Just Kick It!

It’s becoming harder and harder to be Monday’s expert.

Admit it- That annoys you doesn’t it? I know I find it exasperating. Not being able to pinpoint, with the insightful detail of a hardened footy follower, why it was we got done on the weekend frustrates us all.

Of for the glory days of our youth when you could reel off statements that summed up your sides demise perfectly-

‘Plugger just couldn’t get near it. They played him two out and we couldn’t find another avenue to goal.’

Job done. Once the facts were asserted, you could move on to next week’s game. Perhaps you could talk positives and mention the young kid who showed something on the wing. Suddenly you would be having a conversation with someone in the tea-room who came from that kid’s home town and knows his family. As easy as that, cup of Blend 43 in hand your hand, the analysis you gave was the match of anything Swooper or TJ gave post-match.

Nowadays, your time is spent trying to deconstruct game plans and guessing why and where it all went wrong. The analysis is rarely game-wide anymore. Rather, you fixate on moments. ‘Plays’ as our American brethren have come to term them. You are more inclined to discuss why Buddy got a good look at a shot on goal because the help defender didn’t get across in time. You end up deconstructing the whole ‘play.’ There was that crafty block by Sewell in the goal square that got him his head-start and the sideways chip by Mitchell to the running Jordan Lewis, who feigned to go to Cyril on the left flank but whirled around and pinpointed Buddy as he cut back towards goal and opened a hole in the zone for a split second. Your time is taken up by actually having to describe the whole ‘build-up.’ The life of a coffee break guru just got more technical. After all, you don’t want folks to think you don’t understand what the hells going on do you?

The commentators are no help. Frankly, if it looked too easy they immediately declare it a ‘set-play’ in a vain attempt to sound like they’re privy to the inner sanctum of coaching experts.
The only ‘set-play,’ used to be- Kick to the big fella in the goal square, who’s one-out and let him go to work. Now it tends to be reminiscent of a basketball strategy, complete with the terminology. We are living slap-bang in the middle of the professional era and these new fangled ‘plays’ exist because everyone is now analysing the game so acutely. Where once it was left to the journos and commentators to give these ploys their names, the complexity has now befuddled them too. Gone are the wonders of ‘Pagan’s Paddock,’ and talk of Parkin’s corridor. We now hear about rolling zones, isos, forward pressure, sealing, get-outs and blocking. Terms an army of coaches pass on to the players in PowerPoint presentations. The terms have become so commonplace we barely notice them anymore but we were taught to use them, only after they had made there mark on the game.

Not to misconstrue where I’m coming from. I am not, for one second, going to launch into a rant about how the invisible forces (always referred to as ‘they’) are ruining the game. I am not going to claim we should all stop the madness that is modern footy and go back to the good ‘ole days. Besides, the only reason I suspect we all pine for the hoof-it-long-and-contest-a-pack-mark-days, is because it might be the last time we remember understanding football.

Perhaps the dirtiest of secret we all have as worshippers of the game is that, truth be told it feels like we might have missed church a few too many times. When did the game get so intricately constructed that we now hear coaches describe how a player- Carried out his assignment well, followed team rules to the letter and fulfilled the set criteria? Sadly, all that analysis would be fine and dandy with us, if only you could remember seeing that bloke during the game.

Sure, there has always been unsung heroes in your team, coming up mine was David Grant, an undersized Tassie defender who gave a contest every week. Its just that in the new era, we hear the coach praise Andrew Mackie for shutting down his man and using the footy going the other way and immediately dive into the stats to see what we missed. What kind of world do we now inhabit where Dane Swan can rack them up for fifty touches and still not impress his coach? Sure we know Malthouse is the Barassi of his era, constantly tweaking the mind games but when Gazza and Swanny light it up for 50 touches and everyone shrugs and says- ‘But what good is it?’ ‘ How many were effective?’ ‘Were they contested?’……Well, you realise we’re through the looking glass here people.

What is happening, of course, is evolution. That isn’t a secret and you surely don’t need me to explain it here. The game got professional and the coaches went to work. What was once a semi-pro league played by tradies on their weekends, became a business. Life, as he hoariest of cliches goes, is like that. Live long enough and it catches up with you. My great-grandfather proudly told his family he remembered walking in front of these new fangled cars, waving a a red flag to make sure they stopped in time and lived long enough to see man land on the moon. He saw that progress and marvelled that his life had encompassed it. We football fans are far more fickle than that. We tend to begrudge the inevitable progress and pine for those good ‘ole days, when men-were-men and blokes squared up to one another and slogged it out for four quarters. We want the blood and thunder, not interchange square-dancing and match-up rotations. Like I said, we really want is to understand what’s going on again.

Folks, welcome to the moon. Our lot as fans has shifted dramatically. We live in a need-to-know era for the sport we love and frankly we don’t have any need to. So what we tend to do is focus on the parts of the game we can clearly see- You know, like that bloke in the back line who doesn’t seem to have a man to mind. What exactly is he called btw? Is he a Quarterback? A sweeper? Point Guard? We know its all brand spanking new because we have to use sports terminology cribbed from other places to describe their role. We notice this guy because he gets the ball every time the defence shifts it forward. He’s the set-up man and his use of the footy is vital, you need him to get you ‘out.’ This, in itself, has created a shift in the role of the barrackers. No longer are they a’shouting as one. Now folks are on opposing sides of a tactical wall. There’s the older bloke who jumps up sporadically as your side is picking its way forward with dinks, chips and triangles of handballs and screams-

‘ Just kick the bloody thing for Christsakes!.’

Then there’s the rest of us, too busy attempting to sound knowledgeable to our mates to fall for that one. No, we’re busy gesticulating wildly and saying- ‘We’re out here, Lenny’s in space on the wing and Rooey is doubling back towards the fifty. Dal’s switching to Fish on the overlap.’

Of course it all breaks down a second after your pronouncement, an errant handball or a chipped kick that got cut off and the tide of players rolls back to the breakwater of your defensive fifty. Only then will everyone is on the same side of the wall for a second. The groan of losing the ball shared by everyone. Perversely a part of me always wants to jump up at this moment and scream- ‘ Next time just kick the bloody thing long!

Saints supporters got proficient in being tactically aware when we became Sydney-lite in 2007. Ross Lyon cops a fair amount of vitriol for ‘killing’ the game by slowing it down and dragging it into a phone box for a roughing up…. But the truth is much worse than that. The Lyon game plan is simply an extreme version of the style of football everyone is playing. Well might the ‘smoko’ experts gleefully proclaim that ‘You’ll never win playing that ultra defensive brand of footy. The facts are more pliable than that assessment. The Saints were desperately unlucky not to win at least one Premiership. They drew one Granny and perhaps should have drawn the year before as well. People tend to forget that the Cats kicked a goal that was uncontested after the siren in ’09 to ‘blow’ the margin out. Take the earlier Hawkins’ ricochet off the goal post out of the scorecard and we’re looking at a much tighter finish. Meanwhile, the Swans got similar results mid 2000s playing the same grinding, defence oriented football. Realistically all Lyon, as a acolyte of Roos, was doing was attempting to control all the aspects of the game his team could possibly control.

Jonathan Wilson, the football (soccer) tactical Svengali deconstructs the game of modern football very simply. His assessments are universal. He states simply that there are two styles a team can play. Reactive or proactive. The basics of any team sport- Either they have it or we have it. All Wilson adds to this balance of power is the critical thinking of- Either we ‘allow’ them to have the ball and force them to find a way past us; or we take possession of the ball and force them to stop us. Ross Lyon’s ethos is simply to work within those parameters. The thinking hurts our sensibilities because we want our team to take it on. Beat them with a blitzkrieg of goals boys, rack them up and knock them down. Lyon’s mantra is the opposite- Let them try and beat us. We’ll score goals, that’s always an inevitable outcome, why bother focusing on it? What if we deny them from scoring? What if we pile so much pressure on them, that every time they have the pill we force them to cough it up? All Ross is doing is making the opposition beat his team by breaking through its defensive structure. It’s not pretty and it will make you scream irrationally at the game unfolding in front of you but the white-knuckle ride of forcing teams to beat you will exist as long as it makes tactical sense.

Don’t get me wrong- I hated it. A perverted part of my footballing psyche was relieved when Lyon jumped ship to Perth. The tension at play in watching Grand Finals that were so unbelievable tight and in-close, where every single moment felt like it might be game-changing and every opposition goal felt like a dagger before thee practically killed me. The 2010 decider was too much. I ended up pacing the backyard and reading Jung’s ‘Man and His Symbols’ ( Don’t ask, it was all that was to hand) to try and take myself out of the moment. I was still suffering from Post Stress Disorder from the memory of Chapman snapping truly in ’09 and the braying of the Magpie army across the fence took me back there. I had to walk away.

The dichotomy at play in the tactical watershed of the game is such, that while we have never had any control over events on the field, as fans we now feel ever more helpless. Where once you could just turn to you mate and say, don’t worry Harvs is going to turn it on, instead we now have to sit there wondering what our game-plan is? What is the matchup the coaching box is most worried about? Are we winning the contest on the coaches laptop? Time was you knew that to have a chance of beating the Hawks you had to stop Ratten and Tucky and hope that neither Dunstall, and Dermie got off the leash.

Nowadays, we talk of blokes like Bunger and Derm as ‘true.’ Dunstall was a ‘true’ stay-at-home full-forward. Remember those? He used to stand in the goal square and when the ball was in the hands of his side’s midfielders he’d make a lead, snaffle the mark and take a set shot. Simpler times, when fans knew how the game was being played as they were watching it. A good mate of mine, with no delusions of being a master coach, once had the audacity to tear strips off Hawthorn’s then coach Ken Judge. Unfortunately for Mr. Judge, he had the distinct lack of foresight to close the window of the coaches box. This mistake was apparent to him after Wayne Carey had beaten Mark Graham one-out in the goal square for the fourth of fifth time and my dear friend turned to face him and screamed-

‘ Even a halfwit (that is cleaned up btw) knows you can’t leave Carey one-out in the goal square!’

The silence that followed this remark suggested it might have been a coaching masterstroke. The game was still easy enough to understand from both sides of that open coaches box window. The mindset of Ken Judge was no different from any other coach of the time, Lord knows Carey used the open space of Pagan’s bare forward fifty to tear strips of everyone, what changed was……well everything. Information is power. Video streaming on iPads in the huddle tends to change the way the game is understood. GPS and heart rate monitors providing exacting dissection of a players performance shifts the emphasis from the team to the individual and their role in the team.

Allan Jean’s once confided to me that the only part of the game he coached that he missed in the modern exchanges was the man-on-man battles. He was completely at ease with the progress of the game he loved. Knowing that it’s evolution was inevitable, he didn’t want to hold the coaching revolution back. All he really missed was the joy of watching Dipper slug it out with Dougie on a wing. He actually loved pitting his man against a direct opponent for the entirety of the game and challenging them to beat him. It was telling because I saw in that moment why Jeans was a master coach. He missed the duel….But knew why its time had passed.

The game is in hyper-evolution. Tactics are being refined so quickly that we pass through phases and barely notice we have. Remember the huddle? That strange dance at the 50 for a kick-in that suddenly broke with your team stacking numbers to one flank? That seems so 1990’s now doesn’t it? The only remnant of that play in the modern game, is the ‘get-out’ man posted in the pocket. What about the trend of blokes holding the footy two-handed above their head? Three years ago everyone did that. At the time, someone at VFL level told me it was simply a signal that the ball-carrier was going to kick long to a predictable area. The game evolved and adapted so quickly that seeing Shane Tuck hold the ball aloft recently seemed old-fashioned. You don’t need the signal any more, players do it automatically.

Football clubs now have coaching teams and they have gone from counting kicks and handballs to assessing contested footy and clearances. They dissect every action taken on the field all week long and discuss, in intricate detail, where the players can get fractionally better. The game is measured in millimetres, debate is constant. While, everyone is working from the same hymn sheet, that sheet is filled with numbers and percentages that can be interpreted anyway you see fit. One team values tackles as a ‘key indicator.’ Another talks in terms of ‘Inside 50s for and against.’ The methodology is designed to make players more efficient. By making every contest in a game measurable and therefore predictable, coaches can direct players actions. Watching the bloke on centre wing look towards the forward line, only to turn sideways and chip it twenty metres to a team mate might drive you nuts but the game is about working the percentages now. We might be on the verge of seeing the Aussie Rules equivalent of Barcelona. The Spanish giants now play a brand of football referred to as tiki-taka. Put simply, they pass the ball back and forth to one another and never give the opposition the football. They control the entire game because they have possession of the only thing that can possibly beat them. Watching Geelong dismantle Melbourne last season felt pretty close to fulfilling that vision didn’t it?

While it might feel like we, the fans are losing touch with the wherefore and whys of the game, we shouldn’t be fearful. We’ve adapted to everything so far without even noticing. Remember when your junior coach harped on and on about the one fundamental rule you should never break?

‘ Lads, whatever you do- Never, ever, kick across goal in the back line.’

Matty Scarlett broke that rule a dozen times in the first quarter last week and I bet you didn’t even flinch.

Comments

  1. craig dodson says:

    I’m only 34 and proud to shout ‘kick the friggin thing’ a minimum of 8 times a game (that rises to 68 if its a dockers game). The rise in coaches and analysis has lead to a lot of people complicating the uncomplecated to justify their existance. Football at its core is a simple game and all the structures/zones/presses etc in the world wont beat quick direct ball movement and man on man contests. I’ve only got a humble Bachelors Degree so perhaps i’m just not smart enough to understand modern football but i’m guessing Stevie J just looks out the window and dreams of kicking a bag when the tactical sessions are held at Geelong.
    Excuse me while I dust off my long sleeve VFL logo burley seekem jumper and grab a can of KB.

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