As I write this, it’s not so much anger as pain.
I was angry after the first couple of rounds of the AFL season, seeing my Tigers who were so competitive and gave us so much excitement and hope for the future just last season performing like a bottom-4 team.
I’m certain Dockers fans are feeling the same as we are. What the hell has happened? How could Richmond & Fremantle possibly go from genuine contenders (looking at the bulk of the 2015 season rather than one Finals match) to contenders for the wooden spoon in one off-season?
I think the answer lies not within the walls of Punt Road or Parry Street, but within the walls of at least eight other clubs (specifically: West Coast, Adelaide, Sydney, the Bulldogs, the Kangaroos, Geelong, Melbourne & the Giants). I name West Coast first in the list because they were the first club to implement what has become the new standard for team defence in the AFL. Gerrard Healy dubbed it the “Wagles Web” and in 2015 the technique earned them a Grand Final berth. By 2016 most other clubs had adapted their own version of Adam Simpson’s revolutionary team defence, but also developed offensive structures to compliment it for them and counter-act it against similarly structured opposition.
As a result of not advancing their technique enough, the Eagles are suffering from a bout of mediocrity, but let’s face it – they’re still better than the Tigers. The question is: why?
As I said above – the answer lies with these other clubs and their new defensive and offensive structures. The sides mentioned above have been drilled in the off-season in a new team-based defensive structure which is designed to put unprecedented pressure on opposition players whilst providing predictable team-based offensive support to themselves and their teammates. And it’s working. Just look at what the Giants did to last year’s Premiers.
You may well ask: hang on, you mentioned Melbourne in the same breath as the Kangaroos? And you’re right – there’s a big gap between the two, but that gap is more about player age, personnel and maturity. Mark my words: Melbourne’s structures could take on the best if they had a mature, high-quality list. They can thank Roos for embedding them & it looks like Goodwin is more than on-board.
Your next point may well be: but you still lost to Port. And I think that loss was a great deal to do with player development (or lack thereof) and the mindset of the team, which, after the first 4 rounds appears to be: lost.
So if all of these other teams have managed to take their defensive and offensive structures to the next level, why haven’t the Tigers? More to the point – why haven’t the Dockers? I think the answer lies in one simple thing: the coaches have made mistakes. Both Ross Lyon and Damien Hardwick have backed their 2015 game plan and relied on their players developing and stepping up to the next level to take them to the next step, but in 2016, it’s really not that simple anymore. The science of defence and offense in the AFL has never been more important. It’s why clubs like the Swans and the Crows have managed to debut unheralded rookies who come in and make a genuine impact. The Dockers and the Tigers are still stuck in an AFL style which lays out a game plan reliant on star power and up until this year, this was perfectly OK and still is to an extent if you look at the Hawks (speaking of star power).
This is where I point out that the Tigers were the most competitive we’ve seen them all year against the reigning Premiers. I think Clarkson has a bit of the same problem as Lyon & Hardwick, but he has a team with extraordinary talent & an unstoppable mindset. If only we could bottle that mindset…
Both Lyon & Hardwick have also failed to develop their young players. The Dockers because Ross Lyon is allergic to anyone under the age of 25 and Hardwick because whomever is in charge of player development at Punt Road should be updating their LinkedIn. Let me also say I’m not at all fond of the midfield coach’s work, but I digress and I think the massive gap between this year and last is less to do with development of individuals and more to do with the development of a mindset and a consistent structure.
Let’s take the Tigers example, I have seen in every single match the same thing: Tigers ball-winners come away from a stoppage with the pill & either dish a handball or scrub a kick forward. If the handball is given, the player receiving the ball is mobbed & quickly dispossessed by opposition players who then flick a series of what appear to be pre-planned handballs to get clear of the erratic Tiger defence, then the Tigers’ opposition is in the clear. If the Tiger kick is scrubbed forward, it’s either straight to a contested situation or straight to the opposition – no time for decision making good or bad.
At almost no time have our panicked kicks under pressure hit the right target. And the reason is right there: pressure.
At every contest we seem to be outnumbered, at every stoppage the Tigers’ opposition seems to be more settled, better able to make a good decision.
This team defensive structure we’re facing (but not using) is also setting an impossible task for our forward line and back line. Most of our forward 50 entries are made to a contest in which we’re already outnumbered. It’s a wonder we’re scoring at all. Every time the opposition get out on the run, what has become the trademark Hardwick defensive move of having players further down the field leave their opponent to pressure the ball carrier is being ripped apart by clubs who have a field structure which positively CRAVES this style of defence. Our back-six have been put under impossible pressure with opposition players able to lead for the ball uncontested because the Tiger who should have been marking them has sprinted upfield to put pressure on the ball carrier (who either kicks it over their head or flicks another pre-planned handball to a teammate who does).
Media commentators as well as the players themselves have placed blame on the Tigers players for not running hard enough, but honestly – if a team without effective structures wants to cover a team with them, they need to run twice as far. They lose anyway.
I don’t know if our existing coaching staff can make the changes which clearly need to be made to upgrade our on-field structures and game plan to adapt for the modern game, but if they can – they need to start now. I know a football team is like a cruise ship – turning it around takes time, but we need to start making the turn right now because we’re headed for the Wooden Spoon Straits.