The secret of the Dogs’ success? Handball, handball, handball

Mister Football Roar Guru

By Mister Football, Mister Football is a Roar Guru

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    With most Western Bulldogs fans relishing their club’s first appearance in a grand final in 55 years – for many, the first in their lifetime – it’s worth taking a moment to consider how Luke Beveridge and the players have achieved what looked near impossible at the start of the 2015 season.

    It’s worth reminding ourselves that the Bulldogs started this season paying $67 to win the premiership, and have just become the first team in AFL history to make a grand final from seventh spot.

    Furthermore, it’s a relatively young squad, with plenty of first, second and third-year players in the starting 22. Little wonder that Bulldogs fans might feel both ecstatic and a little bewildered that Bevo’s young charges have made it this far.

    There is definitely something unique about the Bulldog game plan and the manner in which they play. If I were to summarise it in a few words, it’s about ultra-fast and clean handball.

    Obviously, that’s not enough to explain the Bulldogs’ success on its own, after all, teams have been using handball to release players in the clear for decades now.

    And we only need go back to Adelaide’s famous preliminary final win over the Bulldogs in 1997, by which time, the ‘Crow throw’ had already entered the footy vernacular. So ultra-fast handballing has been around for a while.

    No, there’s something more to what the Bulldogs are doing, and we got a hint during the week when the Herald Sun quoted All-Australian defender, Matty Boyd talking about an inner circle and outer circle.

    Now we are getting a bit closer to the heart of the matter.

    While contested footy, clearances and favouring stoppages over coughing up the footy are all part of the mix, it’s this inner/outer circle idea where the Bulldogs have created something which gives them an edge – as long as the game is played on their terms.

    We see further evidence of this game style in the post-game press conference given by Hawthorn coach, Alastair Clarkson, after Hawthorn’s loss to the Bulldogs a couple of weeks back.

    He made a comment about laying 104 tackles, but only receiving three free kicks for holding the ball.

    In basic terms, this is what the Bulldogs do.
    1. One player (or two) in and under;
    2. A premium on getting both hands on ball to either shovel out quickly or be tackled with no prior opportunity (ball up – rinse and repeat);
    3. An inner circle of two or three players, only one or two metres from the ball and from each other – if the quick ball comes out from the player in and under, that player puts a premium on either shovelling out to the next one, or being tackled with no prior opportunity (ball up – rinse and repeat);
    4. There might need to be a ring-a-rosy of quick, short handballs around the inner circle, but that is ok, little chance to intercept, and the worst case scenario is being tackled with no prior opportunity (ball up – rinse and repeat); and
    5. In that ring-a-rosy of three, four or five ultra quick handballs to the bloke next to you, a half-metre of space might open up to get it out to the outside circle, who in turn will have that split second of time to spot a teammate – up with either a long hand ball or a short pass.

    The game plan is all about encouraging mayhem and chaos, and backing yourself to be the one to get it out cleanly by both the way the Bulldogs structure themselves around the ball with extra numbers, and intense training on short, sharp handballing in tight spaces.

    Via the game plan, the Bulldogs will lock in their forward line for sometimes three or four minutes at a time, an extraordinary amount of time in the context of an AFL game.

    You will see whole swathes of the game where the bulldogs are winning clearances (or at least semi-clearances) something like 80-20, where they are progressing down the field a few metres at a time. Perhaps the second or third of the inner circle has taken the tackle with no prior opportunity.

    Another plank of the game plan is all players are expected to be able to play all three roles at any given moment: in and under; inner circle and outer circle. All players, going deep into the VFL side, are well drilled in all roles.

    However, both Hawthorn and the Giants did expose weaknesses in the game plan.

    1. The Bulldogs cannot maintain that 80-20 split in semi-clearances, a good team will at least even the score for large parts of the game;
    2. Hawthorn, and to a lesser extent the Giants, would have a loose man outside of the Bulldogs’ outer circle, and if the ball reaches that player, it’s a guaranteed scoring opportunity every time. There is a touch of Russian roulette in the Bulldogs’ game plan, they do commit extra numbers to the contest; and
    3. Talls – the Giants had three of them and they nearly won the game for them. At times, the Bulldog defenders were giving away four or five inches to the Giants. Just a bit more quality ball into that forward 50 and it’s game over.

    In summary, it’s not just about the fast, clean handball. It’s about the manner in which the Bulldogs structure themselves around the ball, and being well drilled in choosing, or not choosing, the option of keeping the ball in the inner circle before it’s worked out to the outer circle.

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    The Crowd Says (17)

    • September 26th 2016 @ 9:19am
      Paul W said | September 26th 2016 @ 9:19am | ! Report

      3. Talls – the Giants had three of them and they nearly won the game for them.

      Well, two of them did 😉

      • September 26th 2016 @ 9:45am
        paul said | September 26th 2016 @ 9:45am | ! Report

        AHAHAHAHAHA. 1 Kick! Game to forget.

        • September 27th 2016 @ 9:43am
          Bruce said | September 27th 2016 @ 9:43am | ! Report

          Hahaha….I thought he was acting a bit cocky in the 3rd for someone who’d touched the ball only once.

          But I guess he played his part in the QF.

      • Roar Guru

        September 26th 2016 @ 7:54pm
        Mister Football said | September 26th 2016 @ 7:54pm | ! Report

        True enough!

        But those two talls were a handful.

        The dogs don’t have the resources to cover two talls (let alone three).

        It’s a whole team defence, and the key mantra is deny, deny, deny.

    • September 26th 2016 @ 10:32am
      BigAl said | September 26th 2016 @ 10:32am | ! Report

      Over handballing often comes in for criticism, but it is a key to success in this game in that if you don’t have posession of the ball there is not much you can do with it.

      The old “go loooonggg!” and … hope for the best is a ridiculous option these days.

      • September 26th 2016 @ 12:48pm
        GoSwans said | September 26th 2016 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

        GWS panic kicked a lot which is very different to their usual style. Same thing cost the Cats too. Poor forward entries that came out very quickly.

      • Roar Guru

        September 26th 2016 @ 8:06pm
        Mister Football said | September 26th 2016 @ 8:06pm | ! Report

        Big al
        There’s so much I was tossing around in my head as I wrote this, and one thing was precisely what you just mentioned.

        In the late 70s, it took only one wayward handball, just one, for the whole EJ Whitten stand to shout out in unison: just kick the bloody thing!

        It’s really hard to work out what the dogs are doing which is so different, we all just know it’s different, and personally, I don’t think I’ve nailed it.

        But I can say that the dogs are breaking a couple of what were once very standard team rules in senior footy (I last played the game 22 years ago):
        1. Being prepared to do a 1 metre handball after another, and
        2. Hand balling to someone behind you, I.e. Over the head/shoulder handballs

        • September 27th 2016 @ 1:33pm
          I hate pies said | September 27th 2016 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

          No u-turns!

          • Roar Guru

            September 27th 2016 @ 2:26pm
            Mister Football said | September 27th 2016 @ 2:26pm | ! Report

            Unless you’re name is Stringer! ?

    • September 26th 2016 @ 12:55pm
      Gecko said | September 26th 2016 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

      MF that sounds pretty right. And I think the key difference between the Bulldogs and some of the other high-intensity teams over the years (like Collingwood in 2010 and Freo a few years back) is that the Bulldogs place a premium on handballing til they find a kicker in space. They just keep flicking it around until they find someone who has time to kick creatively.

      That emphasis on creative kicking (particularly from Bont and Macrae but nowadays you even see it from Picken and Matty Boyd) makes it harder for opposition defenders to peel off their man and launch a fast intercept and rebound. The Hawks, who rely so heavily on rebounding from the half back flank, were caught out by the lack of opportunities for a fast intercept and rebound.

      I agree with you that the Achilles heel is when opposition can break through Beveridge’s moving cage and find a huge amount of space running forward. Teams right now will be planning how they can more frequently break through Beveridge’s moving cage.

      • Roar Guru

        September 26th 2016 @ 8:14pm
        Mister Football said | September 26th 2016 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

        Good comment, agree on all points made.

        There is a definite willingness to just keep shooting out handballs until either a player is locked up, or it finally reaches the kicker in the clear.

        At times, it seemed like the dogs would get up to about 8 consecutive handballs, maybe more, it seems a high number.

        And it’s easier said than done, I remember watching a few teams at the opposite end of the ladder, and they’d try something similar, and would lucky to get past three consecutive handballs – that’s a bit of a difference.

        My gut feel is that of the teams outside the 8, I think St Kilda is the team closest to what the dogs are doing.

        • September 27th 2016 @ 1:43pm
          Gecko said | September 27th 2016 @ 1:43pm | ! Report

          Thanks MF. I wonder whether Beveridge’s style has grown out of not having a dominant power forward, so goals need to come not from pack marking but from short passing or from just locking the ball in.

          To fit this style, Beveridge’ll be hoping Boyd can develop into a Roughead/Franklin style forward who can contest in the air but then follow up with defensive pressure, rather than a less agile Cloke/Tippett/Hawkins style forward. I’m really happy to see Cloke leave the Pies so our forward structure can evolve into a Bulldogs-style forward structure.

    • Roar Guru

      September 26th 2016 @ 1:09pm
      Redb said | September 26th 2016 @ 1:09pm | ! Report

      Congrats Mister Football – enjoy.

      Go Doggies.

      • Roar Guru

        September 26th 2016 @ 7:48pm
        Mister Football said | September 26th 2016 @ 7:48pm | ! Report

        Thanks mate, it’s been a long time coming!

    • Roar Pro

      September 27th 2016 @ 12:26am
      Marty Gleason said | September 27th 2016 @ 12:26am | ! Report

      Very interesting, you don’t see a whole lot of strategic articles about footy.

    • September 27th 2016 @ 10:28am
      Captain Captain said | September 27th 2016 @ 10:28am | ! Report

      “Just a bit more quality ball into that forward 50 and it’s game over.” But that is the crux of their style! Forward/Mid field pressure through pressing up against the player with the ball, slowing them down. Teams score against dogs through half back turnovers but have to move the ball quickly and with precision. WCE were just too slow and Hawthorn have lost that precision and lost the game. Giants didn’t move it quickly enough often enough and were closed down. How many smothers has this team made in last 3 weeks? Must be close to some sort of record. Its all about full ground press, pressure and then perceived pressure. Makes opposition players want to play on and get ball moving without thinking through their options. In other words, Dogs take the opposition’s game plan away and they then have to improvise against a committed and organised TEAM. Once that happens in finals, that when “it’s game over”.

      • Roar Guru

        September 27th 2016 @ 2:23pm
        Mister Football said | September 27th 2016 @ 2:23pm | ! Report

        I don’t disagree cc, but the Giants certainly had chances to spot up their talls, and didn’t (or some bread and butter marks were dropped).

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