2023 Finals Dossier: Collingwood Magpies

Welcome to the fourth annual (with a year missing in the middle) Shinboner Finals Dossiers. For new readers, the aim is to comprehensively profile each of the top four teams. All the positives, along with potential negatives, and where it leaves them heading into this year’s finals series. There’s no better place to start than the minor premiers.

Rarely do we see a minor premier profile quite like Collingwood.

For much of 2023 the Pies took all before them. Early on it was completely dominant. Then the wins started to get a little bit tougher, with underlying numbers suggesting slippage in key areas. And then their last six weeks featured three losses, an unconvincing win over Geelong, a patented last quarter comeback against Port Adelaide, and a training run against Essendon.

The cliché goes that a team doesn’t want to peak too early, instead timing their run for September. Recent history suggests premiers have done that quite well, entering finals with…

Geelong in 2022: 13-game winning streak
Melbourne in 2021: Four-game winning streak
Richmond in 2020: Six-game winning streak
Richmond in 2019: Nine-game winning streak
West Coast in 2018: Six wins from their last eight games
Richmond in 2017: Six wins from their last seven games

Collingwood aren’t hitting those marks. But will it matter? Let’s pick them apart and see what we find.


Given the length of time it takes to put these together, Patreon subscribers enjoy exclusive access for longer than normal. The release dates:

Collingwood’s Dossier: 31stth August for all Patrons, 4th September for the public
Melbourne’s Dossier: 1st September for all Patrons, 5th September for the public
Brisbane’s Dossier: 4th September for all Patrons, 7th September for the public
Port Adelaide’s Dossier: 5th September for all Patrons, 8th September for the public

Here’s the link to the Patreon page.


A snapshot of Collingwood’s home & away season

At the top of the piece, I mentioned the slippage in some key areas. If we break Collingwood’s season into six-game blocks, we see the following:

If there was access to more advanced stats I’d use them here, but this is what we’ve got

Illustrated like this, it shows how Collingwood have slowly slipped away from the sustainable football that fuelled their early season surge and regressed to a stage where it’s almost solely their ball movement that keeps them in games. Mind you, the ball movement is clearly the best in the league when firing so it’s a potent weapon.

But the general point is their giant step forward earlier in the season, transitioning into a ball movement and contest winning team – it’s dissipated. Between Round 18-23, the Pies only won the inside 50 count once, leaving them in a similar situation to this time last year: An obscenely dangerous ball movement team with flaws to be exploited elsewhere.

Collingwood’s strengths: How they beat you

So much of Collingwood’s ball movement is based on trust. Yes, skills are important, as is individual talent.

Most of all, it comes down to trusting those in two key phases – winning the ball at the source and causing turnovers in a disputed situation. If either of those two things happen, more often than not it leads to free Pies everywhere forward of the ball.

I’ve illustrated it twice this year in long form pieces: once after Round 3 when focusing on contested ball improvements, and again after Round 19 when deep diving the last quarter from Adelaide Oval.

Here’s a third example from the Round 23 clash against Brisbane at Marvel Stadium. In this passage of play, instead of focusing on the ball, look at Josh Daicos and Taylor Adams instead.

I’ve deliberately chosen this passage because neither of Daicos or Adams have a possession. We’re looking at them because it’s an illustration of Collingwood’s process. The minute the ball hits grass and Jack Crisp floats to the defensive side, Daicos and Adams are inching forward, itching to burst away.

Both players are ahead of the stoppage and are instantly off to the races once Dan McStay fires a handball to Crisp. Moments like these happen repeatedly every week, and it’s all built on trust. Win the ball at the source and dictate play after it:

The second part of what makes Collingwood’s ball movement so devastating is how they find space between the lines.

Most teams, unless you’re North Melbourne in 2022 and setting up like it’s 2006, have extremely similar base defensive systems. As a foundation it involves two lines; one around the ball, and another about a kick behind play. For visual learners:

These diagrams hopefully get better with time

The differences in today’s AFL largely comes through how teams opt to break these defensive systems down. When teams look at these defences, some opt to handball, some look to kick short, or long, or even a scenic route round the outside.

Collingwood want to take the most direct route home as often as possible, but know they still need to have enough subtlety in their ball use to drag defences out of shape. To do that, they look to use space in between those lines to open play up, much like in a game of soccer.

To illustrate, let’s head to Collingwood’s blistering second quarter against Fremantle in Round 18 where one particular passage highlights exactly what the Pies want to achieve.

In times like these for Collingwood, it’s all about presenting their opponent with two choices, and only two:

1) A bad choice
2) An even worse choice

And it all stems from finding the space in between defensive lines. Simple in theory, extremely tough to execute time and time again.

Trust teammates to win the ball, look to find the space in between defensive lines, and most of all do it at blistering speed. Combine it all and that’s how Collingwood strike fear into every team they play. But nearly every strength can be probed to find an associated weakness…

Collingwood’s weaknesses: How you beat them

“Most of (the defensive issues) is not personnel. It doesn’t take much for me to stand on the defensive side of the stoppage. That’s not personnel and that’s not talent. So we’ve got to get to work on those little things that we can control.”

“I came out after (Round 22 and said) we need to defend better. But those things are fixable. They are fixable and they’re not personnel based. I can show you the little details that we can just get right and tidy up.”

“We’re not defending the ground well enough. When we get our system right those things (midfielders being labelled as slow) won’t show up as much (even) if that is an issue.”

Those are a selection of Craig McRae quotes from his mid-week press conference before Round 24.

Collingwood’s high-risk, high-aggression style in the front two thirds of the ground looks spectacular when it works.

The earlier clips in the piece showed as much. Now it’s time for how it looks when it doesn’t work.

As shown in the stats, even in Collingwood’s storming start to the year they were never an elite side in scores conceded per inside 50. That’s because they do much of their work further up the field.

If a side can get through the initial defensive press, they find more room across the rest of the field than other top tier sides.

More often than not against Collingwood, that space can be found by changing the angles, i.e. not moving in a straight line.

Take this passage from the Brisbane game as an example. As it goes long to a contest, we can see Pies set up to swoop if the ball hits the ground.

But Eric Hipwood takes the mark to retain Brisbane control. Then as the camera pans out we see where Collingwood’s numbers are – and more importantly in this case, where they aren’t.

That overload around a first phase of play usually works for Collingwood. When it doesn’t, this happens.

At stoppages, Collingwood’s aggression can be exploited if the opposition is good enough. To reuse a passage from their loss to Hawthorn in Round 21 to illustrate:

Exploiting Collingwood’s aggression: As I’ve explained at various points, Collingwood’s high-risk, high-reward approach can be used against them if the opposition is good enough. At centre bounces, that increases the importance of reading a ruckman.

On multiple occasions it was Hawks reading the ruckmen – whether it was Darcy Cameron or Ned Reeves – better than their Pies opponents. Take these two examples as a guide.

The area of focus is Taylor Adams, along with Newcombe (first clip) and Day (second clip). Whether it’s Adams running to the wrong area or Cameron tapping to the wrong space is impossible to know unless we’re in the inner sanctum, but either way the result is the same.

Adams’ role is the aggressive Pie, but that is exploited by Newcombe and Day who read the play and either start the chain for the clearance (Newcombe) or stroll out of there unbothered (Day).

It’s a symbol of how Collingwood’s stoppage work – defensively only, it must be stressed – took a hit over this stretch run towards September.

While they’re still scoring regularly from their own stoppage wins, between Round 19-23 they were a bottom five team in terms of conceding from their stoppage losses.

Early in the season I highlighted their stoppage structure and how it was effective. As a season rolls along, opponents pick at it trying to find soft spots.

The Hawthorn game provided the most glaring example of it in action, and it looms as Collingwood’s biggest question mark heading into the finals.

They’ll always be able to score with their ball movement. But if the contested and stoppage game can’t reach the levels of earlier in the season, then they’re in the pack with everyone else. Especially in the first final against a Melbourne side who love to drag opponents into the grind.

Get it right and the Pies are back to clear number one seed.

The question: Which part of the season says more about Collingwood?

To finish on a familiar phrase, it’s all about your level of trust.

If you trust Collingwood are capable of recapturing what we saw through the first half of 2023 – as illustrated here and in various Notebooks – then they’re comfortable premiership favourites.

But if you believe Collingwood’s true level is more what we’ve seen through the second half of 2023 – and in particular over the last six weeks – they’re no more or less a chance than any other team in the top four.

Personally, they’re my premiership favourites.

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