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

The Magpies, with players like Adam Treloar, haven't been found wanting for inside-midfield grit. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
13th June, 2018
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2288 Reads

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)

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.