Great things were expected of Collingwood this year. Bringing in Adam Treloar, who rated their side as better than Richmond’s – who finished fifth – and with a list beginning to enter into its prime years, there were those who predicted the Magpies would run deep into September.
Fast forward to Round 13. Collingwood sits 4-8 heading into the bye, with wins over lowly Richmond, Essendon and Brisbane complimented by a surprise win over Geelong.
Their season has been fraught with inconsistency. Awful losses to Carlton have been followed by comprehensive wins over Brisbane and Geelong, while a last-gasp victory over the Tigers became a damaging defeat to St Kilda in just eight days.
Opinion, however, is split over who is to blame for the losses. Some blame coach Nathan Buckley, calling for his head over the manner of the defeats, while others are placing the spotlight firmly on the players, too often found wanting at critical moments.
The reality is that it is probably a bit of both.
There is no doubt the Magpies have declined under Buckley. Since the ex-Collingwood captain and club hero took over the reins from Premiership coach Mick Malthouse in 2012, Collingwood has fallen down the ladder every single year.
A preliminary final in 2012 was followed by an elimination-final defeat in 2013, before sliding to 11th in 2014 and 12th last season, having been in the finals mix at the bye in both seasons. This season they sit 14th.
With a high list turnover, Buckley can be somewhat forgiven for trying to rebuild. But considering he inherited such a young side, on the back of two grand finals and set for a prolonged era of success, surely questions must be asked of the senior coach.
List management, and Buckley’s involvement in the decision to regenerate after a home final defeat to Port Adelaide in 2013, are particular talking points, but the real worry has too often come on game day.
Collingwood don’t try to play any particular brand of football. Hawthorn are known for their precision kicking, the Dogs for their contested ball prowess and high disposal game, Fremantle for their defensive zone and boundary line play, and Sydney for their ‘bash and crash’ style, complimented by a classy forward line.
Collingwood does not appear to stand for any football philosophy. It does not excel at any key statistic. It is neither an attacking, nor defensive side.
Even the cellar dwellars of the AFL – John Worsfold at Essendon and Justin Leppistich at Brisbane – have clearly defined game plans. They are not always executed with precision (Brisbane are particularly deficient at this), but at the very least, players are given an end goal to build towards. At the Holden Centre, there does not appear to be an end goal, a utopian style.
Of course, the other side of this conundrum is that Collingwood lack the players to play any style of football. This suggestion has merit when you analyse their list.
Of course, injuries hurt any side, but even a fully fit Collingwood may have been over-estimated to a great extent.
Their back six is lightweight, and collapses when put under pressure. Nathan Brown is out of form and confidence, and Ben Reid has not returned, as yet, to his pre-injury(ies) days, although in his defence he has been solid since stringing more than three or four games together.
What they lack most, however, is a reliable kick coming out of defence. Too often we see their half-backs – currently the most important attacking position in AFL in this article’s opinion – butchering the ball, gifting central, front-half turnovers for their opposition to feast on.
At best, that backline is second rate. At worst, it is dead wood.
The Magpies midfield is their strong point, but has deficiencies. Pendlebury is the only properly elite A-grade midfielder. Steele Sidebottom and star recruit Adam Treloar can press their cases, while Dane Swan will probably retire at seasons end. If not, he will spend his final season forward.
But who else is there? Jack Crisp and Levi Greenwood are good, but not great, while Taylor Adams is a ball-winner with a poor disposal. He costs goals. The game has passed Macaffer, while it hasn’t reached Josh Smith or Tom Phillips yet, they both look like they could be something. And finally, James Aish is statistically the worst midfielder in the game right now.
While there’s talent in that midfield, it’s lightweight compared to the best midfields in the AFL: The Bulldogs, Cats and Swans. Their ruck stocks lack a true elite player in the form of a Max Gawn or Todd Goldstein, too. It hurts the Pies.
The forward line is missing stars in Swan and Elliot. That hurts. It’s missing a key forward too. Moore looks like a real talent, but needs time, while Cox is still very raw. Other than that, it doesn’t look great up front for the Magpies. No one else has claims to being anything more than second or even third-rate.
While Collingwood has a list with some promise on it, a combination of poor coaching, poor list management and a lack of elite level players has led to a slide down the ladder. Perhaps they were overhyped at the start of the season, but for the current side, finals are out of the question.
It does, however, remain to be seen how the biggest club in the AFL arrests its decline in the current decade. If Collingwood are to break their cycle of being perennial also-rans, significant change is needed, for both the playing list and coaching staff.