AFL Round 21: Melbourne vs. St Kilda
Sunday Afternoon, 13th August 2017 at the MCG
For me, a lot of tackling is intent. Technique might take about 20 percent of it and intent takes up the rest, in terms of just the desire to make that tackle and make it stick. The technique is really your icing on the cake.
Jude Bolton 
Much was expected of the Demons and the Saints in 2017, but have they progressed as much as we expected? After Round 20 in 2016, St Kilda were 9th with 10 wins and Melbourne 11th with 9 wins. Fast forward 12 months and after Round 20, St Kilda are 11th with 10 wins and Melbourne 10th with 10 wins. This is hardly a major step forward for either team. However, that is potentially doing both teams a disservice as they have both faced tougher draws in 2017 and in the case of Melbourne inopportune injuries and suspensions have cost them dearly.
Both teams have had their coming of age moments in 2017. St Kilda had their statement win over GWS in Round 7 under Friday Night lights and their incredible first half performance against Richmond in Round 16. Whilst for Melbourne their 2017 win portfolio includes the emotional win against Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval and the 3 week period when they knocked off Collingwood in a classic Queens’ Birthday encounter, thumped the Bulldogs and then won that remarkable contest against West Coast in Perth with Tom McDonald’s late heroics. Regardless, this week is a virtual elimination final for both teams, in particular for St Kilda with their poor percentage already placing them effectively a game behind their competitors for a spot in the Top 8. Which means this game is the most important Melbourne versus St Kilda encounter since the 2006 elimination final, which coincidentally was the last time Melbourne won a final.
Much has changed since 2006. Melbourne was in the last of their even year peaks in 2006 (Melbourne under Neale Daniher were the ultimate yo-yo club, with Melbourne playing finals in every even year of his reign between 1998 and 2006) before they started their decline in 2007. Whilst for St Kilda, they were in their final year under Grant Thomas before the arrival of Ross Lyon for the 2007 season. The match itself was the classic tale of two halves. St Kilda had the better of the Demons in a tight first half, taking a 20-point lead into the half-time break. But a 10-goal to 4 second half booked Melbourne a place in a semi-final against Fremantle. And the turning point of the game was a Nathan Carroll tackle on St Kilda full forward Fraser Gehrig moments before half-time. Gehrig had kicked 3 first half goals to stamp his presence on the game. But when he decided to take-on the man on the mark (Carroll) rather than a set shot at goal, he found that he had underestimated his opponent. Not only was he penalised for holding the ball, he also suffered an ankle injury in the process and played no further part in the game. [The incident occurred just after 1:00:30 into the match replay shown below].
It was ironic that the demise of St Kilda’s 2006 season was due to a tackle, as the Saints under Grant Thomas were not known for their pressure. The 2007 AFL Prospectus  reflected the following on the Saints 2006 season:
The Saints’ forwards are not chasers and scrappers, the type that is needed to win a premiership. At ground level in the forward 50, the Saints averaged one fewer hardball-get and five fewer looseball-gets than their defender counterparts. Only the Kangaroos had a worse record in 2006. At tackles in the forward 50, St. Kilda ranked 15th. Montagna led tackles in the forward 50 at St Kilda, but he won 87% of his disposals in the midfield and defensive 50 combined. Odd!
The Saints under Alan Richardson are the polar opposite of the 2006 team; with the 2017 AFL Prospectus  identifying St Kilda as having a game style based around out-pressuring the opposition. This is reflected in the 2017 Tackle Rankings as presented in Table-1 and Figure-2. The presented rankings are based on the average tackle differential per game in the 2017 season. St Kilda is the top ranked team, averaging 6.9 more tackles than their opposition per game. Interestingly, the Giants are second in the rankings, a team that is often criticised as being too reliant on talent and not enough grunt.
However, tackling as a form indicator is a contradictory premise. In order to lay a tackle, a player must not have the ball, but surely the first objective in football is to get hands on the ball first. Hence, a team such as Melbourne, that prides itself on winning the contested ball, is only 11th in the tackle rankings. But I’d imagine from a coach’s perspective the cardinal sin would be getting resoundingly beaten on both the scoreboard and the tackle count, as it implies you neither won the contested ball or were there to put the pressure on. But as renowned tackler Jude Bolton suggests, tackling is 80% intent . Taking a high intensity into every contest you encounter on the ground, whether at the man or the ball, could only be conducive to team performance. So can a team’s tackle count be a good indicator of a team’s success in a match?
In 53% of games this year, the team that won the tackle count won the game. This is hardly convincing evidence of the importance of tackling as a form indicator. But such summary statistics can be misleading. For example, the Lions are a decent tackling team but they haven’t got the wins on the board to reflect this, as the Lions' main deficiencies lay elsewhere on the ground. But using St Kilda and Melbourne as our case examples and plotting their tackle differential against match margins, more can be revealed (see Figure-3 and Figure-4). For both teams there are the outliers where they were chasing and tackling all day and got beaten comfortably (the lower right quadrant of the graphs). However, the trendline for both teams indicate a positive correlation between tackle differential and match margin. Meaning that for the Saints and the Demons, winning the tackle count is more important than you may have thought.
But what does that mean for this week's match? St Kilda have hit a bit form, winning the tackle count the last 3 weeks. In particular their win last week against West Coast was off the back of winning the tackle count by 32 and the contested possession count by 34. In contrast, the Demons have not won the tackle count in their last 5 games. And their worst effort was last week when they lost the tackle count by 33 and the contested possession count by 14. So current form is definitely in favour of the Saints. What is even more concerning for the Demons is that their record at the MCG has been mediocre at best in 2017 (4 wins and 5 losses). In contrast, St Kilda have not lost at the MCG since Round 3 2015. However, the Saints rarely play at the MCG, with the game this week their first opportunity of the season to add to their 4 game winning streak at the ground. The match this week also brings together the most accurate team in the AFL (the Demons, 1.72 goals to every behind) and the the least accurate (the Saints, 1.06 goals to every behind). But perhaps Melbourne's accuracy in front of goal is only covering up for their other deficiencies. Despite Melbourne's undoubted potential, based on current form it will be hard to tip against the Saints.
St Kilda to win by 3 points
Post Match Comments:
Final Score: Melbourne 14.12.96, St Kilda 10.12.72
A blistering first quarter setup the win for the Demons despite a fight back from the Saints. St Kilda's pressure improved as the game went on, winning the tackle count 70-58, but they butchered the ball a little too much when going forward. In the end the Demons just had a little more class around the ground.
 Kotton, H. (2009). “Skills of Australian Football: Tips from the Stars of the AFL”. Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.
 Champion Data. (2007). “AFL Prospectus 2007”.
 Champion Data. (2017). “AFL Prospectus 2017”.