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AFL Round Six: Dogs Fall Victim to Brisk Blues

(Feature image: Carlton Twitter)

Our sole focus this week was planted on the last clash of the round between Carlton and the Western Bulldogs.

We’ve touched on Carlton previously, following their Round Three win over Geelong, but felt their efforts against the Bulldogs made them worth revisiting in this week’s piece. Some of their strategies surrounding stoppages seem to have continued into their following games, which is something we’ll discuss below.

Sunday evening’s fixture on the Gold Coast has been hailed the game of the round for football fans (along with Fremantle/St Kilda), especially given its juxtaposition with Sunday afternoon’s clash between the Swans and Richmond down the road at the Gabba.

Last time these two sides met was in Round 13 last year, with both the Blues and Bulldogs able to score over 100 points. On that day, the Bulldogs came away winners by three points, despite leading by over five goals with twenty minutes gone in the final quarter.

The Blues ran away 52-point winners this time around, despite losing the inside 50 count by twelve (41 to 53). When considering the highly-lauded defensive form the Dogs were boasting (see below), the Blues’ scoring efforts are even more impressive than they first may seem.

Our piece this week will discuss a few key takeaways from the game that we believe were important in shaping the final result.

Firstly, we touch on the higher field position of Carlton’s key forwards (also forward line in general), and how this shaped the Blues’ ball movement and pressure around the ball. We also link the pressure applied by the Carlton forwards with our next discussion point.

Secondly, we revisit Carlton’s strategies around stoppages, highlighting how the Blues, despite not establishing clearance dominance over the Dogs, were able to gain value through their own actions, and limiting those of their opposition.

Finally, linked with our stoppage chat, we analyse how the Dogs struggled to utilise their spare generated from stoppages against the Blues. We have a look at a couple of varying examples where the Dogs were unable to gain enough value out of their advantage behind the ball.

If you think you’ll enjoy any of those points of discussion, or if you’ve enjoyed our previous work (i.e. last week’s breakdown of Brisbane and Port Adelaide’s stoppage structures), make sure you join our new mailing list. We’ll send out a simple email each time we release a piece, so you can keep up-to-date with what we’re seeing. Be sure to also share with your friends, colleagues or family who might share your interest in our work. You can join the list here.

Carlton’s Key Forwards Occupy Higher Field Position

From the very beginning of Sunday evening’s fixture, Carlton’s key forwards Harry McKay, Levi Casboult and Mitch McGovern were working hard to occupy a higher field position. See McKay’s first effort of the game below.

The action of forwards pushing up the ground to congest space ahead of the ball is common in today’s AFL. Forwards are commonly instructed to congest space in order to deter their opposition from finding targets in space by foot. Once space is congested, teams are forced to bail out to contests where turnovers are less damaging, or where stoppages can be forced.

To see Carlton’s efforts to get forwards ahead of the ball doesn’t come as a surprise, but their intent and personnel chosen to do so did raise our eyebrows.

McKay is the prime example from Sunday evening’s clash, having ranked equal third among both teams for total distance covered (12.4 km). On top of this impressive effort, McKay registered seven defensive half pressure acts, bucking a trend which has seen him register more than five in just one other career game (eight versus Port Adelaide, R2 2019).

McGovern and Casboult were also able to combine for four defensive half pressure acts, one of which resulted in the first goal of the game.

McKay’s first goal saw McGovern apply direct pressure at a contest on the edge of the Bulldog’s forward 50 (along with fellow forward Eddie Betts). Both McGovern and Casboult had worked their way up the field into this position, creating space behind them, in which the Blues utilised in their ball movement forward from the contest. The higher forward line held by the Blues created space for McKay to eventually mark uncontested.

The example above led to the first goal of the game, though the Blues didn’t let up, with the desire to play forwards high up the field seemingly a cornerstone of the Blues’ current gameplan.

In the example below from the fourth quarter, Carlton have once again brought a number of forwards up the ground, closer to the Bulldog’s forward 50 stoppage. The Blues are then able to utilise the space behind their forwards during offensive transition, maintaining possession as their deepest forward/s lengthen back toward goal to create further space.

Carlton’s ability to win possession at the contest, and work the ball up the ground into the space created by their forwards now lengthening back to goal, helped the side maintain possession during ball movement. With a Carlton forward often creating a +1 at stoppage or around the contest, instead of kicking long down the line to the Bulldog’s spare, Carlton were composed, utilising their outnumber advantage around the ball with their kick-mark approach.

On Sunday, the Blues continued to prefer kicking as their chosen way of disposing the ball, recording an average kick-to-handball ratio of 2.14 kicks per handball, a metric in which they lead the competition, averaging 1.91 kicks per handball in 2020 (the AFL average is 1.43).

Along with getting up the ground to create space over the back for their fellow forwards, Carlton’s key forwards especially, also provided assistance while defending in some cases.

This example comes from the first quarter, once again illustrating McKay’s early desire to push up the field in support of his teammates.

McKay is able to influence the decision-making of Bailey Williams, forcing the Bulldog’s kick-in to be sent on the more dangerous, corridor side of the marking contest as McKay has worked his way into the bail-out area to create a 2 v 1.

To be more specific, McKay worked into the front position at the contest, whilst also standing on the boundary side, where Williams would ideally wish to send the kick. Williams is then forced to kick into the corridor (to a 1 v 1), which results in a repeat entry for Carlton, and eventual goal (Casboult helps lay the tackle).

Overwhelming the Bulldogs at Stoppages

As we mentioned in Round Three, the Blues will often send a forward up into stoppages to assist their general on-ball brigade and wingers.

The most common way in which the Blues achieved this was by sending a small forward such as Michael Gibbons up into the stoppage, alongside the on-ballers (see first image below). Another way in which the Blues also generated a +1 at stoppage can be seen achieved in the second image. The Blues once again send Gibbons up into a stoppage, but this time he goes directly to an on-baller, freeing a Carlton on-baller to rotate to the back of stoppage alone.

What the Bulldogs chose to do with their spare is discussed later in this piece, but what we wish to focus on initially is the Blues’ ability to apply pressure to the Bulldog’s handball outlets at stoppages.

Both sides were able to gain ascendency at stoppages during different stages of the game, but despite this, Carlton’s consistent extra numbers around stoppage assisted with applying consistent pressure on the Bulldog’s midfielders throughout the game.

One area of concern for Carlton heading into Sunday’s clash would’ve had to been the run-and-carry the Bulldogs were able to generate off the back of stoppages and contests against North Melbourne in Round Five.

Both Jason Johannisen and Caleb Daniel enjoyed field days against the Kangaroos last week, Daniel especially.

Collecting 22 disposals, Daniel ranked fourth among all players for metres gained (409m), and boasted a contested possession rate of just 28.6%, highlighting his ability to find possession in an uncontested state. On top of all this, Daniel had a game high ten score involvements (Johannisen equal third with eight), including three score launches.

North Melbourne’s forward unit gave Daniel quite a long leash throughout their clash. As seen below, Daniel on multiple occasions, was able to work his way to the back of stoppages or contests, providing a handball outlet for his teammates, before finding a target with a clean disposal forward.

In the first clip above, North Melbourne’s deepest forwards are too slow to push up the field and occupy the space behind the contest. This allows Daniel to hold his outside positioning (not get sucked into contest) and provide an outlet for the Bulldog’s ball movement. You’ll notice Tristan Xerri (#38) arrives too late to the contest to apply any pressure on Daniel.

Carlton’s approach was a clear contrast in comparison with North Melbourne. Despite their size and mobility, the likes of McGovern, Casboult and McKay were all inclined to push higher up the field to pressure the Bulldogs outlets when required.

In the example below, Gibbons pushes up to the stoppage in order to stalk Ed Richards (the Bulldog’s sweeping wing). Out of frame, Carlton’s other forwards, including McKay, have pushed high up the ground, which assists with generating a turnover when the Bulldogs begin to chain backward out of stoppage.

Comparing this to the first Daniel example from the game against North Melbourne, you can see the clear difference in intent to pressure between McKay and Xerri. One is unable to apply pressure from a deep position, allowing Daniel to move the ball within a scoring chain, while the other illustrates how pressure up the field from forwards can have a great impact on limiting an opposition’s ability to generate inside 50s and score, whilst also enhancing their own team’s ability to score from turnovers. For reference, the Blues registered 271 pressure acts for the game, 25 more than the Bulldogs.

For Daniel specifically, he was also unable to impact the game in the same fashion he did so against the Kangaroos one week prior. Daniel’s contested possession rate jumped up to 54.5% against the Blues, illustrating the change in pressure he found himself under. This pressure around the contest was definitely one contributing factor which impacted his inability to link the Bulldog’s chains out of contests (registered just two score involvements versus Carlton).

The one time he did find himself in space, Daniel was able to play a key role in Marcus Bontempelli’s third quarter goal (despite losing the initial clearance to Gibbons). In this example, as the Bulldogs are able to generate a turnover inside defensive 50, the Blues’ forwards are unable to congest the space ahead of the ball, allowing the Bulldog’s to effectively go coast-to-coast.

Another clear example of the Blues’ intent to pressure the Bulldog’s outlets at the back of stoppages is analysed below.

Despite the passage not ending in a score for the Blues, McGovern denies Johannisen the initial handball receive from Toby McLean. This forces McLean to use his second option (Louis Butler), who unfortunately mishandles possession, giving David Cunningham the time to pressure Butler and capitalise on the turnover.

Our favourite part of this example would have to be the intent from McGovern when streaming forward. He’s absolutely flying after having pressured Johannisen out of the contest. The Blues intent was there for everyone to see.

Dogs Struggled Utilising +1

Now that you can see what Carlton were doing at stoppages, the question turns to the Bulldogs, and specifically, what did they do with their spare generated from the Blues sending a forward up into stoppages?

Well it’s not exactly clear what strategy the Bulldogs settled on, or the circumstances in which the Bulldogs would utilise one over the other.

On multiple occasions, the Bulldogs decided to keep a spare behind the ball when the likes of Gibbons pushed up into stoppages. In most cases, this spare was Alex Keath, who managed a modest eight intercept possessions and lost just one of his seven contested-one-on-ones.

With those numbers, you would expect Keath had a strong impact on the game’s proceedings, but unfortunately it was the contests he was unable to impact, which often led to Carlton hitting the scoreboard.

To ensure the Bulldog’s spare behind the ball was unable to directly impact contests and generate intercepts, Carlton had to be very disciplined with their ball movement from contested settings (and they were). Rarely did you see the Blues hack a kick forward from stoppage to the Bulldog’s outnumber, rather moving the ball laterally to maintain possession. This was helped by a lack of Bulldog’s pressure around stoppages and contests, which meant the Blues were often able to find time to maintain possession, rather than bailing out kicks to the Bulldog’s intercept players down the line.

Other than keeping a +1 behind the ball, there were also occasions when the Bulldogs sent Gibbons’ direct opponent (i.e. Caleb Daniel) with him up into the stoppages to even numbers around the contest.

In the example below, Daniel goes up to stoppage with Gibbons, leaving a 5 v 5 ahead of the ball for the Dogs to defend. Daniel is caught in two-minds at the stoppage, allowing Gibbons to win the clearance, sending the ball down the line, where 9/10 times you’d bank on Easton Wood spoiling his third-man-up effort. This one time, Wood fails to impact the contest, with the ball spilling into McGovern’s (Wood’s direct opponent) path. The Bulldogs are lucky not to concede a goal from this passage.

Overall

We’ve touched on a couple of different aspects from Sunday evening’s Carlton win that link nicely with one another.

Carlton’s key forward brigade pushing up the field and applying pressure at the contest helped Carlton create space for their kick-dominant ball movement to take place cleanly.

While the majority of Carlton’s forwards pushed up the ground to create space in and behind them, the role of their deepest forward/s, and their ability to lengthen once Carlton won possession, afforded Carlton even more space ahead of the ball, whilst also negating the potential intercept ability of the Bulldog’s spare defender.

By pressuring the Bulldog’s handball outlets out of contests and stoppages, Carlton were able to limit the Bulldog’s run-and-carry from the likes of Daniel and Johannisen. This also created turnover opportunities, in which Carlton could quickly move the ball and score.

Given these scenarios created by the Blues pushing forwards up the ground, the Bulldogs struggled to impact the game through their spare behind the ball. In comparison, the likes of Michael Gibbons and Jack Martin, who rolled up to stoppages, were able to impact the game directly, either through their pressure (19 defensive half pressure acts between them, game average per player 6.11), or on the scoreboard (two goals each).

Once again, if you’ve enjoyed this week’s piece and are interested in what we may have coming in the pipeline, be sure to join our new mailing list. As always, we’re still on twitter (@ftballextension), and you can also reach us via the email below.

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