Collingwood’s final form emerges, and its ceiling is an AFL premiership

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert


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    Collingwood took its time, but it has now arrived as the potent attacking force we long thought they could become. Where does it end?

    That headline is not a prediction. Collingwood are unlikely to win the 2018 AFL premiership. But could they win a premiership sometime in the next few years? This looks far more likely now than this time 12 months ago.

    Collingwood is now almost certain to end its run of consecutive annual declines in wins which has stretched the entirety of Nathan Buckley’s reign as head coach. On 8-4, the Pies are one win away from equalling the nine they managed in 2017 and are surely on track for their best record since at least 2013’s 11-11 finish.

    As we’ll learn later, the 16-6 mark Buckley stewarded his team to in his senior coaching debut in 2012 is also in play.

    This is something of a stunning development that not even the most ardent Collingwood fan would have believed possible come the end of last season. Nathan Buckley couldn’t coach – there was a #BuckleyOut hashtag doing the rounds on social media, a homage to an English Premier League fan campaign to oust Arsene Wenger as manager of Arsenal – Eddie McGuire had stayed far too long and the list wasn’t up to it.

    My most recent piece of significant commentary about the Pies strayed almost exclusively into these negative thoughts about the off-field situation. ‘At what point do Collingwood’s problems become McGuire’s problems?’, I wondered. Soon, was the conclusion. But then, perhaps, I was too hasty.

    The Pies, much like last year’s premiers, stayed the course and are now reaping the rewards. We have known Collingwood has had this level and kind of play in them for some time. It is the manifestation of fleeting signs of quality I first noted in the 2016 preseason.

    It will now almost certainly take them to their first finals campaign in five years, opening the door to something more significant in the seasons ahead.

    Nathan Buckley Eddie McGuire AFL

    (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

    Power through structure
    Collingwood’s win over Melbourne in the Queen’s Birthday game was built on a powerful, dominant midfield display and a willingness to move the ball aggressively. It was as close to a complete performance as a midfield unit could hope to have put together, beating another powerful and dominant centre group at its own game.

    Melbourne still won the contested possession count on the afternoon 148-141 – Melbourne’s weakest differential since its Round 5 loss to Richmond – but were absolutely smoked in generating clear air from stoppages 45-26. Collingwood also outworked the Dees without the ball, besting them on tackle rate and allowing Melbourne just 72 uncontested marks – again the fewest since Round 5.

    Coach Buckley has been quoted many times in recent years stating his football philosophy: how can we make the ground small when we don’t have the ball and big when we do have it (or something like that). This implies pressure on the ball carrier to force turnovers and a rampant spread from the contest with ball in hand. That is precisely how the Pies won the day over the Dees.

    There is a structural integrity to the midfield though. It isn’t like the more freewheeling stylings of a Richmond or Western Bulldogs outfit of recent years. Take this brief snapshot for example.

    Collingwood’s midfield is moving in unison both with and without the ball, heaping pressure on the Melbourne ball carrier and creating exit options to move into attack. When one doesn’t come off they are drilled enough to form up again and hone in on the ball carrier, and then spread again on the turnover.

    It requires intensity and commitment to the cause, which has never been Collingwood’s issue under Buckley. The Pies have been one of the most in-tight oriented teams in the league for the past three seasons, making good on the first point of Buckley’s philosophy. But they’d sat in the inept-impotent quadrant of the ball movement matrix (I didn’t just make that up, what are you talking about).

    Interestingly, Collingwood is bucking the ‘kick more’ trend which has taken hold across the competition, recording the lowest kick-to-handball ratio in the competition – 1.14 against the competition average of 1.34.

    Power through personnel
    This year, though, the Pies have been much more crisp with the ball in hand, playing to the strengths of a midfield unit that has never had an issue with talent or potential.

    Take Adam Treloar for instance. As Adrian Polykandrites pointed out on Twitter the other day, Treloar’s possession heat map is a beautiful display of a midfielder playing to his strengths. His running ability, straight-line pace and acceleration are undoubtedly Treloar’s strengths, and so he is using them to provide running power on the outside rather than being used in the clinches. He’s averaging 3.6 inside 50s for every rebound 50 in 2018, up from a ratio of 2.1 in his first year at Collingwood, while executing 19 handballs a game.

    He’s playing what is ostensibly a ‘wing’ position in today’s AFL, which is more of a free roamer than a man sitting two disposals to the left or right of the centre. A role that fits his skill set to a T. There are plenty of other examples of this across the Collingwood line up.

    Chris Mayne is another. Mayne, who Collingwood reportedly tried to trade back to Fremantle as a salary dump last off-season, is now running the right flank and has touched the ball inside Collingwood’s forward 50 arc just 15 times in seven games. Tom Phillips has come from the clouds to own the left flank.

    Brodie Grundy, the presumptive All Australian ruckman, is a unique specimen as we discussed a couple of weeks ago. He is fourth in the league for hit-outs to advantage, takes the eighth-most ruck contests per game among regular ruckmen and is averaging more than 20 disposals a game. If he were at North Melbourne, Grundy would be the third highest possession winner at the club in 2018. He is essentially two players, a full-time ruckman and a rotation midfielder, freeing up Collingwood’s other midfielders to do a little bit of extra work finishing off on the outside.

    Brodie Grundy of the Magpies (left) and Matthew Boyd of the Bulldogs contest

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    And as a football nerd, the most important development among all of this is Collingwood’s midfield rotation has allowed Scott Pendlebury to put his feet up a little. He had become one of the lone bright spots at the Pies struggled their way through the last four years, continuing to do things with the ball in his hand that few would dare try. It no longer feels like Pendlebury is forced to make all the play, meaning he can be even more damaging and influential when those opportunities present.

    But, more critically, it will allow Pendlebury to begin to transition into the old folks home, a place he will hopefully inhabit for another six or seven seasons.

    And then there is the forward line. The (contractually obligated mention alert) small ball unit, built around Ben Reid and Mason Cox – but more recently Ben Reid – who are simply in place to provide a marking target. Collingwood’s top four goal-kickers are all under 188 centimetres tall: Will Hoskin-Elliott (186 centimetres, 27.9), Josh Thomas (178 centimetres, 20.6), Jaidyn Stephenson (188 centimetres, 18.8) and Jordan de Goey (187 centimetres, 16.5).

    Collingwood’s smaller forward line allows it to flex its players from midfield to forward line and back again. Steele Sidebottom has spent long patches of games at full forward, while Hoskin-Elliott and De Goey are used as attacking options at stoppages further up the ground.

    Collingwood isn’t exactly flush with tall forward options. Most of their tall timber has historically played in the backline (or in the case of Darcy Moore, has been earmarked for a spot there). Indeed with previous forward line centrepieces Alex Fasolo and Jamie Elliot on the sidelines, this looked like a spot of significant weakness coming into the year. As it turns out, it has become a strength.

    It isn’t time to be talking about the off-season, but Collingwood will surely be an active – and central – participant in both trade and free agency this year with a view to landing an A-class focal point for its forward line.

    Right now the Pies are the fourth-most potent scoring side in the competition this season. They’ve been a proponent of scoring from as close to the goal mouth as possible – a product of the quick, powerful movement of their midfield. They can be stopped, as we saw in Round 8 against Geelong, but in the main the Pies have looked as sharp as a butcher’s knife.

    Collingwood’s strength is centred on its attack, although its defence is hardly a liability. Merely average – which is where the Pies sit – is good enough so long as Collingwood is able to put up points as they have in recent times. Continuity is important when it comes to a team’s back six, and the Pies are beginning to build a sound unit of interceptors and rebounders. Like their forward line, they lack a centrepiece, although Lynden Dunn is doing well enough in that role this season.

    But it doesn’t matter a ton, because so long as Collingwood can play to its strengths forward of the ball it will have enough power to hang with or beat most teams.

    Mason Cox

    (Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    The road ahead, and staying the course
    That’s all a bit gushing, and you can fairly accuse me of jumping on the Collingwood bandwagon. The reality is I should have penned this column earlier in the year before the signs of strength became what looks like business as usual.

    The Pies haven’t played a tough fixture so far this year. It rates as the 15th toughest on my strength-of-schedule calculation, worth around half a win for Collingwood through 12 games. And the reality is it doesn’t get a whole lot tougher.

    From here Collingwood’s draw is amenable for a push for a finals spot. In the immediate term the Pies have their bye this round before facing Carlton, Gold Coast and Essendon to get them to the end of Round 16. On current form the Pies will surely sweep the three games and reach 11 wins. From there it gets a little more dicey, but there are still very winnable games: North Melbourne at the MCG, Brisbane at Etihad Stadium and Fremantle at Perth Stadium would be the prime candidates, while they also face West Coast and Port Adelaide on their home deck.

    A club’s fixture in a given year is handicapped based on the results of a year prior. The reality is it plays out as a crapshoot, because teams across the ladder can surprise on both the upside and downside. Right now Collingwood projects to have the third easiest schedule for 2018, behind only Melbourne and North Melbourne. It may be peaking at the right time.

    The Pies do have some season-ending injuries to contend with, the latest being what looms as a serious foot injury to Daniel Wells. He’ll probably join Tim Broomhead and Tyson Goldsack on the pine for the rest of the year. Plenty of other players thought to be in Collingwood’s best 22 are still out for some time: James Aish (six to seven weeks), Jamie Elliott (listed TBC), Alex Fasolo (four to five weeks), Darcy Moore (TBC), Josh Smith (TBC) and Travis Varcoe (TBC). Ben Reid is listed as a test but has been injured almost as often as not over the past few seasons.

    A year ago we would have thought the absence of these players would have been considered a near-fatal blow for Collingwood, but its attacking strength, through structure and savvy use of available personnel means this represents some upside.

    A year ago we would have thought Collingwood was on the wrong track too. At their 2017 bye the Pies were 4-8 with a percentage of 101.7 – a spate of close losses hurting them – and pressure was mounting across the organisation. Now their record is flipped, and so has the sentiment.

    The Pies stayed the course, like Richmond before them, and half-way through the 2018 season they appear to be reaping the rewards. Whether this good patch of form continues or not, Collingwood is looming as another case study in what can happen when a club and its administration acts as a steady hand at the wheel.

    A premiership may not be forthcoming for Collingwood this year, but for the first time in half a decade the club looks like it is heading in that direction on the field.

    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 (39)

    • Roar Guru

      June 14th 2018 @ 8:27am
      Peter the Scribe said | June 14th 2018 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      This is one ardent Pies fan who predicted this last Year while Roar experts screamed for Bucks head.
      Good to have you back on board Ryan. 😀
      Seriously though, great read. Pendles also playing a defensive stoppage role and Mayne plays defensive wing, the spot Aish had claimed. Improvement in players as I predicted have been the key, Grundy, Hoskin, Thomas, De Goey, Phillips (picked up at 58). Murray will come back in soon but Reid, Jamie Elliott, Moore and J Smith will need to force their way in from the two’s. Pies will announce some key new contracts over this bye period too. The key IMO is we no longer rely on injury plagued key forwards and even Moore is no walk up into the side ahead of the mid sized forwards who are sharing the load. Our backs are small but okay tall, Langdon, Scharenberg, Howe. Dunn an awesome pick up and those bagging the Pies recruiting last year will be feeling pretty silly now.

      • June 14th 2018 @ 12:23pm
        Dan in Devon said | June 14th 2018 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        By adopting a handball and running game which is well suited to the high press, Buckley has redressed the problem of Collingwood’s poor foot skills. When they revert to chip kicking through the middle ad they did against Richmond we see all the old weaknesses emerge where they turn the ball over easily and in space. By handballing and running in numbers, they are able to stifle any potential turnovers. Their execution of the handball reminds me of the strong Carlton team of the early 90s; their support running is akin to the All Blacks in rugby. Credit to Buckley for persisting with Mason Cox – his ability to bring the ball to ground is instrumental to the small forwards. I am surprised little has been said about the poor treatment he receives from the umpires. Opposition backmen continually handle and interfere with him in the moments before the marking contest to prevent him from marking the ball.

    • Roar Guru

      June 14th 2018 @ 8:43am
      Peter the Scribe said | June 14th 2018 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      There’s something else the Pies are doing at stoppages. I saw them train for it preseason and I see it in play now. Loathe to mention it as haven’t seen any media pick up on it but it is working. The test for the Pies comes round 17-20 with Eagles, Nth, Swans and Tigers. Geelong stopped us by congestion and made even the G seem small. Bucks will be ready for this next time as Scott out coached him that day. Sydney are the barometer for me. If you can beat the Swans you have something. Predicted a 4-6 finish for the Pies last year and we are on track. Sunny dry final at the G would suit our new found pace. Eagles, Tigers and Swans for me are still ahead of us at this stage.

    • Roar Guru

      June 14th 2018 @ 9:05am
      AdelaideDocker said | June 14th 2018 @ 9:05am | ! Report

      Nice article. The Pies’ resurgence has taken me by surprise as well – I expected them to be pretty lacklustre this year, with more constant speculation about Buckley and then the man being moved on at years end. Buuuut … they’ve got some of the best play this year, I reckon. That Crows win a few months back was when I really started paying attention. The way they destroyed Freo (even if we were very, very young) was impressive, but the Melbourne win has got me onboard.

      Their end of the year fixture is very tough. They’ve got Carlton and the Suns for, theoretically, a duo of percentage boosters. Essendon after them, for a game they should in in this form. That’ll leave them 11-4 if all goes well. After them? West Coast, North, Richmond and Sydney in a four week stretch. I reckon that’ll be when we see if this is a serious team.

      • June 14th 2018 @ 10:47am
        Dav1d02 said | June 14th 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        Spot on – that four-week stretch is brutal. I reckon they’d be content if they get through with a 2-2 result…

    • June 14th 2018 @ 9:20am
      Kris said | June 14th 2018 @ 9:20am | ! Report

      Collingwood / Buckley have been here before

      2014, Rd 12, 4th on the ladder 8-3
      2015, Rd 12, 4th on the ladder 8-3

      Missed the finals both years.

      • Roar Guru

        June 14th 2018 @ 9:31am
        Cat said | June 14th 2018 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        Spot on. This is just another year of the the Collingwood cart being put before the horse. Might they play finals? Sure, nearly all teams but the bottom handful might.
        Collingwood should easily win their next three, and if they do it will continue to prove nothing. Its the softest of soft fixtures. Confidence is easy to have when you are beating up on the competitions also rans. The real test will be Rounds 17 through 20. They could go on a four game losing streak. If that happened are they mentally tough enough? The pressure would be immense if Buckley engineers yet another late season swoon. Imagine limping into (or just missing) finals on the back of going 2-6 in their last eight.

        • June 14th 2018 @ 11:54am
          Tom M said | June 14th 2018 @ 11:54am | ! Report

          True its a soft schedule so far, but you can only beat up what’s dished up. We did beat Adelaide in Adelaide by a truckload and that was before the injury curse hit them. If we get through the next 3 games and go to 11-4 it will be hard to see us missing the 8. Id be confident against North and give us a shot to beat the others mentioned. Momentum and confidence is everything in todays game and we currently have a heap of it.

        • Roar Guru

          June 14th 2018 @ 12:39pm
          Peter the Scribe said | June 14th 2018 @ 12:39pm | ! Report

          Yeah coulda woulda shoulda Cat. You and others have been wrong about the Pies so far, don’t see that changing

          • Roar Guru

            June 14th 2018 @ 1:35pm
            Cat said | June 14th 2018 @ 1:35pm | ! Report

            Long season yet to go, not one of either of our predictions will be wrong or right until then.

      • June 17th 2018 @ 5:40pm
        Tricky said | June 17th 2018 @ 5:40pm | ! Report

        Granted they were 8-3 in 14 and 15, however the difference now is their DE is more precise. Look at their work in the phone box and on the link up.

        It’s the style of play that is proving hard to defeat. No they haven’t brought that for 4 qtrs every game this year but the Melb and Ade games are examples of a successful type of footy that will bring a premiership if it is played consistently and on the big day.

        No one can deny this team has been consistently better this season.

    • June 14th 2018 @ 9:46am
      Pussy said | June 14th 2018 @ 9:46am | ! Report

      Great credit must be given to the best two Collingwood recruits of 2018, assistant coaches Longmuir and Hocking. They have given the much required nouse needed by Buckley. Their backline coach, Longmuir has got the defence playing beautifully and they are so much better around the stoppages and out of the centre bounces thanks to Hocking.

      • Roar Guru

        June 14th 2018 @ 10:37am
        Peter the Scribe said | June 14th 2018 @ 10:37am | ! Report

        Agree the new coaches been great. Will Buddha orchestrate a finals win over the Cats?

      • June 14th 2018 @ 11:01am
        truetigerfan said | June 14th 2018 @ 11:01am | ! Report

        At last someone on here giving credit where it is most warranted regarding Collingwood’s resurgence. That, and losing players like Fa’solo’, Ell’I’ot, the next best thing in Moore and slow old Reid have been a blessing no Pies fans were forecasting. Put all that together with the softest of draws and, yeah, Collingwood are relevant again . . . for the time being.

        • Roar Guru

          June 14th 2018 @ 12:11pm
          Cat said | June 14th 2018 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

          Just like the Tigers, the more the incompetent head coach gets turned into a figure head and allows his assistants, who can actually coach, handle things the better off the sides are.

        • Roar Guru

          June 14th 2018 @ 12:41pm
          Peter the Scribe said | June 14th 2018 @ 12:41pm | ! Report

          From true tiger whe said we’d be bottom four and Bucks sacked this year.

          • June 14th 2018 @ 1:38pm
            truetigerfan said | June 14th 2018 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

            Show me. You’re making crap up to suit your own agenda. Always suggested they’d be middle of the road. And they still might be.

            • June 14th 2018 @ 2:50pm
              Chris said | June 14th 2018 @ 2:50pm | ! Report

              True Tiger Fan we have a meaningful appointment on Saturday 28th July, 2018 with a team that has a yellow stripe which is pitted across a black setting. Now, once that game has been determined we can all speak with some conviction. Prior to that, everything is just pure tribal trivialities. Peter and you should simply grow up! Reading both of your stuff is appalling! This is coming from a true black and white Johnston Street, Abbotsford man who knows his football.

              • June 14th 2018 @ 3:08pm
                truetigerfan said | June 14th 2018 @ 3:08pm | ! Report

                Ouch! I’ll wear that. See you there?

              • June 14th 2018 @ 3:32pm
                Slane said | June 14th 2018 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

                Oh the Tigers get to beat the Pies again this season? Good to hear. Though not sure if the reigning premiers should be getting such easy double-ups.

    • Roar Guru

      June 14th 2018 @ 10:05am
      Wayne said | June 14th 2018 @ 10:05am | ! Report

      June form means very little. Will be curious where the team is at come mid/late August when Finals approach.