Magpie Dane Swan .... 'Some at Collingwood laugh at Swan's lack of accountability.' Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
It's hard to know what to make of Nathan Buckley's Magpies. It is the only team to have beaten the classy Cats this year, yet looked awful last week against Sydney. Along with five other teams, it has posted five wins so far, but sits 11th on the ladder because it has such a poor percentage (91.6 per cent).
The much-heralded Magpie defence of yesteryear is now leaking goals. The average score against Collingwood this year is 101 points a game. In the grand final years of 2010 and 2011, it was 73 and 71 points respectively. It is a major blow-out.
I believe there are three main reasons for this.
WEAKENED BACK LINE
During the grand final days, the back half was settled. Harry O'Brien, Heath Shaw, Nick Maxwell, Ben Reid and Alan Toovey were the constants. Giving support were the likes of Nathan Brown, Chris Tarrant, Leon Davis and Ben Johnson. Under Mick Malthouse's coaching, he preferred to play with an extra man in defence. That player was either Maxwell or O'Brien, and they relished the freedom. That's not happening under Buckley and both players have struggled to beat a direct opponent in one-on-one contests in the back line. As a result, O’Brien has been pushed to a wing.
Newcomers to the back line are Jordan Russell (ex-Carlton), Marty Clarke, who had a two-year break in Ireland, and Paul Seedsman, who is just into his second season of senior football. Russell’s lack of self-confidence suggests he will struggle to help the Pies. Clarke’s lack of accountability and dodgy kicking make him suspect. Seedsman with his dash and quality delivery will prove to be good value.
Injuries haven’t helped Buckley's cause. Dale Thomas was set to play across half-back to add some bite, but ankle problems have quashed that plan. Toovey did a knee in round three and is done for the season. Heath Shaw has missed games with a crook back and round girth. Ben Reid has been worked out. He takes a lot of intercept marks. To stop that, his opponents are leading him up to the wing to get him out of the way, thus exposing Russell, Clarke and Seedsman to extreme pressure.
It was Scott Pendlebury who, early in the season, said that some of his midfield mates were "cheating". That is, not working hard enough to defend. Pendlebury and Dane Swan have carried the Magpie midfield in recent years and are doing it again. The Pies don’t have the depth of gut-running midfielders that Sydney, Geelong and Hawthorn boast. The unavailability of Dayne Beams and Thomas hurts.
Luke Ball is back but his value is in close at the stoppages, not the fast break plays that are defining today’s better teams. Now that Collingwood is struggling, Steele Sidebottom and Swan need to change their ways. When the Pies were hot Sidebottom took great advantage, because he reads the play far better than most and positioned forward of the play to receive. That’s not happening now and he needs to push back more to help his defenders.
Some at Collingwood laugh at Swan’s lack of accountability. They say he wouldn’t have a clue as to who his direct opponent is. It’s funny when they are winning, not so funny now they’re losing.
Buckley is trying to get some midfield tightness into the team by teaching Brent Macaffer to tag. Last week he did a good job on Sydney gun Josh Kennedy, the week before he ran with Joel Selwood. It is a step in the right direction.
LESS-EFFECTIVE FORWARD PRESS
In 2010 and 2011, the Pies were the best at locking the ball in their forward half. This made it much easier for the Collingwood defenders to defend; one, because the ball wasn’t in the opposition’s scoring zone; and two, when it did get there it came in slowly, allowing Shaw, O’Brien and Maxwell time to set up their defensive strategies.
Now, the Pies are ranked 12th for the time the ball spends in their front half. Their forward press is faltering. The ball comes out too often, too easily, too quickly. Playing a third tall in Jarrod Witts hasn’t helped. But Buckley needs to get game time into the 208-centimetre ruckman as Darren Jolly nears the end.
In the absence of Thomas, Toovey, Krakouer, Ball, Beams and the departed Sharrod Wellingham and Leon Davis, the tackle count has fallen. In the grand final years, the average number of tackles a game was 74. In the past two seasons, it has dropped to 64.
The day after last week’s shocker against Sydney, Buckley spoke about the ‘‘next evolution’’ at Collingwood. That was, putting together a group of players, plenty of them young and experienced, to learn to play a brand of football that would take Collingwood to a premiership. A major component of it was to have hard-running rebounders, who would have the speed and kicking skills to create scores. And they needed a strong mindset that would will them to turn around quickly to run back into defence to help out. Think Kieren Jack, Dan Hannebery, Ryan O’Keefe and Jarrad McVeigh at Sydney.
Throughout this week, Buckley has spoken about the focus being very much on defence in Friday night’s game against the Brisbane Lions. In a struggling, evolving team it will be interesting to see if Swan and Sidebottom in particular can change their ways.