Finals Week 1 – West Coast v Western Bulldogs: Outcoached, Outsmarted and Outplayed

WCEvWBD

I haven’t had a bet for many years.  Two weeks ago was the closest I’ve got.  I thought my Eagles were certainties.  Leading up to the game I thumbed the airline and accommodation websites for cheaper fares to Melbourne for the semi-final than would be available after the “inevitable” Friday morning rush for seats.

Thought I could save/win a few hundred bucks.  In the end it was more the belief that our game plan would not hold up on the wider MCG against precise kicking opponents that decided me against “gambling” on the Elimination Final result.  Still when the siren blew I could at least console myself that I had saved $1,500 in airfares and hotel bookings by not having a “bet” on the outcome of the game.

A match report would be too painful, but there are a couple of themes that came out of the game for me.

In Round 19 I watched an under-sized, injury-riddled Bulldogs hold up for three quarters against a much stronger opponent in the Cats.  I marvelled at how they stuck to their game plan and how well they moved the ball in their backline.

“Well coached, and even the new players stick to the game plan when they are outmatched and under pressure.  They’ll be a good side next year when they get their stars back,” I condescendingly decided.  Unfortunately they didn’t have to wait that long.

Sir Isaac Newton said something like “for every force there is an equal and opposite force”.  Seems to accurately sum up the contrast between the Bulldogs and my Eagles.  A smart, well coached team versus a dumb one.

Much is made of the Clarkson coaching apprentices as if they were identical clones, but not every coach has the same clay to mould.  Luke Beveridge and Adam Simpson may have some shared history, but each has adapted to the skills and mindset of the players on their list.

The Eagles players come from the “don’t think – do” John Kennedy Senior school of coaching.  We are the least skilled team in the top 8 when it comes to kicking, handball, running patterns and adapting to different oppositions and game styles.

We have one pattern that works well and we can beat anyone when the game is played on our terms.  We have a very good defensive unit and like to slow the game down when the opposition has possession, forcing a lot of intercepts and ball-ups.  When we regain possession it is all about fast rebound, run and long kicking to Kennedy to use his speed and strength before he can be double teamed.

When Plan A doesn’t work – as on Thursday night – there is no Plan B.  The warning signs were obvious early in the match.  Jeremy McGovern twice turned the ball over in the first quarter with dinky, cute passes that were intercepted.  That is not our game and we get punished for poor skills and disposal whenever we start “overfinnesin” – to use a Tommyism.

The disease was infectious with defenders and midfielders consistently hesitating and getting caught by Bulldogs tacklers.  “The third of two options” was the Eagles menu de jour.  Yes the Bulldogs pressure was outstanding, but the Eagles players were mentally beaten before they lost the physical contests.

Their capitulation was Greg Normanesque with the Bulldogs reprising the Nick Faldo role as the cool, calculating, consistent destroyer.

One Perth scribe called the Eagles “lethargic”.  I thought they were the opposite – over anxious as if they wanted it too much.  Or more likely had already won this game in their minds and it was just a formality before the “Grand Final rematch” against Hawthorn the following week.

Either way it smacks of hubris and Eagles players sucked in by adoring Perth fans and media; their surprise success of last season and their rush of late form – into believing they were much better than they actually are.

Time for Adam Simpson to take a much more ruthless approach to how he deals with his “stars” and not just tinker with the fringe players.  His excuse has been lack of depth but Beveridge has not accepted the same ego-fest from Bulldogs players who don’t abide with team plans and structures.  The obvious comparison is Jake Stringer and Jack Darling.  Similar sizes and styles.  On Thursday night Stringer spent a lot of time leading to the flanks to take McGovern away from the ball and open up space behind for other Dogs forwards.  Two weeks in the VFL was time well spent teaching Stringer that it’s a team game.  He played his role to perfection.

The Bulldogs tactics showed how well they had studied the Eagles game plan and how the Crows had failed to break down our defensive “web”.  As soon as they regained possession at half back or on a wing the Bulldogs turned the ball inside with chains of handball and short kicks, knowing that the Eagles fall back in a straight line that can be exposed through gaps up the middle.

A team can be well coached to identify opposition weaknesses but lack the adaptability and “smarts” to implement something other than their usual game style.  The Bulldogs did not expose a talent gap on Thursday night; they exposed an intelligence gap – both players and coaching.  Hats off to Beveridge and his men.

I like unheralded players who know how to fill a team role.  Beyond their obvious winners like Picken, Daniel, Hunter and Dahlhaus, Jordan Roughead stood out for me among the Bulldogs (and kudos to Tom Boyd also).  I had wondered why Will Minson couldn’t get a game in the ruck.  Roughead is much more multi-dimensional.  Big enough to contest the hitouts against all but the biggest and best like Goldstein, Naitanui and Sandilands.  He is mobile with good hands and disposal, and he runs to position well to provide a marking target link.

For our part there are a lot of players I could critique from Thursday night, but the ones that infuriate me are the serial offenders.  My whipping boy is Elliot Yeo whose missed set shots brought into stark relief what he has been doing all year.  His kicking action is all wrong, leaving all his weight on his back foot and consistently skying his kicks.  In general play he spends a lot of time waving his arms and telling team mates what they should be doing, instead of working for contested ball.  He turns on a long arc trying to break tackles and generally gets caught with the ball.

My point is not just to bag a young footballer who thinks he is doing his best, but to critique a football department that has accepted too many obvious flaws like this because “we are winning” or “that’s the way he plays and we need a big body in the midfield”.

It’s not something that Clarkson or Beveridge would have accepted, and Yeo is not the only culprit – just the most obvious and infuriating.  Gaff is a modest kick who takes poor options.  Darling is not a team player and he doesn’t work to create space for other forwards – it’s all about Jack.  Priddis, LeCras and Butler are nearly at the end.  Our small forwards aren’t crumbing and tackling at AFL level (I’m even coming around to offering Ballantyne a contract – my enemy’s enemy etc).  Or preferably Branden Matera may want to come home from Gold Coast.

Overall the Eagles underachieved for the season.  The late season wins were fool’s gold that blinded us to the reality of a team beaten by Collingwood and very lucky to get over Carlton and Melbourne.

Unless we can get Rory Lobb to come home from GWS to bolster our rucks and our marking around the ground, we are mid-table again next season.  Nic Nait probably needs a whole season off to get his knee right and shed maybe 10kgs so his superstructure doesn’t overwhelm his undercarriage.  More time in the pool – less in the gym.

McGovern, Kennedy and Shuey are all elite footballers.  Barrass and Sheed have both shown signs they will be good players.  Sheppard, Hurn, Schofield and Wellingham are good small/medium defenders.  Gaff is a relentless runner, but a poor kick.  Lycett is an honest second ruckman who competes well around the ground.

Eric MacKenzie is too good to be languishing in the WAFL.  His old school defensive style does not suit a run and stun game plan, but he and Barrass can hold down the key positions.  Maybe it’s time to see if Jeremy McGovern can be the answer up forward, with Darling playing more in the midfield or on a flank.

This season is a pass, not a credit or distinction, and without Naitanui (or Lobb) it’s hard to see much better next season.  Without some trade success in the off season (Jetta and Redden were notable failures this year) it may be a matter of going backward in 2017 to go forward at the new stadium in 2018.

Doing the same things and expecting a different result is Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says:

    Wow! Such a deep and incisive analysis under trying circumstances. I’m glad someone put their hand up to discuss last Thursday’s match.
    It’s interesting how there are no diehard Doggy supporters rushing to write something about the great victory. And it was great. Perhaps it was a case of Doggy supporters usually writing their best stuff full of angst when the whole world is against them. I wish there was an equivalent of breaking through the glass ceiling because that’s what it felt like. Our win at the Docklands against the Eagles earlier this year put a crack in that ceiling, but on Thursday it was completely smashed, as the young folk would say.
    Doggy supporters and many neutrals would have celebrated the win long and hard but quickly realized there are two more ceilings to break. Hawthorn and Geelong. But after the Eagle’s victory there’s a feeling that anything’s possible instead of fearing playing teams that have dominated the Bulldogs over the last decade. So thank you Eagles for unleashing the positive attitude in the Dogs.

  2. I feel your pain Peter.
    If your boys had got into the GF, you would’ve had first refusal of my (cheaper) flights and accommodation I bought (hopefully) in October last year. I sold them on last year too. The guy got them at cost price but was slugged by the airline to change the name. It was still cheaper for him than buying the going rates at the time.
    I disagree with you about Priddis though. He still looks to be in his prime to me (but I’m no expert).
    I’m hoping for a Sydney v Hawks GF this year, with Sydney to win. I’ll still be wearing my purple though of course., maybe with a Swans scarf, if I can wrestle one from my nephew.
    Does anybody know of some G tickets going?!?

  3. Peter Schumacher says:

    I thought that this was a stunningly good analysis, it would be interesting to see what similar dissection of Brisbane might come up with. Yet this (Eagles)
    is the side that made the Crows look so second rate that I seriously thought that the Roos would win and win easily on Saturday night.

  4. Do you have A Simpson’s phone number PB?
    Of does he have yours?
    That’s some top shelf insight.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Fair and insightful analysis, PB. Lack of intelligence was apparent, but was that because of a lack of pace, Bulldogs pressure and the ride Nic Nat gives your midfield in the ruck? Darling was very disappointing. When he played on from 10 out, you knew that the Dogs had gotten inside his head. Crumbing forwards are key these days .Pies and Eagles deficient in this area in 2016.

  6. It was like watching the Crows v Eagles two weeks earlier except the Eagles were the Crows and the Bulldogs were the Eagles and I was swearing significantly less…

  7. John Butler says:

    PB, your boys were the late crammers who got caught short come exam time.

    Great analysis of the game, BTW.

    The Dogs have just needed a break this year. They now have as full a team as they can get on the field this year. Friday night will be very very interesting.

  8. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Thought you were going to save yourself the pain PB!? Eagles should be making enquiries.
    But I’m still just swilling the taste of ‘the superstructure overwhelming the undercarriage’ around on the palate. Superb!
    Finals. Sigh.

  9. Playing the electric violin
    On Desolation Row…

  10. PB the Crows were pathetic mentally against the Weagles likewise your mob against the dogs sport is played so much between the ears,very good analysis of the game

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