AFL Finals: Trying to Predict the Future Like A Fool

The last few weeks have been quite busy, meaning I haven’t been able to devote the amount of time to Winners and Losers like I would have liked. But now the finals are here, and finals require a lift in work rate and intensity. They also present another opportunity. Horribly inaccurate predictions. How could I pass up an opportunity to publicly state things that will be proven wrong in four weeks?

In this article I’m looking at the Grand Finalists of the past 12 years and seeing what, if anything, we can infer from them for this coming finals series. Do teams that excel in a particular area continually make it to the last Saturday of September? Is there a particular ingredient that guarantees finals success? Will Hawthorn avenge last year’s failure? Do Fremantle need to start submitting extension plans to the local council for a trophy room? Does Geelong’s odd-year flag collecting look set to continue? Will everyone have the “that was unexpected” face when Sydney are walking up the dais again? Is there any reason to have finalists beyond the top four?

Let’s begin with Ross Lyon’s favourite topic…

DEE-FENCE! DEE-FENCE!

Back on Round 11, when pondering the likelihood of North Melbourne tasting success with their current model of play, I looked at the defensive rankings of the teams to feature in the Grand Final over the past twelve years. I found that during that time, only one team had won the Grand Final without finishing in the top four in average points against per game (The 2001 Brisbane Lions, who still finished 5th in the category), and only two teams had even made the Grand Final without such a ranking. The other team? The 2007 Port Adelaide Power. We know how that went.

Points Against
2012 Sydney 1st
2012 Hawthorn 3rd
2011 Geelong 2nd
2011 Collingwood 1st
2010 Collingwood 2nd
2010 St Kilda 1st
2009 Geelong 2nd
2009 St Kilda 1st
2008 Hawthorn 4th
2008 Geelong 1st
2007 Geelong 1st
2007 Port Adelaide 8th
2006 West Coast 4th
2006 Sydney 2nd
2005 Sydney 2nd
2005 West Coast 3rd
2004 Port Adelaide 4th
2004 Brisbane 3rd
2003 Brisbane 3rd
2003 Collingwood 4th
2002 Brisbane 1st
2002 Collingwood 4th
2001 Brisbane 5th
2001 Essendon 2nd

 

It would seem fair to assume that there is a reasonably strong correlation between points conceded and Grand Final appearances, and that evidence suggests in four weeks time we will be seeing two teams with a top four ranking in this facet of the game facing off. So, let’s look at the current rankings of this year’s finalists.

 

Team Points Against Rank
Hawthorn 5th
Geelong 4th
Fremantle 1st
Sydney 2nd
Richmond 3rd
Collingwood 6th
Port Adelaide 10th
Carlton 11th

 

Some observations:

  1. Our minor season premiers, Hawthorn, do not possess a top four rank, and thus would have to buck recent trends to make it to the Grand Final.
  2. The number one defensive side has appeared in the LAST SIX Grand Finals. Ross Lyon likes this.
  3. The number one defensive side has only won it twice in this period. Ross Lyon really dislikes this.
  4. RICHMOND ARE ALL UP IN YOUR GRILL.

OFFENCE PUTS BUMS ON SEATS

It would be pretty foolish to just look at points against trends and base everything off that. After all, you still need to score more than the other team to win. What if offensive firepower is an even better indicator for finals success?

 

Points For
2012 Sydney 6th
2012 Hawthorn 1st
2011 Geelong 1st
2011 Collingwood 2nd
2010 Collingwood 2nd
2010 St Kilda 10th
2009 Geelong 2nd
2009 St Kilda 5th
2008 Hawthorn 2nd
2008 Geelong 1st
2007 Geelong 1st
2007 Port Adelaide 2nd
2006 West Coast 4th
2006 Sydney 6th
2005 Sydney 14th
2005 West Coast 4th
2004 Port Adelaide 2nd
2004 Brisbane 1st
2003 Brisbane 1st
2003 Collingwood 3rd
2002 Brisbane 1st
2002 Collingwood 9th
2001 Brisbane 2nd
2001 Essendon 1st

 

Offence seems a bit more scatter gun than defence this millennium. Five of the Grand Finals featured teams without a top four rank, with the standout being the 2005 Swans, who were just fourteenth for average points per game. Still, there are some intriguing things here. For example, the most potent side featured in the Grand Final in eight of the twelve years.

 

Team Points For Rank
Hawthorn 1st
Geelong 2nd
Fremantle 12th
Sydney 4th
Richmond 5th
Collingwood 6th
Port Adelaide 10th
Carlton 8th

 

Some observations:

  1. If recent defensive history paints a negative picture for the Hawks, the offensive one offers some reassurance.
  2. Fremantle would be only the second team of the period to win it without a top eight offence.
  3. Geelong and Sydney are the only team with an elite ranking in both categories.

ISN’T THIS A LITTLE SIMPLISTIC?

I know what some of you are thinking. Surely points for and points against is too simple an analysis. It’s 2013. We have all sorts of fancy numbers and formulas to look at. Where are words like “structures”? No reference to GPS data? Running patterns? Rotation rate? I haven’t learnt anything so far!

WINNING FINALS IS ABOUT WORK RATE, AND NOTHING SCREAMS WORK RATE LIKE TACKLES

Finals football is tight and congested football. The team that applies the most pressure often emerges victorious, right?

 

Tackles
2012 Sydney 1st
2012 Hawthorn 5th
2011 Geelong 8th
2011 Collingwood 3rd
2010 Collingwood 1st
2010 St Kilda 6th
2009 Geelong 6th
2009 St Kilda 1st
2008 Hawthorn 12th
2008 Geelong 2nd
2007 Geelong 3rd
2007 Port Adelaide 13th
2006 West Coast 6th
2006 Sydney 1st
2005 Sydney 1st
2005 West Coast 14th
2004 Port Adelaide 15th
2004 Brisbane 3rd
2003 Brisbane 5th
2003 Collingwood 6th
2002 Brisbane 3rd
2002 Collingwood 5th
2001 Brisbane 4th
2001 Essendon 1st

 

The biggest thing to take away from tackle rankings is the fact the team that ranked 1st for tackles laid per game made the Grand Final 50% of the time. Three of these times courtesy of Sydney, who again rank first in this area leading into week one.

PRESSURE IS ABUNDANT IN FINALS, WHICH IS WHY ONLY THE MOST SKILLED TEAMS SUCCEED.

I’ve never placed much stock in things like “effective disposal percentage”. It’s a little to arbitrary for my liking. A little chip to an unmarked team mate in the back half without a shred of pressure can be considered effective, while a guy winning the ball at the contest and forcing it onto his boot with about four opposition players climbing on him like he is Everest can be marked down because his kick didn’t smack a team mate on the chest. Nonetheless we don’t really have a better measure for “skill”, so it will have to do for now.

 

ED %
2012 Sydney 6th
2012 Hawthorn 1st
2011 Geelong 3rd
2011 Collingwood 5th
2010 Collingwood 1st
2010 St Kilda 2nd
2009 Geelong 2nd
2009 St Kilda 3rd
2008 Hawthorn 1st
2008 Geelong 2nd

 

Despite not loving the stat, there is a pretty strong trend here

 

Team ED Rank
Hawthorn 2nd
Geelong 8th
Fremantle 6th
Sydney 16th
Richmond 3rd
Collingwood 5th
Port Adelaide 18th
Carlton 15th

Some observations:

  1. Hawthorn use the ball brilliantly and have done so for a few years now.
  2. Richmond are also good in this area, and when you factor in their defensive efforts, the future sure does seem bright.
  3. I was about to cut the Swans some slack under my “every possession is contested at the SCG” rule, but noticed they managed to rank 6th last year. Perhaps there is something more here.
  4. Port Adelaide haven’t posted a top eight ranking in anything other than tackles so far. I can’t wait to bet against them making the finals next year.

CONCLUSION

I keep returning to the recent points against history. I can’t escape it. The fact only two sides over the past twelve years have even made the Grand Final without a top four ranking in this area stands out. It leaves me feeling lukewarm about the Hawks. It seems obnoxious to write off a team based on things that happened in years gone by, particularly a team that made the Grand Final last year, is the best offence in the league, has favourable rankings in literally everything else, and finished top of the table again, but I’m going to ride this points against train as far as it will go. Hawthorn will not win the flag in 2013.

While I’m on this train, it does paint a remarkable picture for the best defensive units in the competition. The last six grand finals have featured the best defensive team, and if that continued, then Fremantle will be making an appearance this year.

I was all set to anoint Fremantle as Grand Finalists, but the offensive aspect of the game leaves me weary. A top four rank doesn’t seem to be as strict a requirement as it does defensively, but only three teams have appeared without a top eight points for average, meaning the Dockers, with their 12th ranked offence, would be up against history in this regard.

Fremantle’s candidacy is good, but unfortunately there are two teams that tick all the right boxes. Both Geelong and Sydney are the proud owners of an elite ranking in both sides of the ball. Sydney in particular are built for finals football, and generally play at a better standard at this time of year than they do during the home and away season. The Cats meanwhile are the greatest team of the era, brilliant across the board. I believe the 2013 Grand Final will be a contest between the two.

But who will win, the Cats or the Swans?

As mentioned, both teams are brilliant in multiple areas. But there is one significant difference between the two.

Clearances.

The Cats rank 15th in clearances this year. Indeed this has been a sticking point all throughout their era of dominance, but particularly when one Gary Ablett Jnr departed.

 

Clearance Rank
2013 15th
2012 15th
2011 14th
2010 7th
2009 7th

 

The Swans on the other hand win more clearances each week than anyone else in the competition. In fact they’ve been the best three out of the past four years. Their low year? Last year, when they ranked third. They’re brilliant at it. The like to congest space and force stoppages, because it usually works out for them.

But do clearances even matter? Geelong seem to have done just fine without winning a bulk of them every week?

 

Clearance Totals in Grand Finals
Winner Loser
2012 35 58
2011 50 51
2010 replay 44 25
2010 draw 42 43
2009 48 49
2008 27 41

 

The last five years worth of Grand Finals doesn’t offer too much insight into the impact of clearances. Two of the bigger upsets, last year and 2008, show massive wins in the category to the more fancied teams, while most others have been fairly even. Only Collingwood’s 2010 replay win over the Saints was off the back of clearance dominance.

 

Inside 50s
Winner Loser
2012 43 61
2011 57 51
2010 replay 55 39
2010 draw 62 35
2009 42 58
2008 43 62

 

The biggest advantage that comes from winning clearances is the chance to get a clean inside fifty entry. Collingwood demolished the Saints in this area in both their Grand Finals, but both the clearances and inside fifty numbers from these Grand Finals show one thing. The importance of efficiency. Several times here we see a team demolish the other in both areas, but lose the game due to being inefficient with their chances.

 

Goal Accuracy
Winner Loser
2012 60.90% 32.40%
2011 62.10% 48.00%
2010 replay 55.20% 33.30%
2010 draw 39.10% 55.60%
2009 50.00% 36.00%
2008 72.00% 43.30%

 

Indeed, the winner of each Grand Final over the past five years has been the team most accurate in front of goal on the day, and three times the winner has had less scoring shots than the loser. Creating chances is only half the battle, actually taking them is the key.

So now we have to try to predict who will be more accurate in front of goal. Sydney are the fourth best team in front of goal this year, with a 53% accuracy rating. The Cats are right behind them in fifth, with a 52.1% rating. There isn’t much between them in this regard. My Grand Final winner prediction is getting dangerously close to “flip a coin”.

NO MORE NUMBERS MAN! JUST TELL ME.

Okay, I’ll stop mucking around now. The numbers are pushing me toward picking the Swans, but my gut feel says the Cats. I don’t know how much this has to do with knowing how hard it is to go back to back, or my inherent desire as an Adelaide fan to avoid seeing Tippett in red and white with a medal around his neck.

Argh! Okay. Here we go. I’m picking Geelong to beat Sydney in the Grand Final this year. I’ve already changed my mind back and forth seven times while writing this sentence. I want to back the team I think will be more efficient. The team that will use the ball better. I’m backing the Cats to use it better than the Swans. I won’t lie, the disposal efficiency thing has my brain screaming Hawthorn, but I’ve gone hard on the points against thing, and I’m going to stick with. If Fremantle had a slightly better offensive rank (and they might have had Pavlich played more), then I would have locked them in. That best defensive team has made the last six trend is a beauty….

…wait… SIX TIMES!?!?! IN A ROW!?!?!

I want to do it. I so badly want to pick Fremantle instead of the Swans. But they’d either have to beat the Cats at Simonds, or lose, then beat the Pies at home, then the Hawks or Swans away, just to make it. That is a brutal three weeks. Sorry Ross, I tried.

At this point in time I would like to apologise to both Swans and Cats fan for jinxing their teams, and would like to congratulate the Hawks and Dockers for making it to the last Saturday in September. The best part is if Hawthorn win tonight my Geelong v Sydney Grand Final tip is already halfway down the toilet. What’s life without a little risk.

About Adam Ritchie

My name is Adam. I started watching football with two fellow parapsychologists in an abandoned firehouse. When we’re not watching footy, we’re running our own pest control business. What do you mean I stole that from Ghostbusters?

Comments

  1. Swans v Cats GF. Wow, that’s some powerful jinx you have working there. Can you keep it going for a few more weeks.

  2. Adam Ritchie says:

    I know right. It’s like a gift. What’s worse is when I shared this with some friends, I joked that I should go put money on Hawthorn and the Dockers. I didn’t do that either. Not a strong start.

    The thing I’m kicking myself most about is the Dockers, because I really wanted to back them in. One on a gut feel level, and two on their defensive record, and the records of strong defensive teams of late. Ultimately I lacked the courage to pick them to topple the Cats at Simonds, and once I had decided they’d probably lose that one, I figured it would be such a hard road to the Grand Final from then on that I couldn’t possibly back them with confidence. I regret not sticking to my guns.

    On the other hand, this was less “my personal opinion” and more “what does recent history suggest”. I think I followed it to a reasonable conclusion, and figured it would be good to put something on the line, rather than giving folks some generic and non-committal “in conclusion everyone could win!” article.

Add Comment Register

Leave a Comment

*