Pressing times call for courage
WHAT can we expect from a game that is continually evolving? Nathan Buckley recently said that winning the contested ball is now the foundation of the game plan. And that's because never before has top-level Australian football been played in such congested conditions.
Watch the ruck contests, be it a centre bounce, around the ground or a boundary throw-in, and it is the norm now to have all 36 on-field players within 70 metres of the ball.
So now, more than ever, teams need strong-bodied, courageous players who will keep their eye on the ball in heavy traffic.
In close: Dane Swan and Joel Selwood, well used to winning the contested ball, in last year's Collingwood-Geelong grand final. Photo: Paul Rovere
Why? Because to handle the ball in these tight situations means you will be physically battered.
So the standouts at stoppages are the likes of Dane Swan, Chris Judd, Sam Mitchell, Matthew Boyd, Joel Selwood, Gary Ablett and Josh Kennedy.
The other strategy, the "forward press", initiated by the Hawks, further developed by the Saints and near perfected by Collingwood, has dramatically altered the game.
Years ago, the ball went into a team's forward line and 60 per cent of the time came out straight away as the forwards were always outnumbered. Not now.
Now, the ball goes in, and can stay in as the attacking team pushes numbers forward and tackles with never-before-seen ferocity.
This ensures the defending team struggles to bring the ball out.
Some of the top forward-line tacklers today are Jeff Garlett, Cyril Rioli and Jarryd Blair. The end result is even more congestion as 36 players push into one half of the ground.
So, the increased numbers at stoppages, and the application of the forward press, has given us:
As Buckley says, today's players just have to be able to win contested ball and last year, Collingwood, Geelong, Sydney and West Coast led the way.
As teams move the ball out of a crowded defence, they play safe by exiting wide to the boundary line.
The old-fashioned long bomb is reappearing, as it's hard to find short kick and handball targets in congested areas.
More long kicks provide more opportunities for players to compete against each other in the air, and that's a spectacle fans enjoy.
More long kicks give players more time to set themselves for a long, strong defensive spoil. The two best are Brisbane's Daniel Merrett and Hawthorn's Josh Gibson, who average 10 per game.
Congestion means numbers, and numbers mean a player will find it hard to break free into space as the tackles come from everywhere. Last year's best tacklers were Scott Selwood, James Kelly and Luke Ball.
More and more balls are spilled free from tackles, spoils and ruck contests, giving tough nuts at ground level a chance to mop up.
So, with congestion coming to the fore, what are we seeing fewer of?
In 2008, the average number of marks taken by a team was 103. Last year, it had dropped to 87. Why? In heavy traffic, players are being checked closer by opponents and they haven't the free space to run into as they once did. The exception of course is Hawthorn. Last year, the Hawks averaged 100 marks per game; by far the most of any team.
At the other end of the scale, Sydney averaged just 59. The Hawks have been encouraged by coach Alastair Clarkson to go for their short pass targets, and their bullet-like kicks are so accurate, they can cut through presses and zones.
From 2008 to 2011, the average number of handballs per team per game has dropped from 177 to 155. Again, because of the congestion, there's no point in giving a teammate a "hospital" handball.
The average has dropped from 94 to 76 per game over the past four seasons.
It's increasingly harder to get an easy ball out wide. In the past three seasons, the number has dropped from 254 to 214 per game per team.
With the squeeze on, this too has dropped from 18 per game per team to 10 over the past four seasons.
What hasn't changed, however, is the scoring. Over the past four seasons, the average score per team has remained at 14 goals, 12 behinds. Finals stats are revealing, too. They tell us there are fewer stoppages, more tackles and more contested possessions. In other words, big, strong bodies are even more important.
No wonder the emphasis over the pre-season at Essendon, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Gold Coast and Fremantle has been to build strength and competitiveness. To match it with Geelong, Collingwood and Hawthorn, the other teams just have to size up and, as new Bulldogs coach Brendan McCartney says, play "manly" football.