Failure to Launch - An Analysis of the Geelong Midfield

Let me preface this by first declaring one thing: I am a diehard Geelong supporter. Like many people, my weekend is better when my team wins, and significantly worse when they lose. I could probably recite to you the entire commentary of the build up to Tom Hawkins’ shot after the siren against the Hawks in 2012, Dennis Cometti’s line ‘they’ve done it again, the Cats’ ringing in my ears altogether too often. The day Gary Ablett announced he was leaving the club felt like the end of the world, but the joy of a premiership in the subsequent season erased a bit of that pain. Still, when it was announced last year that The Little Master would be returning to the club he had called home so long ago my spirits were lifted. Could this finally be the year where, after two consecutive, shattering preliminary final losses, my club went one better and lifted the cup on that last day in September?

The reality, so far, has been rather less romantic. As it now stands, Geelong sit one win outside of the eight, fighting for survival with a must win game against Hawthorn swiftly approaching. The question on many supporters’ lips, including my own, is how. How could a club with a midfield so deep, a backline which is arguably better than serviceable and a key forward who, on his day, is up there with the best in the competition be fighting simply to make it to September?

Often, the blame for Geelong’s failures this season have been placed on their ‘bottom six’ players. While they cannot be favourably compared with the bottom six in other sides, having conducted an analysis on the performance of the club’s midfielders over the last two seasons, it is clear that at least some of the blame does lie with that star studded pack.

My analysis centred on six players, four of whom have played over the last two seasons (Dangerfield, Joel Selwood, Duncan and Menegola), and two who have joined the club this season (Ablett and Kelly), and examined their performance in five categories, disposals, tackles, clearances, inside 50’s and scoreboard impact, in both wins and losses. While it may be easy to contest the relevance of some of these stats, I have included them in order to examine if there was any change in form over the last two seasons as well as to see the impact of two new additions to the midfield group.

The first interesting statistic I found was the drop off in every statistical category for both Dangerfield and Duncan from 2017 to 2018. The former’s decline has been genuinely noticeable: his average disposals are down from 29.9 to 27.6, while his goal tally has dropped dramatically as well, from 45.32 last year to 20.16, admittedly in a slightly smaller sample size.

What this seems to highlight is that even when Dangerfield is deployed closer to goal, his impact on the game has been far more limited. Despite this, Chris Scott is employing this tactic more often since Dangerfield’s Round 17 performance against Hawthorn, where he kicked 5.6, and his Semi Final performance against Sydney where he effectively iced the game in the first half, kicking 4.3.

Patrick Dangerfield goals per game

Conversely, Duncan’s drop off in form could potentially be attributed to fewer midfield minutes. In 2017, he averaged 29.1 disposals per match, with that figure rising to 30.0 in wins. This year, that number has dropped to 26.7, and 27.2 in wins. His tackle numbers are down too, from 5.3 last year including an 18 tackle performance against the Bulldogs in Round 9, to 3.1, as well as his ability to hit the scoreboard, having kicked just five goals this season to last year’s 15. What this seems to suggest is that, with the inclusion of Ablett, Duncan has been the man to have been forced out of the centre square set up the most. On some occasions, Duncan has been employed in a running role off the back of the square and, while this has worked effectively, he is the sort of player you want winning the ball at the coalface. Interestingly, Geelong has lost all three of the games that Duncan has missed over the last two seasons.

Mitch Duncan 2017-18

Selwood’s stats make for rather interesting reading. It seems to be the commonly accepted belief in AFL circles that if you are going to tag someone in the Geelong midfield, then you tag the captain and, where done effectively, that is the sort of tactic which can win games. Selwood’s average disposals in wins last year were 27.2, a number brought down by his one possession game against Fremantle where he was concussed in the first minute. Excluding that game as a statistical outlier, his number rose to 29.3, compared to his average in losses, which stood at 22.9 and just 18.6 if you exclude his 34 disposals in the Prelim against Adelaide. This seems to confirm the theory that if Selwood has a bad day, more often than not Geelong lose, but contrary to that his average disposals in losses this year stands at 29. In fact, some of Selwood’s worst performances in 2018 in terms of disposals have come in wins, including just 20 touches in Round 10 against Carlton and 16 in Round 18 against Melbourne, while some of his best performances have come in losses, including 30 touches and a goal in Round 9 opposed to Essendon, 29 touches and two goals against Richmond in Round 13, and 37 touches and nine clearances against the same opposition in Round 20. Arguably, this highlights the value that Ablett and Kelly have added to the side, in that if the team’s figurehead is having an off night it does not necessarily mean the team will lose.

Menegola was an interesting addition to this list, given he’s not often mentioned in the same breath as the rest of the inclusions. However, my personal theory about Menegola is that his best performances come when more responsibility is added to his shoulders, and this was especially the case last season. In games without Selwood or Dangerfield in 2017 (Rd 15, Rds 20-23), he averaged 28.6 touches, well above his season average of 24 and kicked 8.6. It seems fair to argue, additionally, that Menegola can be the difference between winning and losing, having averaged 24.8 touches in wins over the last two years compared to 21.3 in losses. Much like Duncan, it seems, the addition of Ablett and Kelly, two players who can play a similar role to Menegola in terms of a high half forward/mid, has pushed him out of the midfield and further out of the limelight, with his average touches per game dropping to 23.3. However, after kicking 17 goals last year, he has kicked 19 this year, suggesting that a deployment closer to goal can be effective.

It is probably safe to say that Gary Ablett has been the most scrutinised and potentially most controversial pick up of the off season in the AFL. It does also seem fair to suggest he’s not the player he once was, but at age 34 and having won two Brownlow medals in his absolute prime that’s not necessarily much of a surprise. What’s more interesting about Ablett this season is that his performances in wins, averaging 31.6 touches per game and having kicked 7 of his 10 goals, have been significantly better than his performances in losses, averaging just 27 disposals. While that’s certainly not a number to be sneezed at, it seems to suggest that Geelong are far better served by having Ablett play high midfield minutes, rather than resting him in the forward line as some pundits have suggested.

A salient example of this is his performances in Rounds 8 & 9 this season. Returning against Collingwood from a month out with a hamstring injury in Round 8, Ablett tallied 32 touches, 4 clearances and a goal in a 21 point win against top 4 opposition. The next week he had just 17 touches, 1 clearance and kicked 0.1 in a 34 point loss to a team unlikely to make the eight. Obviously the issue here for Chris Scott is getting the balance right, in that by overloading Ablett’s ageing and oft-injured body the risk of a spell on the sidelines increases, but the worth to the team of playing Ablett as a forward, especially considering his form this season, is questionable.

Gary Ablett wins v losses

Tim Kelly’s debut season has been, at risk of hyperbole, stellar. To have come out of the WAFL at age 24 and break into one of the deepest midfield groups in the national competition without looking a step out of place is seriously impressive. Interestingly, though, Kelly’s best performances this season have come in losses. While his season average for disposals is 23.3, that rises to 25.1 in games the Cats have lost, and he is above his season average in every category analysed in losses.

It would be vastly unfair to blame Kelly for these losses though. As a matter of fact, his two best performances statistically for the season have come in games the club has lost by a combined margin of 5 points, namely his 34 disposal, one goal game against the Bulldogs in Round 15 and his 36 disposal, one goal game against Richmond in Round 20. In some ways this makes him the inverse of Ablett as previously discussed, but it is clear Kelly has a long future ahead of him in the game, and it would be interesting to see him playing a whole season as a midfielder instead of just rotating through.

So, what do all these numbers mean? Well, it is clear to see that the addition of Ablett and Kelly to the midfield group this season has resulted in a lessening of the load carried by Dangerfield, Selwood, Duncan and Menegola last season, freeing them up to play different roles at times (Dangerfield and Menegola forward, Selwood and Duncan behind the ball). One would assume this would mean improved results, but instead it seems a case of too many mouths and not enough to feed them.

No Geelong player this season has recorded 40 or more disposals. The last occurrence was when Dangerfield lifted his workrate in Round 15 of last season, whilst Selwood was out with a concussion. Additionally, it seems as though using the 2016 Brownlow medalist out of the goal square has diminished in efficacy, with just 36 shots on goal this season in 19 games, compared with 77 last year in 24.

For Dangerfield, Duncan and Menegola, tackle numbers, a stat often used to represent attitude, have decreased since last year, while Selwood’s have increased from 5.0 to 5.5, which seems to suggest that as a grouping the midfield’s defensive work rate has dropped off, and results have followed. Obviously, as I previously mentioned, the task of balancing midfield minutes for all 6 players, as well as other players who can run through the midfield like Brandan Parfitt, Cam Guthrie and Scott Selwood, amongst others, is a seriously difficult task for Chris Scott’s coaching group. However, it seems as though adding in two high quality players to an already strong midfield group has resulted in a kind of critical mass scenario, where there simply isn’t enough time in a game to provide the kind of minutes to all of those players to have an impact.

In a way it may be fair to argue that a lack of chemistry is to blame, but there is also an interesting dichotomy with Richmond, who lack the spread of star power but play with the kind of self-belief required to make up for it. What’s that old saying about champion teams against teams of champions?

 

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