AFL Round 9: St Kilda vs. Sydney
Saturday Afternoon, 20th May 2017 at Etihad Stadium
Coming into the 2017 season there were two teams widely tipped to be the big improvers for the year, St Kilda and Melbourne. And by quirk of the draw, they faced each other in Round 1 at Etihad Stadium.
Despite both teams being at a similar point in their list development, St Kilda have had the stranglehold on the rivalry. Coming into that Round 1 fixture, St Kilda had won the preceding 14 games between the two teams stretching back to 2007. This, coupled with the fact that Melbourne had won only 1 game out of 25 at Etihad Stadium since 2008, meant that history was on St Kilda’s side. However, despite a good start to the game by the Saints, the Demons dominated the remainder of the game to run out comfortable 30-point winners. And when Nick Riewoldt went down in the closing stages of the game to an apparent serious injury, their season was in tatters after only one round of football. Melbourne, by beating their bogey team on St Kilda's own turf, had apparently got the jump on their rival and was now the team most likely to mix it with the big boys in 2017.
Overreaction after Round 1 is commonplace in the football world. A change in luck (Riewoldt only missed a week) and improved form has meant the Saints have turned around a 0-2 start to the season into 5-3 and sitting in 6th place on the ladder after 8 rounds. In particular, their win against GWS in Round 7 was seen as a coming of age match for the club. And with 8 of their remaining 14 games to be played at Etihad Stadium, surely the Saints are finally in a position to return to finals for the first time since 2011. After all, St Kilda are an Etihad Stadium specialist aren’t they?
In 2016, rightly or wrongly, St Kilda developed a reputation for being an Etihad Stadium specialist. This appeared well founded, as 9 of their 12 wins came at the ground, including a run mid-season where they won 7 consecutive games there. However, this reputation is perhaps a little off the mark. Figure-1 presents St Kilda’s record at Etihad Stadium since the start of 2016. In total, their record at Etihad Stadium from 20 games has been 13 wins and 7 losses, i.e. they are roughly winning 2 out of every 3 games at the ground. Not a bad record for a finals aspirant, however, it is their win/loss records at other grounds that is more revealing about St Kilda, as presented in Figure-2.
Firstly, St Kilda played interstate on 5 occasions in 2016 for 5 losses at an average losing margin of 53-points – a dismal travelling record. St Kilda has appeared to make progress in addressing this shortcoming in 2017. In Round 2, they had an honourable loss to West Coast at Domain Stadium by 15 points, despite being crucified by the umpires (an 8-23 free kick count against them, the highest differential of any game this year). They followed this game up with a big 75-point win against Hawthorn in Launceston in Round 6. Securing multiple interstate wins could be the difference between just making finals and pushing for a top 4 berth in 2017.
Secondly, St Kilda’s remaining 3 games played in Victoria in 2016 were all played at the MCG, for 3 wins, i.e. they were undefeated at the MCG. Therefore, is the perception of St Kilda as an Etihad Stadium specialist misplaced then? Are they actually better suited to the MCG? They are yet to play at the MCG this year to further test this hypothesis. However, it could be argued that their win/loss record at Etihad Stadium is just a reflection of their overall progress as a team.
St Kilda play a high-pressure game, and according to Champion Data  they ranked second only to Hawthorn in out-pressuring their opponent in 2016. The narrow confines of Etihad Stadium would be expected to suit this pressuring style of play. St Kilda were also second best at moving the ball from defensive 50 to their forward line and launched the second most scores from their defensive 50. With Etihad Stadium protected from the elements, the ground is conducive to this kind of quick clean ball movement from defence to attack. However, where it can occasionally come unstuck for St Kilda is in the defensive side of their game. In 2016 they ranked 16th for defending ball movement from defensive 50, 12th from defensive midfield and 14th from centre bounces. Hence, once the opposition get through the St Kilda press, they can get opened up quickly. This is highlighted by the fact that when the Saints lose at Etihad Stadium, they invariably concede big totals. Their last 3 losses at the ground were to Geelong (conceding 126 points), Melbourne (120 points) and Sydney (146 points).
This weekend St Kilda are hosting the Sydney Swans at Etihad Stadium and their recent experience in this fixture has not been pretty, losing by 70 points in 2016 and 97 points in 2015. In the 2016 game, St Kilda were competitive to half time (only down by 5 points) but went on to concede 15 goals in the second half, whilst scoring only 4 themselves. This is symptomatic of a game where the Saints’ defensive vulnerabilities were exposed.
The aforementioned results should not be a complete surprise given Sydney has been at the peak of their powers over the last few years. However, Etihad Stadium has proven to be Sydney’s home away from home. In fact, after losing to St Kilda in Round 9 of 2012, Sydney went on to win 10 consecutive games at Etihad Stadium (at an average winning margin of 50 points), with their run finally coming to an end against the Western Bulldogs in Round 2 this year. This is summarised in Figure-3, which presents all the Sydney match results at Etihad Stadium since 2012. So why have Sydney been so successful at Etihad Stadium? Well it is likely that the narrowness of the ground is conducive to their team defence structure. Sydney after all has been the best defensive team for the past half decade at least. And in particular, in 2016 they ranked 1st for defending ball movement from defensive 50 and defensive midfield, playing directly against St Kilda’s supposed attacking strength.
However, the Sydney of old has not quite showed itself in 2017. In particular their much-vaunted midfield has been out of form and even their defence has not been able to curtail the opposition as it has in the past. Injuries haven’t helped though, and with the gradual return of players their form has started to improve. They are now coming off back-to-back wins after starting the season with 6 straight losses. Given the struggles of Brisbane and North Melbourne, these two wins may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the win against North Melbourne was reminiscent of the Swans we have come to know, winning the contested possession count by a whopping 37 possessions. The inclusions of Rampe, Tippett and Rohan this week also adds some extra class and experience across the ground.
If St Kilda really want to stake themselves as more than just a pretender this year they need to beat Sydney this week and truly turn Etihad Stadium into their impenetrable fortress. But unfortunately for the Saints, Sydney is back in form and has the cattle on the park to make the most of their ground advantage.
Sydney to win by 1 point
Post Match Comments:
Final Score: St Kilda 10.8.68, Sydney 18.10.118
Sydney has added to their remarkable winning record at Etihad Stadium. And the 50-point win is in-line with their average winning margin at the stadium. As for St Kilda, two weeks after their coming of age win against GWS at the same stadium; they have stumbled again. For their sake, hopefully the blip is only temporary.
 Champion Data. (2017). “AFL Prospectus 2017”, Glen Luff, Victoria, Australia