Enough positivity! Who makes way for the AFL’s rising middle class?

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    There’s an awful lot of positivity lurking around the fringes of AFL finals contention this year. It’s easy to see why. But what happens if last year’s top eight are all good to go in 2017? Carnage.

    This year more than any in recent years, it’s tempting to call for revolutionary change to the top eight.

    Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed the burgeoning AFL middle class, running the rule over the prospects of Melbourne, Richmond, Collingwood and St Kilda.

    That middle class stretches even further: Port Adelaide, Gold Coast are in the hunt too, and if you are keen to ignore some glaring downsides positive cases can be made for Essendon and Fremantle too.

    That’s eight teams. Eight freaking teams!

    Every team looks good in every preseason, but I suspect this year is going to prove the exception to a reasonably sturdy AFL rule.

    As we discussed earlier this year, many teams had the post-expansion second half of this decade circled as their time to strike, while the extraordinary circumstances of the Bombers and Dockers add another layer of complexity to the league.

    A new era of rampant competitiveness begins this season. Despite this, the same rules apply: only eight teams will be granted access to September football. In the main, last year’s finalists all have solid cases that they have room to grow, or have it in them to maintain their success.

    Consensus seems to be that at least one seeding is available: North Melbourne’s eighth spot. The Roos sputtered to the 2016 finish line, were bundled out in their elimination final, and hacked into a list heavy on veteran talent.

    Common sense says they won’t be good enough to reach the 12 or 13-win threshold required to play in September.

    Six doesn’t go into one, nor does eight. All of this positivity towards teams who didn’t make it into the finals series last year is for nought, unless there’s some more substantial change at the pointy end of the ladder.

    Regardless, one change to the top eight is extremely unlikely. As a new Roarer pointed out this week, since the AFL introduced the top eight system, one change to the final eight has occurred in just one year.

    If we take the 2000 season as the cut-off, as I do for most of my analysis, not once has there been just one change to the final eight year to year.

    Past performance is not an accurate indicator of future performance, but the data says there’s at least one more finalist who’ll fall from grace in 2017. Who will it be?

    It’s time for a Totally Subjective Power Ranking, where the percentages are made up and the tiers don’t matter.

    Steve Johnson and Toby Greene embrace in the AFL Finals 2016

    The No Chance Tier
    Greater Western Sydney: 0 per cent
    Western Bulldogs: 0 per cent
    Sydney: 5 per cent

    We’ve already talked about why Greater Western Sydney and the Western Bulldogs won’t be going anywhere this season.

    Both teams are set to improve upon their home-and-away performances from last season, the Dogs significantly so, and should both finish the year inside the top four. These two teams have a zero per cent chance of missing the 2017 finals series.

    Sydney are in a similar boat, albeit it’s difficult to improve upon a minor premiership. We haven’t heard much about them this off-season, because we have come to expect sustained excellence from the Swans.

    The team remains one of the youngest and least experienced in the aggregate – no, really – and is loaded with star players across every line.

    While they lost Tom Mitchell in the off season, Isaac Heeney is a ready-made replacement who will certainly be better than Mitchell in the long run.

    Sydney’s defence was the best in the competition last year, so much so that it could drop off by around 10 per cent and still be the third-best stopping unit in the game.

    Their schedule looks a little tougher on paper, but not meaningfully so. Sydney are in prime position to back up their stellar 2016.

    They have a five per cent chance of falling out of the eight, only higher than the Giants because of their relative youth.

    Luke Hodge Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2016

    The Look It’s Possible Tier
    Hawthorn: 10 per cent
    West Coast: 10 per cent
    Geelong: 15 per cent

    Hawthorn have some questions to answer, but I don’t see them falling away in a meaningful manner in 2017.

    Sure, if Jaeger O’Meara reinjures his knee, Ty Vickery doesn’t fit as snuggly as it looks like he will, and the team doesn’t get a lift in production from its second tier of players then a fall is possible.

    But forecasting a Hawthorn failure is like predicting a Swiss-made watch will fail inside the warranty period. A 10 per cent chance, for mine.

    We will get to West Coast next week, but the case for their demise seems to rest on a weakened ruck division and poor away record.

    They also lost their last game of the season in a brutal fashion which happened to expose all of the team’s weaknesses. A return to the top four looks challenging, but achievable.

    But at the same time, West Coast’s tendency to wilt when placed under pressure does not mesh well with the evolving AFL meta-game that will this year prioritise quick movement and the ground game.

    They also have a 10 per cent chance of falling out of the eight, although that could grow quickly should the team’s bad tendencies emerge in the first handful of rounds.

    The case for Geelong stumbling hangs on two key questions. Did Patrick Dangerfield have a career year, or reach a new level of outstanding performance? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

    Dangerfield is unlikely to record a stat line of 32 disposals, 16 contested possessions, 620 metres gained and a goal a game. But even if he drops away by 20 per cent in all of those categories, he will be an All-Australian midfielder.

    Geelong’s other big challenge is working out how to build a functioning forward line. The Cats were the third best offence in the game last season on my Offensive Efficiency Rating (OER), owing mostly to a strong flow of forward 50 entries (56.7 per game).

    But scoring for Geelong always appeared more trial and error rather than a deliberately planned and executed process.

    The Cats have sought to address this in the off season, adding Aaron Black as a genuine second key forward (offloading the tweener Shane Kersten in the process).

    Josh Caddy, who kicked 21 goals in 18 games and played a fair chunk of his season as a half-forward, is also gone, with his spot in the side seemingly taken by the talented Nakia Cockatoo.

    Tom Hawkins remains a potent deep threat, if not one that can be accused of being one dimensional in a game that increasingly demands role flexibility.

    With Steven Motlop, Daniel Menzel and Lincoln McCarthy, the Cats could have a forward 50 structure that can make the absolute most of the dominant Dangerfield-Joel Selwood midfield duo.

    The Cats are seen as a likely slider by many. Personally, I don’t see it, unless they lose one or both of Dangerfield or Selwood for a decent part of the season.

    Even then, the Cats displayed a structural soundness in defence last year that extends beyond the dominance of its two superstar players.

    They only have a 15 per cent chance of missing the top eight.

    Eddie Betts Adelaide Crows AFL 2016

    The Vulnerable Tier
    Adelaide: 33 per cent

    It seems counter-intuitive to put Adelaide as the second-to-most-likely team to fall out of the final eight, but hear me out.

    The Crows were the best offence in the league last year, with an OER of +27.2. That’s an immense figure – a score above 20 has only come about every year or two since I started collecting the stats required to calculate OER. The league is set to move a little further in the Crows direction this year.

    Concerns about the Crows 2017 season are two-fold: injury luck and their shallow midfield, and opposition analysis.

    Last year, Adelaide had one of the healthiest lists in the competition, which manifested itself in the Crows using just 29 players across the year. A stunning 19 players played 20 games or more throughout the year, with seven of those featuring in all of the team’s 24 outings.

    That kind of injury luck doesn’t last, and the angel of mean regression has wrought its vengeance upon the Crows in 2017. Teams haven’t started posting full injury lists yet, but so far Adelaide have seen:

    – Cam Ellis-Yolmen, earmarked for a full season through the middle, ruled out for the season due to an ACL tear.
    – Brad Crouch, Scott Thompson, Rory Sloane and Jake Lever miss the entire JLT Series.
    – A host of role and young players miss part or all of the preseason.

    This kind of injury list isn’t a complete disaster, because it is so early on in the year that there’s plenty of time to recover. However, when compared to the pristine run the Crows treated themselves to last season, the difference is stark.

    On a related note, the Crows midfield remains thin as a result of their off-season moves. The Jarryd Lyons trade, the Bryce Gibbs non-trade, season-ending injury for Ellis-Yolmen and niggling injuries to other prime movers make Adelaide’s midfield one of the most uncertain positional groups of all of this year’s finals contenders.

    Back flanker Rory Laird has spent time rolling through the middle during the preseason, but he can only add so much, and is so critical to Adelaide’s tactics it is difficult to see head coach Don Pyke removing him from the outside.

    Charlie Cameron is another option, although again he remains critical to Adelaide’s forward line.

    Speaking of tactics, whether the Crows will be allowed to run their counter-punching plus one in 2017 remains an open question.

    The Crows were able to manufacture a loose half back at will last year due to their potent forward line, a tactic they used to become one of the fastest rebounding teams in the league.

    It created something of a virtuous circle: the extra is able to feed quality scoring opportunities to a potent forward line, which forces the opposition to throw an extra number behind the ball, playing right into Adelaide’s hands.

    Expect opposition coaches to be a bit less trigger happy with the extra man in defence this year. That could fundamentally alter Adelaide’s tactical hierarchy, which would place more emphasis on their thin midfield. It’s something of a house of cards, albeit one with a very solid base: the league-leading forward line.

    There’s some doubts there, but it would still take plenty to go wrong to see the Crows swing from borderline top four to outside of the eight in a single season. They’re a 33 per cent chance to have their season end in August.

    jack-ziebell-north-melbourne-kangaroos-afl-2016

    The Over and Out Tier
    North Melbourne: 99 per cent

    At a very basic level, North Melbourne are the most likely to miss the top eight in 2017 because they were the team that only just made it in 2016.

    The Roos ended up making it into the finals series by 10 points of percentage after their stinker of a second half.

    But more fundamentally, North have been given the least difficult fixture according to last year’s Pythagorean win totals, have added some interesting pieces, and despite the loss of some of their veteran heads have the services of plenty of above average AFL footballers at their disposal.

    To re-hash a piece I wrote last year, I think there’s a chance that North Melbourne are still a good football team. But good could be the benchmark for the 16th placed team this season. The Roos have a 99 per cent chance of falling out of the eight.

    On balance, just one position looks available. From my perspective Adelaide look the next most vulnerable for hard, evidence-based reasons rather than the more subjective cases to be made against Hawthorn, Geelong and West Coast.

    There is of course a chance that an injury crisis hits one of these teams. Fremantle’s 2016 season got off to a rocky start, but was worse than even the most pessimistic pundits predicted due to a rash of critical injuries. Gold Coast have never made it to September due in large part to ill-timed absences. The injury bug seems to have bitten Adelaide and the Roos in the preseason, and it remains to be seen whether either team will overcome it.

    But if we’re looking for reasons to kick last year’s finalists to the curb, clutching at the injury crisis straw looks like all we’ve got. There’s two weeks to go folks. Get ready. The 2017 season is going to be a 23-round rock fight.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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