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Are the current Giants capable of forward-half football?

Apologies for no new addition to our Round by Round (2020) series this week. We watched a handful of games from Round Seven with nothing really jumping out at us worthy of spending a couple hours digging further into.

Instead we’ve decided to spend some time looking ahead to Friday’s clash between GWS and Richmond, with the majority of focus spent on GWS. Given how crazy the year so far has been, it’s hard to remember this fixture is actually the 2019 Grand Final rematch.

Despite the successes of 2019, both sides have found themselves under the AFL media blowtorch at different stages of this season already.

Questions were raised about Richmond’s ability to back up their triumphant 2019 season following consecutive losses to Hawthorn and St Kilda. Things have since quietened down on that front (surprise, given we were only four rounds into the season) as the Tigers have made mince meat of Melbourne, Sydney and North Melbourne in recent weeks.

On the other hand, the Giants are currently under the proverbial blowtorch, copping a scorching for consecutive, somewhat narrow losses to the two highest ranked sides in the competition (Port Adelaide and Brisbane). The Giants should bounce back considering the strength of sides they’ve already faced this season. How they potentially return to form will be interesting to watch given comments from their coach during the week.

We’ll be honest from the get go, this piece lacks a little of structure and cohesion. We’ve decided to focus most of our time on some interesting midweek quotes from Giants senior coach Leon Cameron.

“The top clubs, when they get it in [the forward 50], they don’t let it out of there. We need to join that party, whether that’s through repeat stoppages or setting up really well behind the footy.

We clearly need to move the ball a bit better, but I’m a big believer that when we do get the ball inside our forward 50 we need to lock it in there a lot more.”

AFL.com.au (Martin Pegan)

We found these comments quite interesting given a couple of key on-field characteristics that have defined the Giants’ style of play since their first finals appearance back in 2016.

Firstly we’ll discuss the traditional field position Giants have occupied during games, contrasting this with Richmond, who are the model forward-half side.

We’ll then dive into three issues the Giants are currently facing, and how this impacts their intentions to transition into playing more forward-half football. These include their ability to defend in transition, their sudden drop in clearance wins, and finally the willingness of their forwards to pressure their opposition.

Because of time constraints, we were only able to use examples from last Saturday’s fixture versus Brisbane. We’d love to watch a larger sample of games to better understand these issues, but it’s just not feasible at this current time.

Before we dive into the piece, be sure to join our mailing list to receive an email every time we upload a piece. Given the upcoming fixture turbulence and a couple of things going on personally, we can’t make any guarantees as to when pieces will be uploaded to the site. You can also find us on Twitter as per usual (@ftballextension).

Field position & intercept ability

A simple way to kick things off, and we’re sure you’re already across it.

There’s not much guess work as to what the numbers suggest in regard to where the game will be predominantly played this Friday. The Giants rank first for average rebound 50 differential this season, while the Tigers rank fifth for average inside 50 differential.

Put simply, Richmond are a forward-half team, built to force turnovers forward of centre, generating repeat entries, and eventual scores. In 2019, Richmond’s average inside 50 differential ranking was second amongst all teams, while their scoring efficiency inside 50 only ranked 13th (HA season only). The Tigers don’t necessarily score efficiently, but they do bludgeon their opposition with repeat entries until they score.

On the other hand, the Giants have traditionally been a team able to withstand pressure in their defensive half, before cutting teams open heading back to goal (Giants using quite a blunt knife in 2020 so far). In 2019, the Giants ranked eleventh for average inside 50 differential, but were able to make up for this by scoring on (average) 45% of their entries inside 50 (4th in the AFL, HA season only).

The possession heat maps of both sides in their last two fixtures provide a great example of this contrast in average field position (though both teams have played varying quality of opposition in these fixtures).

Richmond possession heat maps (RD 6-7)
GWS possession heat maps (RD 6-7)

(via AFL Live mobile app).

Interestingly though, Leon Cameron spoke yesterday about the need for his side to modernise the way they’re currently performing, calling for improvements in regard to their average field position.

That grabbed our attention, especially considering the Giants’ tendency to spend time in their back half is not a new trend. In 2019 GWS ranked seventh for rebound 50 differential, while also ranking fifth in the same metric a year prior. In contrast, Richmond haven’t finished a season ranked higher than 15th for average rebound 50 differential since 2016 (where they ranked second).

To be able to trap the ball inside your forward half, you need elite intercept defenders who are able to set-up outside your forward 50, ready to send the ball back in for repeat entries at first opportunity. This can be considered a tick for the Giants considering they rank second in the competition for average intercept differential, despite missing the likes of Zac Williams and Sam Taylor for multiple games this season.

Nick Haynes has once again established himself as one of the competition’s elite intercept defenders, ranking third for average intercepts per game. Support for Haynes has been varying given the aforementioned injuries to key members of the Giants’ defensive unit. The likes of Phil Davis, Aidan Corr and Heath Shaw have all provided solid defensive support for Haynes, but in terms of moving the ball forward, only Haynes (32nd) and Corr (79th) rank among the top 100 players in the competition for average metres gained amongst GWS defenders (Williams ranks 71st but has only played three games).

The idea of Haynes and his fellow defenders working higher up the field in order to lock the ball inside the Giants’ forward half must be enticing for Leon Cameron and his coaching staff, but it’s never that simple.

Despite their own struggles with moving the ball, it became rather clear during last Saturday’s clash with Brisbane, that the ability to defend in transition might be the Giants’ greatest concern. This, paired with a drop in form from the GWS midfield, and questions regarding the ability/effort of their forward line to apply pressure on opposition exits, severely limit the intercept capability and effectiveness of their own defensive unit.

Stoppages & moving the ball forward

One of biggest concerns for the Giants currently has been around their ability to win clearances following a strong 2019 season around stoppages.

Last season the Giants ranked second for average stoppage clearance differential, with the likes of Jacob Hooper (13th) and Tim Taranto (25th) both ranking in the competition’s top 25 players for average clearances from stoppages.

So far this season, the Giants’ ranking in the same metric has fallen to tenth, highlighting concerns for Leon Cameron and his coaching staff. The Giants are now also ever-reliant on generating scores from stoppages, rather than interceptions. This is touched on nicely by the ABC in their piece this week (well worth a read).

Being able to bail out down the line knowing you hold the upper hand at stoppages gives confidence to players all over the field.

Defenders are afforded time to setup behind the ball, shuffle matchups to their liking, and maybe even generate a +1 in defence. Forwards can also set up down the line, with talls ready to fly for marks, while smalls can either get front-and-centre, or spread into space on the far wing, threatening to get in and behind their opposition’s defence.

Considering Richmond also rank in the bottom half of the competition for average stoppage clearance differential (13th), the Giants’ chances of generating a more aggressive field position by winning clearances is hopefully just around the corner. The Giants will also be aided by the return of midfield bull Tim Taranto, who illustrated some of his quality against the Lions last Saturday (three stoppage clearances, two goals).

Lost in transl-ition

There’s been some commentary this week about the Giants’ ability to defend in transition, with various clips making the rounds on various AFL media platforms.

It’s hard to watch. Especially against Brisbane, GWS struggled on a number of occasions to slow the ball movement of the Lions.

When Leon Cameron voices his desire to generate more repeat entries, these sorts of miscommunications and lapses in awareness shown last Saturday against the Lions raise more questions than answers as to how the Giants will achieve such a shift in focus.

We’ve picked one out of the many clips to highlight the issues the Giants are currently dealing with (note starting points/match-ups in the example below).

The next clip also illustrates a breakdown in the Giant’s team effort to slow Brisbane’s ball movement.

Jarrod Berry (a midfielder) drops himself in the corridor, drawing Harry Himmelberg (a forward) away from his direct opponent in Harris Andrews. Berry’s efforts to link up in defence has generated an outnumber amongst Brisbane defenders.

Just as Berry kicks, you can see Ryan Lester spread hard offensively as his direct opponent (Zac Langdon) is required to come forward to cover the next link in the chain (Andrews). The Giants are lucky on this occasion as Zac Bailey sprays his kick, leaving Lester’s efforts unrewarded. The Lions shouldn’t be able to move the ball up the ground so freely.

The major concern from that clip is how the Giants were left so vulnerable in slow-play transition following a very simple effort from a Brisbane midfielder. Berry’s effort seemingly caused a breakdown in the Giants’ defence, which could have ended up a lot worse than it did.

It’s hard to point the finger at anyone in particular, but given their current frailty in transition, it’s hard to see how changes overnight will seal the apparent holes in the Giants’ collective defence.

The forward pressure must increase

Linked with their current inability to defend in transition, the Giants are also lacking the ability or effort required to pressure their opposition’s defenders when moving the ball.

Having watched the majority of the Giants/Lions clash from last Saturday, one thing that stood out, was a lack of pressure on the Brisbane’s defenders exiting defensive 50, along with when the same defenders found themselves higher up the ground.

It’s obvious the Giants are aware of their current inability to apply pressure in their forward half given Cameron’s mid-week comments, and unlike communication breakdowns in defensive transition, applying frontal pressure in the forward half is a much easier fix to implement (if you can get the ball down there).

One source of our concern regarding the Giants’ forward pressure relates to the efforts of their talls. Last weekend against Brisbane, Harry Himmelberg recorded just six pressure acts in total (season average is considered AFL average), none of which came in the Giant’s defensive half. Jeremy Cameron also recored just five pressure acts, with his season average seeing him ranked below the competition’s average (via AFL Stats Pro).

A good example of key forwards applying pressure on their opposition’s defensive outlets can be found in our piece last week analysing the roles played by Carlton’s key forwards in their win over the Western Bulldogs. The likes of Harry McKay, Mitch McGovern and Levi Casboult helped the Blues generate a number of entries inside 50 from their pressure exploits further down the ground.

We understand Himmelberg and Cameron aren’t expected to be smothering every opposition kick inside 50, or laying the highlight chase-down tackles, but in order to generate repeat entries, or just slow their opposition’s ball movement, more must be done.

Here’s a simple example of what we think.

It’s as simple as Cameron initially marking Gardiner closer so he’s able to halve the contest and force a stoppage or GWS turnover. That’s how you stop conceding repeat entries, and begin creating your own.

On a more positive note, we even found a couple of examples where this was achieved by different GWS forwards.

Jeremy Finalyson denied Daniel Rich the opportunity to send a kick deep inside 50 with a great effort to get up the ground and force a turnover (which ends up leading to a goal).

Our second positive clip advocating for more forward pressure from GWS tall forwards, actually comes on the back end of one of our transition clips from earlier.

Gardiner receives the ball with both Daniel Rich and Grant Birchall free as handball outlets. With a bit of luck considering Gardiner’s slight fumble, Cameron (with some help from Jye Caldwell) is able to force a turnover in a situation which could have quickly seen the Giants eating dust as Brisbane move the ball forward once again. Cameron goes back and slots the goal.

Overall

The Giants have underperformed during the competition’s restart, and could possibly face similar testing times against the Tigers on Friday evening. Leon Cameron’s words during the week caught us by surprise, and with the current concerns the Giants are facing on the field, it’s hard to see how they’ll flick the switch overnight.

Mental lapses and miscommunications in defensive transition are not something you can fix quickly, but their efforts around the contest are. The Giants must start by reestablishing their dominance around the contest at stoppages in order to move the ball forward more often than not.

Pair these efforts around the contest with genuine pressure from their forward unit, and the Giants will begin to reap the rewards of spending more time in their forward half.

Just like Leon said.

ftballextension@gmail.com

(The majority of statistics used in this piece were sourced from Footywire).