Through eight rounds of 2023, Carlton’s offensive style has come into sharp focus.
Too often it has devolved into movement patterns at odds with where the game is heading, incorrectly opting to zig while other teams zag.
Slow, short kicking neutralises the Blues’ biggest threats, minimising the gains of their inside midfield brigade while forcing Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay to battle at a defensive unit’s preferred tempo. That Curnow is still having this run of form to start the year speaks volumes for how unbelievably talented he is.
But for all the focus on Carlton’s ball movement this year, what has gone largely unmentioned is how it was hiding in plain sight last year.
So before we look at 2023, first we have to go back to 2022. This is a five-chapter story of how Carlton got to where they’re at today.
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Chapter 1: The promising start
In splitting Carlton’s 2022 into two parts, the difference in scoring quickly becomes apparent:
|2022: Carlton’s scores per inside 50||Round 1-10||Round 11-23|
The underlying theme to Carlton, ever since the start of 2022, is if they’re not holding a clear edge out of stoppages, they’re struggling to score enough to win.
With the exception of Round 2’s defeat of the Bulldogs (where much of Carlton’s first half success came from back half ball movement due to the Bulldogs’ well documented flakiness at defending against it), the other seven wins in the 8-2 start in 2022 were largely, although not entirely, based on the same formula:
1: Dominate stoppages and either score from them or at the very least, gain territory
2: If the latter happens instead of the former, push the defence up to trap the ball in the forward half
3: Create turnovers in the forward half or ideally inside 50 (this part is important to remember)
4: Find it easier to score from those turnovers because they happen so close to goal
5: Rinse and repeat
When it clicked, it was brilliant. Whether it was the last quarter in Round 1 against Richmond or the second quarter in Round 10 against Sydney, when Carlton had the ascendancy around stoppages, winning them time and time again and swarming forward off the back of it as the crowd got louder and louder, it felt like a whirlwind. Defenders looked helpless in the face of the onslaught.
The point of this is it’s important to make clear there have been significant on-field structural improvements since Michael Voss arrived. They were, to be blunt, a rabble previously.
The defensive setups and overall structure are approximately two to three million miles better than they ever were during David Teague and Brendon Bolton’s time at the helm. But throughout 2022, even in that blazing first 10 games, there were repeated signs…
Chapter 2: Neutralise the stoppages
There is only so long a team can get away with their preferred method before opponents come prepared with adjustments.
The first inkling (to me, at least) that teams had found a way to shut down Carlton’s stoppage strength came in Round 14 v Richmond.
In the lead-up, it was clear from their comments that the Tigers had zeroed in on stoppages as the key area, learning a lesson after Round 1.
One of their approaches at around-the-ground stoppages in the middle third of the ground – in addition to the usual half-forward pushing up and loitering – was to bring both their wingers much closer to the drop of the ball than normal, essentially attempting to congest the space.
When that wasn’t happening, Richmond’s goal from their own clearance wins was pure and simple territory. Whether messy or clean, it didn’t matter; just get the ball in their forward half and set up behind it. And as a result of these two things, Carlton found it:
a) Much tricker to get the type of clean possession chains they were looking for from stoppage wins
b) Harder to move the ball consistently from their back half when winning possession back
Richmond dominated clearances (41-27) and had a monstrous inside 50 edge (76-51). Only a throw-caution-to-the-wind flurry from Carlton late got them back into the game after the Tigers let them hang around with inefficiency close to goal.
One of the new features on The Shinboner 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.
Chapter 3: Neutralise uncontested ball
Look Back/Look Ahead: Carlton“>Carlton’s Look Back/Ahead 2022 season analysis: “Too often Carlton’s ball use regressed over the course of a game, inviting pressure from opponents.
“Round 2 v the Bulldogs, Round 3 v Hawthorn, Round 5 v Port Adelaide, Round 10 v Sydney, Round 13 v Essendon, Round 23 v Collingwood. That’s half a dozen matches where ball use ground to a halt, unwilling to challenge opposition defenders to the same extent they did earlier in those games.
“Part of it works hand in hand with the emphasis on controlling the ball. There’s a thin line between uncontested possession to attack (which Carlton did so well at times), uncontested possession to defend, and then uncontested possession to do neither of those, which is a trap the Blues fell into too often after earning a lead.”
The Round 10 and Round 12 Notebooks also touched on the same topic, which became more of a regular feature in games over the second half of the season as opposed to one which only reared its head when protecting a big lead.
So now we flash forward from Round 14 v Richmond to Round 18 v Geelong. This next stage showed how Carlton could be sub-par in punishing opposition turnovers when they didn’t happen so close to their attacking goal.
On that Saturday night at the MCG the stoppage and scores from stoppage count was basically even, leaving the difference in how Geelong and Carlton capitalised on turnovers.
When a team sets up to play a short-kick, high-mark game style, it doesn’t leave a large margin for error.
After teams worked out how to stop – or at least minimise – Carlton’s dominance from stoppages – the next stage was to eradicate that margin for error in their uncontested possession style.
Through the first 10 rounds of 2022, Carlton led the league in marks per game:
|2022, Round 1-10||Marks Per Game||AFL rank|
While there were still missteps, as mentioned earlier, overall the Blues were a net positive in finding a decent balance between using their short-kick, high-mark style to attack rather than receding into stale, recycled possession.
As the season went on, teams started to push higher – realising Carlton’s primary objective was to control the ball first before gaining territory – and clogged up the short leading lanes.
Note how Geelong have condensed space here, not allowing any short lead up kicks and covering a potential switch:
As a result of teams defending Carlton a little differently to the first 10 rounds, it was forcing the Blues into lower percentage kicks.
Lower percentage kicks = less marks = higher chance of turnovers, like so:
When adding Carlton’s decrease in marks to teams’ increasing ability to neutralise their stoppage dominance, control went out the window and scoring dropped in all areas. It was simple: teams knew how to defend the Blues:
|2022: R11-23||Marks per game||Points from stoppages (per 100)||Points from turnovers (per 100)|
Whether teams could execute the plan was a separate story, but regardless, the script was out on how to defend. The question then became whether anything would change in 2023…
Chapter 4: 2023 so far
Carlton opted to double down on their strategy, looking to take their 2022 peak to another level.
The natural question is wondering how this type of style can improve organically when it’s already been thoroughly scouted. The simple answer is: it doesn’t.
By investing more into the slow kick-mark style, it allowed opponents to stay in games when they should have been under the pump.
As Carlton doubled down on trying to move the ball in a calculated fashion, a move that showed signs of faltering in the second half of 2022, their opponents doubled down on either pressing up to prevent it – which worked in the same time frame – or simply allowing the Blues to possess the ball to their heart’s content.
The opposition strategy won out.
Through six rounds Carlton had actually forced the fifth most turnovers in the competition, another example of part of the foundation being in place. Yet their total points scored from those turnovers ranked 17th, ahead of only Hawthorn.
It took Carlton more than a half to move the ball with enough speed to pressure a North Melbourne side missing its two best key defenders on Good Friday, only belatedly realising how undermanned the Roos’ back six was.
A fortnight later against St Kilda, a +25 contested ball advantage to half time resulted in just a +5 inside 50 edge; the Saints having more than enough time to sit back and protect dangerous areas while Blues turned a contested advantage into unthreatening uncontested ball.
In the interest of brevity this part won’t be a multiple-clip section; who wants to see minute after minute of uncontested chip kicks? Instead let’s stick to one clip, this one from the game against the Saints:
None of that ball movement threatens any side worth their salt. Any contested advantage kept getting thrown out the window, and while possessions could lead to great individual fantasy numbers, it wasn’t translating to on-field success.
After the loss to St Kilda, Carlton’s hierarchy was adamant this style was the way to go:
“The Blues believe the game style they have practiced across summer – which includes strong contested ball numbers and calculated ball movement to key forwards – stacks up across the competition.”
But somewhere between there and the game against Brisbane – with a fill your boots game against the decimated Eagles in between – clearly there was a recognition that a slight shift was needed from ‘calculated ball movement’, Carlton’s style increasingly an outlier for the wrong reasons.
If you’ve missed any recent posts on The Shinboner, you can catch up on the last five here:
From The Notebook, Round 8: Josh Dunkley with ‘one of the great games’
Round 8: North Melbourne’s match analysis v St Kilda
From The Notebook, Round 7: Power movement, Fremantle shift, Giant comeback
Round 7: North Melbourne’s match analysis v Melbourne
St Kilda, an AFL team’s litmus test
Chapter 5: What comes next
It’s important to keep in mind that because of the top-tier talent sprinkled throughout Carlton’s list, their floor remains higher than most teams. They should continue to have no problems with the bottom tier of teams, like their pummelling of the Eagles.
The key to their next step forward is improving ball movement in open play – against sides who aren’t in the bottom tier – to create a multi-faceted offensive style. This year has largely been one-dimensional, but if Carlton can add extra speed and unpredictability to their ball movement off opposition turnovers, turning slow play into faster play with varied patterns, it makes them so much harder to defend.
To that end there was an intriguing shift in the first* quarter against Brisbane. Even though this Mitch McGovern kick ended in an intercept mark, the process of forcing the turnover and going long, straight down the middle, to a one-on-one inside 50 was something we’ve rarely seen this season:
Or this play, with an immediate switch, run from behind, and going to dangerous areas inside 50. While it was far, far from a clean passage, the process – and speed behind it – was novel for Carlton in 2023:
As tends to be the case when making a shift, especially against a top team, it didn’t stick for an entire game as Brisbane wore the Blues down after quarter time.
(*The last quarter was partially score influenced so it doesn’t hold as much weight in my book)
But in the big picture, that type of style is exactly what Carlton need to keep working at. Given the Bulldogs’ susceptibility to defending ball movement in open play, the Blues should find more success if they stick at it on Saturday night.
If the improvement continues, it forces sides to adjust and it gives Carlton multiple ways to win:
a) If the contest work suffers, they can still capitalise off turnovers
b) If a side is defending ball movement well, they can look to grind it out inside. Quicker ball movement in open play has an influence here too: opponents will be reluctant to invest too much in the contest if they know they’ll be hurt in space
c) Ideally the defensive system continues holding up relatively well, and if it slips slightly it’s counter-balanced by improved offensive numbers
The next month looms as season-defining for Carlton, with the Bulldogs (Marvel), Collingwood (MCG), Sydney (SCG), and Melbourne (MCG) on deck. It’ll be fascinating to watch.