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No minus if 'plus-one' is a positive

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Martin Blake

Extra man tactic has been a failure and a success.

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Will the Swans murder the Crows?

From the old South Melbourne grounds for the Swans, Rohan Connolly lays down his tips for round six.

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IT USED to be known as the ''spare man'', or ''loose man in defence''. Nowadays it has become the ''plus-one'' system.

It sounds complicated, but really it's not. It's not even especially new, although it has become very common in modern AFL football.

The public don't always understand why it happens; in fact they are infuriated when the opposition uses it against their team. Generally, it is a result of a philosophical decision by their team.

Pressure plus: Harry O'Brien was spare one round but was made accountable against Essendon.

Pressure plus: Harry O'Brien was spare one round but was made accountable against Essendon. Photo: Getty Images

For instance, a fortnight ago, Harry O'Brien played a whale of a game for Collingwood against Port Adelaide. O'Brien had been beaten by small forwards in a couple of games; Nathan Buckley astutely observed that he needed to regain confidence.

Port was heavily criticised afterwards because O'Brien appeared to run without an opponent. But it was not that Port did not respect him, or chose not to give him an opponent.

It was philosophical. As coach Matthew Primus told On the Couch this week, the Power wanted an extra man up in the heart of the action, and that man came from their forward line.

''In the evolution of how we want to teach our players to play, we need some numbers up at the stoppages,'' said Primus. ''At the moment we can't quite go one-on-one in our forward line.''

Once Port made that decision, all Collingwood needed to do was shuffle its backs until it worked out who to leave spare. O'Brien had a smorgasbord, made more obvious by the fact Port persisted in kicking it to him. Bad decision-making and execution is a problem that no amount of strategic planning can overcome.

What Primus weighed up was the benefit he got from an extra body in the midfield against the possibility that Collingwood's spare man caused too much damage. Clubs ponder this every week and, as it happened, Essendon was watching closely.

When the Bombers confronted Collingwood on Anzac Day, James Hird had decided he did not want O'Brien as the plus-one player. But he also had a problem in the midfield where his initial match-ups - Sam Lonergan on Dane Swan and Heath Hocking on Scott Pendlebury - were not holding.

Hird chose to post an extra man in the midfield, but he sent Angus Monfries to negate O'Brien. It still left a spare man in Collingwood's back half but at least it was not O'Brien, who is damaging with his run and carry.

This is part of the problem for coaches. A coach can send an opponent to pick up the spare player, as Fremantle's Ross Lyon did with Sam Fisher against St Kilda a few weeks ago, but that will create another free player. In that case, Jarryn Geary ran loose for a lot of the game but Lyon would have taken that as a preferred option.

The only way you can stop it definitively, is to go man-on-man all over the ground. But the days of the six-man forward grid against six backs with the same numbers across the midfield have largely gone. Coaches demand the right to send their players where they want them and few of them want more than four or five permanent forwards, giving them licence.

As David King pointed out on AFL Insider this week, there are smart ways to handle it. Hawthorn kept trying to get Luke Hodge free against Sydney in Launceston last Sunday, allowing the captain to act as ''quarterback'' as he does so brilliantly. But Sam Reid kept sliding off his opponent, Ryan Schoenmakers, and going with Hodge when this happened. Sydney's intent was clear: if Hawthorn was to have a plus-one, it was not going to be Hodge.

One well-regarded strategist and former AFL player told The Age this week that plus-one strategies had become a ''huge'' part of the vernacular in coaching.

''There's a lot more science to it now,'' he said. ''What you're looking at is: who is it? Where do you want him? What's his role? That's been around for a while, but it was pretty random before. We only used a loose man when we were under scoreboard pressure.''

The reasoning changes week to week and depends on the opponent. ''It can save you goals against an aggressive side that wants a shootout. Against the slower, more mechanical sides like Sydney and Hawthorn, it's not so effective. The good sides control who that plus-one is; the bad sides can't control it and the players can't get it right under the pressure of an AFL game.''

It does not seem so long ago that the players were nominated in positions on Thursday nights and appeared in the media that way - with six on six in each half and the rest in the middle - and mostly that is how they lined up on match day. Not any more.

6 comments so far

  • "plus one" - why can't we stick with tradition and call it a loose man in defence. We keep trying to switch to American terms, like Luke hodge as the 'quarter back' Quarter Backs play NFL not AFL. It is also a mark not catch. Shot on goal instead of shot at the goals.

    Commenter
    fed up teacher
    Date and time
    May 03, 2012, 9:33AM
    • ....and you can add DEEfence and OFFfence to those Americanisms, as well as commentators making passing references to dugouts and bleaches.

      Commenter
      DJCJ
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 12:01AM
  • I noticed this in the Richmond WC game on Sunday. Our noted Tagger Dan Jackson lined up in the forward line in a defensive role against a west coast backman (Possibly Hurn? Feel free to correct me anyone). Jackson kicked 2 goals and West coast never got much of their rebound game going. These are Interesting tactics that you don't see on TV which is why I love live footy!

    Commenter
    Mick
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    May 03, 2012, 9:54AM
    • The +1 system is older than the AFL - soccer has been doing that for ages. They even have a split midfielder setup and also the long-ball setup where the centre of the ground is removed and pushing a "loose man in defense and attack" results in uneven contests when the ball is booted forward, or if it is pressed back.

      If the AFL want to see how a press can be defeated, they should look to other sports where it is already redundant.

      The 'loose man' strategy works when:
      1. the opposition plays man-on-man and default field
      2. the ball is hand passed & run through both midfield , or stoppages used as a way forward, more than long kicking.

      It defintily doesn't work when:
      1. Your own midfield and defense is static. (Which is why the loose man doesn't work for GWS).
      2. The oppositon uses a foward tackling press with any capability.

      Every other scenario would probably have a nil net benefit.

      Commenter
      Kongming
      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 11:11AM
      • Times have changed. Players are now full time in the AFL and can run around at full speed for 10 minutes before running off for a breather. 2 men should be deducted from each side - 4 from the ground. Then we will see less of 36 men at one end of the ground - or 0 men inside a forward 50. It is awful to watch 36 blokes in position at the ball up in the centre, then all run to the forward line receiving the ball. It is awful to watch a player kill time as players sprint to the forward line to make a target. Times have changed for the players - times should change for the rules.

        Commenter
        Times have changed
        Date and time
        May 03, 2012, 11:42AM
        • Kongming - funny you say soccer has been doing it for ages - the irony being the a comparison of an off-side game vs a non-off-side game - but also that Aust Football has been going since 1859 and soccer since 1863 at best.
          The +1, in the past, the capacity to really manipulate was limited by the old days of cricket pitches providing a bog in the centre of the ground. Now, the ability to swing players around, and for a +1 to cover more and more ground has increased. In the past - only in the first month of the season before the grounds got chopped up.

          The ability to beat ANY defensive strategy is I guess similar to any of the invasion field games. Create space. Use the ball wisely. And this of course is why it's so important if the +1 is going to be a conduit from defense to attack - that he uses the ball well - thus, players like Hodge and O'Brien. In the past, in 2008 GF for example we saw Geelong not too concerned when Clinton Young was so often freed up by Hawthorn - he didn't hurt them as much by foot.
          Looseman is always hoping to create an 'overlap'. And especially so on the 'fat side'. If a game can be turned into glorified circle work - then, the more skilled team will win by finishing off it's work better.

          Commenter
          Michael C
          Location
          Melb
          Date and time
          May 03, 2012, 12:30PM

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