This was a match that started as a wrestle, becoming a paddling and finishing as a procession that would be all too familiar to the Sydney players that were at the MCG the last week of September. It’s a game that’s going to spark questions among the general public and potentially alarm bells internally.
Sydney haven’t lost a regular season game by 50+ since August 2020, which might as well be a game played on a different planet. The only other comparable result was the 2022 Grand Final, obviously, but it’s more forgivable to drop your head when there isn’t a next week. This is an aberration in the recent history of the club, and that makes it all the more significant.
When Melbourne are on song, they’re undeniable. For the purposes of this format, that makes it difficult to hone in on specifics- 22 goals from 12 goalkickers, no one really eye-popping on the stat sheet. When the game was there to be won, Melbourne won an ideological battle as much as they won a football one.
Winning the ‘Right Way’?
Right from the start, it was clear that these teams had fundamentally different approaches to the sport. Melbourne played deliberately, cautiously. High percentage plays to advantage if not outright guaranteed targets, using the wings, methodically carving out good scoring opportunities for whoever happened to be there. Sydney were close to the opposite, breaking fast, hard, and centrally. Low percentage plays with great returns if they paid off, aiming for their three talls in Amartey, McDonald and Buddy. It’s a version of the heliocentric Buddy-ball that’s curtailed them previously and a stark contrast from last week. Long story short, it broke right for Melbourne and wrong for Sydney, resulting in the Demons taking a 28-point lead into the first break.
The Swans made some changes- two talls rather than three, moving Papley off the ball and into the forward line- but kept bombing it long. When it worked, it threatened to make this game into a contest. When you keep finding your targets, and your targets take their marks, you can chisel into a lead quickly as well as putting the fear of God into ‘em. Going into half time and early into the third, they capitalized on field position and Melbourne’s need to move their forwards up the ground to largely deny them the easy scoring changes they were chasing, but were hamstrung by those key forward’s waywardness. Amartey and McDonald came down to earth, combining for 1.5 predominantly from set shot opportunities after 9.3 last week. On his return from suspension, Buddy made a chance out of nothing early on, but dragged two wide in three minutes that they could’ve done with.
When Melbourne’s system works, it generates good chances at a rate of knots and you’ve either gotta score along with them or stop them getting into their areas. Sydney starved them for a while, but when the going got tough, Melbourne ran away with it. They did the simple things right, they took advantage of skill errors, and it led them to this statement win.
You thought this was gonna be Steven May v. Buddy didn’t ya? Sike! The real ‘matchup’ was Steven May vs. his opposite number, Tom McCartin. Or, more reasonably, what you get when you’ve got Steven May vs. when you’ve got Tom McCartin.
Steven May obviously loves playing against Buddy. While he did, largely, blanket the thousand-goal man, he also marshalled the defence, allowed them to play as a unit, and (to the best of my recollection) didn’t get beaten on the ground. Something he did repeatedly and well was alternate a two man move with predominantly Jake Lever that Melbourne hit as their get-out-of-jail free card- ball comes in, May or Lever go up for the mark, the other is out the back to get the ball and move it quickly wide to (eventually) Hunter or Langdon. You can’t do that without intrinsic knowledge of who you’re playing with and where they are, or will be, and time and again it stopped the ball from stagnating in their defensive 50.
Tom McCartin, on the other hand, was faced time and again with an unset defence and a team who were set to create mismatches. He seemed unnerved, sure, but also slow- if he ventured up the ground he’d be beaten getting to it, or if he turned to come back he was beaten to the ball there as well, most notably when he went to break up play in a passage that ended with Kade Chandler drilling a set shot from the pocket he vacated. Just a series of weird decisions and plays that would be better suited to someone like Nick Blakey or Braeden Campbell.
Clayton Oliver vs. Peter Ladhams
Clarry and Ladhams don’t play the same position, sure, but wound up as each other’s direct opponent shockingly often. Watching the game with an eye on these two players, especially in how they matched up on each other, felt like watching two people play different sports.
Up close, Clayton Oliver is a wizard. He canvassed the whole ground and was integral in Melbourne’s play- 15 of his 25 possessions were contested, the crowd and the team visibly lifted when he scored both of his goals, and he played like someone you can’t plan around. There’s maybe no one better in the comp in slipping out a handpass when everything you’ve ever seen suggests he shouldn’t be able to, and those offloads set Melbourne up in intangible ways. The key play, the one that really unified these two, was Ladhams marking ahead of Oliver, going to ground, and getting his pocket picked on a handpass in an attempt to speed up the play. A real pick-six if I’m mixing my sports metaphors.
Everything Peter Ladhams did in this game was eye-catching, for better or for worse. Gave away two frees for aggressive rucking, won zero frees, runs around like a wrecking ball. At times he looks like he’s playing a different sport, especially compared to someone so agile and quick with it as Oliver. He also, in open play, sold the candy successfully to Christian Petracca at the edge of the attacking 50 before absolutely spraying his kick. He makes reads on plays and subsequently makes plays that you wouldn’t conceptualise. He’s a fascinating watch as he hoons around in a game that looks like it might be leaving him behind. But he’s trying.
Sydney were, as mentioned, profligate in front of goal. Melbourne really weren’t. 16 goals from set shots is so many goals from set shots, as is 16 goals and only one behind. Not only would just set shots have outscored the Swans, it would’ve won them all bar two games in the AFL this weekend. They generated 29 scoring shots from 60 inside 50s, but that accuracy is a key point of difference- similar disposal efficiency and efficiency inside 50, equal amount of clearances (total) as well as clearances from the centre and from stoppages. Melbourne made their moments count.
Taking Your Opportunities (or Not)
These are a bit different for each team. There was a void in this Swans team for someone to shoulder the burden, with uncharacteristically quiet games from players like Heeney, Warner, Gulden, and (to a point) Callum Mills. Mills led all Swans for disposals, sure, but it was a quiet game for him. Isaac Heeney was kept to 10 disposals and one behind, which feels like a historically quiet performance from him. Combined with Luke Parker’s 17 disposals- also on his low end- this led to a void in the Swans engine room for someone to generate movement and positivity and it simply did not happen.
For Melbourne, two players had opportunities to grasp. Jacob van Rooyen, on debut, had the benefit of low expectations, converted a (relative) gimme early on, took a speccie in the fourth, finished the game with three goals and six tackles. Impressive stat line. The other was Brodie Grundy in the absence of Max Gawn, weighed down by the expectation to carry that burden of solo ruckman and also massive contract. He delivered- 21 touches, five marks, three tackles, 25 hitouts, four clearances. Didn’t get on the scoresheet, but it’s a performance early in his career as a Demon that’ll bolster him against his doubters.
The Great Equaliser
Just a short one to end off- this game was Heated. The teams’ approach to the game was different, as discussed above, but football violence is the great tactical equaliser. Plenty of late, hard hits, scuffles, following with the elbow when you lose out on a contested mark. Both teams played like they felt hard done by, which in turn created more scuffles, more malice, more venom in the contests. It’s hard to know if that’s every game and it doesn’t show up on camera because it’s predominantly behind the play, or if this was specifically spicy. In either case, it definitely feels like it had a bearing on the outcome.
Oh, and Ed Langdon and Lachie Hunter were both excellent. Obviously, they were given more to work with given Melbourne’s game plan, but it’s one thing to have that opportunity and another to do something with it. Just didn’t want it to go unnoticed. Ta.