Learning from the first month of the Alastair Clarkson era

At the moment, every North Melbourne game feels like information overload.

With so much to learn as Alastair Clarkson puts an imprint on the side, it can be difficult knowing where to look.

Even so, there are still plenty of takeaways one month into the season. From the defenders, to midfielders, to forwards, and the overall setup, here is what I’ve learned so far.


This post falls into the ‘extra North Melbourne’ category – as will all North pieces which aren’t direct match review/analyses – which means those on the $5 and $10 tiers enjoy early access.

If you’ve missed the Patreon features for subscribers, you can find them all here.

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.


The back seven

With news of Ben McKay’s pending return, it’s a handy time to wrap a bow on how the back seven was structured in the first four rounds.

It was a two-tall setup, the word ‘tall’ being used liberally in some instances, Luke McDonald, Jack Ziebell, Harry Sheezel, and a rotating cast over the last two positions. $10 Patreon subscribers have access to the weekly updates, but for those who don’t here’s one look at the weekly personnel after the two talls + McDonald:

For the first three weeks it was on McDonald, Ziebell, and Sheezel to provide rebound from the defensive group. Josh Goater and Miller Bergman understandably played more of a bits and pieces role as they gained valuable experience.

With Clarkson repeatedly mentioning how important the right mix was for ball use out of the back half, the intriguing part – which, as far as I know, has largely gone unnoticed (including by me) – was not bringing Aaron Hall in when both Goater (omitted) and Bergman (illness) missed Good Friday.

Instead the favoured pair was Darcy Tucker and Daniel Howe, the former playing well and the latter repeatedly almost getting his head ripped off for a grand total of no free kicks.

After playing through the middle (mainly on-ball, touch of wing) as the substitute against Hawthorn, Tucker played quite high (for a defender) against Carlton. A logical assumption is the former Docker will rotate between half back and the wing depending on the situation and personnel.

The query is how things will structure up once McKay returns. To assume again, surely it’ll be a trio of McKay, Logue, and Corr as the key posts. That naturally takes away one of the spots that have been earmarked for a youngster (Goater/Bergman/etc). Add in McDonald, Ziebell and Sheezel as spots four through and six and suddenly there’s only one place left.

Tucker deserves his spot; the trend looks like it’ll be asking the youngsters to kick the door down in the VFL and earn their place.

(Also, I’m aware I’m treating Sheezel like a mainstay after four games and completely ignoring he’s an 18-year-old. With the way he’s playing though, how can he be looked at any other way?)

The midfield rotations

In pre-season I said it was Luke Davies-Uniacke’s midfield, and nothing’s changed there.

After him and Jy Simpkin, I’m enjoying the cast of players rolling through on-ball rotations. Sometimes there’s been forced change (i.e. Round 3 against Hawthorn), but it looks like the preference is for a cast of six.

Round 1: Davies-Uniacke, Simpkin, Cunnington, Phillips, Zurhaar, Powell
Round 2: Davies-Uniacke, Simpkin, Cunnington, Zurhaar, Greenwood, Powell
Round 3: Cunnington, Phillips, Zurhaar, Greenwood, Powell, Tucker (as sub)
Round 4: Davies-Uniacke, Simpkin, Cunnington/Greenwood, Phillips, Zurhaar, Powell

The fun part about Zurhaar’s time on-ball is how he’s used purely as an offensive wrecking ball. Which makes sense too, given asking a player with that skill set to play percentages would be a monumental waste of talent. Zurhaar has often been the tap target at stoppages he attends, and particularly centre bounces. 32 centre bounce attendances for eight clearances is a great ratio.

Combine Zurhaar’s bursts with Davies-Uniacke’s start to the season, Simpkin settling into more of a complementary role seamlessly (which sounds like it’s downplaying the co-captain, but couldn’t be further from the truth), Greenwood bouncing back from a disappointing 2022 and Cunnington still being more than useful through the first three weeks, and it’s all part of North’s strongest line.

While the full team ball use is worked on, the clearance and stoppage edge is what’s allowing North to gain territory. While the scoring from clearances probably isn’t where it should be (lower mid-table currently), winning them is the first step in the process. North is fourth in the league for clearance differential:

2023: Clearance differential, first four rounds
1st: Gold Coast (+39)
2nd: Brisbane (+24)
2nd: Western Bulldogs (+24)
4th: North Melbourne (+22)

Given the midfield’s offensive talents, a natural concern (as discussed in pre-season) was getting the defensive mix right. But so far, it’s been impressive.

Part of that comes from opponents being wary of North’s power. It’s natural to be a touch reactive in that situation, which then allows North an extra second to defend when they don’t win first possession.

After four rounds North sits roughly mid-table for defending from stoppages (based on points conceded per clearance lost). It’s a large improvement from 2022, when they were, to use a technical term … not very good. League worst by a distance, to be precise.


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.

Here is where to find the page.


How to structure the forwards

This is arguably the area of the field where North have the most to work on.

Personnel-wise it’s been consistent for North, for the most part selecting six forwards in a 2-2-2 format while a seventh forward rotation feeds into the midfield. Typed out for visual learners:

Round 1: Larkey & Comben (key forwards), Turner & Curtis (small forwards), Taylor & Stephenson (half forwards)
Round 2: Larkey & Comben (key forwards), Turner & Curtis (small forwards), Taylor & Stephenson (half forwards)
Round 3: Larkey & Comben (key forwards), Turner & Curtis (small forwards), Taylor & Stephenson (half forwards)
Round 4: Larkey & Comben (key forwards), Turner & Curtis (small forwards), Taylor & Stephenson (half forwards)

Part of the issues will resolve with time. In pre-season I mentioned my personal hope for Comben was to simply play 12+ games and not look out of place.

We’re a month in and so far, so good. Two games have been good on the stat sheet – Round 1 v West Coast, Round 3 v Hawthorn – one was somehow bad on the stat sheet but still valuable – 6 kicks and 9 clangers v Fremantle in Round 2, but freeing valuable space for Larkey and his four-goal haul – and the other he was simply outpointed by a good defence – Round 4 v Carlton.

The partnership with Larkey will continue to grow with time. Patience is all that’s needed there.

Paul Curtis has had a slow start to the year, perhaps suffering a little from second-season blues. Mentioning ‘activity around the ball’ is a bit of an intangible, but to the eye he hasn’t been as busy as 2022 in a similar role.

In time Curtis will likely be the consistent two-way forward who both hits the scoreboard and hunts without it – if he doesn’t move further up the field, that is – but meanwhile it’s all about patience and letting him grow through these quiet spots. After his start to AFL life it’s easy to forget he’s only just turned 20 with a mere 19 games to his name.

While Kayne Turner is playing his defensive forward role well, with team-high pressure acts and the equal fourth most turnovers forced, he’ll never be a small forward who hits the scoreboard regularly.

So Turner and Curtis are combined, and you’re left with two small forwards combining for two scoring shots a game. Again it’s not an alarm bell situation and something that’ll resolve itself once Curtis gets to the other end of his form slump and younger players improve enough to take Turner’s spot, but in the meantime, it’s hurting North’s scoring power.

That leaves the two half-forwards: Taylor and Stephenson, tasked with being the creative drive in the unit.

Stephenson started slowly – 8 disposals, 1 inside 50 in Round 1 – but has improved each week, capping off the first month with 14 disposals, 5 inside 50s and 3 goals against Carlton. Amazing how a clearly defined role and consistency helps him grow. Not like anyone was screaming out for that last year.

Meanwhile, Taylor has a knack of getting to the right areas when linking in chains between the arcs – averaging double-digit uncontested possessions in a tricky role to play well – but to go to the next level his decision making must improve.

Of Taylor’s six inside 50s, four have gone to the opposition and he’s also going at less than four disposals a turnover. Only Curtis (that’s Paul Curtis) has a worse ratio amongst non-key position players at North.

It is a lot of responsibility on two players to shoulder the bulk of the creative load; the only reason ‘half forward is a tough place to play’ became a cliché is because it’s 100 percent true.

But the quickest way for North’s forward line to improve is through Stephenson maintaining his upward trajectory, and Taylor improving his decision making in possession.


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

From The Notebook, Round 4: Trends from the first month
Round 4: North Melbourne’s match analysis v Carlton
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


So far we’ve seen…

Five summary points to wrap the first month up…

– A midfield which drives North, but also holds up surprisingly well when not winning first possession
– A back line about to change personnel again after a first month of flux
– A team defence which has improved in leaps and bounds, and then more leaps and bounds again
– A forward line which has plenty of room to improve in its 2-2-2 format
– And because I haven’t mentioned him enough, Harry Sheezel already looking like a 100-gamer

…and five points to keep an eye on over the next month:

– How the back line adjusts to McKay’s return
– Whether the forward line gets a tweak in structure
– Where Wardlaw fits in when he debuts (which is surely close)
– If sides adjust to North’s midfield strength and whether that causes a domino effect
– How often structure is tweaked from week to week, or whether Good Friday was a one-off personnel-enforced change

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