Blues need to look forward

As anyone who has been attempting to play catch-up in a tipping comp will attest, the one thing this AFL season has recently cried out for was some uncertainty. Proceedings have come to resemble the average English Premier League season, where a handful of clubs have cleared out from the pack and most speculation presides in the mid-to-lower realms.

Whilst soccer can rely on the inherent unpredictability of its low scoring nature to provide a sense of tension, Aussie Rules is less well served by such predictability. It is harder for an AFL team to dominate the play without winning on the scoreboard, though some try.

Also, the EPL schedule at least guarantees a certain number of showcase games each season between the top teams. With the AFL’s uneven fixture now primarily based on maximising financial rather than football returns, it is less and less sure that the form teams of any given season will meet regularly outside finals.

So it was the prospect of a genuinely uncertain result, plus the curiosity created by the 34 round gap since these clubs last met, that fed the anticipation for the clash of the Hawks and the Blues. That, and a certain double chance up for grabs.

It was also a game where both teams badly needed to prove a point. Though they’ve been comfortably ensconced in the top bracket, Hawthorn’s narrow round 4 win over West Coast remained the only success either team could boast against their top five brethren.

For the first hour of the match, it was Hawthorn who were doing all the proving.

They owned the game in the first half from a tactical and playing perspective. Carlton started jittery, with fumbling a frequent feature of their efforts. Hawthorn’s field kicking was more precise, though it failed them in front of goal. Otherwise their lead would have been even greater.

Jordan Lewis and friends were successful in curtailing the Carlton midfield. Lewis was regularly assisted in blocking Chris Judd’s path to the ball. The Hawks’ big-bodied midfield group of Lewis, Hodge, Sewell  and Mitchell again showed this to be the best way to negate the Carlton skipper’s bursts at stoppages.

Hawthorn’s well rehearsed third-man-up routine at stoppages also proved effective. Lewis was commonly the third-man jumper, which gave Judd something different to consider. When Lewis got a fist to the ball he also made sure he knocked it clear of Judd’s area, denying him the chance at possession. Carlton were slow to adjust effectively to these tactics, limiting a potential area of advantage for them.

Failing to gain advantage from clearances, the Blues also struggled to move the ball smoothly in general play. Both teams had set up with a spare man in defence, as is their common preference, but the Hawks superior ball use meant they took much greater advantage of the setup. Often it seemed Carlton’s ball movement had completely seized up.

Losing in general play, Carlton’s defence held up fairly well under the bombardment. Buddy out marked Henderson a couple of times early in the second quarter to score, but Henderson had a few wins of his own and was competitive. In general the Blues’ defensive organisation held up fairly well under the barrage. This in spite of the continuing pressure from Cyril, who gave a text book display of how to influence a game with minimal possessions.

The one thing with those big Hawk midfield bodies is that none of them are greyhounds in the open field. Just when all seemed lost for Carlton early in the third term they got motoring, and those big bodies struggled to keep up. Chris Yarran was an important instigator, playing on from a couple of kick-ins and breaking lines. Andrew Walker had gone into the centre and got busy,  whilst Bryce Gibbs was freed up and started attracting the ball. Suddenly Jeff Garlett looked more threatening.

Fatigue was doubtless a factor in the change also. Many games have fluctuated this season as teams sought their second (or third) wind. Carlton’s runners are built more for speed than Hawthorn’s. It’s a tribute to the Hawks organisation and discipline that it took so long for the Blues to make an obvious asset of that fact.

Carlton hopes were still alive at ¾ time, trailing by only 20 points. But playing catch-up footy against good sides is a low percentage occupation. You need almost everything to go right.

After both sides exchanged some misses early in the final term, what didn’t go right for Carlton was Brett Thornton’s stumble when he was last man back nearest a loose ball. Buddy didn’t need an invitation to romp past into goal. Running him down (unlikely as that was) was made impossible by the fact he was allowed to run 30 metres without bouncing the ball.

Carlton still had their chances. Garlett swiftly answered Buddy’s goal. Gibbs missed twice from long range on the run – gettable shots for someone of his abilities. The Hawks were starting to bomb the ball out of defence as they tired, only to see it swiftly returned. Then Ballarat’s-own Isaac Smith deftly used a one-two with Bateman to get clear and goal. Hodge was lifting to try and ensure the win but he missed a set shot.

With many now out on their feet, Yarran found Kade Simpson, who rarely stops running. That goal, and another Simmo major soon after kept it alive.

If Bryce Gibbs had not missed a set shot at the 26 minute mark, when the margin was 12 points, Carlton just might have stolen it. But a steal it would have been.

That all now belongs to the realm of ifs buts and maybes.

What is fact is that in five encounters with top four sides this season Carlton have been competitive in all bar one, but won none of them.

This will inevitably cause their supporters to wonder where the shortcomings lie.

Some will resume the questioning of the coach. Certainly, on this night, Alastair Clarkson won the coaching kudos. He remains a curious combination of hot temper and  cool tactician. You would think the Hawks would be keen to keep him.

But Carlton folk should not ignore the major advances made over the whole season. The most striking tactical aspect of the whole season has been that teams without some effective version of  a zone or press have generally floundered against those who possess one. Carlton’s improvement lies largely in its mastering of an effective press, combined with some astute recruiting and individual positional moves. Even his detractors should concede that Brett Ratten has got a fair bit right this year.

And yet, despite the improvement, we’ve still come up short against the best.

The area usually fingered as Carlton’s weakness has inevitably been its defence. I’ll swim against that tide and suggest that’s actually been our area of biggest improvement.

Individually the defence looks like it should be vulnerable – undersized and inexperienced. If you’d said at the start of the season that Michael Jamison would be missing for an extended period, Paul Bower would hardly play, and that Jordan Russell would completely lose confidence and form, most would have anticipated a disaster.

Instead, an inexperienced unit has been assembled with considerable success. Jamison’s 69 games make him the veteran of the group, assisted by Henderson (46 games- only about a dozen as a defender), Yarran (42 games- 20 as a defender), Duigan (19), Laidler (18) and others such as Davies (10) and Tuohy (9). This bunch of (relative) babes has conceded 78 points per game over 21 matches. Only league leaders Collingwood (67 points per game)are significantly better.

The Carlton front half has seen Walker, Betts and Garlett share 138 goals between them, and has produced many highlights. But it’s the area that has let the Blues down in the big games. Against the top four sides only Garlett has been a reliable goal scorer. Only once in five matches against the top teams have the Blues reached 80 points. A forward line that has demolished some of the weaker sides has failed against the strongest.

The loss of Waite has obviously been a problem, but the Hawks have also lost key personnel and adapted. Even before injuries, Carlton’s big man stocks looked sparse. And Waite hasn’t made it on the ground reliably for the last three years. Some big youngsters were drafted this season, but you would think the Blues would still be keeping an eye out for any key position talent that comes on the market.

Size won’t be the complete answer however. Even in victories, Carlton have frequently struggled to convert midfield dominance into scoreboard advantage. Effective kicking has become an absolute necessity in modern AFL football. Carlton has worked hard to improve disposal in the back half, but work remains to be done forward of centre.

Carlton have shown they can produce bursts to worry any opponent, but they are yet to sustain those bursts sufficiently to convert them into the wins that will matter.

Clarko and his Hawks took the points this night fair and square. They have some weaknesses, but they also have Buddy, Cyril, Hodge, and a pretty decent support crew. And an astute coach. They’re not to be underestimated in September.

 

Votes:  3-  Lewis (H)  2- Gibson (H)  1- Simpson (C)

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World’s Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. You’re on the mark when you note effective kicking forward of the centre as a weakness… I think that is a result of not having a strong marking forward (contested-pack marks, rather than the odd Mark of the Year contender).

    I will be slammed for saying so, but Ratts could do worse than look back at the ’95 Grand Final video and point out the work of Earl Spalding to… yes I’m going to say it… Setanta O’hAilpin.

  2. John Butler says:

    Could do worse at this stage Litza.

    They’d need to be very sure about Waite’s fitness, with Jamison already short of a gallop.

    But it’s all a bit stop-gap. We’ll need a bit of luck.

  3. Alovesupreme says:

    Thanks JB for a thoughtful analysis both of Friday’s match and the way the Blues have evolved 2010 to 2011.

    I hadn’t checked the inside 50s until just now (I discover that they were virtually identical H 54, C 55), but I recall looking at the score-board at one stage during the match, when we were hopelessly in arrears, and the I50s were H 26 C 23. What this suggested to me was the Hawthorn’s defence had a party – as Rick Kane observed in his very good (and temperate) summary of the match. I can’t help but think had Jarrod Waite played that a handful of those forward 50 thrusts would have resulted in marks and probable goals (JW’s unreliable kicking notwithstanding). Given his absence (perhaps during the future big tests, also), I concur with Litza and you about the virtue of a punt on Irish.

    I also agree with your commendation of the backline as a significant factor in the Blues’ progress this year. I have no information or inside knowledge, but it is my speculation that the recruitment of Gavin Brown has been influential.

  4. John Butler says:

    ALS, all season we’ve had enough inside 50’s. But many (like 1st half Friday) lacked purpose.

    The tell-tale sign is when we bomb the ball on top of Betts or Garlett’s head.

    Whether it’s the fault of the kicker making the wrong choice, or the movement of the forwards, or the general set-up is hard to figure out.

    A fit and in form Waite would be a huge bonus, but what odds on that?

    And yes, you would presume Brown has been of considerable value. As Scott Burns presumably has been at West Coast.

  5. JB, ALS – I put this to you.

    Gavin Brown is our defensive coach.

    Our forward coach?

    John Barker.

    The prosecution rests, Your Honour.

  6. John Butler says:

    I’ve noted your dissatisfaction with Barker previously Litza.

    A Peoples’ Elbow topic for the future?

    I think he would be scrutinised, but you can’t ignore that personnel sometimes dictates tactics.

    With Waite injured, Henderson underdone at the start of the season, Setanata injured at times, the others too young.There haven’t been many tall options.

    I think the list management needs to be looked at as well. Better this year, but we’re still playing catch-up.

  7. John Butler says:

    Leigh Matthews’ speaks in defence of Ratten at AFL.com today.

    I think LM usually makes sense.

    And he quotes Almnacker Anson Cameron.

    http://www.afl.com.au/news/newsarticle/tabid/208/newsid/121753/default.aspx

  8. Rick Kane says:

    Hi Mr Butler

    Just popped in to read about the game from another perspective. Still ginning.

    Cheers

  9. John Butler says:

    Fair enough RK

    I harbour some doubts about your lads, but you’re better placed than the Blues currently.

    It should be an interesting finals series (hopefully) after a lacklustre last month or so.

  10. Good analysis JB. Held yourself together under severe pressure and provocation.
    I do wonder about this concept of ‘better delivery into the forward line’ in an era of presses and floods.
    I often get frustrated at what I perceive to be poor delivery into the Eagles forward line. Then I look at the area between the kicker and the forward. There is generally little real clear space for the forward to lead into. And the marking contests are generally 2 on 1’s favouring the defender. After a particularly frustrating period in the first half on Saturday where we dominated possession and kept bombing it forward for only a few points on the scoreboard – a kick slewed off the side off an Eagles midfielder and hit LeCras on the chest 25 metres. I told the Avenging Eagle that we had mastered the “million monkeys and a typewriter to create a masterpiece” strategy of offensive football. Since he kicked a bag of 10 against the hapless Bulldogs early in the year, I have rarely seen Kennedy mark on the lead within 40 metres of goal. He took one speccie in the square on Saturday when the Don’s backmen misjudged it. Cox and Natanui occasionally take strong marks near goal using their size and strength. But overwhelmingly the strategy is for Kennedy to bring it to ground for Nicoski, LeCras, Darling etc to scrap for. The ball gets thrown around and hopefully someone can find a clear shot on goal.
    Is it any coincidence that the top teams have Cloke, Franklin, Kennedy and to a lesser degree Podsiadly/Mooney (Stevie J is the most dangerous forward for the Cats). If Cloke went down, then I think the finals would be even stevens for any of 6 or 7 teams. Krakouer, Fasolo, Blair etc feed a lot of what Cloke brings to ground.
    In summary – strength and size in the marking contest, followed up by scrambling pressure at ground level seems how most goals are created from a lot of what I see.
    So OHalpin may be a worthwhile bet if Waite does not get up, and I wonder if the ground level stuff needs junk-yard dogs like Nicoski and Darling, as much as it needs creative geniuses like LeCras or Betts.

  11. John Butler says:

    PB

    I often think your comments almost require another essay in reply. :)

    Despite zone defences, the better forward lines still engineer some space to lead into on a regular basis.

    Eddie is more effective when he finds space on the lead. He’s less a classic crumber, likes to get on the lead. His poor returns against the good sides reflect our difficulty in creating space, and the fact some matchups (eg Harry O) maintain the wood on him.

    Carlton try to maintain their forward press with the speed of Betts/garlett/walker harassing opposing defences. But if you kick the ball poorly into your forward line the best defensive sides will kill you on the rebound. Collingwood get more goals from turnovers than they create from general play usually.

    Carlton had a big problem last year with poor disposal off half back. they’ve worked on fixing that with personnel changes. Some of the guys who had more defensive orientations (Carrazzo, Armfield, Joseph, amongst others) now get run-with roles. Their kicking skills remain a worry. If only Carrazzo could kick the ball like he wins it he would have been a champ.

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