Brent Harvey has struggled in recent weeks. Photo: Getty Images
WHEN North Melbourne stunned Geelong in round three with a 17-point win that few saw coming, there was acclaim for the way the Roos were going about things in 2012.
Brad Scott's team was full of run, slick ball movement, and used handball like there was no tomorrow. The coach was happy to concede that North had borrowed elements of the game style that had served the Cats so well for the past half-dozen years.
But in the days that followed, his twin, Chris, the coach of Geelong, sounded a note of caution which wasn't mere sibling rivalry. "Maybe they are playing a brand that Geelong has played in the past. I think that's a recipe for disaster," he said. "I'd be surprised if he is modelling their game on the way footy was played a year or two ago, because the game has come along so quickly."
Indeed it has. So quickly that what was working beautifully for North Melbourne three weeks into the season has been all but unpicked two months in. As might be the Roos' entire season after having surrendered a 32-point lead against Port Adelaide with barely 10 minutes to play.
That was a failure of concentration and application, one damning enough to be labelled a disgrace by the coach. But North's failure to cope with the increased pressure of opponents since its Geelong triumph is becoming a disturbing statistical pattern.
The Roos have been for Scott's tenure at Arden Street a team which could generally be relied on for maximum effort, while also one whose skill level could let it down.
Thus, skills have been an area that the club focused on during the pre-season campaign.
But these things are always a balancing act, and you can't help thinking that in its search for more polish, North may at the same time have traded in too much of its pluck.
Certainly, placed under far more physical pressure since the Geelong win, and forced to kick a lot more rather than link up in chains of handball, the Roos haven't reacted well.
In the first five rounds, North was a clear No. 1 for disposals and handballs. Over the last three games, it's been ranked 15th and 12th in the same two categories, its disposal efficiency slumping along with that drop, from a ranking of fourth to 14th.
The Roos aren't getting nearly the same share of uncontested ball in space, their differential ranking first over rounds one to five (an average of 59 more than its opponents) and only 10th (11 less than its opponents) since then.
Three players in particular have suffered at the hands of opponents playing them a lot tighter and tougher.
Veteran Brent Harvey averaged 26 disposals in the first five games, in the last three only 19. Ryan Bastinac was also going at 26 disposals in rounds 1-5, also only 19 since. And Shaun Atley, who got under several guards early on, averaging 22 disposals, has been cut back to 18.
All three over the past three games have earned a lower percentage of uncontested ball than they had. And that lack of time and space has had a direct impact on the scoreboard as well.
Harvey and Bastinac shared 14 goals in the first five games of the season. Harvey has kicked only three goals since, and Bastinac none.
Perhaps the most interesting discrepancy during North Melbourne's downturn has been that between clearances and contested possession, two hard indicators you would normally expect to be reasonably similar. Adelaide is ranked first on the differentials for clearances and first for contested ball, Essendon second and second, Collingwood fourth and third.
But North Melbourne, while retaining a ranking of second for clearances, is only 12th for contested ball, and over the last three rounds has ranked 17th.
Champion Data has examined those figures further and found a large shortfall between the contested ball North wins at a stoppage before a clearance, and that won after it. The Roos are sixth for the hard ball before a clearance is won. When that occurs, and the ball is in open play, they rank 14th.
The ramifications of that are significant. It indicates that while the Roos are drilled well enough in terms of positioning at a stoppage to win enough contested ball, in the unscripted environment of general play, they don't have enough of a clue. Or, perhaps more damningly, enough effort.
The run, carry and handball that propelled North Melbourne to one of its most important victories of recent times has, over the past month, been dramatically eroded. But if that is a major concern for Scott and his coaching panel, a bigger one is that the determination of the playing group to change that pattern seems to have dried up along with it.