far from damaging.
This was all non-existent in 2022. While it’s a long (long) way from the finished article in 2023, it’s already evident how a functioning defence keeps you in a game.
A higher set defence was one part of keeping the game at North’s tempo and not allowing Fremantle any freebies to work their way into it.
Another part was how the midfield battle unfolded.
One of the new features on here in 2023 is 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.
Given Fremantle’s struggles with ball movement, the easiest way for them to gain territory loomed as stoppage wins.
And at times, it appeared Andrew Brayshaw would do that single-handedly. Although there were other Dockers who had more than his 28 possessions (Serong 31, Ryan 30, Aish 30), and either the same or more than his four clearances (Brodie 5, Serong 4, O’Meara 4), everything Brayshaw did was impactful with and without the ball.
But for as good as his game was (personally I’d give him two Brownlow votes), it was still a step below the best on ground.
The midfield battle was dictated by Luke Davies-Uniacke, continuing his ascent towards the very top tier of the AFL:
– 30 disposals (17 contested, no-one else more than 10)
– 11 clearances (no-one else more than six)
– 638 metres gained
– 6 tackles
– 6 score involvements
– 4 inside 50s
With Jy Simpkin (10 inside 50s, 25 disposals), Cam Zurhaar (career-high 26 disposals, career-high 10 centre bounce attendances) and Ben Cunnington (6 clearances, 24 disposals) all playing supporting roles, it added up to a whopping 45-30 clearance edge. The quarter-by-quarter breakdown:
Q1: North Melbourne 11-9 Fremantle
Q2: North Melbourne 9-3 Fremantle
Q3: North Melbourne 11-10 Fremantle
Q4: North Melbourne 14-8 Fremantle
For North, they didn’t all have to be clean breakaways from stoppage. It was all about gaining territory and stopping Fremantle’s easiest way into their forward half.
In isolation, Fremantle actually kicked* four goals from their 30 clearances compared to North’s three from 45. But put it in context with the defence mentioned earlier on and it tells a more rounded story. North were able to use their clearances to progress up the field, then push in behind it and create turnovers in dangerous position.
(*again, manual tracking on the scores so it may be slightly out)
Of North’s 11 goals on the night, six started from their ‘attacking midfield’ per the AFL Match Centre. The zones are as detailed below:
That’s a direct consequence of winning the clearance battle so handily. The ball gets into the forward half and pressure is placed on the opposition defence. Especially given Fremantle’s struggles moving the ball, there were plenty of chances to hit the scoreboard.
But even with the clearance advantage and defence doing its work, that still left one more element to North’s win. And that was their own ball movement, particularly in the defensive half of the ground.
If you missed any of Round 1’s posts on The Shinboner, you can catch up here:
A constant of Fremantle under Justin Longmuir has been excellent defence. On face value, it appeared the same again on Saturday night given North only managed 11.7.
But the scoreboard doesn’t tell the true story, particularly in the first half as North controlled tempo. The Dockers’ zone, usually on a string from start to finish, was uncharacteristically soft.
It left more room than normal for North to get out of their back 50 and alleviate pressure. From the outset it was clear they had been drilled to maintain possession significantly more than Round 1 against West Coast. 68 uncontested marks against the Eagles increased to 90 against the Dockers.
Watching a team chip it around doesn’t make for the most exciting video highlights, so I’ll refrain from that. But what I did want to highlight is its effectiveness against a Freo side which either wasn’t prepared for it, wasn’t switched on, or couldn’t handle it depending on how you approach it.
In the first half, none* of North’s rebound 50s bounced back over their head for a Fremantle goal. Zero.
(*you know the drill by now, manual tracking)
It’s an underutilised stat (mainly because it’s not public so I have to figure it out myself) because it shows the sides who can;
a) Move the ball safely out of their back half
b) Effectively keep it trapped in their forward half
For the record North couldn’t do a) or b) last year, but in continuously finding the soft spots in Fremantle’s zone defence out west, they were able to safely reset time and time again.
At least … until the last five minutes.
At this point I thought it was game over and started letting my mind wander. A few minutes later I thought that had brought about a jinx.
In all seriousness though, the goal basically flicked a switch in Fremantle. They abandoned all pretence of system and went forward at a million miles an hour, catching North off guard.
North were slow to react and shift into game saving mode until it was almost too late. It was only desperate defence from Sheezel…
…and half a second’s difference between the siren and an insufficient intent call stopping Fremantle from pinching two or four points.
Depending on how you look at it, there are two ways to take the last five minutes. Frustration at North almost letting it slip is understandable, but personally I subscribe to the theory that it’s the first time this group has experienced that set of circumstances.
I’d be staggered if the next close game is handled in a fashion even remotely close to what we saw on Saturday night at Optus Stadium. To use that well worn cliché, there’ll be more than enough ‘learnings’ to ensure a much different approach from North in their next crunch time game.
Until then, compare Round 8, 2022 to Round 2, 2023 and marvel at how different a North Melbourne side this is.