Round 11, 2023 v Collingwood: Phases of play

When comparing top sides with ones on the lower rungs, some differences are obvious and not worth highlighting.

But other differences aren’t as glaring, and these were the ones that cost North Melbourne against Collingwood on Sunday.


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When the lower team walks away from a match with some variation of, ‘we did a lot right, but…’, it tends to mean the longer the game was in open play, the more their limitations came to the fore.

Over the course of 2023, I’ve highlighted how North’s number one strength is currently their clearance work.

In coming up against the best clearance side in the competition through 10 rounds – Collingwood ranked first in scores from stoppages differential – it was always going to be a tough test at the source.

But North passed the test well, basically breaking even in clearance count (35-33) and scores from clearances (5.7.37 to 6.2.38).

At stoppages, North have built a relatively solid base to both attack from…

…and defend from, preventing clean exits and forcing opposition first possessions into turnovers.

11 rounds in, it’s a major tick for what is basically the ‘first’ phase of play. Aside from behinds, every resumption of play is from a stoppage. The strength of North’s list is in their midfield, so it makes sense they’re able to stick with teams more often than not in stoppages, despite the youth running through there; Will Phillips, George Wardlaw, Tom Powell, and Harry Sheezel all seeing time on-ball on Sunday. It’s also a credit to the coaching staff in devising a system the players have taken to.

The next step is ball movement in open play. Much like Collingwood test a side around stoppages, they also test a side with ball movement. That’s why they’re deserved flag favourites…


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At the risk of this post turning into a Collingwood love session, a key reason they’re the best team in it right now is how they know exactly where their offensive numbers are at all times, where to move the ball, and where support is.

North – completely understandably it should be stressed – aren’t at that level yet, still finding their groove in how to move the ball.

So often there is 80 percent of a strong offensive move, working up the field solidly before one part breaks down.

Take this passage as an example. Starting in the back pocket, North get it to the wing in a low-risk fashion, using numbers, and then when it hits ground level suddenly they’re off to the races. But while Bailey Scott and Harry Sheezel run shotgun, Nick Larkey opts to kick inside 50 himself, the end result a non-threatening kick out of bounds.

To break this play down into phases, it’s:

– Force a turnover: Tick
– Move the ball out of danger: Tick
– Find space in the forward half: Tick
– Kick inside 50: Cross

Compare it to Collingwood’s ball movement just a few minutes later. From the point they get it on their back 50, there is no hesitation in where to lead, where to move, and where to support.

Even for a moment when Jamie Elliott is wide, he knows there’ll be numbers coming in-board, that’s where he looks, and the run is rewarded.

To break Collingwood’s play down into phases, it’s:

– Force a turnover: Tick
– Move the ball out of danger and into the corridor: Tick
– Find space in the forward half: Tick
– Kick inside 50: Double tick

It’s the difference between a team at the top of their powers and a team trying to find theirs.

A few weeks ago in the St Kilda match post, I explained how North made progress everywhere except the last kick inside 50.

This is the visual proof of that. Over the season North rank second last in the league at retaining possession with their inside 50 entries, while Collingwood are top four.

Over time on Sunday, that difference manifested in extra pressure on North’s defence to keep out a Collingwood side a step ahead of the rest of the league in ball movement, and extra pressure on North’s forwards to form a working connection with the midfielders at the other end.

In the big picture it shouldn’t be regarded as anything surprising; more so a natural consequence of the different stage each team is at.

Over time North’s connection will (or should, at least) get better as the midfielders and forwards spend more time on the field together.

Already in the last two weeks – since Wardlaw’s introduction, coincidentally – there has looked to be a focus on taking an extra half-second with ball in hand around congestion in an attempt to find a better option.

This passage sums it up:

At every point in that chain, it wouldn’t have been surprising for the North player to gain territory and get it as deep as possible. Instead, it was about using numbers and looking for the most threatening option when possible.

They’re just glimpses, but promising all the same.


If you’ve missed any recent North match analyses, you can catch up on the last five here:

Round 10 v Sydney: 76th Interchange
Round 9 v Port Adelaide: Unblocked exits
Round 8 v St Kilda: Small steps
Round 7 v Melbourne: Time for stage two
Round 6 v Gold Coast: A flat milestone


A quick note to finish on Ben McKay’s game.

It was a strange watch to see him so passive. Most of his mistakes earlier in the year came from being too aggressive, finding himself out of position and struggling to recover.

Yet here he was allowing himself – 200+ centimetres and 100+ kilograms – to be slightly nudged out of contests by Brody Mihocek, running well under the ball against Mason Cox, and all the while looking like the Monstars had got to him to steal his abilities.

Whether the ongoing contract situation is playing on his mind, or perhaps he’s already made a decision, only a small group of people know. But in the meantime he’s only hurting himself and his future earnings if he doesn’t snap out of this funk quickly.

2 thoughts on “Round 11, 2023 v Collingwood: Phases of play

  1. Up to your usual insightful standard. However, the article needs to be tagged as NMFC as well.
    As for Ben McKay — ther have been a number of comments that he might have ‘checked out’ as it were. This would be sad if it were the case.

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