Where has it all gone wrong for Collingwood? After Round 14 last year they had put together a nine-game winning streak, and were a game clear on top of the ladder with 11 wins from their 13 matches.
Since that point in time, they’ve got a winning record of exactly 50 percent – ten wins and ten losses.
Partly, this has been due to a favourable fixture in the middle stages of 2012, followed by a tough run home, finals, and a searching draw to start this season.
The Pies were the dominant home and away side of 2010 and 2011, with one flag and a losing grand final to show for it.
The premiership side of 2010 had an average age of 24 and average games played of 101, the lowest in both facets since Adelaide in 1997-98.
Only three players from that flag-winning outfit are no longer on the list, none of them better than solid AFL players – Sharrod Wellingham (traded to West Coast), Chris Dawes (traded to Melbourne) and Leigh Brown (retired).
This was a group that should have been building a Geelong-style dynasty, yet they’ve gone backwards every year from 2010, and are on track to do so again.
There has been a lot of talk about the differing gameplans of Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley, boundary versus corridor, the press, etc, but if truth be told, this area of the game is vastly overrated in the assessment of most media commentators.
Intensity is the number one non-negotiable of all successful teams. It is the foundation upon which all else is built. Without it, any gameplan becomes irrelevant.
Sydney, with maybe one or two exceptions a year, delivers it on a consistent basis, but Collingwood under Nathan Buckley does not.
The intent and ability to apply pressure without the ball is a trademark of Ross Lyon sides. St Kilda in 2009-10 were the best I’ve ever seen at it, and Fremantle is the current benchmark, though they currently have trouble doing it for four quarters.
The Magpies under Mick Malthouse and his famous press were exceptional in this regard, but under Nathan Buckley they are not.
Gut running also has nothing to do with gameplan, and feeds off intensity. Pushing back to help defenders out, pushing wide to create an option, pushing up to create space behind for a teammate to run into, and pushing forward to apply pressure.
Doing these may not add a stat next to your name or increase your value on the open market come trade or free agency time. Most of the time it will go unrewarded.
But this sort of running is a key ingredient of a successful team. It’s also the first thing to break down when a side drops off intensity, and it was a glaring absence for the Magpies on Friday night against Sydney.
Steele Sidebottom does it week in, week out, and is a leader in this regard, but I’m not sure how many teammates are prepared to dig as deep as he does. Dane Swan was famous for it, but has been nowhere near his best this season.
The other element that sometimes gets lost in all the empty talk about gamplans is the simplest one – players.
Collingwood has always prided themselves on their depth. Malthouse was renowned for blooding young players on the big stage, and allowing them to keep their place in the team if they earned it.
He was always mindful of having up to 30 players ready to play at AFL level come finals time.
The Pies depth has been tested this year, and most of the replacements have performed well at different stages, but with inexperience comes inconsistency.
Jamie Elliot, Sam Dwyer, Paul Seedsman, Josh Thomas and Ben Sinclair have all had their moments. Elliot and Dwyer in particular have had some marquee games, but also matches where they’ve had no impact whatsoever.
On Friday night, missing from the Pies’ best 22 were arguably three of their best half dozen players – Dayne Beams, Dale Thomas and Heath Shaw.
Add to this Tyson Goldsack and Alan Toovey, two role players who provide important versatility and toughness.
Throw in one of their hardest outside runners in Ben Johnson, plus Clinton Young who will also be filling that role, and any side would be struggling to cover the losses of these experienced, hardened AFL players.
Nick Maxwell and Luke Ball have also missed significant football, although both are back now. They provide hardness, smarts and outstanding on-field leadership, another aspect that’s been missing over the course of the season.
All of this would be bad enough, but some of Collingwood’s senior players are also down on their best form, which has been a flow-on effect of the missing top end talent and lacklustre intensity.
As stated previously, Swan has struggled, and his hunger has to be questioned. He’s achieved it all in football, and has always appeared a character that doesn’t live for the game.
I love him as a bloke, and think his perspective is fantastic – the all-encompassing nature of AFL football has gotten too serious for him, and I can see him retiring before his time. I won’t begrudge him.
With the lack of depth through the midfield this year, Scott Pendlebury has found life tougher than in the previous few seasons.
In my mind he’s the second-best midfielder in the AFL, and we all know he oozes class. His third quarter against the tide on Friday night was magnificent, while most teammates had turned it up.
Prior to 2013, Pendlebury had 30 or more disposals in 22 of his previous 31 games, but this year, he’s only reached that mark twice in nine matches.
While getting the ball less, he’s also been under a lot more pressure when in possession. He’s still been the most impactful Magpie, but it’s a tough load to bear with a much lesser support cast.
Darren Jolly can still be an important player, and uses guile and experience like few before him, but in his worst moments he’s looked old and slow, unable to jump above ankle height.
Although three years older, Ben Hudson is a worthy, robust alternative, and Jolly shouldn’t think his spot is completely safe.
Quentin Lynch has lost momentum after a hot start to the year, and has inexplicably struggled playing as a pure forward since Jarrod Witts has come into the side.
Lynch has always mixed his form, but can do some fine work between the arcs as a lead-up target when on song. Witts isn’t ready for senior football yet, adding precious little from stints in the ruck, and even less up forward.
The problem the Pies have is if they don’t go in with a third tall option up forward, they become too reliant on Travis Cloke inside 50.
The best sides have quality key defenders, and a back six or seven that work well together to allow a third man up, and the Pies haven’t been able to counter this consistently.
Cloke is still the most powerful key forward in the competition, and if not the best in that role has only one or two ahead of him.
His work ethic was on display against Sydney, and he was one of the few Pies who should have walked off with his head held high.
When the Pies have their best side on the park, they have the skill and experience to remain a top four quality side and premiership contender.
When they don’t, their intensity must be at 100 percent as it was in their victory over Geelong in Round 8, or they’re exposed as being in the second or third tier.
Nathan Buckley must find a way to get the best out of whatever side he puts on the field week after week, or his men simply won’t cut it in September.
Simply put, Collingwood can still win the premiership. But they need their best side to do it, and they need to find the mental discipline to ensure their intensity is befitting the quality team they are.