What Have We Learned This Week in AFL?
With the AFL moving well past the halfway mark of the shortened season during the past week the potential finals picture is becoming clearer by the day.
The next 7 days will provide further clarity as clubs continue to manage their stars through a tough period the media has phrased the “Festival of Football”.
For some clubs, the 33 matches in 20 days have provided more headaches in a season where problem-solving is proving as important as on field performance.
But what important information can we take from the last 7 days?
These are the top 10 things we have learned over the past week in the AFL.
1. Port Adelaide is the real deal.
After Port Adelaide’s disappointing losses to Brisbane in round 5 and St Kilda at home in round 8, questions were rightfully being asked about Port Adelaide’s premiership credentials. The St. Kilda loss at home raised eyebrows and a tricky clash with Melbourne in round 9 loomed on July 30th. After thrashing Melbourne, Port put up a less than convincing display against the Western Bulldogs last Monday. The jury was still out. However, their performance against Richmond on Saturday put all those concerns to rest. Port Adelaide was at its best against the Tigers who started poorly and failed to handle Port’s relentless pressure. Saturday was a massive tick for Port Adelaide and proved their best is certainly good enough to trouble the best teams in the competition.
2. The West Coast Eagles are Premiership favourites.
Forget bookmakers’ odds. Forget their hub form. The Eagles are the team to beat in 2020. A slow start to the season, and discontent while hubbing in Queensland, seems to be behind them and they are back to somewhere near their best form. They smashed Collingwood into submission, dealt with Geelong’s challenge before enjoying a few days off with a bye in round 10. Their performance yesterday against a brave Carlton was the icing on the cake. The Eagles blitzed the plucky blues in a blistering 3rd term onslaught. The win puts them back in the top 4 and with many more games to come at home over the rest of the season, they look set to stay there.
3. Essendon is in trouble.
On July 2nd Essendon defeated Collingwood and looked likely to challenge for a top 4 spot. How things have changed. Since then the Bombers have managed just two wins against North Melbourne (14 points) and winless Adelaide (3 points). They were embarrassed by the Western Bulldogs in round 7 and completely humbled by the Brisbane Lions in round 9. But their heartbreaking 4-point loss to GWS on Friday may prove terminal. Leading by 29 points at the 6-minute mark of the third quarter, the Bombers capitulated. Essendon will face the Suns at Metricon on Wednesday night and a loss here would see a finals appearance highly unlikely.
4. Brett Ratten can seriously coach.
When the Saints coughed up a 6 goal, quarter-time lead against the lowly Dockers to go down by 6 points in Round 6 we could have been forgiven for putting a line through their finals hopes. They have not lost a game since. The Gold Coast hub has been the perfect opportunity for Ratten to show off his coaching chops. After losing to Fremantle, the football media were ready to pounce on Ratten’s Saints should they slip up against the Crows in Adelaide. After holding off Adelaide by 4 goals they returned to Adelaide and beat ladder leaders Port Adelaide. The Swans were dispatched in Round 9 the Suns in round 10. Each of these matches has had challenges with Ratten’s men displaying all the signatures of the Carlton teams he coached a decade ago. The Saints are primed for tonight’s clash with Geelong which could prove to be season-defining.
5. Christian Petracca is a star
Comparisons to Dustin Martin have been made already this season with the former number one draft pick in career-best form. These comparisons are premature but understandable. Petracca’s tank has improved to a point where he is no longer a forward who can spend time in the midfield for short bursts. This season he is a genuine midfielder with explosive power from stoppages the ability to break lines. However, Petracca’s last two outings have seen him elevate further. Against the Crows on Wednesday he was electric. His 20 disposals were backed by 8 crushing tackles. Against North Melbourne yesterday he was clearly best on the ground with 29 touches from just 83% time on ground. Two things remain for Petracca to elevate himself to Dustin Martin status. His set shot goalkicking needs to improve. Against the Crows and the Kangaroos, he kicked a collective 1 goal 5 behinds. We also need to see him perform at this level consistently against the best teams in the competition. The opportunity to do exactly that awaits Petracca later in the season. If he continues to elevate himself into the competition’s elite category, finals are a possibility for the Demons.
6. Geelong is in no man’s land
Not good enough to beat the best, but good enough to beat most. This is Geelong’s lot in the competition at present. The Cats are in footballs twilight zone, a place where teams of the past have disappeared to never be heard from again. Like the Adelaide Crows of the early 2000s and the Western Bulldogs of the late 1990s. Geelong of today is good. They are exceptionally good. They have class on every line. They have match winners. But are they premiership-winning good? The evidence of the past week tells us probably not. Geelong did enough to dispatch North Melbourne on Wednesday. But that is all they did. No player at Geelong has enhanced their reputation this season. The Cats are managing their aging stars as best they can, and the loss of Gary Ablett is being felt. The round 9 loss to the West Coast Eagles sums up exactly where Geelong sits on the current pecking order. The Cats were good for most of the night. They had moments where they looked like winners. But, when the whips were cracking in the last quarter, they came up short. They may well beat St Kilda tonight, but it a win against the Saints changes nothing. Finalists? Yes. Can they win a final? Yes. Can they win the Premiership? Absolutely not.
7. Carlton is not ready to play finals football just yet.
Yes, Carlton has improved. The excitement around the Blues returning to finals calculations is understandable. Their massive supporter base has been starved of success over the past two decades and its been a pleasant change to see their fans positive about what the future holds. But that’s in the future. Sunday’s loss to West Coast confirmed what we probably already knew. They are not ready just yet. Carlton's youngsters are exciting, and they have added some class to the list. The addition of Jack Martin is proving pivotal and losing him to injury in the first quarter against the Eagles certainly hurt the Blues. However, their lack of depth is exposed as their injury list worsens.
Worst of all, their experienced players are under-producing. Marc Murphy is averaging just 18 disposals a game in 2020 and going at just 65% efficiency. Sam Docherty started the season well but has dropped off over the past month. The Eagles held him to just 12 disposals on Sunday. Ed Curnow is averaging 18 touches per game at less than 60% efficiency. And while the re-recruitment of Eddie Betts has generated excitement it has not exactly delivered what the Blues need on the field. Betts is averaging less than 8 disposals, 1 goal and less than one goal assist per game.
The story has not changed at Carlton. Too much is being left to Patrick Cripps who is trying his heart out but is simply overwhelmed. As the young talent on Carlton's list continues to improve so will their ladder position. However, there is plenty of hard work to be done before the Blues can talk about finals action and it will not be happening in 2020.
8. The Adelaide Crows are not the only basket case in the competition.
The Crows are without a doubt the worst team in the competition right now. A mighty fall from grace from the top of the AFL ladder in just two seasons. But North Melbourne is a club that is going nowhere fast. On Wednesday night Geelong beat the Roos by 33 points without getting out of second gear. Last night at Adelaide Oval the Kangaroos fell to a Melbourne side missing their captain and their best player. And they never fired a shot in doing so. Defensively North was a total shambles with Robbie Tarrant playing a lone hand inside defensive 50.
Up forward only Nick Larkey looked likely to hurt Melbourne on the scoreboard. But it gets worse in the midfield. North Melbourne’s midfield is almost non-existent. Their lack of ability to win clearances and capitalise on the dominance of ruckman Todd Goldstein was glaring. North Melbourne have added players such as Jared Polec, Jasper Pittard and Aaron Hall to their list over the past two seasons to cover for Cunningham, Higgins and Ziebel. It has not worked. Back to the drawing board in 2021.
9. Small forwards kick goals, but key forwards win games.
There has been plenty of talk about the competitions army of small forwards dominating the goalkicking this season. That would be quite a story if it were true. But it is not the reality. The last 7 days have demonstrated the fact that teams without key marking targets in their forward lines cannot win big games consistently. Charlie Dixon was a man-mountain up forward for Port Adelaide on Saturday. He drew a crowd, took some key grabs, and brought the ball to ground at every opportunity. He booted 3 goals himself and now sits 4th in the Coleman race. Tom Papley and Dan Butler sit 2nd and 3rd on the Coleman table now. Butler has been brilliant for the Saints. But who is enabling his work up forward? Max King rarely gets beaten in the air and for a second-year key forward, his work has been just as important. Papley is a freak. He has 21 goals so far this season. But where are the Swans on the ladder?
Josh Kennedy demonstrated the importance of the key forward against Carlton yesterday. The Eagles third-quarter blitz saw Kennedy finish work from upfield twice. In the final term his contested work provided opportunities for Sheed by drawing defenders to him. He leads the Coleman now and will likely win it. Conversely, when GWS stormed back into the contest against Essendon their forward line was non-existent. Had Jake Stringer been patrolling the forward line for the Bombers would they have been able to find a goal in the second half? Probably. Key forwards win games.
10. This is still the hardest game in the world to umpire.
As a neutral observer of the Port Adelaide v Richmond clash on Saturday the umpiring of this game was fascinating. The pressure rating in this game was through the roof. When Football is played at a leisurely pace, and tackling is at its weakest, umpiring is made much easier. However, when the pressure goes up, and the tackling is as ferocious as demonstrated in this clash, my goodness it is a tough gig. The holding the ball interpretation is always controversial. But we currently see changes to this interpretation too often due to the grey areas in our game. Lawmakers are looking for fewer stoppages and have singled out this rule as a way of achieving that. The problem? Players are scared to grab the footy. They tap the ball around with the game deteriorating into a game of contested ping pong.
Ballplayers are too often penalised when trying to gain possession and use the football.
The rule they need to look at closer is the holding the man rule. This is the area that is most lax in its officiating. Ballplayers are constantly being denied an opportunity to get to contests by being bumped, scragged and sometimes tackled well off the ball. Paying these free kicks will speed up the play, give those attempting to grab the footy a fair go at it and help disperse the rolling mauls we’ve seen each week. Players staging for free kicks does not help, and it’s time that free kicks were paid against players in-game for such infringements. If we want better umpiring, we need to help umpires out rather than hinder them.