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AFL's conundrum: where have all the goals gone?

Date

Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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A week ago, as the world knows, Germany scored seven goals against Brazil in the World Cup. In AFL football on the weekends either side of that match, there were nine instances of teams scoring seven or fewer goals. Another team scored eight goals - and won.

The soccer result was a historical aberration. The AFL scores were not. Since 2000, the average AFL score has shrunk continuously, from more than 15 goals per team per game to barely 12.5 now. This is despite constant improvement in conditions at all grounds, and from 2001 the utility of a ground, now called Etihad Stadium, where conditions don't matter at all.

This year, the paucity is especially marked. Only Hawthorn and Port Adelaide are averaging more than 100 points a game. The bottom three teams - Melbourne, Brisbane and St Kilda - are all averaging fewer than 65 points. The Demons, Roos-ian goodwill notwithstanding - are scoring almost a goal a game less than last year and nearly two goals a game less than in 2012.

AFL operations manager Mark Evans says there are nuances within those numbers. Scoring has become sparser this year, he says, but anecdotally, the top teams are attacking more. Further, the margin in matches between top eight and bottom eight teams has narrowed, a pleasing development.

Nonetheless, it makes for an austere comparison with, say, the Malcolm Blight era at Geelong. In 1992, the Cats averaged nearly 140 points a game. Wooden spooner Sydney averaged more than 90. Blight's philosophy was that football should be fun and he could think of no more satisfying football fun than kicking goals. However many the opposition kicked, Geelong would kick more.

Robert Walls, who coached good teams and bad, advocated the kicking of goals, because in the dog days, they at least gave fans and players something to cherish. As recently as five years ago, Matthew Knights' plan at Essendon was to give the Bombers a feel for the licentious thrill of attack before teaching them the more prosaic business of defence.

But the game's mindset had long since changed. Somewhere along the way, goalkicking became a responsibility rather than a joy. Geelong under Blight never did win the premiership, though he would win two with Adelaide and a more cautious approach. Knights was practically run out of Windy Hill. In 2005, Sydney kicked fewer points per game than in any of the three successive wooden spoon years 1992-94 - and won the premiership. Its coach was Roos.

It was modern football in apotheosis. When David Parkin became coach of Carlton in 1981, he knew the Blues were the best attacking team in the competition. All he had to do, he said, was instil a little defence mesh, and they immediately won two premierships. Since, with rare exceptions, the best defensive team of the year has won the premiership.

This is true of most of what Parkin calls "invasion" sports. Parkin, still crucially involved as a mentor and educator of coaches, lucidly explains why it is truer than ever in AFL. It is not simply the all-ground press than has become so fashionable. It is about what happens when the ball changes hands.

When a team loses the ball, Parkin says, players are well drilled in what they should do next. It is comparatively easy to teach. Moreover, coaches pick players to suit. A player with no defensive game is unlikely to get a regular start. And, Parkin says, the era of three tall but immobile forwards already is over. Forwards have to be able to roam to the half-back line, and back again.

When a team gains the ball, Parkin says, they are also habituated in what to do next. But it is significantly harder for players to learn, and coaches to teach, because it depends on retaining possession. A turnover at any moment can wrong-foot an entire team and is immediately punished. Any fan of any team can think of half a dozen instances from last weekend alone. Consequently, coaches more than ever, play safety first.

Cross-pollinating conversations with coaches from others sports - basketball's Brian Goorjian, hockey's Ric Charlesworth, soccer's Ernie Merrick- affirm this truth to be universal. After THAT World Cup semi-final, the focus was as much on what Brazil got wrong as Germany did right. Even to untrained eyes, it was clear Brazil's defence collapsed. It won't like that again.

Evans says it is not possible to substantiate a link between decline in scoring and decline in crowds in AFL. Scoring has been atrophying for years, crowds only latterly. Nonetheless, he is watching closely.

Low-scoring games can be entertaining as long as they are close. And a high-scoring game can become merely a clinical test of accuracy. Received wisdom, Parkin says, is that 10-15 goals per team per game makes for an ideal contest, sustaining hope for both teams. More, and it can become a shoot-out. Less, and football becomes gruelling for players and fans alike.

Here, the AFL must watch the canary in the coalmine. Ross Lyon, from the Roos line, is the anti-Blight. His St Kilda 2009-10 grand final teams averaged less than 94 points a game. Fremantle under him is averaging a little more than 92 points a game and is well-placed to reach its second successive grand final. However few goals his teams kick, he seems to say, the opposition will kick fewer. It nearly worked for Argentina.

27 comments

  • Cannot watch the game anymore. Looks like a schoolyard scrum.Maybe the afl should watch some of the great games of the 90's such as the 93 Essendon v Geelong game, Ablett vs Salmon.Maybe then they can see how far this once great game has fallen.

    Commenter
    danno
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 8:27AM
    • Three others spring to mind.... Haw v Gee in 1989 at Princes Park (171 to 163) and two Ess v North games - the one in 99 (158 to 132, Carey 10, Lloyd 7), and that extraordinary game in 2001 (171 to 159).

      Don't think we'll ever see scoring like that ever again sadly.

      Commenter
      DJCJ
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:27AM
    • I'd recommend Round 1 1994 - Adelaide 22-18 to Carlton 13-6 with the spectacular marking T Modra kicking 13 on the full back of the century. In those days it was often Modra and the full back alone in the 50m arc.

      Commenter
      Viv
      Location
      Mitcham
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 10:04AM
    • There was a good game on the weekend - Port v Richmond. Port play attacking, open footy; as a result they lost and probably won't win a grand final. Geelong and, to a lesser extent the Hawks, have played a good brand of footy for 10+ years now and been rewarded for it.

      Unfortunately, most successful teams play Roosball. This is an adaptation of defensive play in all sports. How's these for some stats

      - Argentina score 2 goals in 4 games (450 minutes of play) and nearly won the world cup

      - Last two rugby world cups 2 tries (that's in 160 minutes of rugby)

      - The last 3 soccer world cups have had 4 goals total

      - State of Origin had one try scored in the second game

      The AFL has been trending this way since 2004. Between 1990 and 2004 no premier had kicked less than 100 points in the GF. Since 2005, five of the 10 premiers have kicked less than 100 points with that 8 goals to 7 'win' for footy in 2005 being the start.

      This will only end when the interchange is reduced dramatically and two players are taken off the field (16 players). Watch the game transform overnight with no zones, rule changes or anything else required.

      Commenter
      wear the fox hat
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 10:11AM
    • @wearthefoxhat reckon you're getting pretty close. Tactics are only part of the story, as are rules.
      1) A huge factor is the fitness levels of modern players. Lists are now stacked with aerobic runners who are trained to be even more so. Like all football codes, this makes the field effectively smaller. Given the difficulty involved in making the field bigger, I agree with your notion of reducing the number of players. This would also help the problem of not enough elite players to go around. 16 good, 15 better.
      2) Rucks and mauls mainly lead to ball ups. Once concentrated it's hard to get player spread again. Pay more frees to clear the rucks. Coaches will have to station players a kick away at least to deal with this. Not easy, but the rules are already there. Just pay them.
      3) Teams hug the boundary to reduce the risk of an opposition rebound. Make it a certainty by reverting to Auskick rule. Whenever the ball goes out, the opposition takes a kick-in.
      To deal with this faster game, teams will actually need more rotations, not fewer, but that will help keep the speed of the game up. Get rid of the sub.
      Try it out in a country league for a season (properly compensated of course!).
      I still enjoy the footy but it can get pretty rugged at times.

      Commenter
      Chris
      Location
      Kiama
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:19PM
  • No idea what you do about it without tearing at the fabric of the game but at the moment any AFL game not involving Hawthorn (not my club) is a drag to watch.

    I would suggest a requirement of 2 players being "forwards" that can't leave the 50m arc. I'd also remove the concept of a mark for kicking backwards, and reduce free kicks for holding the ball to discourage to constant in close tackling. These are only thoughts and I am no expert.

    Commenter
    Ex fan
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 8:39AM
    • Reducing free kicks for holding the ball is the wrong option. It will only encourage teams to not take possession. Likewise kicking backwards. Both rules encourage players to handball, thus keeping the game tightly packed.

      The better option would be to pay MORE free kicks for throwing, which players regularly do now because they know they get away with it. This will give a player free possession and time to dispose of the footy (something Hawthorn are very good at) and let them cut open teams who cannot do it (Carlton, St Kilda).

      Commenter
      Jez
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:25AM
    • I could never stand the Malcolm Blight attack without defence mentality. Seeing a game where both teams score over 120 points to me is generally as dull as a game completely locked down in defence by a bottom team trying to limit the scoring of an opponent. I am a Swans supporter and I think that Fremantle's finals win over Sydney last season was the most perfect display of the football I like to watch that has ever been played.They did such a complete job of locking down a very good opponent that they were also able to score at will. I knew Sydney's game was over at half time, but I didn't want to miss a second of what I was seeing in the second half. I think all this talk about lack of scoring dropping crowds is ridiculous, there are a hell of a lot of people out there that like watching a good defensive game and great one on one contests, so don't tinker with anything. What I would like to see (and hear) is a much better educated (in the game) supporter for me to start going back. I stopped going because of the people that scream out 'ball' the moment their player touches an opposition player with the ball and spend the whole game looking for the next free kick. How can watching games be enjoyable for these people? Maybe if supporters in general were better educated in the game as a whole they would be able to get the joy out of a good defensive contest that I do. And one last thing, I see why you gave the soccer goal scoring example, but I think you will find that most people preferred the WC final as a spectacle.

      Commenter
      Stewart
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 10:02AM
  • Do what Leigh Matthews suggested, develop play zones. Divide the ground in to fifths with white lines across the ground and designate them forward zone, half-forward zone, centre zone, half-back zone, and finally full-back zone. A player cannot move out of that zone without the ball. For example, a full-forward stays in the forward zone, and can only move out of that zone when attempting to get the ball, i.e. running down the field to attempt to take a mark in the centre zone or half-forward zone. If he hasn't got the ball or in close proximity to the ball, he cannot go past the centre zone or half-forward zone, perhaps.

    This will stop flooding, eliminate congestion and scragging, and also return a player on player kind of game, i.e. Hudson v Southby, Ablett(Snr) v Silvani, Franklin v Nobody, etc. Yes, umpires will be busier, but we can have more umpies, and Buddy Franklin will be kicking 15 goals a match! LOL!

    Commenter
    Blue boy
    Location
    Ballarat
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 9:05AM
    • Yes and the game as we know it will be no more. The solution is far too radical and would not take footy back to the 80's and 90's. Instead it would provide something new and different again, then in ten years we'll all be back here saying how can we go abck to the 2000's when life was better?
      Get rid of the interchange, that is the best option. Have six or eight subs who can only change once. Take two players of the field and make it 16 a side, all these things would clear up the game better.

      Commenter
      Jez
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:28AM

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