How Fremantle have tweaked their ball movement

As Fremantle prepare to resume after the bye, their season hopes look drastically different to a month ago.

Four straight wins have come off the back of improvement in a number of areas, but perhaps the most eye-catching is how the Dockers have shifted their ball movement patterns.

It had its beginnings in a Round 7 loss to Brisbane – as highlighted in that week’s Notebook – before the moves paid off by beating Hawthorn, Sydney, Geelong, and Melbourne.

Although Fremantle haven’t suddenly turned into Collingwood, all the tweaks have combined to revitalise their year.

(Note: Although there can be just as much love given to midfield improvement, general team-wide pressure, and two of my favourite young forwards in Jye Amiss and Josh Treacy, the point of this piece is purely to focus on ball movement)


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Moving out of the defensive 50

The first six rounds were brutal to watch Fremantle try and transition the ball. It was slow, static, and torturous. As a result not only were they frequently stuck in their defensive half, when the inevitable turnovers arrived they were in a position where opponents could feast on the scoreboard.

Round 7 against Brisbane saw the first attempt at a change of process, but against a good side it would have taken a miracle for results to instantly follow.

With an extra week of reps behind them, the game against Hawthorn proved the starting point for a successful month.

Across the four wins, the Dockers moved from a bottom four team to the top half when it came to turning a rebound 50 to an inside 50:

Fremantle’s ball movementR1-7R8-11
Rebound 50 to Inside 50%20.3%25.2%
AFL rank15th7th

How Fremantle are doing it

Those numbers are great, those numbers show Fremantle have improved moving the ball out of their back half.

What it doesn’t show is how Fremantle are doing it.

On face value, you’d think ‘better ball movement’ might mean ‘more corridor use’. But in this case it’s actually the other way round.

In the first six rounds, no side moved the ball through the corridor* more often than Fremantle and no side moved around the boundary less.

From the Brisbane game onwards, those numbers have balanced out to the point where the corridor isn’t a priority.

Fremantle’s ball movementR1-6R7-11
Centre Corridor1st12th
*this stat is tracked between the 50 metre arcs


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Why it’s worked for Fremantle

It turns out a heavy focus on corridor doesn’t really matter if the speed of use is slower than Aaron Sandilands on a bad day.

No-one needs to relive the first six rounds with video evidence confirming what they’ve already had to sit through once, so let’s fast forward to the last few weeks instead.

What stands out most, to me anyway, is how much more movement there is. Not only is there a willingness to shift angles in possession, but there are always multiple leads and support runners.

Take this passage of play from Round 9 v Sydney as an example of the latter. After Jaeger O’Meara finds Caleb Serong quickly – crucially before the defence has time to set – he’s got so many options covering the width of the SCG.

He chooses Luke Jackson, running a sideways pattern. Amiss’ unrewarded lead has cleared out space in the 50, which Jackson takes to goal. It’s like a different sport to their first six rounds and although far from flawless in execution, it’s a major improvement.

Shifting angles helps to move around a defence as well. An example from Round 10 v Geelong shows the impetus missing early in the season.

As soon as Walker wins possession in the defensive 50, he instantly looks out to the open side where teammates are waiting.

With overlap run and quick movement, the ball transitions from back to front in the blink of an eye.

Although this play doesn’t immediately end in a goal, the improved ball movement meant Fremantle escaped defensive 50 and were able to set up in the front half. From the ensuing throw in Geelong were forced into a turnover, Fremantle had another entry and goaled from it.

That wouldn’t have been possible without sharp ball movement out of the back half to begin with. It counts as boundary use in the stats, but the speed it came at supersedes the location.

Working it closer to goal

Because of these improvements, Fremantle have been able to enter forward 50 from closer to goal, rather than shallow entries coming from closer to the wing.

Since the Brisbane game, roughly half of Fremantle’s kicks inside 50 have come from within 70 metres, a significant increase from the first six rounds.

On its own that’s a good sign, showing they’re able to move through the ground regularly. But the extra key in this case is the Dockers also retaining much more of those kicks.

Fremantle’s kicks inside 50From <70 metres out
Round 1-642% retained
Round 7-1158% retained

It’s because of all the above points combined, capped off by one more.


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How Fremantle are retaining possession from their inside 50 kicks

The extra speed and incisiveness of Fremantle’s ball movement means three things:

1) They’re able to get closer to 50 before kicking inside it
2) It’s under less pressure than earlier in the season
3) They’re getting it there before a defence has time to set itself

Through the first six rounds it rarely mattered whether their kicks inside 50 came from 55 or 85 metres out. Getting to that point happened so slowly defenders had already finished their coffees by the time they had to do their job.

The following three kicks from Round 11 v Melbourne come through different stages of play – immediately after a turnover, second phase play after a centre bounce, and straight from a ball up.

But there’s a common theme across them all: quick, decisive, and movement away from defensive setups.

These types of plays just weren’t happening earlier in the season. While there’s still plenty of room for improvement and it’s far from the finished product, it’s a key reason why Fremantle have turned their season around.

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