How a contested ball dominance is fuelling Collingwood’s leap forward

Parts of Collingwood’s game were excellent in 2022. Parts of Collingwood’s game were poor in 2022.

To start 2023, the excellent – ball movement, defensive unit – has stayed so. But the big swing has been the poor – contested ball – suddenly morphing into a major strength.

It’s had a flow-on effect to every part of Collingwood’s game, providing a stable foundation that they can build off.

This is what they’ve changed.


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Let’s start with a flashback to their Finals Dossier from 2022. In it, I highlighted how there was a direct line between the Pies’ worst quarters and a pummelling in contested ball…

CollingwoodContested DifferentialScoreboard
Q3 v Carlton, R23-23-43 points
Q2+3 v Essendon, R19-27-51 points
Q2 v North Melbourne, R17-10-20 points
Q1+2 v Melbourne, R21-25-15 points

…but the best quarters came from balancing or winning the count, allowing the rest of their game to get to work:

CollingwoodContested DifferentialScoreboard
Q4 v Melbourne, R13-1+28 points
Q4 v North Melbourne, R17+8+33 points
Q4 v Essendon, R19+8+19 points
Q4 v Melbourne, R21+8+14 points

It stands to reason if Collingwood improved this area of the game – while maintaining their advantage elsewhere – they’d take a step forward in 2023.

And it’s all started with a streamlined, consistent on-ball rotation. Last year, due to a combination of injuries and natural first-year tinkering from Craig McRae and his coaching staff, Collingwood never quite hit on an optimal combination.

Throughout 2022, all sorts of players had a run on-ball. But by the end of the season, it was basically three full-time on-ballers – Scott Pendlebury, Jack Crisp, and Jordan De Goey – and a close to even ruck split between Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox.

picture/stats via

Not so in 2023, with the on-ball rotation increasing from three to five. Tom Mitchell’s arrival and Taylor Adams’ health have strengthened the numbers, while the Daicos brothers have stepped in for spot minutes when required to change the flow of proceedings.

Note how none of the on-ballers are asked to play heavy minutes in the role. In fact, Pendlebury, ‘headlining’ Collingwood at 65 percent of centre bounce attendances, ranks equal 16th amongst all team leaders.

picture/stats via

So we know that there’s been a focus on improving the contested, ball-winning area of Collingwood’s game, and a streamlined on-ball rotation has helped.

That still leaves the question of how it’s translated on-field. To answer that, let’s head to the vision.


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While Mitchell’s recruitment naturally takes the headlines, it’s the team setup which stars. By simplifying (perhaps over-simplifying just a touch), we can boil it down to four areas – three tangible and one intangible. In no particular order, they are:

1. Getting a player out the front of the stoppage

‘Out the front of stoppage’ is just fancy football talk for ‘get ball, go forward’, but whichever way you look at it, it’s a key part of Collingwood’s contest strategy.

It has risk involved – if Collingwood turn it over at the source after said player gets ahead of the ball, they’re at a numerical disadvantage going the other way. But the reward is worth it.

To illustrate, let’s keep an eye on De Goey here. The minute he sees Pendlebury pick up possession, he’s off to the races.

No Richmond player can stay within arm’s reach and as a result De Goey has a simple pass to the leading Ash Johnson.

Another example manifests here with Crisp. You can see his starting position on the attacking side and then in the second after he sees Steele Sidebottom with possession, he’s found a pocket of space and hits the turbo button.

2. Keeping a player defensive side of the ball – who can also damage with disposal

This part isn’t ground-breaking by any means – all clubs try to do it – but the latter part has been key to Collingwood’s contest start in 2023.

The key here is having the player’s positioning as defensive and attacking and able to damage with disposal if they get it.

It’s a tricky balance and Collingwood haven’t been perfect with it through three rounds. But again, much like point number one, when it comes off the rewards are worth it.

It’s also where half-backs most come into play, as shown in these two examples. First, it’s Pendlebury coming up to the contest alongside Sam Powell-Pepper for a secondary stoppage.

Once the ball falls into his hands, a handball takes out four Power players. Cox has enough time to slam it inside 50 and from there Collingwood can get to work.

Or in this case it’s Brayden Maynard coming up to the defensive side of stoppage. Notice how he’s pointing for something to happen – potentially for someone else to fill the spot – before coming up to do it himself.

Although Maynard fluffs his first kick off the ground, simply by virtue of positioning he’s held up play. Then he gets involved again and can find teammates already out the front of stoppage as detailed before. It’s not champagne football in this case, but it’s effective.

3. Heavy use of the wingers

Teams use their wingers in different ways. Melbourne have the luxury of parking Ed Langdon on one for abnormally high game time as he covers ridiculous distance and maintains their structure.

Other teams are more defensive, like North Melbourne at this early stage of evolution under Alastair Clarkson. Meanwhile some find extra height to provide more aerial presence, like St Kilda with Mason Wood.

At the other end of the spectrum, it seems fair to say Collingwood’s wingers are the most attacking in the league. And why not, given the calibre of players at Craig McRae’s disposal.

In Josh Daicos and Steele Sidebottom, there are two players capable of:

a) Hurting teams with their disposal
b) Racking up plenty of those disposals
c) Contributing at around the ground stoppages
d) Holding Collingwood’s shape around contests

The next stat has been tracked manually, so it could be slightly askew from Champion Data’s official definition. However…

Steele Sidebottom has had 11 inside 50s through three games. Of those 11, zero have gone to the opposition, the ‘worst’ result being two stoppages. The other nine entries have found teammates.

Josh Daicos has snuck under the radar for his work at stoppages around the ground, where wingers come into play more often as their starting position is closer to the start of play. He’s had 12 clearances from ball ups and throw ins, behind only Tom Mitchell at Collingwood and just a starry list of names ahead of him around the league.

Clearances from ball ups and throw ins, 2023

18 – Matt Rowell
16 – Patrick Cripps
15 – Darcy Parish, Caleb Serong
14 – Toby Nankervis, Lachie Neale
13 – Marcus Bontempelli, Rory Laird, Touk Miller, Tom Mitchell
12 – Josh Daicos, five other players

Daicos (when he’s not winning clearances) and Sidebottom provide an extra layer to Collingwood’s ball movement which comes into play from contests.

Because opposing wingers know the Pies want to move as quick as possible once they have possession, the minute they see the likes of Pendlebury, Mitchell, De Goey and co with possession inside, it has the effect of freezing their defence.

It gives Daicos and Sidebottom an extra second or two to get into attack mode and the rest is history.

So with all the structural elements explained, it still leaves one more point to highlight…

4. The intangible: trust in teammates

The first three points flow directly into the intangible. It’s impossible to measure with a stat, but easy to spot with the eye when everything is clicking.

(For an example of the opposite, compare Geelong 2022 to Geelong 2023. Minimal changes in game style, but when everything is half a step out, look what happens)

When every player on the field has confidence in their own role and the role of their teammates, the result is a quicker read and quicker react.

Think back to the two highlights mentioned in point one. Would De Goey be flowing forward that fearlessly if he was worried about Pendlebury making the right choice in possession? How about Crisp with Sidebottom? The answers are obvious.

Because of all the above, we have these four stats representing a staggering turnaround from 2022 to 2023:

1: Collingwood’s contested ball differentials in their last 11 games of 2022: -19, -10, -10, -13, -15, -24, -29, -54, -21, -9, -10.
2: Collingwood’s contested ball differentials in their first three games of 2023: +5, +57, +22.

3: Collingwood’s ranking for time in forward half in their last 11 games of 2022: Ninth (basically even overall)
4: Collingwood’s ranking for time in forward half in their first three games of 2023: First (roughly +8 minutes overall)

Everything improves because of these constant contest wins. The three other elements:

– The defenders get to start their work from higher up the field than 2022 and their intercepts are in more dangerous positions.
– The half forwards get to buzz around contests closer to goal rather than traipsing higher up the field, carrying the risk of collapsing forward structure
– The marking forwards aren’t living in the middle third of the ground, providing links in the chain, instead able to stay deeper

Contested ball turning into a major strength is why everything from Collingwood has looked super powered to begin 2023.

Consider this part the postscript: I’ll leave everyone with one point to ponder, and something opposition clubs are likely eyeing off.

While Collingwood are dominating the contest this year compared to last, they’re also conceding points from stoppages at a much higher rate than last year.

It’s the trade-off you make for such an improvement offensively and while that is dwarfing the defensive slide, there’s no need to worry.

The query is how it impacts the short term while Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox are injured and Collingwood have no natural (AFL-ready) ruckmen to turn to.

Opposing ruckmen should (key word, should) be able to set the tone from contests, which in theory forces Magpie midfielders into more defensive movements.

No doubt Collingwood will come prepared though. Just how they decide to attack it will be fun to watch.

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