The arguments that AFL is turning into a different sport are hardly new. There has been the debate that AFL is turning into rugby, and before that it was supposed to be basketball.
It’s obvious that as footy has become more professional, coaches are turning to other sports to find an edge.
However, I think footy today is most influenced not by rugby, nor basketball, nor gridiron, but by that most irresistible of sources – football.
And not just any form of football, but the football played by Barcelona, which in turn was born from the ‘Total Football’ approach of the 1970s Dutch sides.
It is hard to disagree that today’s footy has evolved.
Defence begins from the front. If you can stop the team from clearing their backline, scoring becomes much easier as you win the ball back in advanced positions.
The last decade has seen variations on this theme of team-wide commitment to defensive pressure and winning the ball back as far up the field as possible. The teams of Ross Lyon have perfected this forward pressure.
As can be seen in this video – pressure starts from the forward line.
Barcelona evolved Total Football into ‘tiki-taka’ – the ball is moved quickly in constantly shifting triangular motions, and possession is king.
This has been adapted two ways. Firstly, football has become a lot more handball happy.
The use of the handball in close has become footy’s tiki-taka – a rapid fire movement to escape the press of total football. When it works, it cut teams to ribbons, just like Barca’s death by passing.
Secondly, possession has taken pre-eminence over territory – handballs and short passes are heading backwards and sideways to keep the ball.
Obviously, lifting a strategy completely from one sport to another is impossible – for one thing, teams are unable to control possession in the manner that Barca and recently Bayern Munich have.
In a game that allows tackling, it’s not really feasible to have 70 per cent of possession. And it’s not enough to just have the ball – Essendon is learning that the ball has to be moved quickly to give the forwards a chance.
It is also becoming increasingly apparent that the full forward of times past is gone. The few that remain kick fewer goals than ever and diversification is king – indeed, teams that don’t have 10 different goalkickers a game are seen to be struggling.
Goals come from the midfield and the smalls. Full forwards are progressively being replaced by the ‘false nines’ – guys who lead the forward line but are just as happy on a flank, the wing or the midfield.
They rotate in and out of their positions in the manner of total football – everyone is always in the game and goals are increasingly kicked by the people who run hardest up the ground, rather than defined forwards.
It’s this sort of environment where Luke Breust, a Thomas Mueller-style player, can nearly lead the Coleman Medal count. Jarryd Roughead wins the Coleman while also pinch-hitting as a ruckman and getting nearly 20 possessions a game.
Chris Mayne is not a big man, and can tackle like a demon. Nick Riewoldt and Buddy Franklin run all over the ground. The Western Bulldogs of a few years ago were an early archetype – lots of runners, lots of smalls, lots of goalkickers.
The big man will always be handy – look at Tom Hawkins on the weekend – but increasingly they are being replaced.
Of course, these observations are not uniform. Some teams have variations on this theme, some only follow select parts and some do not follow it at all. Nor is it necessarily the perfect blueprint – teams have shown through counter-attacking and kicking over the press that it can be beaten.
However, I do believe that, for better or for worse, the AFL coaches were as enthralled by the Barcelona style as the rest of us and have incorporated it into their tactics.