Alastair Clarkson’s return to North Melbourne was marked by a promising first quarter and a half before Melbourne put their foot down and steadily pulled away.
Although the second half had an air of inevitability around it from the moment Melbourne kicked those late second quarter goals, until then we were able to see some glimpses of how North wanted to move offensively.
It’s going to be the main focus of both today’s post and the remaining three weeks – what North are setting up to do in possession.
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From early in the season, it’s evident how North have tried to defend. Posts throughout the year have covered learnings from week to week.
Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t. Then at other times it’s descended to ‘close your eyes’ level while watching, but at nearly all times you can tell what they’re trying to do.
On the other hand, general offensive principles have been harder to pinpoint; from the outer, anyway. Part of that is due to personnel. Generally it’s much easier to implement a defensive system than offensive, because – to be blunt – more individual talent and continuity is needed on offence.
One of those offensive queries I’ve semi-regularly mentioned is how a forward line with two talls + Cam Zurhaar + Eddie Ford is light on for ground level pressure.
Although Zurhaar is injured for the moment, he’s still well ahead of Ford in the pecking order when fit. That means for the latter to keep a spot up forward – assuming he’s only in line for spot wing minutes at most – he needs to find a way to impact with and without the ball.
At this stage, Ford isn’t a ground level pressure player, which is fine to a certain extent. But he is strong aerially, and on Sunday that trait was put to use early with his matchup on Jake Lever.
It’s the second time in a month Ford has been asked to take a role on the opposition’s key interceptor after performing well against James Sicily in Round 18.
While Ford’s three first quarter goals took the headlines, the more important part was the process behind it.
We all know Lever’s skills in reading the play and how he uses cues further up the field to know exactly where the ball is heading. To exploit those tendencies, his direct opponent has to be doing two things:
a) Moving into threatening areas to mark the ball
b) Providing enough of a presence to demand attention
The latter is somewhat of an intangible. After all, how can you define ‘presence’? Especially from someone who’s still less than 20 games into his career.
But the former can be judged consistently. And to that end, Ford showed promising signs early – until Melbourne overwhelmed North further up the field, and ball use in North’s forward half became rarer and more rushed when it did happen.
Two of Ford’s three goals came when matched up on Lever, with the third in broken play after a defensive spoil.
Goal number one came from smart positioning along with clever ball use and forward synergy, and the second was much the same, moving the ball at angles rather than straight lines.
It’s just a glimpse, and far from a permanent sign to lock Ford into a dangerous mid-sized option against opposition interceptors.
In the bigger picture though, for Ford to be given a similar role twice in a month indicates it shapes as a key part of North’s forward planning. Some teams opt to use a defensive forward on opposition interceptors. Based off the last few weeks, it appears North are trialling whether they can look to turn that into a genuinely threatening forward.
There are still so many unanswered questions when it comes to this role and personnel. Whether it sticks long term depends on a multitude of things, but arguably most significantly on how North choose to use the ball. And as illustrated above we saw glimpses of a slightly different plan early on Sunday.
If you’ve missed any recent North match analyses, you can catch up on the last five here:
Round 20 v West Coast: Opportunity lost
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
In the first third of the season, North’s ball movement tended to be a little too slow and straight for my liking. It wasn’t panic stations by any means given how early it was in the process, but it was heading towards a watch this space.
Returning to this theme for the last four games of the season, what I saw early against Melbourne was much more promising. (Just to be clear, there are still a million miles to go before anyone reads too much into it)
There looked to be a renewed focus on spreading the ground and creating options both short – whether through kick or handball – and long.
Whether this was to combat Melbourne’s defensive threat, or a more permanent mindset shift we don’t know for sure yet, but running patterns looked much better early in the game.
There are a bunch of little things which seem inconsequential but open up pockets of space for others. For example, what we see through the middle of the screen as Jy Simpkin and Harry Sheezel support run – heading into dangerous space then out of it – gives just enough room for Luke Davies-Uniacke to be an option in the middle.
Although the kick inboard was a little iffy, that’s not the part I’m focused on here. It’s all about the process of creating space and forcing a defence to constantly move. There has to be a starting point somewhere.
At other times there looked to be more attempts than normal to handball chain out of contests and stoppages rather than the rushed long bombs which have (unfortunately) been a feature at times.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had access to stats showing whether a team kicked or handballed more often out of stoppages. Without that at my disposal I’ll settle with backing my eyes to say there was a greater focus on handballing around contests on Sunday.
Speaking of contests, teams often bring one half forward up to stoppages through the middle third of the ground. Through the early stages on Sunday, North frequently had two. The extra numbers allowed North to control tempo around contests, but also created more space for remaining forwards closer to home.
It was illustrated in this passage, as Kayne Turner found a quick releasing handball to Jaidyn Stephenson, who was then able to use the space to take ground and go quickly to a one-on-one. Although it was well defended, again it’s the process – quick handball, running through space – which looks promising compared to other times when it’s been ‘belt it as far as you can as soon as you get it’.
Another example happened later in the first quarter. A rushed kick would have been the easy option for either Davies-Uniacke or Simpkin. But because there are options in position to handball, North are able to get Melbourne’s defence moving up.
As a result, Tarryn Thomas gets the time to pick out a leading Nick Larkey through the space vacated by Dees defenders.
These are all just glimpses, and to reiterate it’s far, far, far from the finished article. But it’s a sign of a subtle shift from plans earlier in the year.
Over the remaining three weeks, hopefully we’ll see more offensive principles emerge and we get to the end of the season with a clear idea of what North will try to achieve in possession in 2024.
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.