North Melbourne vs St Kilda: Friday Night Forecast

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Fast football looms large this evening, as the refreshed ‘Roos host the slipping Saints under the Etihad Stadium roof. It’s a high leverage encounter too – just the kind we like at this time of year.

    North Melbourne can jump above the Saints with a win this evening, and become one of the 37 teams within a game of eighth place. In that case, the Saints obviously fail to gain on the teams that sit above them. By contrast, a Saints victory leaves them sitting outside of the eight on percentage only, and sees the ‘Roos slip a clear two games back.

    It’s huge folks. High leverage football is the name of the game in the final 11 rounds of the season. It began last night with the Eagles and Cats, and continues this evening. The Dogs and Melbourne bring us home on a standalone Sunday, an imminent shot at a top four berth in the coming weeks on the line.

    For now, the game at hand. We’ve checked in on St Kilda a couple of times recently, including ahead of last week’s Friday night blow out against the Crows. How about the ‘Roos?

    North Melbourne’s 4-7 record understates their performance by about a win, according to Pythagorean wins. The ‘Roos have played in three close games, losing all three, meaning they could very well be in a similar position to Fremantle (7-4, three 3-0 in close games), albeit North are a better team on an underlying basis (the Dockers have earned themselves 3.1 Pythagorean wins in 2017).

    They’ve played a really difficult schedule too: ranked second on my strength of schedule index, funnily enough behind only Fremantle. The ‘Roos started the year against West Coast, Geelong, GWS and the Western Bulldogs, and have since played Adelaide, Melbourne and Richmond. Heavy stuff.

    The ‘Roos of course were the team to stop Adelaide’s unstoppable win streak, in Round 7 in Tasmania. Since then, North have been 3-2 with a percentage of 102 per cent. The team most pegged for a bottom four finish has been performing at a level beyond that. Yet, here we are, half way through the season and the ‘Roos are in the bottom four.

    North Melbourne’s two trade-ins have performed mostly as advertised. Marley Williams has been 2015 Marley Williams, cleaning up defensive 50 groundballs for fun and shutting down small forwards on a pretty regular basis. Nathan Hrovat has played every game, providing nice touch around the forward 50. His personal output has been a bit muted, but he’s got the tools and decision-making to excel.

    Ben Brown North Melbourne Kangaroos AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Rob Blakers)

    In some ways, Hrovat has taken Shaun Higgins role up forward as the now-veteran has moved into the middle of the ground. There is no doubt Higgins is having a career year, and could be in All Australian squad calculations if he keeps up his current output.

    Fellow build pieces Robbie Tarrant, Ben Brown, Ben Cunnington and Jack Ziebell have delivered as advertised, taking up the slack left by departed veterans and out of favour players from the team’s past iteration. Mason Wood has proven he’s more than a flashy forward, with substantive patches in games that grow in length by the week.

    The ‘Roos play a handball-heavy ground game, a variant of their stock preference from 2014 through 2016 of counter-attacking from their back half of the ground. Only two teams skew to more handballs than North (kick to handball ratio of 1.07): Geelong (1.03) and the kings of the handball themselves, the Western Bulldogs (1.02). North take just 79 marks per game, the fewest in the league alongside Richmond. By contrast, Essendon take 107 per game.

    Speed is the name of the game. Which is what makes this match up so much fun because when they’re firing, St Kilda play fast too. Under the Etihad roof, with plenty on the line, there’s a good game on offer.

    North Melbourne have lost Ed Vickers-Willis, a Josh Elliott favourite, to a knee injury and replaced him with second game youngster Declan Mountford. The Saints have made three changes, with Paddy McCartin and Nathan Wright injured and Jack Steele omitted, replaced by Nick Riewoldt, Luke Dunstan and Jack Lonie.

    In this structure, the returning Riewoldt will likely play most of his game as a genuine centre half forward rather than on the wing. North’s three tall defenders match up well on the Saints forwards, suggesting to me there will be an important role for Maverick Weller, Jack Sinclair and a rotating midfielder to provide pressure when the ball hits the deck.

    The ‘Roos love nothing more than running off their half back flank, and could be expected to have a field day if St Kilda’s forward line can’t provide plenty of obstacles.

    Both teams will feel confident their midfields will provide plenty of supply for their forward lines. The ‘Roos average 57.5 inside 50s per game against this season (the most in the league), while the Saints average just 46.5 per game in their favour (ranked 12th). They’re both around average when we flip the equation.

    St Kilda have been employing Koby Stevens as a traditional tagger in recent weeks, and he will almost certainly niggle and gnaw at Higgins across the evening. Last week, Adelaide’s Rory Sloane used the tag against the Saints at stoppages, gluing himself to another St Kilda midfielder and allowing that man’s opponent a seam to break away. I’m sure Brad Scott took notes.

    Jade Gresham St Kilda Saints AFL 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    The market has St Kilda as a slight favourite; I am leaning the other way. St Kilda’s funk looks less like a temporary form slump by the week, while the ‘Roos have been impressive enough and have a game plan that should trouble the Saints.

    It will be a tight game, with plenty of counterpunching punctuated by some tactical swings from quarter to quarter. As an added wrinkle, North Melbourne has won the duos last four games at Etihad Stadium (and six in total if we include trips to Tasmania) stretching over five seasons. The ‘Roos will make it a handful this evening.

    North for me, by 24 points. That’s my Friday night forecast, what’s yours?

    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.