The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Round 8: Essendon vs. Geelong

AFL Round 8: Essendon vs. Geelong

Saturday Night, 13th May 2017 at the MCG

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In the end we just tried to outscore him. I struggled to get 21 kicks let alone have 21 shots at goal as Ablett did. I reckon he could go to the toilet and the ball would land in his lap!

Kevin Sheedy [1]

On that day, fair dinkum, we couldn’t get anyone else on the forward line to get a kick.

Malcolm Blight [1]

Attacking football appears back in vogue in 2017 with the average score of 94 points per team up on the season average of 89 points from 2016. But we are still a way off the lofty heights of 1993, where the average score was a whopping 105 points. It is no coincidence therefore that in Round 6 of the 1993 season the football world witnessed one of the great shootouts in VFL/AFL history between Essendon and Geelong. A match now better known as the Ablett-Salmon shootout.

The final score of Essendon 23.18.156 to Geelong 19.18.132, only tells half the story. It was the performances of the two main protagonists that stole the show. Paul Salmon kicked 10 goals for Essendon, a fantastic effort that was overshadowed by the brilliance of Gary Ablett. Ablett kicked 14 goals, an individual performance in a losing side that is unlikely to ever be matched. What makes the performances of the two players even more remarkable was that there is an element of what could have been. Ablett, in his 25 disposals (all kicks), kicked 14 goals and 7 behinds. Had he kicked straight, Fred Fanning’s record of 18 goals in a match would have been threatened. Whilst for Salmon, he was restricted by a hamstring injury in the third quarter. Sitting on 9 goals at 3 quarter time, Essendon coach Keven Sheedy left him in the goal square in the last quarter for him to smuggle a 10th goal. A soft free kick and goal later, and number 10 was in the bag. Salmon then hobbled to the bench, his work done for the day. But Ablett was the real star, too strong in the air and too agile and skillful on the ground, Ablett could do it all. No wonder they called him God.

The Baby Bombers would go on to win the premiership that year, whilst the Cats had an off year in-between their Grand Final appearances of 1992 and 1994. Both teams, and in particular Geelong were built around attack first and defence second. In fact looking at the success of both teams over the past 30 years, the peaks in their season score averages have coincided with their periods of success. For Geelong the peaks correspond to the Malcolm Blight/Gary Ablett era of the early 90s and the dominant side of 2007-2011. Whilst for Essendon their notable peaks correspond to the 1993 Baby Bombers and the juggernaut team of 2000, with their single defeat for the whole season.

 Figure-1: Geelong Scoring History 1989-2016

Figure-1: Geelong Scoring History 1989-2016

 Figure-2: Essendon Scoring History 1989-2016

Figure-2: Essendon Scoring History 1989-2016

Over the past 35 years, there is one individual who has been a significant figure at both clubs – Mark Thompson. Thompson played 202 games for Essendon including captaining the 1993 premiership side. Although ostensibly an attacking half back flanker, Thompson never neglected his defensive responsibilities. This was an attitude that he carried into his coaching career. However, this emphasis on defence seems to be at odds with the ingrained attacking ethos of both clubs. After retiring as a player, Thompson had a short apprenticeship as an assistant coach at both Essendon and North Melbourne, before taking up the head coaching reigns at Geelong after the 1999 season. And he wasted no time to imprint his footballing philosophy on his new team [2]:

When I first got to the players, I explained that there would be a big change to the way they played; that it would be a more balanced game between attack and defence. I showed them the ranking for defence in 1999, taken from the points-against total, and they were sixteenth and dead last, conceding 112 points on average. It was the history of Geelong, to play like that, to be all about entertainment. My plan was to bring a defensive edge but not lose the attacking flare, so I started at the back. I talked a lot about defence and how we were going to win contested ball, and play a game that stood up in finals.

 Thompson did achieve his defensive ambitions, improving Geelong’s defence year on year, conceding on average 104, 93, 92, 92 and 80 points per game over the period 2000-2004. However, he did also curb their attacking flare, their attacking output reducing year on year until it eventually went back on an upward trend after the 2003 season. But it wasn’t until he narrowly avoided losing his job at the end of the 2006 season that he really did release the shackles going forward. It was the players that apparently saved Thompson’s career, with champion full back Matthew Scarlett even publicly threatening to quit if Thompson got the sack. And it was also the players that instituted the change required to the team’s brand of football. During a peer review session in the pre-season of 2007, the players demanded change [2]:

I did not escape the peer reviews. I had to sit in front of the players to hear their feedback, and what they thought was plain: ‘Stop talking the opposition up, make it more about us.’ I took that on board.

Thompson indeed took this on board and implemented a kamikaze style game plan aimed and getting through the congestion that other teams were creating. It was a game plan the team emphatically responded to [2]:

We played high risk, high reward, and I was almost conceding to Geelong what that club was. It was embedded in the culture of Geelong that it played attacking, bright football, Geelong liked to entertain, and it had an attacking backline, typified by the way the Cats played under Malcolm Blight in the 1990s. So in the end, after seven seasons, I gave in to that and we made it all about adventure.

In the 2007 season, Geelong averaged 118 points per game, their highest since Ablett was at his peak in the 1993 season. And not only that, the defence was stingy, which probably made Thompson equally proud. They conceded only 74 points per game. A massive differential of 44 points! And of course, Geelong went on to win the premiership that year, their first for 44 years.

Under Thompson, Geelong maintained this level of attacking football over the following three seasons, which included another premiership in 2009 and a grand final loss in 2008. After losing the preliminary final in 2010, Thompson moved on from Geelong to return as a coaching mentor to James Hird at Essendon for the 2011 season.

Under the guidance of Hird, there was a gradual improvement in Essendon’s defence, conceding on average 103, 95 and 91 points per game over the period 2011-2013. But it wasn’t until James Hird was sent on a sabbatical by the AFL and Thompson was handed the reigns in 2014 that he was able to really put his defensive stamp on the team [2]:

I remember going to the board and asking them, ‘How do you want me to coach the team? Give me some guidelines, potential outcomes.’ They had nothing for me on that score, so I had to do what I thought was right. Fundamentally, it was about defence, or better defence. Essendon had been a poor defensive team for quite a few years, and I went to Plan A just as I had done at Geelong. I wanted to make Essendon a hard team to play against, make them accountable through the midfield. We ended up conceding 79 points a game, our lowest for many years, and fourth best in the competition.

Indeed he did improve Essendon’s defence, but he also limited their attack. The defence went from conceding 91 points a game to 79 points a game. But the attack dropped from 98 points a game to 83 points a game. This was a far cry from his free scoring cats at the end of the noughties. Of course the attack only got worse with the return of James Hird in 2015 (72 points per game) and even worse still in John Worsfold’s first year in charge (65 points per game) when he had a depleted playing list to work with due to player suspensions.

Which brings us to 2017. Both Geelong (113 points) and Essendon (87 points) have improved their attack in 2017. Although based on the history of the two teams, only Geelong is scoring at a rate that would bring them into premiership contention.

Geelong started the season strongly, winning their first 5 games. The efficiency of their forward line in the wins against Fremantle and Melbourne was particularly impressive, converting inside 50s into goals at a rate of greater than 40% (the only team to achieve such a rate this year). In these two wins the high efficiency was important as it came from a relatively low number of inside 50s. The other 3 wins against North Melbourne, Hawthorn and St Kilda combined a large supply of opportunities with an efficient forward line (as an indicator, the league average is 26% goals per inside 50). However, what has hurt Geelong in the two recent losses is that their supply to the forwards (inside 50s) has dropped off. This has coincided with a drop in output from both Patrick Dangerfield (playing hurt?) and Joel Selwood (struggling with the tag?). This adds merit to the argument that Geelong is over dependent on their two star midfielders.

 Table-1: Geelong 2017 Match Statistics – Rounds 1-7

Table-1: Geelong 2017 Match Statistics – Rounds 1-7

Essendon also started the season strongly with wins against Hawthorn and Brisbane off the back of their efficient forward line. In fact, their 3 wins this season have all coincided with goals per inside 50 efficiencies of greater than 30% and their 4 losses with goals per inside 50 efficiencies of less than 30%. Although admittedly assessing their losses is not as simple as that. Their poor efficiency against Carlton was excusable because of the wet conditions; rather they lost that game by not adapting to the conditions as well as Carlton. In the loss to Adelaide, they were simply outclassed, both in the midfield and by Adelaide’s forward line. The Melbourne loss is the one game where the forward line did let Essendon down, with Joe Daniher’s inaccuracy copping most of the blame. In the Fremantle loss, Essendon started very well but then faded badly in the second half, with the forward lining suffering from a lack of supply.

 Table-2: Essendon 2017 Match Statistics – Rounds 1-7

Table-2: Essendon 2017 Match Statistics – Rounds 1-7

So what should we expect this weekend? Well we have two talented full forwards in Joe Daniher and Tom Hawkins, but I don’t think we can expect a Hawkins-Daniher shootout to rival that of Ablett and Salmon. Neither of them has even come close to kicking 10 goals in a game (Hawkins 7 and Daniher 6, their best efforts). Regardless, due to the effectiveness of both forward lines, a high scoring shootout is still in the offering. Geelong’s forward line is the more efficient of the two, meaning if Essendon wants to win they are going to need to win the midfield battle. In particular, this means curbing the influence of Dangerfield and Selwood. The task may be made easier, as despite being named there is still doubt surrounding Selwood’s fitness after he rolled an ankle last weekend – a late out possibly? The concern for Essendon is whether the fadeout against Fremantle was a one-off or a deeper malaise/tiredness affecting the team. So assuming Dangerfield and Selwood are both fit, Dangerwood will likely be the difference again.

Geelong to win 26 points

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Post Match Comments:

Final Score: Essendon 17.8.110, Geelong 13.15.93

The match was an Ablett-Salmon Shootout-Lite, with Daniher kicking 5 goals to Hawkins’ 4 goals. The match seemed to be in Essendon’s control for much of the night before the Cats rallied in the last quarter to make the contest momentarily exciting. Geelong could not convert their territorial dominance into goals. Despite 58 inside 50s, Geelong could only kick 13 goals, a GPI50 of 22%. Their early season efficiencies seem a long time ago now and they need to address this downturn before their season derails. As for Essendon, they were the complete opposite, converting 47 inside 50s into 17 goals, a GPI50 of 36%, which is a season high for them. And they were certainly exciting. In particular the trio of Daniher, Orazio Fantasia (3 goals) and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (3 goals) got the Bombers fans onto the edge of their seat. But it appears that from week to week you’re not going to be sure what you get from the Bombers this year.

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[1] Piesse, K. (1996). “Ablett: Greatest Ever. The Unauthorised Biography”. Modern Publishing Group, Victoria, Australia.

[2] Thompson, M. (2016). “Bomber: The Whole Story”. Penguin Random House Australia

AFL Round 9: St Kilda vs. Sydney

AFL Round 9: St Kilda vs. Sydney

AFL Round 7: Melbourne vs. Hawthorn

AFL Round 7: Melbourne vs. Hawthorn