Footy’s lazy nostalgics tend to play the same hits on repeat. It’s too congested. It’s too low scoring. They don’t teach them how to kick.
None of these are completely fair, but only one is straight-up nonsense: that today’s teams are all the same.
This year’s finalists are a neat illustration: teams with very different ‘styles’ of play that should provide a series of gripping match-ups.
But it can be hard to find clear explanations about what those styles actually are. What is Richmond’s ‘brand’? What is Port Adelaide’s?
The answers are out there, including from mainstream commentators, but they’re often drowned in a torrent of white noise.
At its worst, expert analysis is a peculiar and unpleasant fusion of back-slapping banter and baffling jargon: the pressure gauge is elite at the moment, which is indicative of the fact that West Coast’s system is really struggling. You’d know all about pressure, wouldn’t you, Lingy?
But while poking fun is easy, doing better is hard. It’s very hard to say something simple enough to be useful, but careful enough to avoid overstatement. Footy’s complicated, and separating signal from noise is a challenge for former players and stats nerds alike.
There are some great examples in the amateur blogging community, some of which I’ve referenced below. If you’re after a deep dive, check out the finals dossiers on Ricky Mangidis’ blog The Shinboner. My bite-sized profiles of the top four are deliberately pitched at a much simpler level.
What do they look like when things are going well? What about when things fall apart? I hope some clear answers to these questions can provide useful context for the casual viewer and food for thought for the armchair experts. But in my quest for simplicity, I’ll definitely have left things out. Hop in the comments and tell me what they are!
The Lions look best when they attack swiftly. They can be extremely damaging when they get ‘on a roll’. At the peak of their powers, they can blow a game apart with a series of quick fire centre clearances and goals.
They’ve achieved this a few times this year, and they seem to particularly enjoy doing it against Port Adelaide.
Of course, to kick a barrage of goals you have to… kick goals, which, as we’re reminded with nauseating regularity, the Lions don’t always do.
The reason this inaccuracy hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster is that the Lions have a good Plan B. They’re very good at trapping the ball in their forward line. They might take some unlikely shots and miss some likely ones, but they’ll get one eventually, or at least waste some time if they don’t.
The third – and probably underrated – string to the Lions’ bow is their desperation on the last line of defence. This helps them to ‘park the bus’ and hold on to slim leads in tight games. Remarkably, they haven’t coughed up a three-quarter time lead since mid-2019.
How do you beat them? Keep it clean. The Lions will give you chances to rebound, but you’ll have to be precise to take them. Geelong and Richmond both achieved this in different ways.
The Cats sliced the Lions up with careful uncontested kicks. The Tigers, who had a comical number of kick-ins to work with, used them to launch aggressive kicks to open up the ground before the Lions’ defence could set up, leading to easy shots on goal.
Neither strategy is easy to pull off, but both seem to work.
Richmond’s dominance defies simple numerical explanation. They’re terrible at clearances, but they just don’t care.
Their game thrives on pressure, or ‘chaos’. If you make the smallest mistake in the wrong part of the ground, they are ready to swarm back in the other direction and waltz into goal.
The surest sign that Richmond is up and running is exactly that – the waltz. Their score lines suggest an accurate team, but account for the difficulty of the shots they take and they’re shooting below expectation this year. Their power comes from their ability to find easy shots when they surge into an open forward line.
There are two ways to handle this: don’t give them the chance, or don’t leave yourself open when you do.
That second approach – which you might achieve by dropping an extra number back – was used by Sydney in a low-scoring Gabba slog that riled Damian Hardwick. It might frustrate the Tigers, but it also weakens your own ability to attack.
Two of the league’s most attacking teams – Port Adelaide and Brisbane – have tried the opposite approach. Instead of blanketing their own game in a bid to blanket Richmond’s, they have attacked confidently and trusted themselves to get it right.
The Lions famously did not get it right, but the Power did. It’s no surprise that the result was crowned the match of the year. When Port won the ball, they’d attack. When they failed, the Tigers would attack back, kicking several ‘trademark’ easy goals. It was open and high-scoring.
The last two contests between the Lions and the Tigers would probably have been great spectacles too, had it not been for the Lions’ yips. If they trust themselves to go once more unto the breach and convert on Friday, the result could delight.
The Cats are known for their discipline, both with the ball and without it. They set up well to make it hard to move forward against them, and they are themselves calculated and precise when it’s their turn to move.
This has given the reputation as a dour, conservative team, which is probably unfair. Nobody has scored more than Geelong this year, and only the Lions did last year. They just don’t take risks they don’t need to take.
When this works, it’s frightening. In the example below, they play a brutally effective game of ‘keepings off’, slicing through the Lions’ defence to keep them from having any influence on the game.
It helps that the Cats have very few liabilities in any part of the ground. Their forward line is not usually too reliant on Tom Hawkins, although that is part of what went wrong against the Tigers in the absence of Gary Rohan. Everyone in the backline can kick well. The midfielders’ reputations speak for themselves.
How do you beat Geelong? One strategy is to make them panic by putting them under pressure, forcing them to take risks they’d rather not take and then catching them out of position on the way back if they fluff their lines. The lowly Crows achieved this in patches in an honourable late-season showing.
I’ve left the minor premiers to last because they’re the contender I know least about. I’m probably not alone – they’ve been consistently underestimated. But 14 wins count for something.
Like the Lions, Port Adelaide trust themselves to attack. They’re especially good at doing so from stoppages, thanks to a damaging combination of strong inside midfielders and dangerous, well-positioned wings.
Aggressive attack runs the risk of being punished in return if the attack goes awry. This can happen to Port Adelaide – their accuracy is not as bad as the Lions, but it also leaves a lot to be desired. That’s where a strong backline comes in handy.
Three teams have knocked Port off this year: the Lions, the Cats and the Saints. As is true of any good team, there’s no obvious blueprint, but two things seem to be important.
First, neutralise them at stoppages. St Kilda did this thanks to strong games from Paddy Ryder and Rowan Marshall. The Lions adjusted on the hop to get the upper hand after quarter time. The Football Extension has excellent analysis of both battles.
Second, take advantage of their undersized defence. Port Adelaide intercept well, but their ‘key’ defenders are all under 195cm. If you can isolate them one on one, you can take marks inside 50. Tom Hawkins did this well, but so did the less-stellar Dan McStay and Mason Cox.
I’m doing a disservice to the remaining four teams by not including them here, a decision which guarantees that one of them will make it deep into October.
Especially stiff are the Eagles, whose best is just as good as any of the four who fell ahead of them. Lots of great stuff has been written about their game, which has been pretty similar for three years. They have class in every part of the ground and they’re especially potent when they load up out of defence, so don’t be sloppy when you go forward. In other words, don’t take them for granted, which I’ve arguably done here.
Let the games begin!