We’ve reached the third week of the AFL’s restart, and as the fixture falls to pieces around us, I’ve decided to take the time to rewatch Brisbane’s convincing win over Adelaide from the weekend.
To label the Lions win over the Crows as ‘convincing’ is likely a gross understatement. Despite the Lions winning by 37 points, the Lions generated 33 scoring shots to Adelaide’s eleven, with the expected score margin reflecting an 82-point Lions win (@StatosphereAFL via Herald Sun Online).
Before the first ball was bounced at the Gabba, questions regarding the Crows’ team selection were circulating. Onlookers were left scratching their heads as the Crows selected Billy Frampton to line up beside Crows key-forward pairing Taylor Walker and Darcy Fogarty.
The Crows doubled down on their selection the morning of Sunday’s fixture, as Fogarty was pulled from the side after injuring his shoulder in Friday’s training session, and was subsequently replaced by key-forward Elliott Himmelberg.
Given their struggles as a team to apply pressure in the forward half, naming three key-forwards was a bold strategy to implement by the Crows, but one likely born from their desire to stem Brisbane’s strength in the air.
By naming the three key-forwards for Sunday’s game, the Crows were likely banking on a strengthened aerial presence, attempting to limit the Lions ability to intercept. In 2019, the Lions ranked second for average intercept possession differential (+4.2 per game), and had started 2020 in similar fashion.
The Lions premier intercept defender Harris Andrews led the competition for total intercept possessions at the end of Round Three, having accumulated 31 intercepts in total (10.33 per game). Backing up Andrews were Ryan Lester (six intercepts per game), Darcy Gardiner and Brandon Starcevich (both 6.67 intercepts per game), who had also started the season strongly.
The Crows may have also been banking on stretching the Lions defence with height, as Lester (192cm) was forced to defend Frampton (202cm) or Himmelberg (200cm) at times while Riley O’Brien was in the ruck.
The Crows, like many other teams in the AFL as we speak, struggle to move the ball from defensive 50. The Crows currently lead the competition for average rebound 50 differential, highlighting the time spent in their defensive half. Couple this with their 18th-ranked average mark differential (-34.3), and it’s clear the Crows are struggling to rebound from their defensive half whilst also maintaining possession.
These struggles will often lead to the Crows sending bail-out kicks down the line, which is a problem in itself, as Adelaide also average -6.8 contested marks compared with their opposition (ranked last). This means the Crows (in bail-out settings) are either conceding contested marks to their opposition, or bringing the ball to ground. If the Crows are able to achieve the latter, Adelaide rank last in both contested possession and clearance differentials, meaning they’re unlikely to win these ground balls, or a clearance if a stoppage is forced.
These poor rankings provide further evidence as to why the Crows may have gone taller in Round Four. The need for a stronger presence in these bail-out settings was clear, but considering what we saw took place on Sunday, these efforts were ineffective.
In the end, a glimpse of effort shown in the third quarter was the Crows’ only real shining light on Sunday. Beaten at the contest convincingly, Adelaide also showed little form in the air, which is what we’ve chosen to focus on below.
Adelaide’s aerial presence
Having named the plethora of tall talent for Sunday’s game, the Crows in theory, should have offered a far greater contest in those bail-out situations mentioned above.
Figures from the weekend paint a different picture, as Walker, Himmelberg and Frampton all failed to register a single contested mark for the game. This is considerably poor as fourteen different Lions’ players were able to clunk a contested mark, including a combined six from key-defenders Andrews and Lester alone.
Having rewatched the game, there are a number of examples we’ve taken the time to highlight.
Firstly, in this example below, Brisbane have generated a +1 behind the ball (Daniel Rich). This has therefore released an Adelaide player at the Crows’ defensive 50 stoppage to roam free (see red circles).
Secondly, the Crows have structured their six forwards in a 3-2-1 formation ahead of the ball, with Walker positioned as the deepest forward. Both Frampton and Himmelberg (see pink circles) are positioned on the boundary side of the formation to provide an aerial presence in any bail-out situation (as these kicks are coached to be placed closer to the boundary in order to increase the likelihood of forcing a stoppage).
Thirdly, Adelaide have set-up with their small forwards on the corridor side of the forward structure (see green circles). This contrasts the role of Frampton and Himmelberg, as the smaller forwards are better suited to spread quickly into the space out of frame on the left of the screen if the Crows are able to generate a rebound 50 into space, rather than down the line.
Having highlighted Adelaide’s forward structure ahead of the ball, the reason we picked this example as first cab off the rank, is to highlight Frampton’s failure to provide support aerially.
Frampton doesn’t fly for a mark in this contest (nor could he given the trajectory of the kick), but considering he’s marked by the competition’s best intercept defender in Andrews, Frampton must ensure Andrews is unable to drop off and fly for a mark (this becomes a common trend throughout the game). Frampton is slow to read the flight of the ball, making him irrelevant in the marking contest, and therefore encourages a smart player like Andrews to drop off his direct opponent and float across to almost intercept Sloane’s kick down the line.
The second example we look at comes in the final quarter. There were plenty of other examples in between, but we chose this one as it provides a simple example of the Crows’ talls lacking an aerial presence, or the ability to communicate and maximise their value in these settings.
The Crows send their kick-in down the line, with Frampton in position to take an uncontested mark. With Himmelberg also in the vicinity of the contest, he must do better to seal Gardiner (his direct opponent) out of the marking contest. Instead, Himmelberg allows Gardiner to pressure Frampton, eventually spoiling the ball back into the Lions’ forward 50. The kick to the contest doesn’t necessarily favour the Crows’ talls, but considering the 2 v 1 outnumber they’ve generated in this contested setting, simple communication and effort would garner a much better result.
Below the knees
To compile a lack of aerial presence, as expected, pressure when the ball hit the ground, especially in Adelaide’s forward 50, was always going to be difficult considering their choices at team selection.
In addition to the zero contested marks taken by Adelaide’s forward trio, not one of the three were able to lay a tackle inside 50 either, with just Himmelberg the only key-forward laying a tackle for the entire game (Walker and Frampton both zero).
We’re not saying we expected a pressure clinic from any of the key forwards, but considering their efforts in the air were lacking, their inability to pressure Brisbane’s defenders on the ground meant their selection in the side proved even more questionable than previously thought.
Obviously with the ball spending less time inside the Crows’ forward 50, it would naturally be harder to record a tackle in this space. On Sunday, the Lions generated 61 inside 50s compared to the Crows’ 28. Overall, the Lions also generated nineteen tackles inside forward 50, compared to the Crows’ five.
When combining these two numbers, Adelaide averaged a tackle inside 50 every seventh entry, their second worse performance in 2020 (7.5 entries per tackle I50 versus Port Adelaide). Brisbane’s average works out to be a tackle inside 50 every 3.21 entries, much better than that of the Crows, illustrating a rather stark difference in forward 50 pressure.
There were always going to be limitations with the ground-level pressure players like Himmelberg, Frampton and Walker could place on Brisbane’s defenders. To make up for this lack of pressure on the ground, emphasis on providing strong aerial support intensifies, which unfortunately made their lacklustre performance even more apparent.
Lions continue to intercept
A natural continuation from the lack of aerial presence and forward pressure by the Crows, was the noticeable impact Brisbane’s key intercept defenders were able to have on the game.
The Lions managed a total intercept differential of nineteen in their favour, with Lester (eight), Andrews (six), Gardiner and Starcevic (both five) combining for 24 intercept possessions, as each player continued their strong form mentioned earlier in this piece.
Unaware what the exact expectations the Crows’ coaching staff had for their key-forwards, our best guess would be that phrases such as ‘compete in the air’, ‘bring the ball to ground’, or even ‘create a contest’ would have been common in pre-game discussions.
It would be hard to reflect positively on any of these hypothetical expectations. In some cases, even smaller Brisbane defenders such as Daniel Rich (career average of 0.2 contested marks per game) were able to intercept mark over their taller Adelaide opposition.
With this example coming in the first quarter, a terrible tone was set from very early on.
In other cases, similar to that of this piece’s first clip where Andrews drops off Frampton to almost intercept, the Crows failed to seal out one another’s direct opponents. I’ve compiled some of the best examples to drive this point home.
The first clip sees Andrews once again able to drop off his direct opponent (Himmelberg) to intercept mark over Walker and Frampton (whose direct opponent was the undersized Grant Birchall). When playing on elite intercept players such as Andrews, leading into poor areas is a recipe for disaster, with Himmelberg better off initiating body contact with Andrews, and limiting his ability to drop off and create a +1 like he does in this case.
There are positive signs for the Crows in this second clip, as both Frampton and Himmelberg combine down the line to move the Crows inside 50. Though, with Walker off the ground at this point in the game, having the young key-forward pairing push so high up the ground, left the Crows with just O’Brien down the line when entering forward 50. Despite Frampton’s effort to get into a marking position on the last kick inside 50, Andrews, who was able to handover the mark on Frampton’s initial mark to teammate Daniel McStay, eventually intercepts over O’Brien, having lost Frampton in transition between contests thanks to the handover.
We finish things off with another simple intercept by Andrews over Frampton. This is purely a case of illustrating the big difference in experience between the pair. Unfortunately for Himmelberg and Frampton, playing on elite opponents only makes your mistakes more apparent. It’s not an easy task to contain someone of Andrews’ quality, especially given Frampton and Himmelberg combined have managed just the fourteen AFL games.
Support from fellow forwards
Support for Adelaide’s key-forwards was also a factor in their limited impact on the game. I don’t want readers to think Adelaide’s key-forwards were the central reason for the team’s performance on Sunday. Given their relevant AFL experience, the task to contain a quality Brisbane defence was always going to be difficult, and this was often exacerbated by a lack of support from their fellow forwards.
At times throughout the game when Adelaide had just two of their three key-forwards on the field, Brisbane’s best intercept players, mainly Lester, were forced to play on smaller opposition who also struggled to contain the Lion’s defenders.
In the example below, Adelaide’s Tom Lynch drops off his direct opponent Lester to get front and centre at a forward 50 marking contest. There’s merit in Lynch making such a decision, but given the damage Lester had already done aerially, Lynch’s initial focus must be to stem Lester’s intercept potential.
Lester, who was gifted a free run and jump at the intercept mark, dashes any valuable chance for Frampton or Walker to impact the contest, and could have easily been restricted if Lynch had provided support in the form of a seal for his teammates.
If Adelaide have decided to bank on the presence of the key-forwards they select, teammates must do better to maximise these players value. This is not achieved by allowing your direct opposition to intercept mark over said key-forwards.
In the second example, which occurred earlier in the game from an Adelaide kick-in, Ben Crocker attempts to separate from Lester (his direct opponent), and provide a target for Laird to kick to. See red circle below.
Lester senses Crocker’s half-hearted lead, and once it’s clear that Crocker won’t be used by Laird, Lester reacts the quicker of the two, dropping back in front of O’Brien to intercept mark. Lester is then able to launch an eventual repeat entry inside 50, leading to a Lions score.
It’s hard to imagine Laird kicking to Crocker in a 1 v 1 situation against a better aerial player in Lester. Crocker’s awareness for what Lester often attempts to do (dropping off his opponent to create an outnumber) is lacking, which when combined with his effort to recover and defend his direct opponent, leads to easy turnovers generated by the Lions.
Though this example doesn’t necessarily highlight a lack of support for one of Adelaide’s key forwards as O’Brien is the player eventually marked over, it’s clear the tendencies on show by fellow Adelaide forwards reflect a greater problem for the Crows ahead of the ball.
Adelaide’s decision to name three key-forwards for their Round Four clash against Brisbane raised questions from the outset.
Though its understandable that the Crows may have targeted limiting the Lions intercept ability, the lack of aerial presence provided by these talls, meant there lack of versatility was also out in the open for everyone to see.
In defence of young Frampton and Himmelberg, who between them have only played fourteen games, the task of competing against the Lion’s defensive unit is no easy feat, with more experienced players also struggling to cope in similar matchups.
The lack of aerial presence by Adelaide’s key-forwards was made worse considering the efforts of supporting Crows’ forwards.
As mentioned previously in this piece, if the Crows were striving to maximise value in aerial contests, Adelaide’s other forwards must provide better support in order for this value to be realised.
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