(Image from AFL Photos).
The third round of the 2020 AFL season once again left us scratching our heads, with some of the competition’s perceived elite suffering losses at the hands of teams we thought had many more questions to be asked.
Last week’s focus on Collingwood’s defensive unit could be considered low-hanging fruit in regard to topics for discussion. In Round Three’s focus, we shift our thoughts toward something a little more intriguing.
This week’s piece focuses on the enticing stoppage battle that took place Saturday evening between Geelong and Carlton. Beside the Blues boasting a kick-to-handball ratio of 2.4:1, higher than any team recorded in 2019, the standout numbers from this fixture (for us at least) were in regard to stoppages.
Both sides enjoyed momentum around stoppages across the four quarters, though using contrasting methods. Beside the pure clearance differential which illustrated a Geelong win (35 to 27), there are a number of other considerations that sprung to mind.
Overview of Saturday’s Geelong vs Carlton
The Blues were the undisputed surprise of the weekend’s fixtures, defeating Geelong by two points away from home on Saturday evening.
The Blues led from start to finish, stretching their lead over the Cats to as high as 42 points early in the third quarter, before holding off the fast-finishing Cats, who were desperate to consolidate their convincing Round Two win over Hawthorn.
Patrick Cripps led the way for Carlton, recording 24 disposals and twelve clearances, almost guaranteeing three Brownlow votes.
Other notable performances included nine marks for Carlton’s Levi Casboult, five of which were contested. He also managed two goals, as did the evergreen Eddie Betts who once again reminded us of the valuable role he can play for the Blues this season (both on the field and in a developmental one off the field too).
Sam Docherty and Jacob Weitering led Carlton’s defensive unit, combining for seventeen intercept possessions, nine score involvements and 818 metres gained.
As for the Cats, Zach Tuohy and Tom Stewart combined for 35 disposals and 927 metres gained, largely thanks to their combined kick-to-handball ratio of 4.8:1 (29 kicks, 6 handballs).
In the midfield, Mitch Duncan collected 24 disposals and three clearances, while Patrick Dangerfield managed 21 disposals, five clearances and a game-high eight score involvements.
First half versus second half
Carlton started strongly around stoppages, registering eighteen clearances in the first half (three more than the Cats).
Around the ground at ball-ups and throw-ins, clearances between the sides were equal. Where the Blues generated their positive clearance differential was at centre bounces, winning eight centre clearances in the first half, compared with the Cats’ five. Half of these centre clearances were accumulated by the Blues’ undisputed leader Patrick Cripps (something we delve into a bit later).
In retrospect, the Blues had two thirds of their total clearances in the first half, making for some tough, second half viewing of stoppages for Blues fans. Geelong seemingly stamped their dominance at stoppages, winning 69% of total clearances in the second half, including seven of the ten centre clearances, and thirteen stoppage clearances (Carlton managed six for the half in comparison).
What was the common strategy?
On paper, Geelong boast a much stronger midfield brigade in comparison with Carlton, and therefore would’ve likely been comfortable playing three traditional on-ballers (say Dangerfield, Selwood and C.Guthrie) against any trio of Carlton midfielders. Considering this, the stoppage strategy Carlton deployed on Saturday evening, reflected similar thinking, as the Blues seeked extra assistance to unlock Cripps from any unwanted Geelong attention.
Both sides utilised rather traditional stoppage structures, with three on-ballers (OB) in front of the ruckman, a sweeping wingman on the left (W), and a corridor wingman behind the ruckmen (W). Below is an example (Geelong’s sweeping wingman is out of frame).
In addition to this, the Blues often attempted to push a forward up into midfield stoppages to create an outnumber around the ball. In the example below, Michael Gibbons can be seen in the stoppage, attempting to release Patrick Cripps with a block, having pushed into the stoppage from Carlton’s forward line.
This was common throughout the duration of the game as the Blues often sent either Gibbons or Eddie Betts into stoppages up the field to gain a numerical advantage.
Have a look at another example here where Betts pushes up to a midfield stoppage, leaving his direct opponent (Mark O’Connor) indecisive, and eventually out of position.
Once you understand the still image, watch the stoppage in real time, focusing on how Betts’ decision to push into the stoppage eventually renders O’Connor useless in defending the eventual inside 50.
This strategy initially created a number of miscommunications among Geelong players at stoppages. Geelong would eventually counteract this by allowing Carlton’s outnumber (Gibbons or Betts) the freedom to move up into stoppages, while their direct opponent would generate a spare behind the ball (in most cases Geelong would rearrange matchups to ensure either Stewart or Blicavs were spare). Such a move enhanced Geelong’s ability to intercept the ball in their defensive half.
Considering Carlton deployed this strategy at the majority of stoppages up the field, Geelong’s midfielders over time were also able to communicate matchups and positioning earlier as the game went on. Especially in Gibbons’ case, his intentions to simply block for Cripps meant Geelong midfielders could pay less attention to Gibbons himself, as his role was too one dimensional. For those interested, Richmond’s Kane Lambert is a great example of how to execute the role, as Lambert provides great support for the Tiger’s on-ballers, whilst also possessing the ability to win his own clearances.
The even spread of stoppage clearances in the first half was also reflected in both team’s abilities to generate scores from their stoppage wins. Carlton managed to generate five shots on goal from midfield and forward stoppages in the first half, some of which came directly from the actions above. This was roughly equal for the Cats, who were able to generate four shots on goal from the same sources.
On top of their scores from midfield and forward stoppages, Carlton managed to score two goals directly from centre bounces in the first half, while Geelong could only score one behind from their five centre bounce wins.
Goals directly from centre bounces provide value not only on the scoreboard, but also by building pressure on your opposition. To score from a centre bounce guarantees one of the three outcomes below:
1. A repeat score.
2. A score in reply.
3. First score of the quarter.
All three of these outcomes build pressure on your opposition. The ability to score repeatedly (and quickly) will build scoreboard pressure on your opposition, while replying with a goal after conceding provides you an opportunity to reset across the field, and potentially halt your opposition’s momentum.
Finally, even scoring a behind from a centre bounce is useful, as you gain valuable field position, and allow your defensive unit to set up trained structures behind the ball. This will make your opposition’s task rebounding out of their defensive half all the more difficult.
Overall, both teams were able to generate 50% of their first half scores from centre bounces and stoppages, though for the Blues, they managed three goals to the Cats’ one.
In the second half, just one of Carlton’s five scores came from a stoppage (20%), while the Cats generated four of their eleven shots on goal from either midfield or forward stoppages (36.4%).
The below example is one of the late scores Geelong generated from a forward stoppage. In this case, Carlton are on the wrong end of a midfield miscommunication between Gibbons and Martin, leading to Mitch Duncan’s touched shot on goal.
Depth in the middle
The Cats flexed their depth of quality through the midfield against the Blues, especially in the second half.
Despite winning a similar number of centre clearances, Carlton’s reliance on Patrick Cripps provided a stark contrast compared to the Cats who relied on a greater spread of the workload.
On Saturday evening, Carlton’s eleven centre clearances were won by four individuals (Cripps, Martin, Pittonet and Curnow), while the Cats had ten different players win their twelve centre clearances (Dangerfield, Stanley, Ablett, Steven, Ratugolea, Narkle, Duncan, Bews, Menegola and Guthrie).
This flexibility wasn’t just present at centre bounces. Around the ground, Geelong boasted fourteen different stoppage winners, compared with Carlton’s eight.
Possessing the luxury of an adaptable playing squad, Geelong were able to benefit from rotating more players through the midfield, ensuring their players were fresher come the end of the game.
Geelong were also able to mix matchups, and throw alternative trios into centre bounces, which can complicate their opposition’s ability to plan. There are obvious benefits to such adaptability, though there are also some challenges it creates, such as finding a suitable matchup for Cripps.
Geelong struggled to contain Cripps at centre bounces, rotating a number of different matchups, none seeming to have great effect. In the video examples below, Cripps is met at centre bounces by Quinton Narkle and Tom Atkins, both considerably undersized compared to Cripps. Geelong’s rotation of multiple players through the middle of the ground in these examples, found them lacking a suitable matchup for Cripps, allowing the Carlton star to take advantage of his undersized opposition.
We’ve attempted to highlight just a couple of simple considerations from the small sample of Saturday evening’s fixture between Geelong and Carlton.
Geelong’s midfield depth played a key role on Saturday evening, turning the tide against Carlton in the second half. Despite boasting a number of players to run through the midfield, Geelong often struggled to find a suitable direct opponent for Cripps, resulting in centre clearance losses.
The Blues’ efforts to outnumber at stoppages became quite predictable as the game went on, allowing the Cats to maximise the talents of their elite defending group, who were also instrumental in building momentum in the second half.
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