Unfortunately it’s time to reconsider those Grand Final tickets.
Perhaps fittingly given all the build-up leading into Saturday’s match, it was a coaching and setup move from Hawthorn which dictated tempo in Launceston.
It was a case study in what happens when one team flips the script. No matter how much preparation the other team has done in the lead up, it’s all for nothing. The game boils down to how quickly the latter can adjust to the former.
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There are a handful of new features to enjoy, plus a refresh of some favourites, and simplified tiers. Here’s the link to the Patreon page.
First, some background to understand why the theme of Saturday’s match was so surprising. Under Sam Mitchell, Hawthorn have repeatedly looked to move the ball quickly in all phases of play.
That’s how the Hawks won games last year – think of the nine goals from defensive half against Port Adelaide in Round 2, or the way they stuck 117 points on Brisbane in Round 10 as two examples.
Because of that, we knew two things:
- They weren’t an overly high uncontested mark team
- They weren’t an overly high kicking team
However, those two areas were exactly what Hawthorn focused on against North Melbourne. A comparison:
Hawthorn’s most uncontested marks in a game under Sam Mitchell
132: Round 3, 2023 v North Melbourne
115: Round 1, 2023 v Essendon
114: Round 23, 2022 v Western Bulldogs
96: Round 7, 2022 v Melbourne
94: Round 3, 2022 v Carlton
Hawthorn’s kick to handball ratio under Sam Mitchell
1.48: 2022 season
1.85: Round 3, 2023 v North Melbourne
The uncontested mark number should be self-explanatory, but perhaps the kick to handball stat needs some extra context.
In 2022, Hawthorn’s 1.48 ranked right in the middle of the competition. However, Saturday’s 1.85 would have ranked second last year if maintained over the course of a season.
So in one stat Hawthorn go from mid table to right near the top, and in another they post a Mitchell-era high: by a distance. There was next to no sign it was coming either. For all intents and purposes, it was a completely different Hawks side.
That affected the way North defended, which we’ll get into in the next section. In addition though, the late withdrawal of Luke Davies-Uniacke meant they were without their two best midfielders; Jy Simpkin already missing through suspension.
Since Davies-Uniacke became a best 22 regular halfway through 2020, Saturday was the first game where he and Simpkin were both unavailable.
While there was a handy development benefit from it – Will Phillips having a full game on-ball and a career-high 17 centre bounce attendances – in the short-term it took away North’s greatest strength, and what fuelled the West Australian sweep against West Coast in Round 1 and Fremantle in Round 2.
These areas were where the game was decided. Now to illustrate.
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.
Think back to North’s win over Fremantle, and how I detailed the defence coming higher up the field, keeping the Dockers playing largely in straight lines and a confined space.
Flash forward to Launceston, and Hawthorn’s ability to control the ball – and just as importantly, use width – thwarted North’s strengths.
At a base level think of the left side as Fremantle, and the right side as Hawthorn:
North clearly did all their preparation expecting a Hawthorn side similar to exposed form from the first two rounds.
Then, suddenly, they were confronted by a team willing to kick more, control tempo, move from side to side, and overall be levels more patient than before.
In the first half, Hawthorn had possession* for roughly five more minutes of play, or about 10 percent more than North. It’s a huge difference, and because of that it’s easy to conclude that there was a ‘lack of effort’. Yes, I’ve read some of the chatter.
(*Note: I calculated this by taking screenshots of the stat in the AFL app at quarter time and half time, then using those numbers against the length of each quarter. It may be a few seconds off, which is why I’ve said roughly five minutes instead of exactly five minutes)
It’s simply not true. There’s a significant difference between lack of effort, rather than the actual answer of being caught out by an opponent’s style shift. North were left chasing shadows because of the latter, and when a team is constantly second to the ball the lazy conclusion is lack of effort. It’s way off in this case.
When a team – in this case, North – spends all week preparing for one thing and is suddenly hit with something completely different, it takes time to adjust – and until they do, the other team – in this case, Hawthorn – get their benefit in open play.
The Hawks got most of their reward for effort in the first half after turnovers (5.3 of their 8.4), feasting on North’s mistakes, moving before the defence could set.
It’s where the game broke open before half time. From stoppages, teams have time to set their defence and react to what they see (some days better than others, but I digress). From turnovers, teams must snap their defence into place immediately. If not, they concede a scoring shot.
Add Hawthorn’s control in with North taking time to adjust, and it’s a surprise they were only ahead by 25 points at half time.
If you’ve missed any recent posts on The Shinboner, you can catch up on the last five here:
Fortnightly Focus: Bobby Hill, Noah Balta, Will Setterfield
From The Notebook, Round 2: Geelong, Gawn, and what’s next
Round 2: North Melbourne’s match analysis v Fremantle
Round 1: North Melbourne Player Focus v West Coast
From The Notebook, Round 1: Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, and Rossball
But what is half time for, if not tactical tweaks?
North made changes at half time, mainly predicated around stopping Hawthorn transitioning out of defensive 50 so easily. The entries had been there in the first half, but with no sustained pressure behind it due to the Hawks’ control.
While the third term improvements didn’t exactly bring North’s defence to a perfect level, there was enough improvement to create a sustained territory advantage for the first time in the game.
North pushed their defence higher – and wider – which prevented Hawthorn’s easy outlets of the first half. It’s a taxing way to defend, particularly when there still wasn’t a heap of impetus coming from the midfield, but for a quarter it worked.
During this period North had 13 of 18 inside 50s and all three goals for the term came from turnover, two of which started in the attacking midfield zone we discussed last week.
In a new record, I’ve managed to get to Round 3 without bringing the topic up, but there can’t be any clips illustrating how it worked full ground because ultra-zoom directing choices were in action again.
At three quarter time the margin was 12 points, but although it briefly narrowed to three in the last quarter – after a Cam Zurhaar special – it would have been an almighty heist if they had hit the front and stole a win.
The reason: After battling manfully for three quarters, an undermanned midfield hit empty on their gas tank. Or maybe electric charge is the correct phrase to use in 2023, I don’t know.
Regardless, the clearance count was a whopping 15-2 Hawthorn’s way in the final term. In turn, that meant they had a +12 edge in contested ball and a +14 edge in inside 50s.
Forced to transition from their defensive 50 time and time again, North held up admirably in the first half of the term – it was the only reason they were still in the game.
But ultimately it was a case of weight of numbers winning out. Hawthorn kicked 2.9 for the term, goals from Brockman and Moore putting the result out of doubt.
The return of Davies-Uniacke and Simpkin for Good Friday should rectify the midfield issues, albeit facing much stronger opposition than Saturday.
And looking at VFL level, the form of several players is promising. With a minuscule injury list, it’s not too far away from pressure for multiple positions. Maybe Good Friday is a week too soon for one player in particular, but, fitness pending, a George Wardlaw debut isn’t far away…