JOHNNO: Are taggers just players who aren’t good enough?

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    When I asked Fremantle coach Ross Lyon about who would take on Gary Ablett last weekend, we all knew it would be Ryan Crowley.

    The two have on-field history, as the league’s premier midfielder and one of its top taggers respectively. Off-field, the Gold Coast captain publicly criticised Crowley last year for his tactics.

    Within the first five minutes of Saturday’s match Crowley was sitting in the goal square, trying to dictate terms, while Ablett reversed the antagonist role and got in Crowley’s face early, even giving away a couple of free kicks.

    In the end Ablett was too good one on one. He had 21 contested possessions, 28 total, and kicked a trademark goal from 50 on the boundary.

    It had me thinking about the role of the tagger: whether sides need them, how fragile their careers are individually, and whether they’ll end up extinct as a group.

    You’ll rarely see star players given a tagging role, which leads to the idea that it’s a job for those who aren’t good enough, and won’t cost the team by sacrificing their own games.

    But that’s not quite right. Tagging can be a great way to teach a young midfielder where to run, how to win the football, and what’s required at the top level. The same goes for a second-tier player who hasn’t yet stepped up.

    One game into my career, I was told I’d be tagging. Over the next few games I was lucky enough to play on Peter Matera, Craig Bradley, Shane Crawford, and Brett Allison.

    The coaching advice? “Just do your homework and see how you go.”

    It was nerve-wracking, but you need to believe that if you’ve at least got the running ability to stay with such guys, it’s ok for them to beat you in footy smarts a few times.

    What was important was that the coach had confidence in me, and that it didn’t matter if my opponents were better initially, as long as I was there competing for every ball and learning along the way.

    I watched those tapes back a million times, not for my game but for theirs: how I was exposed at certain times, where they ran to, how many contests they got to. Those players showed me how to model my game.

    Then I was released as a wingman in my second year, playing more through the midfield, and all of a sudden I was getting to more contests and understanding the running patterns. It felt good.

    As a tagger, it’s crucial that you have another string to your bow. If you’re just tagging week in, week out, you’re only a couple of bad games from being out of the side.

    The role has changed accordingly from stopping your opponent while sacrificing your influence, to restricting his influence while contributing your own. The modern tagger still looks to win possessions or get involved in scoring chains.

    That’s what Crowley does well, often chipping in with a goal. Geelong’s Taylor Hunt kicked three first-half goals while tagging Marc Murphy a few weeks ago.

    Hunt’s former teammate Cameron Ling is a good example of the evolution of a tagger. After not cutting the mustard as a forward, he switched to tagging, and worked purely to negate.

    As his skills and confidence grew, he was increasingly likely to get off his opponent, link up with teammates, push forward, and kick goals. He ended up as a crucial clearance player and premiership captain.

    If a player can demonstrate these skills, then he can sometimes be released in his own right, which a tagger definitely needs.

    Some weeks the coach needs the confidence to say “Ryan Crowley, you’re playing half forward, that’s your role for the day,” then see what he can offer.

    It’d take a strong effort to survive a 15-year career tagging every week – it would be mentally exhausting.

    With the classic tagger having already turned into a more versatile player, it’s going to be interesting to see if the role survives with the number of bench rotations to be cut in coming seasons.

    Will we once more hear the coaches telling their midfielders that this is your direct opponent for the match, it’s you versus him, and we need 18 of the 22 to come out on top?

    Will we go back to contests that stay one on one for longer? Midfielders with most of their game time on certain individuals? Will they be judged on those contests, instead of the pile of possessions they rack up?

    In that style of game, everyone’s a tagger, and everyone’s an instigator, and everyone’s responsible for his balance sheet at the end of the day.

    Brad Johnson
    Brad Johnson

    Six-time All-Australian Brad Johnson is a former Western Bulldogs captain, Team of the Century member, and played a record 364 games for the club. He now commentates for Fox Footy and writes for The Roar.

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    The Crowd Says (14)

    • May 8th 2013 @ 10:44am
      jess said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:44am | ! Report

      ” In the end Ablett was too good one on one. He had 21 contested possessions, 28 total, and kicked a trademark goal from 50 on the boundary. ”

      Numbers can be deceiving Brad. Yes, Ablett got more possessions than Crowley, but very few of them were the damaging Ablett possessions were used to seeing. The vast majority, as you said, were in close, in contested situations, with crowley always on him and a good number of them ended up as either stoppages or turned over two or three short possessions later.

      In that respect, i would say it was a pretty good effort by Crowley. I would hate to say either of them “won” on the day.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 10:54am
      Ash of Geelong said | May 8th 2013 @ 10:54am | ! Report

      Geelong’s last captain was just a tagger don’t forget.

      • Columnist

        May 8th 2013 @ 3:20pm
        Geoff Lemon said | May 8th 2013 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

        Probably helps if you read the article, Ash…

    • May 8th 2013 @ 12:09pm
      Lroy said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:09pm | ! Report

      As a West Coast fan I hate to admit it, but I think Crowley is a better player than he is given credit for.. he could just as easily be the guy who doesnt tag and rack up his own impressive stats. He forces the tagged player to be accountable as well, given he can be quite damaging with his own possesions on the rebound…

      Same for Scott Selwood at West Coast, I would prefer it if he wasnt the tagger actually, I think he is one of their better players and could be more damaging running forward of the contest, maybe give the tagging role to Brennan…

      • May 8th 2013 @ 5:35pm
        Brad Johnson said | May 8th 2013 @ 5:35pm | ! Report

        I agree that Scott Selwood is developing into a very good consistent performer. Last year he went to another level and was released at times to play purely as a midfielder which really suited him and he seemed to appreciate the freedom. His form will grow over the next month but he still is needed to run with the oppositions best at times.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 12:53pm
      King Robbo said | May 8th 2013 @ 12:53pm | ! Report

      Would you say Tony Liberatore was a tagger? He has the highest tackle count since been recorded. He was vital in shutting down a many good player and was good enough to win a brownlow medal.

      So agree Brad that you need a tagger in your squad, its very beneficial if you know a team relies on one player. It has been going on in soccer for decades. I even think Liber mght have got inspiration from the most famous case, the hatchet job his paesano Claudio Gentile did on maradona at the 82 world cup. Besides legendary status with italians, Gentile has never had the most likeable reputation around the world since. Taggers or holding midfielders will always be cast as the villians by opposing fans, as they stop free flowing and exciting brands of football of any code.

    • May 8th 2013 @ 1:36pm
      Kev said | May 8th 2013 @ 1:36pm | ! Report

      Tagging might be not be a glamourous role but it’s a skill in its own right. There are players who are brilliant when playing an attacking role but some don’t have a defensive bone in their body and wouldn’t know how to keep their opponent away from the ball. Their form of defense is attack which isn’t always appropriate.

    • Roar Guru

      May 8th 2013 @ 5:34pm
      Tim Holt said | May 8th 2013 @ 5:34pm | ! Report

      Hi Brad, firstly well done on your fabulous career and ascent into being a very respect voice in the Media

      As for your contention on taggers, well I think as you rightly point out it is an evolving role. I am a fanatical Hawks fan and used to bemoan that players in these roles were basically average players who made a living by scragging. A classic example being Dean Chiron who always quite literally scratched, battle and bit on John Platten. Others like Tony Shaw, libba and Shane Kerrison were similar in their playing of the role

      Come the 90’s, the role became quite a charismatic role as seen in Hawthorn using ‘The Freak’ James Morrissey . Famously on Chris Lewis, which went a long way to us winning the 91 Flag. A player with precocious skill and chosen in my view because he had a very astute forwards instinct and reading of the play. So he could in a way take a walk in Lewis’s shoes and try to be ahead of him. Plus from an attacking sense it was a master stroke.

      Onto the current day, everything in the game is about the balance between defence and attack and a player having dexterity in both. The taggers, if any thing play one of the most skilled roles in the game for they are expected to cut out the oppositions best players as well as being a factor themselves. Just look at Jordan Lewis’s mastery in the role. Then others like Picken at your beloved Dogs, who might be seen as a basic player but because he is so astute at cutting stars out he is vastly under rated

      • May 8th 2013 @ 6:30pm
        Winston said | May 8th 2013 @ 6:30pm | ! Report

        But the problem is I wouldn’t call Jordan Lewis a tagger. He seems too skillful to be called a tagger. There’s a difference between an attacking mdifielder who happens to be good at tackling and defence, and someone whose role is primarily to defend.

        When I think tagger I think of Brett Kirk and Cameron Ling. I think taggers are important in the modern game, but having said that, the truth is without the tagger role these players wouldn’t have played at all. Apart from tagging they weren’t very good at anything. So yeah, I think all in all taggers are for players who aren’t good enough to do anything else.

        And I wouldn’t say it’s the hardest role in a team. I’d say there is a lot more pressure on key forwards to take big marks and kick big goals for example.

        • Roar Guru

          May 8th 2013 @ 6:33pm
          Tim Holt said | May 8th 2013 @ 6:33pm | ! Report

          But that has been his role in big matches Winston- just look to the pies game last year where he sat on Shaw. Not in a traditional taggers sense, but in the evolved sense of the role

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