AFL Round 16: Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs
Friday Night, 7th July 2017 at the Adelaide Oval
I’m a great believer in trends. Teams and individuals generally have a trend, and when they start to emerge, that’s when you can understand how to beat them. Working out just what those trends are is a challenge.
Malcolm Blight 
Has the competition worked out the Bulldogs or are they just struggling with form and motivation? Malcolm Blight’s Adelaide Crows found themselves in a similar situation to the current Bulldogs predicament. As per the 2016 Bulldogs, Adelaide unexpectedly won the 1997 premiership by winning 4 consecutive finals over 4 weeks. With expectation on them in 1998, the Crows started sluggishly, scraping through the first half of the home & away season with 5 wins and 6 losses and sat in 10th position on the ladder. The good news for the Bulldogs is that the Crows recovered and went on to win back-to-back premierships after improved form in the second half the year, so there is still hope for the Bulldogs in 2017. Although looking back on the 1997-98 AFL seasons will most likely bring back nightmares for many Bulldogs fans. On the way to winning both premierships, Adelaide took out the Bulldogs in the preliminary final each year.
The 1997 preliminary final was the more heartbreaking. The Bulldogs effectively had the game won at three-quarter time and Tony Liberatore famously thought he had sealed a Grand Final berth when he began celebrating a goal attempt – “Tony Liberatore celebrates… a point!” (see just after the 14-min mark in the link below). Instead the Crows led by Darren Jarman made a remarkable comeback. In Jarman’s own words :
The 1997 preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs was the best game I’ve been involved in. We were absolutely gone at half-time (the Crows trailed the Bulldogs by 31 points). Anyone who saw the body language of the two sides as they walked off the ground – the Bulldogs were patting each other on the back while we had our heads down and hardly anyone was saying a word – would have said we had no hope. We had been thinking about making history by making the club’s first Grand Final, but that seemed a million miles away. It was an amazing turnaround. I think Blighty made only two moves. He stared at Chad Rintoul, I think, and said a couple of harsh words and I thought: ‘Uh oh, we’re going to cop it here’. Then he stopped, made two moves, didn’t berate anyone else and then everything was positive. He said: “Listen, boys. That was crap. We can play a lot better than that. Just go out there and attack”. To kick the winning goal was a huge moment, not only in my footy career, but in my life. To help the club that had got me back from Hawthorn get into their first Grand Final was beyond words. That game, particularly the second half, was a better performance as a team than either of the Grand Final wins because, if we didn’t win that game, we mightn’t have won a flag.
Going back-to-back over 1997 and 1998 was an exceptional achievement by Adelaide, with only the three-peat Lions and Hawks having achieved the feat since. Going from the hunter to the hunted is quite the challenge as teams try to figure you out, or as Blight phrased it identify your trends and then try to beat you. So what trends have the opposition identified in the Bulldogs? One trend has been the effective tactic of hard tagging Jason Johannisen. But how critical is Jason Johannisen to the success of the Bulldogs?
Earlier this season there was much discussion of Johannisen’s intention to delay contract talks until the end of the season. As the reigning North Smith medalist and with his ability to break the lines coming out of the defence with his agility and pace, the consensus was he was going to be a hot commodity come the end of the season for any team lacking pace coming out of defence (Essendon, West Coast and Fremantle were suggested suitors). Others were not so sure of his worth. Paul Roos publicly claimed that $800,000 (the rumoured amount his agents were demanding) was too much to pay for a half back flanker. Following his inability to handle the tag against Sydney in Round 12, Roos said on Fox Footy :
That’s why he’s not an $800,000 player. What it shows tonight is that premiership teams need Jason Johannisen types. They need players with speed. But they’re the cream on the top. They’re not players you can build your team around. You absolutely need them. He’s absolutely a good player. But he’s not an $800,000 player.
At first thought that comment makes sense, it is far harder to find key position players and together with the match winning on-ballers they should be the priority signings for any team. Having said that though, Johannisen’s 2016 finals series was remarkable, and arguably the Bulldogs would not have won the flag without him. Think about the crucial moment he took the game on in the last quarter of the preliminary final when he beat his opposition for pace before putting the ball on a platter for Bontempelli to put the Bulldogs in front. With everyone else dead on their feet, it was Johannisen who was the game breaker.
The popular statistic to highlight Johannisen's influence in the 2016 finals series was metres gained. Champion Data define metres gained a s follows :
· Metres Gained: The net metres gained with the ball by a player, by running, kicking or handballing, combining measures towards attacking goal and away from defensive goal.
In the 2016 finals series Johannisen recorded the following metres gained in each game.
· Elimination Final: 747 m
· Semi-Final: 272 m
· Preliminary Final: 859 m
· Grand Final: 876 m
Notwithstanding the quiet game against the Hawks, his metres gained in the other finals were exceptional (for perspective, Zach Merrett is leading the metres gained in 2017 with an average of 560 m, see Table-1).
Metres Gained has become the trendy statistic of the AFL. Not only to emphasise a player's influence, but also their lack thereof. Back in Round 9, Tom Mitchell’s 50 possession performance against Collingwood was met with ambivalence due to his relatively small 309 metres gained. Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley commented post game  – “He just finds a way and keeps getting to the pill, (but) if I said he wasn’t hurting us a lot, would that make sense? If Isaac Smith had 50 (touches), you’d have 2500 metres gained. (Mitchell) was getting the ball at contests and that was great, but, on the balance of it, our midfield was getting on top and working them over.” The counter argument in support of Mitchell led to the introduction of an even more niche statistic – assisted metres gained (the total metres gained by a teammate that receives an uncontested possession from your disposal) for which Mitchell happened to rank first.
Table-1 presents the top 10 players for metres gained in 2017. Included in the table are the top 3 players for metres gained for both this week’s subject teams, Adelaide and the Bulldogs. In addition, Robert Murphy for the Bulldogs has been included into the discussion as he has the highest average metres gained for the team in 2017, but due to missing games has slid down the overall rankings. For Adelaide, Rory Sloane has been included into the discussion, as he has become an emblematic player for the Crows with their recent dip in form coinciding with opposition acknowledging the benefits of applying the hard tag to Sloane. But how much do the metres gained by these players affect the match result?
Figures 1-4 present the correlation between metres gained and match margin for Brodie Smith, Rory Atkins, Rory Laird and Rory Sloane in 2017. The biggest metres gained contributors for the Crows are half-backs/wingman in Smith, Atkins and Laird. This is perhaps not surprising given that the Adelaide Oval is the longest ground (190 m) in the AFL and hence the ability to transition from defence to attack with accurate long kicks is paramount to their attacking strategy. However, given Smith’s distribution by foot is considered elite, it is surprising that his metres gained recorded in any given game appears to have little influence on the result (see Figure-1). Furthermore, Laird the least known for his kicking of the three, has the highest correlation between metres gained and match margin for the Crows (see Figure-3). As for Sloane, their one gun midfielder, it is not surprising that Adelaide's worst games of the year against the Demons and the Kangaroos have coincided with low metres gained by him (the hard tag limits his number of disposals which will directly effect his metres gained). However, the Crows can also win without a big influence from Sloane. His two lowest metres gained games were in the big wins over the Giants in Round 1 and the Saints in Round 12.
Figures 5-8 present the correlation between metres gained and match margin for Jason Johannisen, Matthew Suckling, Robert Murphy and Marcus Bontempelli in 2017. As per the Crows, their biggest metres gained contributors are half-back flankers in Johannisen, Suckling and Murphy. However, of the three, it is Johannisen with the positive correlation in the amount of metres gained and the resulting match margin, with his two worst performances of the year coinciding with the big losses to Sydney and Melbourne. Whilst for Suckling and Murphy the correlation is negative, although Murphy’s absence due to injury during the losses to Sydney and Melbourne indicates there was a lack of alternative pace and guile coming out of defence once Johannisen was shut down. Bontempelli is also an interesting case. In contrast to the other 3 players, Bontempelli is a midfielder-forward. As one of the best users of the ball by foot in their midfield his penetrating passes in the forward half of the ground can be crucial, particularly considering the frailties of the Bulldogs forward line. Hence, although his total metres gained per game is never exceptionally high; it is telling that in the Bulldog’s worst 3 losses of the year, Bontempelli recorded metres gained of less than 200 m.
So the conclusion is that the form of Johannisen and Bontempelli is crucial to the winning prospects of the Bulldogs. No-one is doubting Bontempelli’s worth to the Bulldogs (he could just about name his own price), but equally Johannisen is a player that the Bulldogs really need firing again if they are to save their premiership defence, and a player they can’t afford to lose despite his optimistic contract demands.
Although not in the hot form of earlier in the season, if the Crows (at the long Adelaide Oval) can follow the blue print set by the likes of the Swans and the Demons by reducing the metres gained impact of Johannisen and Bontempelli, then they will have gone a long way to securing the 4 points.
Adelaide to win by 10 points
Post Match Comments:
Final Score: Adelaide 16.8.104, Bulldogs 5.15.45
Rory Atkins (ADE): 402 m gained
Brodie Smith (ADE): 377 m gained
Rory Laird (ADE): 651 m gained
Rory Sloane (ADE): 351 m gained
Jason Johannisen (WBD): 332 m gained
Matthew Suckling: 654 m gained
Marcus Bontempelli : 451 m gained
After a tight first half, the Crows blew the Dogs away in the second half. And as predicted, it is Laird’s metres gained that is the barometer for the Crows in their big wins and not Brodie Smith. Whilst for the Bulldogs, with Murphy out and Johannisen tagged out of the game again, the inevitable was coming their way. And as predicted, the large metres gained by Suckling had little influence on the end result.
 Collins, B., Eddy, B. (2016). “Champions: Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football”. Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.
 Champion Data. (2017). “AFL Prospectus 2017”, Glen Luff, Victoria, Australia