On Sunday, the Western Bulldogs comfortably won the clearances in their game. They also bullied the Eagles to comfortably win the contested possessions. They should have won. Last year they probably would have won. This year they did not. They lost by 70 points.
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Earlier, Melbourne led those same categories at half-time against Carlton, yet trailed by eight goals to five.
Previously, the football equation held that winning the ball and clearing it from ball-ups delivered victory. Now the statistical harbingers of victory are changing.
Last year when a team won the contested possession count, it won 76 per cent of matches. This year that has dropped to 67 per cent.
This year when a team wins the clearance count, it has only won slightly more than half of matches (52 per cent), when last year the clearance kings won more than two-thirds of games (68 per cent).
When a team won both counts it won 79 per cent of games last year and only 65 per cent this year.
Champion Data only holds these stats for the past two years but clubs contend that even the numbers last year were dropping on the year before. "No doubt contested ball, clearance figures are less relevant," one coach said. "The game has changed – it's about counter-attack and the best team to look at is Geelong."
The Cats are the second-worst team for clearances and bottom five for contested possessions, yet are undefeated. This continues a Cats trend of last year in often conceding both statistical areas.
"Geelong's pressure on the next kick from a stoppage and their pressure on the ball carrier is so good they win possession back and their counter-attack is so good they go bang, bang. Hawthorn are the same," the coach said.
"Contested ball and clearances are still strong indicators – you can't afford to be smashed in them – but winning them is not as significant as it was."
Only two top-eight sides – Carlton and Fremantle – are in the top-eight sides for winning clearances. This trend had already begun last year but the rule changes this year to reduce the overall number of stoppages as well as throwing the ball up quickly have accelerated that change. Fewer players around the stoppage means when a player clears the ball he is confronting more players when trying to dispose of it and thus the turnover often occurs from the clearance.
The game has also become about the counter-attack. The Cats regularly play an extra player back, or a plus one, and thus when the opposition kicks hurriedly from a stoppage they win the ball and are savage on the counter-attack.
"It's not about the clearance it is about retaining it or the quality of your exit from the clearance. The Bulldogs are the perfect example, they clear it with a hacked kick forward but the opposition marks it and the Dogs don't have the leg speed to spread and cover the ground," a coach said.
"It's about putting enough pressure on the clearance kick and then on the ball carrier once it comes out of the clearance. So it is about the quality of possession or quality of clearance and the first possession after a clearance."
Clubs have therefore increasingly focused on the number of unbroken chains of play in moving the ball from defence to attack, and then to score. Consequently they also measure themselves on their ability to break opposition transitions to attack.
"You look at turnovers in the forward or defensive 50 and the percentage of unbroken chains of play for a score," a coach said.
Ross Lyon's defensively disciplined Dockers excel at defending teams from taking the ball from defence to attack. The Dockers hold their opponents to 11 per cent of counter-attacks resulting in an unbroken chain from defence to attack. To put that in perspective, coaches regard anything below 35 per cent as an impressive result.
"The other one is turnovers. Scores from clearances were big but turnovers are the biggest scoring source now. The top four teams are all on top for turning the ball over in their front half – that is the biggest scoring source in the AFL at the moment," another coach said.
"More scoring now comes from turnovers and Geelong are the best at defending turnovers."