From The Notebook, Round 16: The limits of Gold Coast’s ball use, pros and cons of Essendon’s shell, Expected Score leaders

There are only two and a half games between fourth and 15th on the ladder, with eight rounds remaining.

It makes nearly every game, every week, high stakes for at least one of the teams involved and it was no different over the weekend.

Today’s Notebook covers three topics: the limits of Gold Coast’s ball use, the positives and negatives of Essendon’s setup, and prompted by Sydney and Melbourne’s kicking, a look at Expected Score trends over 2023 to date.


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How not to move the ball against Collingwood

A semi-common theme on these pages has been Gold Coast’s offensive style. In short, it’s a throwback with lots of kicking (1st in kick to handball ratio) and little in the way of uncontested possession (18th in uncontested possession differential).

It works in certain conditions against certain opponents, but at this stage of their development it’s nowhere near an ‘anywhere, anytime’ style.

We saw that against Collingwood, when the Pies kicked six of their first seven goals from possession chains starting in their defensive half, and 11 out of 18 for the match.

Because the Suns can be so direct in their movement, with a lack of subtlety to a certain extent, it leaves yawning gaps all over the field if opponents can force turnovers and quickly transition.

‘Force turnovers and quickly transition’ might as well be Collingwood’s motto in their back half, given the intercept players they possess.

Darcy Moore, Isaac Quaynor, Nathan Murphy, and Brayden Maynard combined for 33 intercept possessions, while of Jeremy Howe’s three intercept possessions, two turned into goals at the other end.

All the above came from a well-set defence who knew the opposition’s preferred style of ball movement inside out and were perfectly set to counter.

So while Gold Coast’s offensive style works in some settings, it’s clearly not something – at this stage – that can propel them to where they want to get. The query is whether it can evolve into an ‘anywhere, anytime’ style. A tough run home will reveal a lot more as pressure begins to build.


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The positives and negatives of Essendon’s setup

Much like the Adelaide entry in last week’s Notebook, it was probably inevitable there’d be an Essendon entry after managing to see them in person for the first time in a while. When not playing against North Melbourne anyway.

There’s been a lot of talk on how Essendon play, whether it’s sustainable long term, how it stacks up against league trends, with every smart observation from one angle balanced out by the usual overreaction elsewhere that’s unfortunately part of the territory when discussing a big team.

At the MCG on Saturday night, even allowing for conditions, I was struck by the clear positives and negatives that come with Essendon’s setups. In an ideal world there’d be a heap of visual examples here, but I can’t download what my eyes saw into broadcast vision so I’m asking for a little bit of trust.

Overall, Essendon like to have a higher and narrower setup than most teams when the ball is in dispute. In many respects it’s like a shell – although not always, of course – and from here is where a game trend tends to be dictated.

If we go in chronological order through the first three quarters, we have to start with the negative first. The drawback of a high and narrow setup – particularly one a team hasn’t been working on for all that long – is when it doesn’t work it naturally won’t cover a lot of space.

If an opposition – in this case Port Adelaide – is winning clean ball at the source, they have much more room to move than normal if initial pressure is breached.

That’s exactly what happened in the first quarter. Port had a 7-1 clearance edge which they were able to translate into territorial dominance through an 18-8 inside 50 advantage. Once they won possession they were able to use their depth of forward line options – including starting Connor Rozee as a deep forward, because why not – to move the ball at will.

On another night, 2.7 would have been five or even six goals and the game would have been close to curtains already.

But Essendon managed two goals themselves, and as they progressively enjoyed more and more of the advantage through the middle two terms, the benefits of their approach became clear.

Of all the discussion around Essendon’s style, perhaps the most common topic has been around the uncontested nature of their ball movement and whether it will hold up against the top sides. It’s a miscalculation for two reasons:

1) This is surely far from the finished product for how Brad Scott wants his team to play
2) Their shell setup gifts them plenty of room to spread and move if they do consistently win ball at the source

When people think uncontested marks, I imagine their mind drifts towards static, slow, recycled possessions.

The key to Essendon is they already have their running and movement patterns working well when in offence. Being ranked third in scores per inside 50 – with a forward line that’s not top three talent on paper – speaks volumes to that.

Kick-mark is a more than valid way to play in the current landscape if it’s done decisively and with impetus. Think of it this way: if players are in a shell, what’s available in every direction from the shell? Space. And lots of it.

That’s where a negative can turn into a positive: what can hurt Essendon also turns into their greatest strength if they win contests. Through the middle two terms on Saturday night, they were +18 in contested possessions and turned that into 5.10 v 4.2 on the scoreboard. It looked so simple at times:

a) Win the contest
b) Use the space deliberately created
c) Hurt Port Adelaide with ball use (until the last kick at goal at least)

This is why Essendon have still been able to hit the scoreboard regularly despite some valid worries about not forcing enough turnovers; currently ranking 16th for turnovers forced this year. The player and ball movement when they do get possession is good enough to overcome quite a few – although obviously not close to all – of their flaws.

The fun part of a big picture discussion is figuring out which areas of their setup Essendon need to improve first and how it’ll impact their build.

Does the shell need to cover more ground? If so, does it neutralise their offensive style? Can improved forward marking targets mitigate that somewhat? As teams scout this more, can it still be a net positive or will it be exploited defensively? Will natural improvement in players and familiarity with instructions overcome all the above?

They’re all valid questions and it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of discussion. They can all rightfully be answered in different ways too.


If you’ve missed any of the individual team deep dive posts this season, here are the five to catch up on:

How Port Adelaide’s midfield works in tandem (after Round 14)
The tweaks to Fremantle’s ball movement (after Round 12)
How sluggish ball movement is holding Carlton back (after Round 8)
St Kilda, an AFL team’s litmus test (after Round 6)
How a contested ball dominance is fuelling Collingwood’s leap forward (after Round 3)


How teams are faring against their Expected Score

On Friday night, Sydney turned in a horrific performance in front of goal, ending a whopping 43 points underneath their Expected Score.

On Sunday afternoon in the wet, Melbourne weren’t much better, finishing 32 points underneath theirs.

Prompted by those two ‘performances’, it felt like the opportune time to check in on how the league is performing against the stat this season:

In amongst the season so far, we can delve deeper to find trends.

While Adelaide’s new position as league leaders is slightly inflated by their game against West Coast, part of that is to be expected with Taylor Walker in a red-hot run of form and currently having approximately all of the shots at goal.

Melbourne have fallen off a cliff with their goalkicking, even before Sunday. They were +132 in their first ten games, and -96 from the next five.

Flying under the radar has been St Kilda’s kicking. In the first seven games they were +18, but in the next eight they’ve been -86. Not once in that time have they outperformed their Expected Score.

Next week I’ll post the teams who have been lucky – or unlucky – with their opponent’s kicking at goal so far this season.

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