Round 4, 2023 v Carlton: Zoning

For the second year in a row, North Melbourne went into a game against Carlton missing their best two key defenders.

In 2022 it was Ben McKay and Aidan Corr, and this year it was McKay and Griffin Logue.

Naturally the focus was all on how North’s backline would hold up against Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay.

Ultimately Curnow and McKay combined for 10 goals – five in each half – but what caught my eye was how North set up their defence* to try and minimise their influence.

All teams play some element of a zone defence, but North, particularly early, leaned right into a heavy zone with little in the way of direct matchups.

Most of today’s post will be about that defence: How it worked, how it didn’t, and whether it means much in the bigger picture.

(*The umpiring schemozzle also caught my eye but that’s another discussion for another time)


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In the first 10 minutes of the game, at various times Aiden Bonar found himself against Tom De Koning, Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay, Jesse Motlop, and even a brief moment as the extra defender. Nothing in that sentence is an exaggeration.

That set the tone for the first half as North’s defensive setup behind the ball constantly shifted, making it tricky for Carlton to move the ball cleanly.

In the first three rounds Carlton’s ball movement has been spotty at best, trending to the slower side with a focus on maintaining possession rather than taking territory. North throwing this extra spoke in the wheel slowed the Blues down even further.

The theory was simple: In one-on-ones against Curnow and McKay, North’s defence would be drawing dead. It’d be too easy for Carlton to move the ball from one end of the ground to the other. So focus more on guarding space, combine it with a midfield winning more of the ball, and making sure the pressure stopped clean exits after losing contested ball.

But while the theory is simple, in reality there are so many moving parts to make sure it’s executed flawlessly. Get it wrong and it’s a parade down the field for Carlton. But get it right and the ball either stays out of Carlton’s 50 or is a low-quality entry.

It’s a tricky part of the game to illustrate clearly without proper behind the goals vision, but hopefully I’ve found enough snippets to show what was happening.

In this first clip I want to focus on the top of screen – central and to the left, where Bonar and Aidan Corr are involved.

Conventional wisdom says Corr should be wary of Curnow at all times. Instead Corr barely pays attention to him, focusing on the space in front of him. It’s because Bonar, instead of sticking on McKay, is splitting the difference between the two Carlton forwards behind him.

It forces a Carlton reassess and they decide to switch, McKay hoping to catch Bonar out the other side. But here’s where the other part of the zone defence comes in, McDonald able to chop the kick off and punch over the line (apparently also collecting half of McKay’s face at the same time).

North won the ensuing throw-in, and the ball didn’t leave their forward half until Zurhaar goaled a couple of minutes later.

Here’s another quicker example from shortly after. Carlton are forced wide from their kick-in, but it appears Bonar is stuck one-on-one against McKay. Again, watch Corr at the top of screen. The fact Curnow is next to him is nothing more than a coincidence, because Corr’s sole focus is what’s in front of him as he rolls around to take an intercept mark.


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The second quarter was arguably North’s best in general play, when the pressure was at its best around the ball.

To illustrate, here’s an example featuring Daniel Howe. The former Hawk is technically on Motlop at this junction, although as Curtis Taylor kicks inboard, Howe settles into a defensive position behind the line of the ball.

Taylor’s kick isn’t great, but it’s still a contest inside the centre circle. If North players don’t hold Cerra up even momentarily, there would have been a couple of easy handballs and a likely Carlton scoring shot.

But the pressure does hold Cerra up, he’s forced to handball to Marc Pittonet and his rushed kick is easy pickings for Howe to intercept – which wouldn’t have happened without pressure around the ball.

The third element to defending in this way is the ball use. Or to be more precise, the depth and direction of the ball use.

Because of Nick Larkey’s injury, the usual patterns were thrown out the window from halfway through the opening term. From that point on it was always going to be a grind having enough quality entries and it appeared the choice was to favour depth over precision, giving enough time to set up behind it.

An example comes from this entry by Zurhaar. The kick is absolutely no good; there can’t be any debate about that.

But notice how it’s deep enough to give Carlton few options to quickly rebound. They try to switch, but Corr – that man again – is a solid 20+ metres off Curnow, compressing space. It forces Silvagni into his only remaining option, which he butchers.

Although Silvagni hits that kick nine times out of 10 (or 99 times out of 100, 999 times out of 1000, etc), Motlop still had zero easy options if he’d marked it. That comes from North’s defence.

This is how North stayed in the game during the first half.

Then the third quarter happened.


If you’ve missed any recent posts on The Shinboner, you can catch up on the last five here:

How contested ball is fuelling Collingwood’s leap
From The Notebook, Round 3: Brisbane, Adelaide, Mason Wood
Round 3: North Melbourne’s match analysis v Hawthorn
Fortnightly Focus: Bobby Hill, Noah Balta, Will Setterfield
From The Notebook, Round 2: Geelong, Gawn, and what’s next


Here’s the thing about a zone. You can’t play one – effectively, anyway – when the ball is coming at you with speed.

Carlton, after a first half where they were content to be safe, realised their method had to change. The warning signs (for me) rang with this passage of play; a willingness by the Blues to move which wasn’t there before half time. Although this moment resulted in no score, it was still a clear shift in style which exposed gaps in North’s defence.

Part of Carlton’s move was to shuffle McKay and Curnow higher up the field if needed, aiming to break North’s setup. They were both relatively deep in the first half, a departure from type particularly for McKay, who’d taken some crucial marks in the first two rounds at the MCG.

Although this example starts as picture in picture from the kick-in, McKay moving further up the field gives O’Brien an easy get out option and crucially, extra space in the middle third of the field for Carlton’s runners to use.

Of course the passage ends in a free kick because everything in the third quarter did, but away from that, watch how Carlton’s movement made it harder for North to defend in the same way which was so successful in the first half.

It’s important to note that it’s not as if North’s defence completely collapsed in the third quarter, repeatedly allowing high quality shots close to goal. Motlop drilled one from just outside 50 on a sharp angle, McKay nailed two snaps – you never know quite what you’re going to get there – De Koning had the 50-metre penalty, and then Curnow and Owies goaled from free kicks.

It wasn’t a procession, but things changed just enough for Carlton to make the most of it.

Then, because there was no other choice, North tried to press more aggressively in the last quarter to get back into it – keeping status quo wasn’t going to help. But there just wasn’t enough left in North’s legs around the ball to force turnovers.

Of Carlton’s five last quarter goals, four started from their defensive 50. It was direct, quick play from them – arguably for the first time this season – and put the final hammer in the game.

Take this play as the final example. Bonar gets caught a half step off, which triggers a chain reaction all the way down the field as Carlton put the foot down.

Now imagine how differently North would have defended that play with Ben McKay and Griffin Logue available.

It’d be a completely new scenario and a completely new focus – and not only because if ‘Ben’ was on the field, by definition, ‘Harry’ can’t be.

It was fascinating watching North try to game plan around an obvious deficiency. Not to hark back to Round 2’s theme again, but the symbolism between this and the corresponding match last year was stark.

Ultimately in the long term it doesn’t tell us a whole lot due to personnel, but through the first month there has been plenty learned. That’ll be the topic of the next North post during the week.

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