A Tale Of Two Presses

Allan Jeans believed football was a simple game – “We have the ball, they have the ball or the ball is in dispute.” Not so simple are the plans devised to meet that axiom.

The biggest developments in on-field strategies in recent times have revolved around what to do when “they” have the ball.

“Clarko’s Cluster” won Hawthorn the 2008 Premiership. In re-engineering it, Collingwood has developed the most effective strategy yet seen for stripping the opposition of the ball. The results are self-evident.

In the first few rounds of 2010, it was Collingwood’s half-back line of Taylor, Maxwell and Shaw that was being lauded as the catalyst for the Magpies strong start to that season. They had adopted the Geelong approach of launching attacks from half back by using swift ball movement and precise skills. They employed a “press” when the opposition had the ball.

The “press”, where players of the team without possession “roll” up and down the field of play covering space no more than a kick or so away from the ball, was designed to force turnovers.

As the 2010 season progressed, Collingwood’s ability to win stoppages, and particularly centre bounces, grew. By season’s end, such was the development of the Collingwood players in that area that they dominated all-comers.

Winning stoppages complemented their press perfectly, with the result being that games against the Magpies were played predominantly in the Magpie’s forward fifty. Their ability to win contests allowed them to get the ball into their forward line. Their press, combined with their ability to win contests, kept it in there.

Whilst turnovers, whether forced or unforced, had always been a part of the game, what Collingwood implemented was a strategy where the majority of turnovers occurred within a kick of their goal. This made them imminently more dangerous as turnovers often resulted in an immediate scoring opportunity.

The result: the “forward press”.

Geelong experienced the full force of the “forward press” in the 2010 Preliminary Final. The Cats obviously learned from it because they have become more deliberate in their use of the ball in the backline, whilst being more selective about when they enter the “centre corridor”.  In the Round 8 match between the two this year, the Cats reined in their preference for free flowing football, preferring to mark and hold the ball in the backline before kicking it long to contests on the wings. If there was a turnover, at least it was two to three kicks from goal. This effectively took the “forward” out of Collingwood’s “forward press”, thus reducing its effectiveness.

I’ve argued before that Geelong has been a surprise beneficiary of the way the game is played today, mainly because its weakness – foot speed – is minimised, and its strengths – experience, strength, fitness, and exceptional ball use – maximised, as fatigue sets in during a game.

I still maintain this.

It is fair to say though that Geelong has also implemented its own version of the press, and this has played a part in their success thus far. What is interesting is how it differs from Collingwood’s.

Comment has been made that for the press to be effective, a team must control stoppages. By doing so, the ball can be pushed forward either all the way to a score, or to at least another stoppage closer to goal. Stoppages provide the time for teams to reset their press. Collingwood exemplifies this approach.

However, despite names like Selwood, Corey, Bartel and Kelly, who are recognised hardball winners of the highest order, Geelong is not a great stoppage team. In fact, in more games than not this year, they have been dominated in clearances from stoppages, even by the weaker and more inexperienced midfields. It may be that at stoppages, when teams have the time to set up their structures and prepare for the contest, Geelong’s lack of pace (or perhaps acceleration) is the reason they often get beaten. That’s pure speculation, but if it has any merit at all, then it is in this area that Ablett’s absence is probably most felt.

Because of this, Geelong has required their press to be less “in your face” than Collingwood’s.

Because they have generally lost clearances at stoppages, Geelong’s ability to win the ball a kick behind the stoppage has been paramount. But whilst Geelong works hard to harass the ball carrier, thus forcing indiscriminate kicks forward which they then often intercept, their coup de grâce is that they are a brilliant “contest clearance” team.

The Cats’ game plan obviously plays a critical part in this. The players have the discipline to maintain their structures, even under extreme pressure, and they have the skills, experience and trust in each other to execute the game plan automatically. Their greatest strength is, however, that the team is littered with natural footballers who read the play exceptionally.

At contests, as opposed to stoppages, play is fluid; continuous. There is no time to stop, set up, adjust, prepare. With the ball still in play, their footballer instincts come to the fore.

They break from their press and spread. Players going to the ball are already in motion. Players offering support and a short option out are already in motion, and more often than not, are in the right position. Players offering a long option out are already in motion, and more often than not, are in the right position. Players supporting the players offering a long option out are already in motion.

Because play is fluid at contests, their lack of foot speed is harder to expose as the players already have momentum. By releasing the ball quickly at speed and with accuracy, and with the opposition having committed to running forward and thus compromising and opening its defensive structures, the Cats turn defence into attack.

When the Cats are “on”, their play making is pure joy. And because their plays often start from their backline, watching them surge is electric. It is poetry in motion. Whether by design or by accident, getting outplayed at the set plays has played into Geelong’s strength. It is the kung-fu master or cagey boxer who sees an opponent’s punches not as a threat, but as opportunities to counter with speed and precision when as the opponent is exposed and off balance.

If Geelong also gets control of stoppages, as they have done in recent games, the consequences for opposition teams are dire.

Collingwood controls stoppages, forces the ball into their forward line, and locks it in there by refusing to surrender ground. Their press focuses on where the ball is. They turn the screws and wait for the opposition to crack.

Geelong surrenders ground initially, reads the play, and like a loaded spring, explodes forward. They send the ball back over the opposition’s heads and dare the opposition to stop them.

Assuming both teams can make the “big one”, its going to be the ultimate portrayal of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.



  1. Pete – interesting stuff. I often wander if we would be having discussions about the Pies press if Milne had run harder at the ball in Grand Final 1 last year. I guess we’ll never know.

    The Pies press is like a swarm and the most effective – their record shows this. And you make a good point about the Cats not being a great stoppage team. I have a theory about this. Scott has realised that he has one of the best mid-fields in the competition. Perhaps his view is that having heaps of players around the ball actually negates his mid-field strength because it turns the game into rugby (look at any ball up these days and you’ll see about 20 players around it). Therefore, he may be thinking that the Cats are better off leaving blokes away from the stoppage, maybe conceding a bit of ground, but having these players in a better position to either attack or defend. Maybe Brett Ratten should contemplate this.

    You’ve made comment about how the Cats attack off half back – they can do it if the players are there rather than if they’ve been sucked up to the ball up. Just a theory.

    It will be interesting to watch the Pies/Cats game in the last round to see how they approach it.

  2. I totally agree Dips. I was contemplating saying the Cats may do it deliberately, but thought it may sound a bit arrogant. I certainly think they prefer to compete away from stoppages.

  3. All interesting thoughts. The finals will be great this year. Four or five teams with a legitimate chance to win.

    Who can crank it up the required 10-15%? Which list will be the healthiest? Who’s team is the fittest & can run harder for longer? Who will step up & who will disappoint?

    The Pies play with a flair & fluidity that is often ignored but not by many any more. I feel they are just as irresistable as the Cats.

    Dips – I wonder if we would be talking about the Cats if Milne hadn’t squandered his 3 guilt edged chances late in the 2009 G/F? Or Hawkins “goal” had been correctly called a point?

  4. Dips

    However the ball bounced in the GF, I’m not sure it alters what happened in the Prelim Final the week before. I’ve checked the Almanac Constitution. It says:

    Following complete analysis of all things Geelong, it is permitted to discuss other laudable performers.

    So, game over! We WILL ever know. Even if the Pies hadn’t won last year’s GF*, we would be allowed to discuss them because they are 17-1 with a percentage of 186 in 2011. It’s right there in the Constitution!

    Not Sensitive, Waving, from Thornbury

    * records show that Collingwood did actually win the 2010 GF

  5. Did I hear them referred to as the ‘flagpies’ today on Auntie radio, MOC.

    Apparently they have already won the 2011 GF as well.

  6. Skip of Skipton says

    Bakes, Hawkins goal that hit the post was evened up by the umps with the soft double goal the Saints got on the half-time siren for Milburn’s arguing/abuse. The Cats were always going to win that game despite the number of missed chances by Milne, Schneider, McQualter etc. The Cats were getting well on top late in the 2nd until two lucky goals (and the evener-upper) in the last minute had St.Kilda back in the contest. Refer to the video tape!

  7. Skip

    Maybe. Maybe not. As MOC quite rightly says, the records show Geelong won the 2009 G/F & the Pies were very deserving Premiers in 2011.

    Phantom is worried about what some radio program runs with. Don’t we all realize by now that all of that (this) is actually irrelevant? It is what the 44 players actually do on G/F day that matters – not what I, you or 3LO thinks.

    The Pies can win it again this year because they are at least as good, if not as righteous, as the Cats. I think they are fitter and they are definitely younger. But beware also the Haughty Hawks, the Blues & maybe even the Eagles because if they can crank it up the required amount come September, who knows?

    Back to back sounds nice but is very tough to do. Best not say anything so as not to hook the Phantom again.

  8. Have checked the records again, Phanto, and it looks like the 2011 flag is still to be decided. Whoever wins it will have earnt it, like every flag that I can remember. Our beloved sides should probably be dusting off our Stop Buddy and Cyril blueprints.

  9. Mark Doyle says

    An interesting discussion! I believe that the strategy of how the modern game is played is a reaction to Geelong’s game of the past 4-5 years. Geelong have set the standard with more good players and the excellent coaching of Mark Thompson. The basis of Thompson’s game plan was winning the footy and quick movement of the ball. Chris Scott has not changed this game plan and his focus has been management of player fitness. The strategy of all other clubs was based on defence to compete with Geelong. Collingwood, St, Kilda and Hawthorn have all had some success.with varying forms of defence. Collingwood’s strategy has been the most successful with good team defence – the so called “Collingwood press’ is nothing more than getting more than one bloke to every contest and forcing an opposition mistake/turnover. Collingwood have been successful because of player fitness and strength because of excellent use of sports science and sports medicine.

    We all should look forward to round 24 and the finals and hope for a grand final between Geelong and Collingwood with their best and fittest teams.

  10. Bakes/MOC – selective reading of my comment (again) I see. Feeling a little edgy boys? Few ants climbing up the legs of the jeans? Pies are unbeatable this year – they just have to prove it. Relax.

  11. Thats 42 players now Bakesy. Nick (Greg Lougainus) has a sore pinkie and Taz has a date tomorrow night.

    Not taking baits: just spreading burley. Watch out for couta and sharks.

    (Sorry I mentioned the ABC. I realise it may be a bit of an unknown to most of the membership.)

  12. Peter E’s excellent discussion of team strategies devolves into a plethora of Magpie and Cats self-congratulation. Good teams, well coached no doubt. But Mark’s everything else is a reaction to Geelong is just a bridge too far.
    Clarkson has been an excellent innovator. Worsfold’s regeneration of the Eagles after losing a Brownlow midfield. Roos and Lyons as defensive tacticians. Everyone learns and adapts from everyone else.
    I remain to be convinced that the ageing Cats will stand up under pressure. They were notably shaky when playing against finals rivals in the middle of the season. I was underwhelmed by their performance in Perth, and I usually enjoy watching their creativity and skill. But the Eagles kept them on a very tight leash, and Chapman/Varcoe/Johnson/Wojinski all went missing that day. Their performances against the Manangatang B Grade over the last month have flattered to deceive.
    Pity that Sepp’s expanded competition does not offer serious tests more frequently. More power to CJudd for speaking truth to power. As Bob Murphy said in the Age – much respect.

  13. Peter,

    Many moons ago the Eagles were flying high (now that’s another story) and even had a home final against an aging Hawthorn. Slow, old has beens who had been written off.

    How did that season go? I must be getting old and need some assistance remembering.

    Good luck against the Dees today.

  14. Nice of you to recall 1991Mr Phantom. 2008 was another good year, as examples go.

  15. Skip of Skipton says

    I’m expecting to be underwhelmed by West Coast in the forth coming finals series. Surviving beyond the second week would be unlikely. I wonder what more Geelong could have done to impress this year? Sure there was a flat spot where they lost to Essendon (4 points) and the Weagles at Subi (8 points), but outside of that they have handled all comers, including Collingwood. They were perhaps lucky against Carlton, who have given them the heebie geebies in recent seasons, but still got the bob in on the line.

    As for this nonsense of an aging list, who outside of Milburn and Mooney is aged or age weary? Once upon a time footballers aged 27-30 were considered in their prime. I still subscribe to that. The only exceptions are for battering ram CHF types like Dermie and Carey who are broken/breaking down by then.

  16. Skip of Skipton says

    That effort by Hawthorn in the Subi final in ’91 was gold. As a Geelong supporter I’m still disappointed they couldn’t repeat the dose in ’92. Poor old Dunstall got stranded on 145 when Pratt/Hudson’s record was in sight, too.

    3rd place Collingwood losing to the sixth placed Saints really helped the Eagles that year. Geelong might have had their measure GF day if the Eagles had a tougher run in those finals. Spilt milk etc.

  17. Dips,

    Not sure how MOC & I misread what you actually said & implied. It was very clear.

    No – not nervous…yet. The constant injuries are a concern but need to be managed. Hopefully, our list will come together in 3 weeks. AS satted before, this finals will be hard fought with multiple chances.

    Simply can’t believe Mark (above). The claim that everything that is good about the game is a result of the Cats since 2007 smacks of high arrogance. Forgotten the Lions of the early 2000’s? The Hawks of the 70’s & 80’s. The Blues of the 70’s & ’80s? The Roos in the 90’s? The Dons in the early 80’s? The Eagles in the early 90’s? The game evolves constantly. Unbeliveable self-satisfaction.

    The Cats have just won by a kick and a half in Adelaide. Nothing to worry about there I would have thought.

  18. Thanks for that Rick.

    Sincerely F Frog (x2)

  19. Nothing at all Bakesy.

    To beat a team, that by our winning accounts is only a goal worse than the undisputed 2011 Premiers Collywood is rather a good interstate test prior to the bye I believe.

    You know what the Adelaide crowd is like when their team has momentum. Worse than Collywood’s by all accounts.

    Bang bang Maxwell’s silver season came down upon its head
    Bang bang Maxwell’s broken pinkie filled Pies fans full of dread

  20. Skip of Skipton says

    “The cats have just won by a kick and a half in Adelaide. Nothing to worry about there I would have thought”

    No, nothing at all to worry about when you look at, and study, the Cats’ fixture in this latter part of the season. A bloody great win as far as I’m concerned!

    Sitting around all weekend waiting to play Adelaide at their home. Knowing that Adelaide will be fired up to have a big crack at a top side; after their coach fell on his sword a few weeks ago. Out to impress.

    The Cats have the bye next week too. A bloody great win as far as I’m concerned!

  21. Thanks for a thorough explanation of the PRESS Peteed. As an assistant coach of an under 17s team who have very little idea of structure and game plan i find your article priceless. Only one game to go this season but come preseason next year will try to put this strategy into place. Well at least some of it.

  22. Take 4 parts thoughtful insight. Mix with 3 pints of bluster. Add 2 quarts of spleen and one of revenge.
    What do you have?
    Ripper Almanac debate.

  23. Collingwood: $1.91
    Geelong $4.60
    Hawthorn $9.60
    West Coast $26

    This is the top four in my book. I find the current market outrageous, which should be of advantage to astute punters. The Pies may win it, but surely they are under the odds?

  24. Whats the fav out market JH?
    No Blues in the market. I know they have Hawks and a bye – but no price? Pure spite towards JB and Litza.
    I have thought through the options after Tigers Swans today. Unless Pies have more injuries, everything else is 50:50. If Eagles keep winning and lose to Pies in first final. We are 50:50 to beat Blues or Saints in second week at Subi. Then 50:50 against non-Pies in Prelim – 25% chance to GF.
    If we lose to Bombers or Adelaide and Blues make top 4, then 50% to go out in first round.
    Big Insight – Finish 4th is big big big advantage. Lose to Pies in first round with double chance and stay on opposite side of draw after that.
    Big advantage for any team, and Eagles have bigger home/travel advantage than the rest. I figure we’re all playing for second so I want to know the fave out prices so I can back the Eagles at 12/1 to make a GF.
    And Rodney Eade to coach Blues next year after first final loss to Bombers.

  25. I like to play Eagles in Melbourne on Prelim day.

    Pies are obviously one to beat so no point worrying about playing them (loss would be expected – but not given), but it is the Blues and Hawks that get me nervous.

  26. John Butler says

    I want this discussion continued after we run rings around the Hawks on Friday night.

  27. Cats struggled yesterday. Smashed at stoppages for much of the game. Relied on our rebound from a kick behind the stoppages again, but yesterday showed how much of a hole Scarlett leaves when he is not there.

Leave a Comment