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Collingwood & Essendon: What to make of tonight’s fixture?

(Picture: Getty Images).

Given we were able to churn out our Round Four review of Adelaide’s forward structure a little earlier this week, we’ve decided to take the chance to provide some small insights into what we’re looking at with regard to the Round Five clash between Essendon and Collingwood.

A lot of what we talk about below is not necessarily what we think will happen, but rather ideas, strategies, structures and methods we think these sides may have discussed during the week.

Matchups and some of their implications

The biggest questions looming over this evening’s clash seem to be focused on the performance Darcy Moore, and whether he can replicate the actions of his injured teammate Jeremy Howe in the coming months. Pressure has been heaped on Moore’s shoulders, but given the overall solidity of Collingwood’s defensive unit, Moore’s role will be made much easier with support from the likes of Brayden Maynard, Jordan Roughead and Matt Scharenberg.

Given Roughead will likely line up next to Shaun McKernan, we expect either Maynard or Scharenberg to mark Jake Stringer. By naming Scharenberg, Collingwood’s versatility in their defensive half will free up Moore to play on one of Essendon’s least dangerous forwards. For his size, Moore is an exceptional defender at ground-level, which compliments his elite intercepting ability.

Last week Carlton enjoyed success in deploying a similar strategy. The Blues would send a tall defender (also decent at ground-level) to one of Essendon’s smaller forwards, whilst also giving him permission to drop off his direct opponent when he felt necessary.

The Carlton defender would initially defend his direct opponent if they were occupying dangerous space. Once they felt their opponent was not dangerous, they would drop off to create intercept opportunities.

The below example sees Liam Jones starting the second quarter on Devon Smith. Jones goes up to the initial contest with Smith before dropping off to intercept the eventual reentry inside 50. Jacob Weitering also does a solid job of sealing out McKernan from the contest.

Last season Collingwood ranked third for average intercept differential, and given their backline (minus Howe) is built in similar fashion this season, the Pies’ ability to intercept must be a key area of concern for Essendon heading into tonight’s clash.

It’s easy to see Moore replicating such behaviour this evening given his versatility and game awareness. Moore is comfortable following smaller forwards into contests or stoppages, but is also incredibly good at reading the situation, and dropping off if he deems his opponent is unlikely to gain possession or score.

Essendon inside 50…

I guess this subheading is basically doubling down on our initial stance, but we’ve got genuine concerns about Essendon’s forward personnel (especially in the air).

Last season the Bombers struggled to generate marks inside their forward 50, managing a mark every 5.39 entries, ranking them last in the AFL.

There’s obvious reasons why that may be the case, considering Essendon was missing the likes of Joe Daniher for the majority of 2019, but adding to these concerns, the Bombers also ranked 16th for percentage of team shots taken between 0-24 metres (2018-19 seasons combined, statistics sourced from StatsInsider). They’re also still without Daniher.

As the Bombers were lacking the ability to either generate deep inside 50s or capitalise on them (with marks or scores), it’s no surprise Essendon also ranked 14th for scoring efficiency last season.

Could Collingwood be up for a field day in their defensive half tonight? There’s a good chance, but it’s also 2020, and no one really knows…

What will Essendon do if there’s a spare?

We’re asking you. We don’t really know.

It’s hard to sometimes understand whether a team is generating a spare in defence, or whether actions by the other team are generating the spare for them.

In the case we discuss below, Carlton’s decision to move Marc Murphy up to the stoppage has directly generated Essendon’s spare for them. Essendon have then made the decision to keep the spare, rather than sending their +1 up to the stoppage with Murphy. This strategy is something we discussed in our Round Three piece, using Carlton’s Michael Gibbons as another example.

Last week against Carlton, Essendon generated a spare in defence when Carlton sent a forward up to stoppages (especially in the second half). In the example below, instead of manning up Murphy (currently forward) at the stoppage, Essendon have decided to keep their spare behind the ball.

Essendon’s decision on who would remain spare varied. Adam Saad was often Murphy’s (or Gibbons who also would come up to stoppage in same role) direct opponent, and therefore would play spare himself. Other times, Essendon would reshuffle matchups to isolate someone better in the air such as Michael Hurley or Jordan Ridley in order to stem Carlton’s contested marking ability.

Why is any of this relevant to this week’s game?

Given Collingwood’s likely desire to generate a spare in defence (Moore), the Pies could utilise a number of different strategies to do so. Essendon must therefore have prepared a number of contingencies, which we’ve tried to examine below.

Considering a traditional stoppage setup with three onballers, and both sweeping/corridor wings, we think Collingwood may look to generate a spare from stoppages. They could achieve this by sending a forward up to some stoppages like Carlton does in the example above (i.e. throw-in, Pies’ forward half).

Rather than generate a spare at the actual stoppage like Carlton, we think Collingwood would also then potentially drop a wingman such as Chris Mayne into defensive 50, taking Moore’s direct matchup. Considering Mayne’s versatility and experience down back for Collingwood, he poses as an ideal candidate to move onto Moore’s direct opponent in these situations, freeing Moore to play as spare. Depending on whether he plays down back or also up on the wing, Travis Varcoe could be another potential candidate for such a role.

In this hypothetical situation, the question is, do Essendon send a player forward to deny Collingwood the ability to play Moore as a spare? We think probably not…

In all likelihood, Essendon will allow Collingwood to generate a spare in defence, as it will also provide Essendon with a spare at stoppage, or behind the ball as well.

If something similar to what we’ve mentioned above happens, Essendon will either have their potential spare in defence (if the Bombers’ defender doesn’t follow the Pies’ forward into stoppage), or at stoppage (if they Bombers’ defender follows the forward, and Pies’ wing drops defensively).

The Bombers may choose to keep any potential spare at stoppage given their injuries and the strength of Collingwood’s midfield. An extra player at stoppages for the Bombers may help generate clearances and win field position. It really depends on what the Bombers value.

On the other hand, Essendon may choose to deploy any potential spare in similar fashion to Collingwood, generating a loose man in defence. Both Redman and Ridley have enjoyed varying success in such roles, though given their likely matchups with the likes of Elliot, Hoskin-Elliot or Stephenson, their responsibilities may lie elsewhere.

Finally, if Collingwood are able to generate a spare in their defensive half, Essendon may choose to push a wingman forward, replacing the winger at stoppage with whichever Essendon defender comes up to the stoppage initially. This would see Essendon with seven forwards to match Collingwood’s seven defenders, limiting the Pies’ ability to intercept.

On the flip side, this would then see Collingwood’s forward setup resemble a five vs five ahead of the ball, providing the Pies’ forwards with more space to work with. The likelihood Essendon play with seven forwards to even any outnumber in Collingwood’s defensive half is quite low.

What would we like to see?

We wouldn’t mind seeing Essendon release Adam Saad as spare.

Despite lacking aerial talent, Saad could play a similar role to that of Sam Docherty at Carlton, or Daniel Rich at Brisbane (Rich plays this role in the first example of our R4 piece). These types of spares tend to occupy space in behind an opposition’s forward set-up, almost like a sweeper, compared with a traditional spare (Moore) who will sit amongst the opposition’s forward setup in order to impact any aerial contest following a stoppage.

The sweeping spare is usually a player who has a greater influence by foot, rather than in the air. They seem to hold the deepest defensive position in order to be utilised in case the team’s defensive setup can generate a turnover. The spare is then released into space on the other side of the field, which would suit a player like Saad who can spread quickly and use the ball by foot.

Overall

We’ve spent most of the time talking in hypotheticals as we’ve left this piece to the last minute (if that’s not obvious). There’s some incoherent tangents we’ve run out of time to edit.

In summary, we’re curious what Essendon will do about Collingwood’s intercept ability in the defensive half.

Considering Essendon’s weakness up forward, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be comfortable allowing Moore to pick off entry after entry. This piece has hopefully explained a couple of alternatives the Bombers could utilise.

Will Collingwood play Moore as spare, or are they comfortable playing him off one of Essendon’s smaller forwards?

Will Essendon deny Collingwood any chance of creating a spare? Or will the Bombers be happy to also have a spare at stoppage to assist their depleted midfield?

Let’s find out soon.

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