A fourth single-digit loss of the year for North Melbourne.
Sunday’s five-point loss to West Coast followed a three-point loss to Sydney in Round 10, a six-point loss to Essendon in Round 12, and an eight-point loss to St Kilda in Round 19.
But this one was arguably the most disappointing of the lot as it came thanks to two quarters that were sub-standard, to say the least.
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To start with the first quarter, North’s problems came from an area which has been a common theme throughout the year, and for multiple seasons to be fair: the lack of forward pressure.
In recent weeks, West Coast have shifted their offensive style to echo more of their kick-mark movement from recent successes, potentially looking to slow the game down and making it more low-event rather than opening up to expose inexperience.
So with that in mind, North’s forward half should have been switched on to prevent West Coast’s patient movement.
Instead, the Eagles maintained possession from each of their six rebound 50s in the first quarter, turned three of them into inside 50s at the other end, and kicked two goals in total.
From a North point of view, the most disappointing part was how easily the Eagles were able to escape danger.
Take the following passage of play as an example. When a team is lodged this deep and narrow in their back 50, if they get out successfully it’s usually due to a great individual play or a slack defence.
Here it’s very much the latter. Keep eyes on Tom Cole:
It’s a stock standard switch, done at a regulation pace, but it somehow breaks North’s forward 50 defence.
Or in this case, North force Jack Darling to go long and high to a contest near the boundary. Normally it’s an easy spoil and reset, or an intercept mark.
Josh Goater is the one who flies here, which is fine* even though he fails to kill the ball.
(*A quick aside: The reason I think it’s fine is because that’s what you want an intercepting half-back to be doing. So you take the errors now from an inexperienced player, knowing the process is sound, and then hopefully reap the rewards in time)
What I’m more focused on is what’s happening at ground level between the remaining North players.
There is a complete lack of communication, which leads to a complete lack of structure. If even one of those two things had happened, it likely would have mitigated Goater’s mistake in the air.
Instead, with no area covered by the remaining Roos at all, it allows Eagles more than enough room to swoop and keep moving the ball:
Given North’s forward line featured a debutant (Robert Hansen) who isn’t quite ready for the level just yet, and a veteran (Kayne Turner) who – judging by the reaction after his goal – may have been playing a farewell match, perhaps it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise the ground level pressure was lacking.
North’s improvement in the second quarter came purely from stoppage dominance, 17 clearances yielding four goals even while there were still worrying signs elsewhere, forcing so few turnovers in general play.
If you’ve missed any recent North match analyses, you can catch up on the last five here:
Round 19 v St Kilda: Let’s talk about Will Phillips
Round 18 v Hawthorn: Different paths, part two
Round 17 v Geelong: A midfield step back
Round 16 v Adelaide: Different paths
Round 14 v Western Bulldogs: Half backs and higher forwards
West Coast’s clear focus after half time was to neutralise North’s dominance around stoppage.
To do that, a coaching shift from Adam Simpson and co was to put an extra number at stoppages through the middle third of the ground and sometimes push their winger in closer to the drop of the ball. There’s a perfect illustration of the setup here:
At other times West Coast’s winger would be closer to a normal position, but the extra Eagles number would consistently be front and centre:
This shut up shop for North’s two main advantages: Luke Davies-Uniacke, once again sure to poll Brownlow votes, and their ability to transition out of contests into space.
It’s because extra Eagles numbers allowed the home side to pressure far more effectively, restricting North to just 54 disposals for the entire third term, a staggeringly low number.
Just 26 of those were uncontested. As soon as a North player got hands on the ball, more often than not they were ripped to the ground.
Or if that didn’t happen, they were constantly fighting a numerical disadvantage. It wasn’t a coincidence to see Tim Kelly have his best quarter of the game – 11 disposals, 4 clearances, 2 inside 50s – in the third, thanks to not only the coaching moves, but player execution.
While things changed in the fourth quarter as North finally looked to get aggressive both with and without the ball, it would have been an undeserved win if they stole it.
What I’m more interested in, to use a similar line again, is how a team can roll into their most winnable game for months and turn out two quarters of that nature.
All the list demographics, contracts, and depth chart pages are freshly updated and ready to play around with.
The depth chart pages are available for those on the $5 and $10 tiers. Hopefully everyone finds the tool as useful as I do.
There’ll be no neat answer to this last section, but from a North perspective the loss can almost entirely be chalked up to not coming in mentally prepared.
The number of one-effort phases when two or more were required, the lack of simple offensive and defensive actions, it all added up to a team (not every player, to be fair) thinking their job was already half done before the game started.
Other teams – better teams – can skate by with that against the Eagles. North can’t, and they paid the price for it.
We saw when North snapped out of their malaise for periods, they were clearly a much better side. It wasn’t like, say, the game against Sydney. There we saw applause for rising to the Swans’ level.
Here it was a case of not preparing to take care of business and being punished. And as a result, there is every chance North finish the season on a 21-game losing streak. It’d sit behind only a 35-game streak and 33-game streak, both in the 1930s, for futility.
If anyone knew how to ensure a team is collectively 100 percent prepared above the shoulders every week, they’d be a trillionaire. But I hope Sunday works as a valuable lesson in illustrating how much of the game is played above the shoulders. If it doesn’t, there are much bigger problems to consider.