Why can’t the Lions kick straight?
The Lions are flying. They’ve gone 10-2 since the season resumed, holding steady in the top two despite a lengthy peloton at their heels. They’ve left Queensland twice all year, and if luck is on their side they could stay there until Grand Final Day.
There’s just one problem: they can’t kick. Everyone knows it, and everyone’s talking about it.
Long-suffering Lions fans, who should be over the moon with their side’s run of success, are instead tearing their hair out, as win after win is registered with an asterisk: ‘harder than it needed to be’.
The ice has been particularly thin in the last fortnight. The Lions have kicked and kicked and kicked the narrowest of winning scores: 7.11 to edge North by one point, 6.14 to squeeze the Saints by two.
These aren’t even the worst examples – a comically dominant performance against the Crows produced 10.23, and a nightmare against the Tigers yielded 4.17.
So what’s going on? One part of the story is harder shots. The Lions shoot more than most from difficult angles: their expected score of 3.19 per shot is the league’s 5th lowest.
But their conversion relative to expectations is far and away the worst. Compared to the average outcome for each shot they’ve taken, the Lions have lost a whopping 104 points so far this year.
The next worst – Port Adelaide and the Bulldogs – have lost 67 and 65. The sharpshooting Cats have gained 44.
It’s little wonder Lions fans are frustrated – so too the Lions players, who are clearly feeling the weight of expectations. But some of the anger might be misdirected.
Take Eric Hipwood, whose pronounced yips make him a popular whipping boy, as was the case this week when he kicked 0.3 with another out on the full. But heading into the game, Hipwood was actually outperforming expectations for the year by 6 points. That shouldn’t be too surprising – two weeks earlier, he slotted 5.1 against the Bulldogs.
Dan McStay, another favourite scapegoat, is up 7.4 points for the year. In fact, the Lions’ forward line – often maligned as its Achilles heel – is collectively 4 points ahead of expectations. Small forwards Charlie Cameron, Cam Rayner and Zac Bailey are all in the black, with Lincoln McCarthy the only wayward regular.
Click image for interactive
Data from Stats Insider as of Round 12. ‘Forwards’ as classified by AFL Stats Pro, with some exceptions based on heatmaps and discretion, with the aim of ensuring that each team’s forward group was roughly the same size (around 7 players per match played). Blue dots denote Brisbane Lions players.
4 points might not sound like much, but it’s the 6th best ledger for any forward line. Richmond’s forwards, whose accuracy cruelled the Lions, are 6 goals below par. Collingwood’s forwards are 5 goals down.
Add to this the fact that the Lions’ attack is the 4th highest-scoring in the league and the story looks far from a disaster.
So where’s the problem coming from? Not the Lions’ unassuming forward line, but its superstar midfield.
It’s a midfield that’s usually regarded as the Lions’ greatest strength, and it probably is. Lachie Neale is a Brownlow favourite. Jarryd Lyons and Hugh McCluggage may feature in the All Australian squad. Dayne Zorko has been there before, and Jarrod Berry will surely be in future.
Chief among this midfield’s many strengths is its ability to hit the scoreboard. As far as expectations are concerned, the Lions’s midfield’s tally of 370 expected points is almost triple that of West Coast’s, and the competition leader by a long shot.
But I’m sure you can guess what’s coming by now – their conversion is the worst in the business by a similar margin. Misses against the Saints saw the deficit cross 100 points for the year. Individual tallies are eye watering: Berry -15, McInerney -16, Zorko -19, McCluggage -26.
Click for interactive
Data from Stats Insider as of Round 12. ‘Midfielders’ as classified by AFL Stats Pro, with some exceptions based on heatmaps and discretion, with the aim of ensuring that each team’s midfield group was roughly the same size (around 8 players per match played, including rucks). Blue dots denote Brisbane Lions players.
So does this make it all their fault? It’s not quite that simple. Forwards should be better kicks, and they generally are. So far 2020, forwards are 26 points in surplus and midfielders are 200 points in deficit.
That might be why some teams, like West Coast, choose not to rely on them – although being able to rely on sharpshooters Kennedy (+24.8) and Darling (+18.5) instead must surely help.
The Lions unapologetically prefer to share the load. And it’s far from a catastrophe – even with their wayward shooting, they were the highest scoring team in 2019 and trail only Geelong this year. Their wide spread of potential scorers makes them unpredictable, creating headaches for opposition back lines. And when it all comes together, as it has a few times this year, it makes them nearly unstoppable.
The only question that remains is whether the Lions can make it come together more often. But as the level-headed Chris Fagan patiently repeats in press conference after press conference, there’s no need to panic. Call off the mind coaches for McStay. Ease up on the psychoanalysis of Hipwood. If the mids can even manage to revert to the mean as we reach the pointy end of the season, the Lions could have the last piece of the premiership puzzle.