In pre-season, some guy wrote this:
“A natural temptation is to read plenty into first looks at a team with a new coach, and that’ll only intensify with the Saints under Ross Lyon. I’m going the other way and waiting until they get somewhere near a full complement on the park to judge.”
And the same guy wrote this:
“If it wasn’t for pre-season injuries, this line (10.5 wins for 2023) would have sounded about right. But instead the Saints’ forward line has been ravaged and it’s hard to see where goals will come from.
“Ross Lyon teams also typically take a while to get going. St Kilda were 4-7 at one point in 2007, and Fremantle 6-7 in 2012 – both with comfortably better lists than the 2023 Saints.”
Wait … that guy was me. Whoops.
The Saints’ unexpected 5-1 start to 2023 is a topic I’ve been promising to write about for a couple weeks now, but I wanted to make it a little fresher than ‘St Kilda defends really well’, instead digging deeper into what that means while avoiding the ‘will this hold up’ angle. Where’s the fun in focusing on the latter?
There are plenty of reasons for these early season wins, largely centred around ball movement – or to be more accurate, the lack of it from their opponents.
But ultimately it comes down to this: if your team has a flaw, playing St Kilda will expose it.
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To oversimplify a touch, St Kilda’s games are essentially decided by ball movement in open play – i.e. away from stoppages and clearances.
Because although the Saints have the highest percentage in the league, for the season they’re roughly break-even in points from clearance differential. Which, to be Captain Obvious for a moment, means all the margin comes thanks to points from turnovers.
In four of St Kilda’s five wins, they’ve had more than a five-goal edge from turnovers and the other win nearly three goals. No surprise their strength was nullified in the loss to Collingwood.
|St Kilda in 2023||Points from turnover differential|
|Round 1 v Fremantle||+17|
|Round 2 v Western Bulldogs||+34|
|Round 3 v Essendon||+32|
|Round 4 v Gold Coast||+38|
|Round 5 v Collingwood||+3|
|Round 6 v Carlton||+35|
Normally in this situation it’s because a team is scoring in bunches from opposition turnovers. That’s not quite the case for the Saints.
It’s an eclectic mix which leads to this differential. First in dot points, then expanded on. St Kilda have:
– Actually committed the second most turnovers in the league
– But are first – by a mile – for fewest points conceded from turnovers
– In turn they’re forcing more turnovers than any other team
– But only scoring mid-table in terms of points per turnover
– And not in the top four for total points scored from turnovers
It’s like the scene where Homer says, ‘that’s good’, ‘that’s bad’, except at the end there’s no purchase of a cursed Krusty doll.
But in all seriousness, St Kilda’s happiness to play a high-turnover game is clearly by design.
When a team is set up well, their turnovers come in less dangerous areas than the opposition. That’s where the next part of St Kilda’s plan comes into motion.
(An interesting aside discovered during research: the top four teams for turnovers forced also give up the ball a lot themselves. In addition to St Kilda:
Richmond: second most turnovers forced, most turnovers committed
Melbourne: third most turnovers forced, fourth most turnovers committed
Western Bulldogs: fourth most turnovers forced, sixth most turnovers committed)
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When St Kilda are in possession, they hug the boundary more than any other club – way more than any other club.
They’re also the best side in the league at turning rebound 50s into inside 50s, but only mid-table in creating scoring shots from those transition opportunities.
That’s not a usual combination. For example, Adelaide, Collingwood, and Essendon sit third, fourth, and fifth in rebound 50 to inside 50s and rank first, second, and third respectively in turning those into scoring shots.
Perhaps that changes for the Saints when Max King returns, but in the meantime, it provides a hint to how St Kilda use their offence.
They rank 17th – yes, that’s the top of the table team ranking second last – in scores per inside 50. For the record they’re only narrowly ahead of Richmond in 18th, whose numbers are still slightly influenced by a horrendous season opener.
But because St Kilda can transition well – and often – from back 50 to forward 50, it gives their defence time to set up. That’s the most important part of this equation.
Think of it as a game of inches in the Saints’ high-turnover game:
– Opponent goes forward
– St Kilda gain possession
– St Kilda go forward
– St Kilda often don’t score from their entries
– Opponent gets ball back
– This time they’re deep in defence
– Now they’re confronted with a set St Kilda defence
– They can’t find a way through
– They cough the ball up
– St Kilda reap the rewards from a starting position closer to goal
Because while St Kilda are first in their own transition from back 50 to forward 50, they’re also second in stopping opponents doing the same thing. That is a fruitful one-two punch.
Although St Kilda’s own ball movement isn’t polished, by any means, it’s quick enough to gain territory. And although they don’t finish off their looks that often, the territory advantage leaves opponents staring at a set, disciplined, full-ground defensive setup they must try and get through to score. That’s how we end up at the final step of St Kilda’s start to 2023.
If you’ve missed any recent posts on The Shinboner, you can catch up on the last five here:
Fortnightly Focus: Sam Taylor, Esava Ratugolea, Noah Cumberland
From The Notebook, Round 6: Status updates (Gold Coast, GWS, Sydney)
Round 6: North Melbourne’s match analysis v Gold Coast
Round 5: North Melbourne’s match analysis v Brisbane
The first month of the Alastair Clarkson era
All the above coalesces into a setup which requires opponents to always keep their guard up, battling against itself. Look through some of St Kilda’s wins as an example:
Round 1 v Fremantle: From The Notebook, Round 1: Power movement, Bulldogs’ Groundhog Day, and Rossball in effect“>As covered in that week’s Notebook, the Dockers needed to recognise the moment and take risk. Instead their slow ball movement was exposed and allowed the Saints to control tempo from start to finish.
Round 2 v Western Bulldogs: As mentioned, St Kilda can get it from back to front quickly. The Bulldogs struggle mightily defending those movements. The result: more than half of the Saints’ score came from possession chains starting in their defensive half.
Round 4 v Gold Coast: There is no rest against the Saints. Some teams can cope, some can’t. The Suns fell straight into the latter category and went to water from early in the second quarter, their unique ball movement devolving to sub-AFL standard in the face of St Kilda’s defence.
Round 6 v Carlton: For all the Blues’ strengths, their ball movement can be ponderous (a frequent complaint on here over the last 12 months). St Kilda played right into that in periods where they were second best, happy to retreat and let the Blues have possession for possession’s sake.
Then, once Carlton’s first half contested dominance amounted to basically nothing – +25 contested possessions for +5 inside 50s and a four-point lead – the Saints reset around the ball and exposed when the Blues don’t dominate there, they have next to no secondary options at their disposal.
Note the theme around all those wins. A team had a flaw, St Kilda’s setup exposed it, St Kilda walked away with four points.
Which just leaves one more part to cover. In most of those games – and it must be said, the loss to Collingwood in Round 5 – a feature of the style is St Kilda’s willingness to punt large periods of play, content to play low-event football and take their chances elsewhere.
It’s very much an outlier in today’s football, with teams (except for Carlton and Fremantle) trending ever faster and more aggressive on both offence and defence, but it’s been working for the Saints.
If it means defending grimly for 15 minutes and barely getting a look in the forward half, so be it. If it means icing a match by taking the tempo all the way down to neutral, then that’ll happen too. Some examples:
– Against Fremantle, after Zaine Cordy stretched the margin to 14 points, there was one scoring shot in the last 9:20 of play.
– Against the Western Bulldogs, the last quarter started with a 33-point lead. For the first 11 minutes of game time, there were no goals and few quality chances, finishing the game as a contest.
– Against Carlton, after Mitch Owens stretched the margin to 21 points, there were a grand total of five behinds (one rushed, two of the remaining four from outside 40 metres) in the last our behinds in the last 17:25 of play.
And perhaps the most impressive one of all came against Collingwood, despite the loss. In the third quarter St Kilda were getting peppered with inside 50 after inside 50. 22 of them, to be exact.
Yet all Collingwood managed on the scoreboard was 2.6 – three of the behinds rushed – without a single scoring shot closer than 30odd metres from goal. It was a defensive masterclass, the AFL real life equivalent of battening down the hatches.
The discipline it takes to play this way consistently, week after week, is off the charts. It sounds simple when you frame it as patiently soaking up the periods when you’re second best, zeroing in on a team’s flaw when you’re in control and planning for it to be a net positive. In reality it’s wildly difficult.
The time is coming when teams have enough of a dossier on this method to prepare counters and that’s when we’ll enter the next stage of St Kilda’s 2023, determine their ceiling, and all that less fun stuff. But in the meantime, the Saints’ method shines a mirror up to their opponent. They haven’t liked the reflection staring back.