Changing the Game - What's Next?

This article first appeared in the round one edition of the AFL Record in 2013.

It also appeared in Coaching Edge June 2013.

Download a PDF of the article.

By Nick Bowen (AFL Media)

The AFL competition is constantly evolving. A game-plan that delivers a premiership one season is as dated as Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart by the time the next season kicks off.

During the off-season, opposition coaches pick the premier’s game style apart, looking for weaknesses they can prey on and improvements they can make.

The more lateral-minded coaches try to take the game in new directions, such as Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson did with his rolling zones in 2008. 

So what tactical changes can we expect this season?

One thing that seems certain is coaches will have spent countless pre-season hours searching for the most efficient way through, around or over opposition defensive zones.

Port Adelaide coaching and strategy director Alan Richardson told the AFL Record teams might try to counteract zones by switching the ball from half-back more often than in previous seasons.

Richardson said during this year’s NAB Cup, several teams’ first option when pinned down by opposition zones at half-back had been to switch the ball.

“Last year, teams trying to get through the press would block the man on the mark, so their player with the ball could try to get as much territory as he could and at least get the ball to half-way,” Richardson said.

“And I’m sure that will still play a pretty significant part for many teams, but on the back of early observations, it looks like teams are looking to switch the ball first and, if they can’t get through, then they’ll resort to that option of blocking the man on the mark.

“The density created from good zones means that you’re very unlikely to be able to maintain possession on a consistent basis, so by switching to the fatter side you can stretch the zone, make them (the opposition) work and potentially get the ball out that side of the ground.”

West Coast assistant coach David Teague said teams might be more prepared to risk moving the ball through the corridor this year, considering the way teams have guarded the boundary line in recent seasons.

“Given the success of teams like Collingwood in moving the ball around the boundary line in recent seasons, more teams have moved to guard this area of the ground,” Teague said. 

“So you might see teams, especially early in the year, prepared to take the risk and move inside and go through the corridor. 

“Doing that is obviously high-risk, high-reward, so clubs can score quickly doing it, but if they turn the ball over in the corridor they can be heavily punished too.

“Teams might be prepared to try it early and see how well it works.”

Teague and Richardson agreed defensive zones meant teams had been more prepared to kick the ball long into the forward 50 in recent seasons.

Teague said teams did this partly because once they got the ball deep inside their forward line, they were well placed to lock it in there.

“With the forward press mentality of teams, they know the easiest place to press is once you get it deep in your forward line, the narrowest part of the ground,” Teague said.

“So, if you can get it in there quickly and if you can get players in there who can put that pressure on, the quick forwards, they give the rest of the team time to get down and get that forward press going.”

Richardson said teams such as the Sydney Swans and St Kilda had started to do this with forward lines built around three or four quick small forwards.

“They (the Swans) used those really good, hard runners to play that up-and-back, up-and-back type of footy,” he said.

“That way they were able to clog up the opposition and then make it a foot race, obviously with guys like Lewis Jetta going back the other way.

“We played St Kilda in round one of the NAB Cup and the speed they have in the front half with players like Ahmed Saad was a real concern for us, and I think it will be for many teams. 

“They get the ball over the back and let the little blokes run on to it.”

Richardson said teams might look to counter this tactic by stationing a “wicketkeeper” deep in defensive 50 to guard open space.

North Melbourne senior assistant coach Darren Crocker said more teams had been prepared recently to kick long to tall targets and get numbers to the fall of the ball. 

Teague, Richardson and Crocker agreed teams would have to strike a forward line balance between having marking targets they could kick to under pressure and players capable of applying pressure when the ball hit the ground.

West Coast regularly fielded one of the tallest forward lines in the competition last year, playing two of Jack Darling, Quinten Lynch and Josh Kennedy, alongside a resting ruckman, Dean Cox or Nic Naitanui.

The Eagles had considerable success with the tall structure, as did North Melbourne in the second half of the season with an attack centred around key forwards Drew Petrie, Lachlan Hansen and Robbie Tarrant. 

But Teague said teams looking to go tall in attack had to have players capable of applying defensive pressure as well.

Teague cited the Swans as an example, saying they had often stacked their forward line last year with Lewis Roberts-Thomson, Adam Goodes, Sam Reid and one of their ruckmen, Mike Pyke or Shane Mumford, but were still one of the competition’s best exponents of forward pressure.

“They had some really tall players but still had the ability to get that pressure on; ‘LRT’ (Roberts-Thomson) and Goodes in particular are very mobile,” Teague said.

“So, I think each club will look at their list and see what best suits them. 

“No doubt they’ll want the tall targets if it’s a pressurised game and you’ve got to kick to a contest.

“But you want the ability that once it hits the ground, you can keep it in there as long as possible.”

As for defensive strategies teams might employ this season, Richardson said few teams had played a seventh defender or loose man in defence last season, but he had noticed several teams employing it in the NAB Cup.

“Initially that player is there to support the defence, but they very quickly get involved in offence when the opportunity presents,” Richardson said.

Crocker said teams might decide to play a loose man in defence late in games when fatigue meant they struggled to maintain their defensive set-ups.

“That way, if the opposition does get through your set-ups up the ground, you’ve got that spare defender out the back as a last line of defence who can come up and defend,” he said.

Richardson said teams would also ask their players to be more versatile this season, with a view to resting less often on the interchange bench and more often in a di?erent position. 

“In terms of rotations, teams are definitely talking to their players and you can see by the positions and the number of positions that players are playing in any one game that they’re going to need to be versatile,” Richardson said.

“Last year, you saw key midfielders like Josh Kennedy and Jobe Watson playing out of the goalsquare at times, as opposed to having them come off the ground.

“And that was when we had unlimited rotations. In the NAB Cup games that had caps on rotations, you certainly saw players stay on the ground and change positions.

“Even in the home and away season – especially next season when the interchange cap comes in – you’re not going to be able to play extended time in the midfield. 

“But that doesn’t mean you’ll come off the ground. Most often these midfielders will have to go forward."