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Already making your AFL 2018 predictions? Don’t be daft

Ryan Buckland Columnist

124 Have your say

Popular article! 4,395 reads

    Welcome to the post-truth Australian Football League, where the rules of the previous decade have been tossed asunder and anyone can win the last game of the season.

    Were it not for Sydney’s stellar second half of the season comeback, that statement would be the Gospel according to Gil. Cast your mind back to the end of the 2015 season just briefly – really put yourself in that moment – and consider the below has come to pass in the past two seasons.

    Hawthorn was eliminated in a semi final in 2016, and missed the finals series all together in 2017. Sydney crashed from a losing grand final in 2016 to an 0-6 start in 2017, rallied back to miss the top four by a game (and top two by a game and a half), only to lose a semi final against their bunnies.

    Geelong successfully staved off a rebuild that was five years coming, and has made it to a preliminary final in the past two seasons. The Western Bulldogs won a premiership, winning four in a row (including two interstate trips) as sizeable underdogs, breaking a half century premiership hiatus.

    Richmond won a premiership, coming from a flattering 13th the year prior to finish in the top four for the first time in more than 20 years. Theirs was not quite as long a dry spell as the Dogs, but the fans were certainly parched.

    Then there are a few sub points.

    Dustin Martin became the best player in the competition, and won the league’s three most prestigious individual awards in a single season. Patrick Dangerfield won a Brownlow medal with a record vote tally in 2016, and had a better season in 2017 to run second to Martin.

    Dustin Martin Richmond Tigers AFL Grand Final 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Nat Fyfe, the 2015 Brownlow medallist, has become an afterthought for most of the football world. Essendon, ravaged by WADA suspensions, bashed together two teams into one – like a Holden panel beater working on a Ford – and rode some kind of wave into September.

    Port Adelaide rose like Lazarus, an ascent that no one saw coming, only to fall in one of the great finals of the decade. Greater Western Sydney hasn’t made it into a grand final, nor, as it were, won a premiership.

    Gold Coast still hasn’t made a finals series, and might be the worst team in the competition as we enter 2018. Melbourne and St Kilda, who’ve rebuilt the traditional way, fell just short of the finals series two years running, as all of this goes on around them

    And that’s just the big picture stuff. To those who may have taken a break from following the game on account of Hawthorn fatigue: hello, welcome, and yes, this all happened.

    If you can weave that into some grand narrative you are a better person than I. For two seasons we have revelled in the glorious chaos of increased parity; the promise of the 2016 pre-season has come to pass.

    Where does that leave us? It is not the time to make bold predictions, settle on team line ups, or pick a premier. We will discover these things over the next 71 days as the preseason unfolds. There are, however, a handful of trends we can look to as a scene setter for the year ahead.

    The experience cycle has turned
    The AFL lost plenty of on-field intellectual property last season. The retiring class of 2017 included almost a full team of players who’d played 200 or more AFL games – if Luke Hodge had pulled the pin we’d have got there – six of them reaching the 300 game milestone.

    Every year, some 9,108 games of experience are added to the league through the 198 home-and-away season games and nine finals. Generally speaking, the league as a collective loses about that through delistings and player retirement. Last year, the outflow of experience was significantly larger than the inflow of experience: 11,019 games of football IP have been lost.

    It meant the league as a collective lost experience for the first time since the 2012 season, from 62.1 games per player in the 2017 preseason to 61.4 games per player here and now (we use per player to adjust for the advent of the two expansion teams). Last off season marked the end of a six year streak where the collective experience of the league’s players increased from 52.1 per game (a post-2000 season low).

    A quick parse of the data suggests the league’s aggregate experience level is cyclical, with long periods of steady growth and decline. The last time the worm first turned – the 2007 preseason – the experience level of the league fell for six straight seasons, through 2012, where it started to rise for six straight seasons.

    Such a small dip from one year to the next, or a per-player basis at least, is not going to drive the competition one way or the other. But it is interesting to consider the role that veteran players play.

    As of the end of last season, there were 70 players with 200 games of experience, or close to four per team. With 21 of those stepping out, just 49 remain. It is one less old head, wise and worldly, and available to help the coach on field.

    At a headline level this would look to hit the West Coast Eagles the hardest. The Eagles dropped a staggering 1,485 worth of AFL games from their playing list in the 2017 offseason, or almost half the average AFL list.

    However, 650 of this was two one-year wonders: Drew Petrie and Sam Mitchell. Still, Matt Priddis (240), Sam Butler (166), Josh Hill (173) and Sharrod Wellingham (171) were long term, consequential players for West Coast.

    Matt Priddis West Coast Eagles AFL 2017 Finals

    (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Essendon have been similarly impacted by player departures, losing 1,195 games of experience. Unlike West Coast, the Dons partially offset this at the trade table, with Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad bringing in 246 games of collective experience.

    In net terms (considering delistings, trades, free agency and the draft), there has been a shift in the league’s experience to South Australia. Adelaide and Port Adelaide have added a combined 865 games of experience to their respective lists as they load up for premiership tilts.

    All things considered, a shift in the experience profile of the league could be expected to affect the ‘softer’ skills of the game: positioning, team defence, composure and the like. Indeed, that is likely to have been the biggest driver behind the most surprising move of last off season: Luke Hodge’s move to Brisbane on a two year contract, after announcing his retirement from the Hawks.

    Qualitatively though, it is hard to go look past the metaphoric changing of the guard that began last year. Most of the champion players of the early part of the decade are now out of the game, and the opportunity for the next batch to drive the league forward is clear.

    Total team football
    The past two premierships have been won by teams without traditional forward line set ups. The Western Bulldogs steamrolled their way through forward half congestion with a blend of mid size and small players, who ran rings around taller defenders.

    tom-boyd-western-bulldogs-afl-2016-grand-final

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Richmond played one conventional tall forward for the vast majority of the home-and-away season, and doubled down during their finals campaign.

    It led me to ponder whether going small in the forward line – or smallball, because it’s not a thing until you put a label on it – was the way of the future. It is a significant shift, if only because convention dictates a team’s centre half forward and full forward should be taller than the average, at least.

    The wrinkle of course is Adelaide’s scheme, which coalesced to give the Crows almost two goals a week extra scoring punch than second place, is centred on tall players. Adelaide’s system had four tall forwards and two smalls – the binary opposite of Richmond if there was such a thing. And now Charlie Cameron, Adelaide’s pace ace, has left for the Lions, it is likely the quartet of talls will be called upon to do a little more of the heavy lifting while the Crows figure out what to do at his spot.

    There is still a trend here. The best teams find a way to use their best players in complementary ways: they play a system which fits their personnel. Defence has evolved in this way since the Malthouse days of high pressing, but the Dogs, Tigers and Crows suggest scheming forward of the ball, rather than kicking forward and hoping a tall guy takes a mark over another tall guy, is a way to bust team defences.

    Pace, right across the ground, is also critical. This is an issue I’d like to spend some more time on than we have here.

    I still suspect teams will experiment with smaller forward line ups. Geelong loom as a prime candidate should the team’s large number small forwards enter the season with a clean bill of health. Melbourne’s jettisoning of Jack Watts would suggest the club is considering this direction. West Coast could give it a shake too, albeit would be a fundamental change in the way Adam Simpson’s teams have gone about their business over the past in his four years in charge.

    The theory of ‘the man’
    Team defence is the only kind of defence in today’s AFL. Team attack might be the way of the future. You know what can help trump both of these things? If you’ve got ‘the man’.

    The man is Dustin Martin. Patrick Dangerfield. Nat Fyfe. Lance Franklin. Alex Rance. It’s any number of singular entities which can change the game with their individual play, by breaking up the schemes and systems of their opposition. They excel at winning the ball when it is up for grabs. Every player has the capability for brilliance, but the man does it with clockwork regularity.

    Patrick Dangerfield Rory Sloane Geelong Cats Adelaide Crows AFL 2017

    (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    The man is an important circuit breaker. He can burst from congestion, ball in arm, and create time and space for his team where there wasn’t any before. He can create a scoring opportunity – for himself or a teammate – with a sharp move or incisive delivery of the ball. The man sees the play like everyone else, but has the audacity to try things that seem impossible.

    It seems counterintuitive to speak of the role of the individual in an environment where team play is growing more important. Simply, it’s one of the best features of Australian football: that there is so little regulation of what can and can’t happen on the field (in a relative sense) means the game evolves naturally. The code has evolved to prioritise total team play, and one of the natural counters is for the very best players to play in a way that allows them to rise above the rest.

    I expect we will see a number of players grow into this kind of role, starting this year. There are candidates across the league. Marcus Bontempelli is practically there already. So is Josh Kelly. Rory Sloane was just about to become the man, until he was tagged into oblivion and his role shifted.

    Christian Petracca is in the early stages of becoming the man. Luke Parker could be the man, but Sydney’s midfield is so even at the top. My dark horse pick is Ollie Wines.

    There have always been outstanding individual players. And naturally, there always will be. But if this theory is correct, their importance will only grow, and so will their value. We have seen this play out in high profile contract negotiations in recent years: Franklin’s nine-year deal, Dangerfield’s lucrative five-year contract, Fyfe and Martin’s deals from 2017.

    More chaos and uncertainty
    As the past two seasons have unfolded, the ambiguity of the premiership race has been a throw back to the middle of last decade. Another year of uncertainty looms large. While there are a handful of big picture trends, as ever the individual details and nuances of each team will play a larger role in sort out the 18 teams.

    Our group of prospective cellar dwellers is small once more. The mid table is full of intrigue, particularly after Richmond circumvented convention and made it all the way immediately after a disappointing season. Our top weights are mostly unchanged in name, but rocking a new set of silks.

    The next ten weeks will help provide some clarity. But if the past two years of football are anything to go by, the AFL will throw up all manner of story lines we won’t see coming.

    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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    The Crowd Says (124)

    • Editor

      January 10th 2018 @ 9:30am
      Josh Elliott said | January 10th 2018 @ 9:30am | ! Report

      Please Ryan, I’m already making my 2025 predictions.

    • January 10th 2018 @ 10:18am
      Birdman said | January 10th 2018 @ 10:18am | ! Report

      yes the day of the twin towers might be over but smallball may be a bit of an overreach IMO.

      Pressure is the key focus all over the ground but particularly up forward – Malthouse might have first to have pioneered forward pressure with a team that was more cake than cream.

    • January 10th 2018 @ 10:24am
      olrac said | January 10th 2018 @ 10:24am | ! Report

      I don’t consider it small forward lines that are the new trend but rather team attack. While it has been executed by small forward lines so far the point is team attack utilizing the attributes of the players available has been successful. If you have a tall forward who can chase and pressure like a small player then you actually add dimensions to the team attack. These players are few and far between though maybe Buddy, Hipwood and possibly Charlie Curnow will meet the required attributes to even attempt a tall forward line playing like a “Small Ball” forward line.

      We have seen the tactical changes in world football reflected in AFL with a 5 year lag for a long time now. The bulldogs handball/possession heavy game plan to me is the equivalent of Barca’s Tika Taka just 5 years later.

      On an unrelated point is Ross Lyon the Jose Morihino of the AFL

      • January 10th 2018 @ 5:03pm
        Matto said | January 10th 2018 @ 5:03pm | ! Report

        No. Mourinho uses his defensive style to actually win trophies.

    • Roar Guru

      January 10th 2018 @ 10:50am
      Paul D said | January 10th 2018 @ 10:50am | ! Report

      I’m quite comfortable predicting the Lions to be bottom 4 again this year.

      No downside if I’m wrong.

      • Roar Guru

        January 10th 2018 @ 11:01am
        Cat said | January 10th 2018 @ 11:01am | ! Report

        I hope very much that you are wrong, as long as it isn’t a false dawn.

      • Roar Guru

        January 10th 2018 @ 11:14am
        Cat said | January 10th 2018 @ 11:14am | ! Report

        Just noticed new draftee Cam Raynor just extended his contract with Brisbane for another 2 years. He’ll be there for at least 4 years now. Good step for both Raynor an Brisbane.

        • Roar Guru

          January 10th 2018 @ 11:23am
          Paul D said | January 10th 2018 @ 11:23am | ! Report

          Yeah, both Raynor and McLuggage have extended – that was all I wanted to see, now we have no excuse if we’re still unable to retain players in 4 years time. Schache was no loss.

          • January 10th 2018 @ 1:15pm
            Macca said | January 10th 2018 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

            Seems your much repeated fears of Rayner and Mcluggage being gone by 2020 were unfounded.

            • Roar Guru

              January 10th 2018 @ 1:16pm
              Paul D said | January 10th 2018 @ 1:16pm | ! Report

              I’m very happy to admit I was wrong on that one

              • Roar Guru

                January 10th 2018 @ 3:50pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | January 10th 2018 @ 3:50pm | ! Report

                If only Schache had signed an extension.

              • Roar Guru

                January 11th 2018 @ 3:20pm
                Paul D said | January 11th 2018 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

                Not interested in blokes who have an 1800km umbilical cord

              • January 11th 2018 @ 3:43pm
                Don Freo said | January 11th 2018 @ 3:43pm | ! Report

                Good line.

              • Roar Guru

                January 11th 2018 @ 4:44pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | January 11th 2018 @ 4:44pm | ! Report

                Those umbilical cords obviously aren’t severed by contract extensions.

      • Roar Guru

        January 11th 2018 @ 5:17pm
        DingoGray said | January 11th 2018 @ 5:17pm | ! Report

        I’m being bullish Paul,

        We will land at 12!

    • January 10th 2018 @ 11:26am
      Milo said | January 10th 2018 @ 11:26am | ! Report

      Thanks Ryan
      Not sure that much has really changed over the years. I still think you need a top four finish to challenge and then its game on. Bulldogs are the exception of course, but you’re always going to have exceptions to most rules.

      The game plans change each year. Just because RFC won with a trio of smalls and a tall doesn’t mean it will work this year. The Tigers have already looked to change it up (literally) so don’t be surprised to see another serious tall in the fwd set up at PR.

      Oh and I don’t know about this: “Richmond…finish(ed) in the top four for the first time in more than 20 years ” Lets call it 16 years (2001). Some of us Tigers are still a little sensitive about our lost years!

      • Columnist

        January 10th 2018 @ 11:39am
        Ryan Buckland said | January 10th 2018 @ 11:39am | ! Report

        Oops, yes, my mistake, I missed 2001 (went to 1995).

        Are you talking about the draftees? I think that was more about list profile than addressing an immediate need. I’d expect Richmond will start the year with Riewoldt and four smalls in the forward line, and a rotating midfielder. Is there something you’ve seen?

        • January 10th 2018 @ 12:57pm
          Milo said | January 10th 2018 @ 12:57pm | ! Report

          Well Ryan, Hardwick is still a Griffiths fan and thinks he has the ability to wreck packs and take big grabs. Unfortunately it has rarely happened. But expect him to line up this year at some point unless injury dictates otherwise. He will be on last chance this year and would’ve been last year had circumstances permitted.

          With the drafting, yes there looks to be some potential tall talent there especially Balta, plus Miller and Coleman-Jones. (Good to see the Tigers get a hyphen – we haven’t had one since that legend Oakley-Nicholls). You’d expect at least one of them to get some game time this year and Balta looks good. Already on the list are Moore (rookie) and Garthwaite who can both play tall.

          Throw in Soldo, Chol and (I hope not but probably) Hampson to relieve Nank the Tank at regular intervals and yes I think they may go taller this season.

          Expect Higgins and Bolton to get a serious look probably at the expense of Butler and or George C on the small front.

          • January 10th 2018 @ 1:26pm
            Neil from Warrandyte said | January 10th 2018 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

            Agree that Nank will be rested periodically during the season now the tigers have the luxury of healthy talls on their list. Can’t see Chol getting game time ahead of Balta, Coleman-Jones and Miller though. Very athletic yet lacks the football smarts. I think the preferred option may still be Hampson.

            • January 10th 2018 @ 1:57pm
              Milo said | January 10th 2018 @ 1:57pm | ! Report

              Unfortunately agree Neil on Hampson. But I do expect Chol to play smarter this year. Maybe given a bit more responsibility down back. And don’t write off Cuz Soldo. He will definitely get a game or two with specialized coaching from our new ruck coach.

          • Roar Guru

            January 11th 2018 @ 4:00pm
            Paul D said | January 11th 2018 @ 4:00pm | ! Report

            I just saw Griffiths has announced his retirement effective immediately to go off and be a punter in the NFL. You must be pleased as punch.

    • January 10th 2018 @ 11:33am
      mdso said | January 10th 2018 @ 11:33am | ! Report

      The smokey is Essendon.

      • January 22nd 2018 @ 6:20am
        Chris said | January 22nd 2018 @ 6:20am | ! Report

        The smokey will be Collingwood,while Essendon may end up being one of the big disappointments along with Geelong, Richmond and the Swans. Footscray and St. Kilda will end up on the scrapheap. This year looms as a major changing of the guard and a power shift in the pówers that are AFL. I also believe that this year may trigger the early retirement of Gary Ablett Junior. Last of all, watch out for the Navy Blues and Melbourne.

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