“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
This year, the Carlton faithful have been revitalised by their team’s resurgence under Michael Voss. The Blues are back, baby…
…or at least they have been in the first half of games.
One of the beautiful things about AFL is that the game continues to be a mystery. Nobody knows what actually goes on inside the minds of each AFL player, coach or umpire. What compels a half-back flanker to go for the all-or-nothing corridor kick? Why does a coach play his big man further up the ground than he normally would? And why did that dastardly oval-shaped pill make a heartbreaking bounce through the behinds?
The game is equal parts science, art, and an exercise in vengeance or glory from the all-conquering footy gods.
This is a cry of helplessness on my part as a footy analyst, but it won’t stop me from trying.
Carlton have been a behemoth in first halves this year. McKay and Curnow have looked like a two-headed monster. The midfield is a pack of explosive bullies around the contest. And the weight-roomed up length machine Jacob Weitering has held the unit together down back.
But then it can fall apart…sometimes.
The opposition gets the ball on the outside, string it down the field and kick goals. So what is it exactly that goes wrong?
Let’s go to the tape!
As we can see, Carlton play with a high zone on kick-ins. In this example there are eleven Blues in the forward fifty, this leads to a lot of goals that look like this.
Ball bombed down the wing. Turnover. Kicked into the forward line with numbers, and this time it’s Cripps taking a mark.
But how can they have so many numbers inside the forward fifty, and also enough numbers to cover the kick down the line?
Again, stacked numbers in the fifty, good coverage down the line. Wingard manages to pull this one down over three defenders, but still, he has nowhere to go.
He looks across, pre-empting the area of the ground that Carlton are leaving open, but he can’t get it there.
He sends it down the line and the Big Frenchman brings it to ground.
They win the contest, there is space in the forward fifty, and this time Owies runs into it.
Carlton set up their zone very narrowly, leaving space on the far side.
The reason this works is because they prevent you from getting to the open side of the ground, thanks to numbers on the top of the fifty. It’s like a giant blue croissant, as if you left a croissant out for a couple of months.
There has been talk about the Blues issue being one of fitness, but when the switch is deep they actually cover it really well.
CJ looks to move the ball across to Newcombe, and Carlton numbers shift right to cover Hawthorn’s spread.
The Blues move across sensationally quickly, clogging up the options for the Hawks.
If the spread across had been deeper only by about twenty metres or so, Hawthorn would’ve been able to get the ball into the open part of the ground. Because the forwards are pressed up and protecting the space in front, the Hawks have to move it across laterally, which is exactly what Carlton want.
During Hawthorn’s comeback in the second half, Carlton are still able to cover them with their zone. Again they are pressed up against the boundary and have to go for a kick to the wing, that would’ve worked if the ball was further up and closer to the centre.
This time it’s Silvagni who makes the contest on the wing.
There are six minutes to go in the third, so being able to set up this zone at this point shows that it isn’t a lack of fitness.
One team that got the better of the Blues was the Gold Coast Suns, so lets’s have a look at what Carlton did differently.
Once again they’re well set up down the line, but this time the coverage of the switch is a little bit more lackadaisical.
This time the Blues allow the ball to get to the top of the fifty on the fat side, leaving their zone to scramble across.
The thing is though, they actually do get across well. Fitness isn’t the issue in this one, it’s just that their midfielders can’t cover the whole ground at once. The outer side of their zone is dragged across to cover the Suns on the fat side, leaving a big space in the middle for big red Rowell to run into.
Now that the Blues are spread across, suddenly the open section of the ground is on the other side.
The mids and half-backs that are running across here aren’t the issue with this play, but they do get caught out due to the lack of forward pressure on the initial kick.
If the Suns had to go down the line as Carlton wanted them too, the Blues that are caught between the play are in perfect position to intercept and run the ball into the open space themselves.
This last shot shows the issue clearly. You can see three lines of Blues players running back to cover the space, but the ball goes over the top to Rosas.
Same thing on this one. There are much fewer Blues in the forward 50, leaving space for the Suns to run into.
The front line of Blues forwards is too far up, so they just pop it over the top.
Once again, the Blues players run over perfectly, but this time the kick-in guy Weller runs to make another option for the Suns to cut back into the corridor.
Rather ironically, the Blues midfield runs across so well that they are actually leaving open Suns mids behind them when the ball gets switched the other way – just like with Rowell before…lazy bastards.
Weller puts on the jets as he cuts back in. He and De Koning give us the audacious double tongue out, indicating that they are really good at running.
It’s a bit of individual brilliance by Weller this time that allows him to cross over the Pittonet influence croissant zone that the Blues mids are running with.
Again, fitness not the issue. Their zone got across too well, if anything.
The quick transition leaves space for their forwards and it’s a simple lead and mark from Josh Corbett.
When their zone is set up well, the back half and the mids swing across fine to cover the space. Where it falls apart is when they allow that first kick to the fat side over their forwards heads.
When teams get the ball here, even if the zone covers, they can’t cover everywhere. Then it’s simply a matter of running to where the space is and the Blues’ opponents can get a quick kick into the forward fifty.
Voss is trying to emulate, on some level, the premiership-winning strangulation that the Dees pull off with their zone.
Melbourne don’t play as far up as Carlton does, but the shape is similar to the Blues.
Port brought this one in from the kick-in and have nothing down the line. But the reason this works is that the Dees forwards don’t let them into the corridor either.
Port swing it horizontally and again there is nothing. When they swing it across again we can see the Demon zone working in full effect.
There is an open player for Port to kick it to. It’s Butters in the middle of the ground. Carlton play it more sideline so the open space is usually on the other side of the ground, but the Dees also have to give up something through their zone.
The problem here is that the Melbourne forwards are covering the short option twenty metres in front, so a kick to Butters here would likely be closed down on by the Dees, especially if it isn’t a perfect kick.
If Port were able to get that short one, the ball would go straight through the corridor and tear the Dees apart. It isn’t the fitness of their mids or the quality of their backs that makes this work, it’s the defensive structure of their forwards.
Because Carlton play more one-sided, they are occasionally vulnerable to the switch going around the outside, especially at the G’.
Port swing it round to attack that vulnerability. It should be worth mentioning, however, that this is half-way through the first quarter and the players are running across well. Again, not fitness, just a matter of what their structure allows.
Port do get it across and into space for their forwards. Fortunately for Carlton, that forward is Grand Final specialist Jeremy Finlayson, so he predictably drops a chest mark.
The other thing worth mentioning about the two-halved performance is that opposition coaches make adjustments depending on what they see.
The two images above are the Dogs zone in the first half. Bevo went with the brute force approach, electing to just play man-on-man across the whole ground, rather than swinging the narrow Carlton from side to side.
Let’s see what he did with the zone in the second half…
…sheesh…talk about an adjustment. The farm game was in Round One, fellas, I’m not sure it’s legal to leave a paddock that big.
It’s also worth looking at times the opposition just didn’t exploit what the Blues gave them.
In this one, the set-up is exactly the same as in the Suns game. The difference is that nobody runs into the open space, and Sicily is forced to bomb it down the line.
If the issue is just structure, this probably does mean that Carlton can become contenders quicker than people may expect. Young teams getting ran off their feet take a couple of preseasons to fix, but looking back on these games, it was structural errors and stupid mistakes that cost the Blues.
In this one, Morrison bombs the ball to a three on three in the middle. Carlton are a good contested team so usually, they win these sort of ones. But this time they don’t.
Lewis Young – who is a key defender mind you – decides that helping at this contest is more important than HIS OPPONENT STREAMING TOWARDS GOAL.
You’d think that after it becomes obvious Hawthorn are winning the contest he’d at least attempt to correct it, right?
…wrong. Maybe you could argue that some Blues players were told to prioritise the contest over the spread from it. But Lewis Young is playing on MITCHELL LEWIS – literally THE key forward target for the Hawks. This is just a stupid decision, that predictably leads to an overlap runner and…
…a walk-in goal.
The other talk has been Carlton’s defence of the spread from the contest, but I think they are just making the same tradeoff all teams do, deciding to be more offensively minded.
In this throw-in, Port have their extra number behind the contest, so that they can sweep it out. Carlton, however, have the number in the corridor, so that if they win and spread it that way, suddenly they have plenty of options and space looking into their fifty.
Elite ruckman Jack Silvagni somehow gets monstered out of it by a guy I’ve never heard of, Sam Hayes (can Port fans confirm if this is just Lycett in disguise?)
Port get what they want and spread it into the corridor.
The issue in playing this way if you’re the Blues is that you get caught out in between the play if you lose the contest. The thing is though, if it falls your way then the opposite happens in the other direction.
Powell-Pepper runs into the open space of the croissant zone.
Then Port have space for one-on-ones in the fifty.
I don’t actually think this is as much of an issue as it seems. This was the first quarter, so Carlton would’ve wanted to play this attacking style; this was just a rarer instance of them losing the contest.
Once they build a lead, however, it would be useful to then make an adjustment and play man-on-man, or cover the open space across. If they get this into their game, they will be able to build leads and then hold them.
Since their patchy start, Carlton have been able to play a bit more consistently across the four quarters, but I think they are yet to show this ability to change their game style at the contest.
The zone drops back, which would normally be considered conservative, but as the Suns showed it’s actually less defensively sound. They should maintain their aggressive zone.
Voss will hopefully also look to teach his players how to cover the spread from contest so that he can switch to that game style once they have a comfortable lead.
It’s tough to figure out where the Blues are at exactly but hopefully, this sheds some light on the strengths and weaknesses of their game.
An up and coming team will have the Bagger army up and about. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a creative catchphrase to summarise this feeling…
…wait a minute…
You can find more from Josef at his Substack located here: https://josefmack.substack.com/