BOND 007 I think the club should give Dylan82 a roleIt is obviously good to get a win and also do so whilst playing attractive football that converted into goals.
However, Sydney are currently a very average team. On Saturday they were left fielding a ruck combination that would not be standard at WAFL level and Blakey as their only tall player up forward - the same Blakey who also weighs less than J.Jones.
Since the COVID break Sydney had gone -2, -10 and -24 in contested possessions leading into this game.
That said, the last time West Coast had a differential of contested possession higher than Saturday (+24) against any opposition was back in Round 20, 2018 (the infamous Gaff-hook derby).
Considering prior to this match the club were averaging a contested possession differential of -15.5 in 2020 (lowest in the competition), such a turnaround in fortune is significant, especially when the leading accumulator of contested possessions at the club coming into this ended up spending more than three-quarters of it on the bench with injury.
Despite the paucity of the opposition, there is potentially more that can be taken from this match than any other since the 2018 Grand Final. A combination of planned and forced shifts in tactics resulted in some of the most fluent ball movement the competition has seen this year and Sydney's total of 13 scoring shots (with just 7 of those after quarter time) is the best defensive outcome for the club since Round 21, 2018 (the McGovern after the siren match against Port).
There will be much for the coaching group to consider after this match. I've already watched over this game several times, some periods many times more again. Because there was something there in this match that was very good. It may have been against an opponent who will likely finish the season in the bottom four, but this team has not clicked in such a cohesive manner for significant periods of a match in a very long time now - and perhaps most importantly, it was initiated by changes in structure.
This match is a bolt of lightning in a dark thunderstorm, providing a brief view of the possibility that lays ahead.
So, what happened? Let’s take a look.
The planned changes:
The club had expressed during the lead-up that changes in structure and application would be undertaken for the match against Sydney – and this indeed proved to be the case. Allen and Waterman came into the side and occupied roles that were far more attack-orientated than those previously fulfilled by the players they replaced, Hickey and Brander. Both the second ruck and defensive sweeping wing roles were repurposed as forwards. Meanwhile, the small forwards rather than repeatedly running defensively down the ground to zone space were staying at home in the forward line more often with some of their numbers actively involved with midfield rotations.
The attacking setup was thus effectively a seven-man forward line featuring four tall marking players, with more mobile teammates rapidly rotating around them. These changes were made clearly in response to the awful ball retention that had been taking place up forward – during the three losses in Queensland, the club had made attacking entries into the forward 50 on 116 occasions; whilst in the same period opponents had managed to rebound the ball out from their defensive 50 a total of 96 times – in other words only 1 out of 6 attacking forays by the club did not result in the opponent rebounding with possession. The counterpoint to the numbers used up forward was the deployment of two sweepers in the midfield (Redden and Gaff) behind the ball.
The first quarter showed some encouraging signs as a result of these changes. The forward line appeared to present a greater attacking threat, contested possessions were +5 for the quarter and the marking power of Allen and Waterman stretched the capability of Sydney’s lesser defenders. However, significant problems persisted. With more players positioned towards the attacking end of the ground, the threat posed by the opponent transitioning out of defence on the counterattack was increased. Unfortunately, for reasons I have described on previous occasions, sweepers behind the play do nothing to curtail opposition running handball chains; indeed, it can make them more damaging.
With extras both ahead and behind the ball, the midfield was left in a position where it was winning the ball but lacked sufficient support around it to retain possession without the need for risky disposal. The consequence was 21 turnovers in a single quarter, providing Sydney with ample opportunity to create counterattacking chains and score from 6 out of the 10 times they went forward.
The forced changes:
With the penultimate kick of the first quarter that led to Waterman’s booming goal after the siren, Shuey pulled his hamstring, after which he would not feature in the match any further. The midfield required repurposing in the absence of the captain and changes were made accordingly: Sheed moved inside; Gaff went onto the ball rather than sweeping; Redden pushed up to defend the stoppage outlets rather than the space between the stoppage and defence. The club had committed to placing more players around contested situations to cover for the loss of Shuey.
With the midfield sweepers removed, it was left to the non-key halfbacks (Duggan, Cole, Nelson) to zone off and cover those spaces defensively when required.
The frustration from the first quarter persisted into the second, with opportunities missed and what should have been a commanding margin going into half time instead was less than a goal. Pressure application around the ball was easily the best that it has been this year, and possibly better than at any other time since 2018, but the Swans were still able to find a way out through handball chains, negate the sweeping flanker and impact the scoreboard against the run of play.
The aggressive change:
With Naitanui running a clinic in the ruck and the midfield +9 in contested possessions and +6 for clearances, the club made a move that was surprising in that it was exactly the kind of change that it receives criticism for not doing – it gave the instruction for the non-key halfbacks to aggressively push up the ground, support the contests and provide overlap going into attack.
The result was revelatory. Sydney had a total of just 11 inside attacking 50 entries for the entire second half, culminating in 4 scoring shots. The aggressive move of pushing the halfbacks up so high closed the door on the Swans’ ball movement and allowed the Eagles to gain reward for the pressure that was being applied. West Coast were deploying a high press and it was working very effectively.
Here are some statistics from the second half:
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That is domination across all areas of the game.
Certainly, there are some things for the coaching panel to consider moving forward with consideration to this result.
The tall press
I have long argued against playing many key talls up forward. However, the use against the Swans may have merit. Darling and Kennedy retained deep stretched the defence, whilst Allen and Waterman were than able to outmark their opponents up the wings. The deployment of a 7 man forward line in association with the halfbacks pressing up high, negated opposition rebound, which is always the obvious concern with playing so many talls in attack. With the ball retained in the forward half, the combination of four marking talls were beyond the opposition’s defensive capability.
The mobile defence
Duggan, at quarter time was the only player on the ground who had not touched the ball; at half time he still had just 4 disposals to his name. Freed from his defensive shackles, only Sheed had more possessions for the Eagles than he did in the second half. With the exceptions of Yeo and Sheed, in two quarters Duggan gained more metres than anyone else in the squad could manage over four. Cole and Nelson also looked more assured during the second half and were able to show more pace than in previous performances.
This match showcased that the defence is capable of playing with greater mobility and making connections higher up the ground with the midfield and forwards.
Sheed at stoppages
He doesn’t have the size, strength, pace or flashiness or others in the team, but Sheed is the best facilitator this club has when it comes to stoppage operation. Yeo had by far his best performance of the season in part because Sheed was there at the stoppages creating those channels for him to exploit. Sheed knows his limitations, he knows he won’t be breaking out of contests in Judd-like fashion. So he works to create and exploit channels around the contest as opportunities for his team-mates. In a talented midfield where it becomes easy for players to over-focus on trying to change the game through individual acts of brilliance, Sheed’s willingness to work for the team complements and enhances the effectiveness of run-through midfielders that are playing in the team.
Allen and Waterman
Aside from their developing quality and marking strength, there is something intangible from these two that improves the team. Allen despite his age, just seems to ooze the kind of leadership that lifts those around him, whilst Waterman comes across as the team-mate that you always would want to be playing with. It was telling that it was Waterman who conducted the introduction for the post-victory club song. These two may be key to the future of the club but are rapidly becoming key to the present as well.
The opponent may well have been a poor one. But the club won whilst playing well, particularly in the second half – and did so by virtue of trying something new that worked positively.
All of the things that we have been wanting to see.