Western Bulldogs vs GWS Giants: Friday Night Forecast

Ryan Buckland Columnist

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    The Dogs and Giants have played two of the most compelling games of football in recent years in their last two outings, and there’s no reason to expect tonight’s finals-shaping encounter won’t make it a trilogy.

    Last year’s preliminary final was one of the best games of the decade to date, for football and non-football reasons. Round 6’s rematch, on a frigid Friday night in Canberra, did its best to live up to the original – a similarly tight, fast-paced outing unfolded, and the Giants got their revenge. Two games doesn’t make a rivalry, but three? Now we’re getting closer.

    Tonight has all the makings. GWS find themselves second on the ladder despite injury and absence ravaging their season. Their next three weeks are tough, but one more win should be enough to see them finish in the top four – two or three puts them into home field advantage territory.

    Meanwhile, the Dogs are on a four-game winning streak, knocking off three of the bottom four (meh) and a fellow finals contender in Essendon (much less meh). A win tonight keeps them in the top eight for another weekend, while a loss could see them drop as low as 11th.

    Are they back? The Ws say yes, the quality of opposition says pump the breaks. Tonight is an enormous and important test of the Dogs’ credentials.

    Footscray has cut a twisting trail through the 2017 season, never quite looking as competent as they were for last year’s finals series. Since starting the year 4-1, the Dogs had seen their season long winning percentage gradually drift lower to a nadir of 7-8 in Round 16.

    After a 59 point loss to the Adelaide Crows, I penned a eulogy to their season, but spoke of their next life, and why they were the best buy-low candidate in the league.

    As has been the pattern with these things – Ryan thinks a thing is happening, writes about it, the opposite thing happens – the Dogs have looked better since the loss in Adelaide. Their improvement has come forward of the ball, with the Dogs scoring on 51 per cent of their inside 50 entries in the past month. If that were their full season mark it would be second in the league behind Essendon.

    Under the hood, it looks as though coach Luke Beveridge has pivoted back to the outside-oriented game plan he tried to employ in the first half of the season. The Dogs have taken 105.5 marks per game during their win streak, well up on their season average of 79 marks per game. What’s interesting though is the team has still recorded a negative differential in two of their four games, the only major positive count coming against the lazy Gold Coast Suns.

    Luke Beveridge deep in thought

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    It’s difficult to know fully what’s going on, but from what we do see it looks as though the Dogs are trying to slow the pace of the game by holding a structure forward and through the middle of the ground, using the full width available and making a conscious effort to retain possession of the ball.

    The Dogs have held the ball for an extra five minutes per game in the past month compared to their season average, and have had a ten-fold increase in their average time in possession differential (from less than a minute to just shy of +10 minutes per game).

    The Dogs also appear to be far more interested in looking for marks inside 50 as opposed to ground balls. Weak teams tend to give up more grabs inside the stripe, but it is instructive that the Dogs have taken 16.3 of them in the past four weeks (which would lead the league if over the full year) compared to 11 in their first 15 games.

    To emphasise the degree to which this is a choice, the spread of marks inside 50 has been remarkable: nine Dogs players have taken at least one per game, a further four are one away from doing so, and five others have taken one every two games.

    Let’s get one thing straight: this could all be bunk, a dead-dog bounce influenced by a cushy patch in the fixture. But that’s why tonight looms as so important.

    Indeed, should the Dogs choose to play this way, Giants coach Leon Cameron will be delighted. GWS love nothing more than space to roam, and this new scheme by Beveridge will afford them just that.

    This makes me wonder whether the Dogs will instead go back to what they know best, and try to make the ground smaller by playing their swarming style through the middle of the ground. Tonight’s coaching match up is a football nerd’s dream.

    GWS Giants coach Leon Cameron

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    As expected, the Giants have bought back Jonathon Patton from injury and Toby Greene following the end of his suspension. Devon Smith has a knee injury, while Shane Mumford is out suspended.

    The Dogs have made three changes, with Jake Stringer and Josh Dunkley returning from injury and Tory Dickson coming back into the team. The outs include Easton Wood on account of a hamstring injury, with Clay Smith and Lukas Webb omitted.

    The Giants look to be waking up in time for the pointy end of the season. But as we’ve seen, there’s every chance the Dogs are doing the same thing. There’s so much at stake, and so much uncertainty.

    Ultimately I am still not convinced what we’ve seen from the Dogs represents a corner being turned. Yes they’ve won four in a row, but three of these were against teams who’ve gone a combined 1-11 over the same stretch – and that one win was Brisbane over Carlton. Their win over Essendon was full of merit and perhaps the evidence one could hold on to if one were that way inclined.

    No matter the result, tonight looks set to be a two hour chess match between two of the sharpest minds in the competition. The Giants will win, by less than ten points just for fun, and if this happens then we can start calling this a rivalry.

    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.

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