Premiership-Winning Game Plans

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Art of Coaching draws on David Wheadon’s extensive career as an assistant coach at a number of AFL clubs. As one of football’s most innovative thinkers, Wheadon demonstrates his deep knowledge of coaching and details the principles that underline the game of Australian Football, and how to get the best out of diverse groups of talented young men.

The following is an extract from The Art of Coaching.

Premiership Winning Game Plans

There is no perfect game plan. It is like a car manufacturer’s latest model that is promoted as the best ever, but in two years’ time there will be a better one out. The natural evolution of strategy and counter-strategy ensures constant evolution of game plans. There is no last piece of the jigsaw!

Even accounting for the ever-changing nature of strategy (for every strategy there is a counter-strategy), a few of these early team rules and game-plan rules still have relevance today. From the Essendon game plan and rules I designed in 1993, team rules #1 “Win your own ball”, #4 “Front and square” and #9 “No shorts to 50/50s” can apply today, as can game-plan rules #1 “Bring the play inside” (which has been used by teams such as Geelong), #3 “Move the ball quickly through the midfield” and #4 “Move the ball towards the spot” (which still refers to the area where most goals in football are scored from, even though this changes yearly depending on defensive strategies). When defending, #7 “Force the play wide” and #8 “In the midfield slow the play down” are still common elements in preventing opposition from scoring.

The premiership game plans of seasons 2011 (Geelong), 2012 (Sydney) and 2013 (Hawthorn) had recognisable patterns, which are the sign of well-coached teams. Without knowing the exact details of each game plan it is possible to watch and objectively analyse these patterns.

In 2011 Geelong was second best at preventing the opposition from scoring, characterised by a zone defence employing very talented individuals who could not only stop goals from play but were especially effective at marking opposition kicks. Harry Taylor, Corey Enright, Matthew Scarlett, Andrew Mackie and Tom Lonergan were able to intercept the ball in the air then immediately start lightning-fast rebounds. Play was directed through the corridor with the use of many disposals, especially handballs. Players such as James Kelly, Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel, Joel Corey, Paul Chapman and Steven Johnson patrolled the corridor, becoming prolific ball-winners.

This constant-motion play and a handball made it very difficult for opposition defences to predict which Geelong forward was the ultimate target. The Cats ended up with a wide spread of goalscorers, with nine players kicking 20 or more goals for the home and away season.

As a result of their high-speed ball movement Geelong, with the second-best attack, averaged nearly 60 inside-50 entries per week from which they scored, on average, 17 goals 13 behinds—many from directly in front. There was a good balance between goals from play and goals from marks, as the Cats’ smalls in Johnson, Travis Varcoe and Mathew Stokes were dangerous at ground level and James Podsiadly and Tom Hawkins were powerful in the air. They did not rely on winning stoppages as they were able to regain possession from their zone defence and then start new attacks.

The Swans won in 2012 by having the best defence. They did this by pushing midfielders deep into their backline to outnumber and close down space. Aided by the intercept-marking skills of Ted Richards and Heath Grundy, they then started to attack. Like Geelong, they used handball to release a free player to commence counterattacks. Sydney had dramatically altered its disposal methods from the previous season when it was ranked last in handballs to become third in 2012, on the way to the premiership. As such it became a very high-disposal team, dominated by the midfielders in Josh Kennedy, Jarrad McVeigh, Kieren Jack and Ryan O’Keefe. The team aim was to handball to speedsters such as Lewis Jetta and Rhyce Shaw, who would go on long, searching runs through the corridor. Based on the defensive principle of closing down space, they surrounded stoppages with big numbers and so either won the clearance or at worst had a good chance of creating a repeat stoppage.

This was another premiership team with high inside-50 entries (56 on average), producing 28 shots per game directed at talls in Adam Goodes and Sam Reid with ground support from Jetta and Ben McGlynn. Similar to the Cats, the Swans had a wide spread of goalkickers, with seven players reaching the 20-goal mark after 22 rounds.

In 2013, Hawthorn’s defence (#5) was not as highly ranked as those of the previous two premiership teams but the Hawks were excellent at initially applying forward-line defensive pressure; in the back half Brian Lake became one of the dominant intercept-mark players in the competition. Their rebounds were characterised by quick, short precision kicking. Rebounds often went down the left side of the ground, either through planning or simply due to the predominance of left-footers, who usually attempt to reduce pressure on their kicking leg (left-footers are usually more one-sided than right-footers).

A very smart group of midfielders led by Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge, Isaac Smith and Jordan Lewis meant that there were plenty of forward-50 entries (56 on average), leading to the season’s best attack. The Hawks were different from the previous two teams in that they had a narrower spread of goalscorers; in contrast, they gained rich rewards from only four players—two power forwards in Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin and two smaller players in Jack Gunston and Luke Breust. This quartet took many marks inside the circle and finished off with a high degree of accuracy. Gunston, who kicked 46.17 (at 73%), was often the designated target from a slow set play. To add icing to the cake Hawthorn also scored the League’s most goals from on the run and from snap shots. The effectiveness of its attack is shown by the fact that from 56 entries per week it had 30 shots (53%—AFL average is 50%) for 17 goals 12 behinds, an excellent rate of scoring.

Being the best centre-bounce-clearance team—particularly from Mitchell and Lewis—only increased the immediate pressure on opposition defences.

These three winning game plans shared three themes:

  1. very fast ball movement by hand or by foot
  2. more than 55 inside-50 entries per game
  3. game plans work better with better players

The Art of Coaching, By David Wheadon, is available at the special price of $20.00 from

Please enter the Coupon Code 'coach2014' at the checkout to save $9.95 off the RRP.

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