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AFL Round 15: Melbourne vs. Sydney

AFL Round 15: Melbourne vs. Sydney

Friday Night, 30th June 2017 at the MCG

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You’ve got to set a plan and a guideline and you get players who want to do it. That’s what’s different from when I started to now, the understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. When I was at Sydney there was a point where the players all said, ‘Yeah, we want to do it,’ and we won the premiership. The players were the ones who drove it, and the Melbourne players will be the ones to drive it here. We’ll put the framework in place for them to be successful, and if they choose to do it then they will.

Paul Roos [1]

The Paul Roos Cup is this week’s match of the round, with the two form teams of the competition facing each other under Friday Night lights. Paul Roos is of course both the architect of the Sydney Swans drought breaking 2005 premiership side and dare we say it a 2017 Demons premiership team?

 Table-1: Form Ladder (based on results from Rounds 7-14)

Table-1: Form Ladder (based on results from Rounds 7-14)

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The story of Paul Roos’ rise to be the most sought after coach in the AFL could have been an opportunity missed completely. After a poor start to the 2002 season, Rodney Eade resigned following the narrow loss to Geelong in Round 12 after he learnt that his contract was not going to be renewed. This resulted in then assistant coach, Paul Roos, stepping into the breach as caretaker for the remainder of the season. Sydney subsequently won 6 of their last 10 games, including their last 4 in a row. Despite persistent rumours that Terry Wallace had already been handed the job for the 2003 season, Swans supporters made their voice heard in backing Roos. In the final game of the season, supporters revived the famous “Roooos” chant from his playing days. And incredibly the players followed suit (see video link below). The Sydney board seemingly had no other choice but to give Roos the job. The full extent of the agreement with Wallace has never been fully revealed, including whether there was a pay-out for him not taking the job. The fact that both parties (Sydney or Wallace) have never been willing to talk much about the subject suggests some sort of settlement was reached.

It was certainly a sliding doors moment. Roos would ultimately lead the Swans to a premiership in 2005, their first since 1933, and build the foundations for an era of success that has seen Sydney miss the finals only once since Roos took over full-time in 2003. Also, his footballing philosophy has influenced both his anointed successor at Sydney John Longmire and former St Kilda/current Fremantle coach Ross Lyon. The current footballing landscape would certainly be very different if Roos never got that job.

However, amid the popular acclaim of Roos being one of the best coaches in the AFL, he only won one premiership in his time at Sydney. Despite this, once he had passed on the baton at Sydney to Longmire, Roos as a Free Agent coach (albeit a reluctant one) became a hot property for all would be club suitors desperate to turn their own team's fortunes around. And he eventually was wooed back into the coaching fold by the Melbourne Football Club, as they went for the safe bet after the two consecutive unsuccessful rookie coaching appointments in Dean Bailey and Mark Neeld. However, under Roos, Melbourne’s on-field performances in his three years there were only middling, albeit in the second half of 2016 there were glimpses of the forecasted bright future. But this is probably underselling Roos, as the belief and culture he instilled in the club going forward counts for more than the wins and losses over the last few years, as it was in Sydney.

Regardless, the two teams Roos has had a large part in moulding together are now currently the two form teams in the competition and play a brand of contested football that stands up in finals. As a result, his legacy as not only a coach but as the architect of successful football clubs is growing by the week. Consider the following paragraph from an article published in The Age in 2010 [2]:

Prepare for more stories about Roos being the “top priority” for various clubs. Roos has already been the subject of considerable speculation at clubs whose coaches run out of contract next year, such as Carlton. The assumption, always, is that while he says he doesn’t want to coach, the Godfather offers will eventually see him saddle up again.

Although the above comment was published over 7 years ago after he left Sydney, it would not look out of place if you were to read it in today’s paper. Perhaps just switch Carlton with say Collingwood or Gold Coast. But are we not giving enough credit to Simon Goodwin for the current form Melbourne is exhibiting? In fact, on closer inspection the characteristics of the current Melbourne team actually have little in common with the 2005 Sydney premiership side. Let’s look at this in more detail, starting with what the Paul Roos style has become synonymous with – contested football and a stingy defence.

Contested Possessions:
You think of the Sydney Swans and you think of a deep midfield of hard contested footballers, from Brett Kirk and Jude Bolton from their 2005 premiership team, to Josh Kennedy and Dan Hannebery of their current side. However, looking back at the stats, the Swans took some time to become a dominant contested ball team, and remarkably it was not until their premiership year that they were a net positive contested ball team over the season (see Figure-1). By comparison, when Roos took over at Melbourne in 2014, the first noticeable impact he had on the team was on their ability to win the contested ball (see Figure-2). Although there has been a gradual increase in their contested ball differential since 2014, it alone cannot be attributed to their improved results in 2016-17. This corroborates one of the conclusions from my Round 7 article earlier this year, in which I concluded winning contested football was not the indicator of win/loss results for the Demons as it is for some other teams.

 Figure-1: Sydney Contested Possession Differential in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

Figure-1: Sydney Contested Possession Differential in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

 Figure-2: Melbourne Contested Possession Differential in Paul Roos Era

Figure-2: Melbourne Contested Possession Differential in Paul Roos Era

Points Conceded:
For Sydney, the biggest trademark of their 2005 premiership success was their defence (see Figure-3). Year on year their defence improved under Paul Roos, before they dramatically won that memorable low scoring Grand Final over West Coast 58 to 54. Paul Roos is in the camp of believers that defence wins premierships. And he was quick to make improvements in this area in his first season in charge at Melbourne, reducing their points conceded per game from 122 to 89, a massive drop of 33 points. However, since then their points conceded each year has stayed remarkably constant (93, 90, 89 between 2015-17). Hence, defence is certainly not one of Melbourne’s strengths. In fact, as I discussed earlier this year, the Demons biggest area in need of improvement from 2016 is their defence.

 Figure-3: Sydney Points Conceded in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

Figure-3: Sydney Points Conceded in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

 Figure-4: Melbourne Points Conceded in Paul Roos Era

Figure-4: Melbourne Points Conceded in Paul Roos Era

Points Scored:
In building their team around defence, Sydney was certainly not a team known for their high scoring, averaging 86 points per game in 2005 (equivalent to the 2016 Bulldogs). In contrast, it is the offence of the Demons that has gone to new heights in 2016 and 2017. Melbourne averaged 61 points per game in 2014, 72 points in 2015, 88 points in 2016, and now 102 points so far in 2017. Is this surge due to Simon Goodwin’s influence? It would appear so, as the dramatic improvement coincides with Roos releasing the shackles in early 2016 and giving Goodwin more responsibility. But what has been the driver of the big difference in their offensive play? Uncontested Possessions.

 Figure-5: Sydney Points Scored in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

Figure-5: Sydney Points Scored in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

 Figure-6: Melbourne Points Scored in Paul Roos Era

Figure-6: Melbourne Points Scored in Paul Roos Era

Uncontested Possessions:
With Melbourne being a strong contested ball team already, they have now taken their uncontested football to new heights. Melbourne play on from a mark more than they ever have, taking the game on, with the forward line reaping the rewards of the quicker ball movement. With Melbourne both getting the inside and outside ball they are dominating the disposals tally. They are ranked first for total disposals, averaging an incredible 412 per game. In contrast, Sydney's uncontested ball differential fell in their premiership season.

 Figure-7: Sydney Uncontested Possession Differential in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

Figure-7: Sydney Uncontested Possession Differential in years leading up to 2005 Premiership

 Figure-8: Melbourne Uncontested Possession Differential in Paul Roos Era

Figure-8: Melbourne Uncontested Possession Differential in Paul Roos Era

One Percenters:
There is one last notable statistic that has coincided with Melbourne’s rise in 2017 – the under appreciated one percenters. One-percenters include knock-ons (tapping the ball to the advantage of a team-mate), spoils, smothers and shepherds – the stuff coaches love.  In 2017, the Demons have surged in this statistic, and in only one game in 2017 have the opposition outperformed them in this area (Hawthorn in Round 7). Perhaps it is the little things that will prove the difference come September for the Demons.

 Figure-8: Melbourne One Percenters Differential in Paul Roos Era

Figure-8: Melbourne One Percenters Differential in Paul Roos Era

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The Paul Roos Cup:
The Demons are up against it this week, their 3rd consecutive 6 day break, that has not been helped by the long return from WA last weekend. On top of that they have lost another two crucial players in Jeff Garlett and Christian Salem to injury this week. They join the likes of Jesse Hogan, Nathan Jones and Jack Watts on the sidelines. For Sydney they are boosted by the return of Zak Jones (Nathan’s brother) and Jarrad McVeigh. The only game that the Swans have lost since Round 6 has been against Hawthorn when they fell into Hawthorn’s trap of controlling the game with uncontested possessions. This would seemingly mean that Melbourne is a poor match-up for the Swans, but one suspects that the Swans coaching team will be better prepared for it this week after they failed to adjust against the Hawks. With all the injuries and short preparation time, the Demons will be forgiven if they don’t get the job done this week. But in the context of the season, the Demons will be right in the mix come finals time. However, I suspect the Swans are playing them at the right time.

Swans to win by 18 points

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Post Match Comments: 

Final Score: Melbourne 7.8.50, Sydney 11.19.85

Disposals: Melbourne 347, Sydney 439

Contested Possession Count: Melbourne 124, Sydney 157

Uncontested Possession Count: Melbourne 217, Sydney 279

One Percenters: Melbourne 49, Sydney 50

Not a great night for the Demons. It was their lowest score of the year, lowest disposal total of the year, as well as their worst contested and uncontested possession differentials of the year. They even lost out in the one percenters. There are obviously excuses (injuries, short back up), so hopefully for Demons supporters the team can just put the performance aside as a one off bad game and look forward to the rest of the year.

As for Sydney, their remarkable form continues, winning 7 out of 8 games after losing their first 6 games of the year.

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[1] Collins, B., Eddy, B. (2016). “Champions: Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football”. Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.

[2] “Coach Changed the Game – and won a few too: Paul Roos”, By Jake Niall (The Age 17th June 2010), as published in: Cometti, D. & Pierik, J. (2012) “The Game”. Fairfax Books, Allen & Unwin, NSW, Australia.

AFL Round 16: Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs

AFL Round 16: Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs

AFL Round 14: Richmond vs. Carlton

AFL Round 14: Richmond vs. Carlton