This year, more so than in any of the past five, the outcomes of the first seven weeks of football have been impacted by who has played who.
That’s always been the case, but this year, more than any since this column has been running, the fixture is playing funny buggers with what we’re seeing on the ladder. My Pythagorean wins and strength-of-schedule calculations are delivering some notable findings across the league, which have implications for what’s to come in the second part of the season.
For instance, Geelong is somehow performing better than you may think. Despite sitting on top of the ladder with a 6-1 record, Geelong’s true percentage adjusted for their opponents is 153.7 per cent, compared to an actual percentage of 148.4 per cent. That’s due in part to their fixture to date, which looked nightmarish coming into the season and hasn’t disappointed.
The Cats have played the fifth most challenging slate of games through the first seven rounds, with an average opponent difficulty of 2.8 points greater than a hypothetically even fixture. That they’ve skated through it with one loss to a fellow premiership contender in the GWS Giants means their season is set.
Want to hear something scary? Geelong still have to play North Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs and Sydney twice and Gold Coast and Carlton once. Right now, are they losing any of those games? Probably not. Hypothetically that takes the Cats to 14-1 with seven games against Richmond, Port Adelaide, Adelaide, St Kilda, Hawthorn, Fremantle and Brisbane to come.
Even if, at worst, Geelong were to drop four of those, they would end the year with a 17-5 record which, given their one-win buffer and very strong percentage, will almost certainly lock up top spot. I’m no financial advisor, but I’m just saying that if you’re that way inclined, you can lock in a 50 per cent return on investment (assuming no holding costs) betting the Cats for the minor premiership at most outlets.
They aren’t the only team whose first seven games aren’t exactly what they seem.
The West Coast Eagles, the second worst reigning premier in AFL history according to an analysis on the AFL Reddit page, have been pummelled by the vagaries of the fixture. The Eagles have played far and away the toughest fixture in the competition through seven rounds, with an average opponent difficulty of 10.8 points above the hypothetical even fixture.
Indeed six of West Coast’s first seven opponents are in the top seven. Yes, the Eagles have played six of the current top seven in their first seven games.
As a result West Coast’s true percentage adjusted for opponent strength sits at 108.2 per cent, against an actual percentage of 93.7 per cent. That’s a fixture penalty worth a fairly stunning 1.1 wins through seven games. However, it is important to note West Coast’s shoddy play has all but wiped away that win deficit, with the Eagles’ schedule-adjusted Pythagorean wins sitting at 4.1 wins, or 0.1 more than their actual tally. The takeaway: West Coast’s fixture has been tough, but their play hasn’t helped the situation.
It does get a little better for the Eagles going forward. West Coast is still to play Melbourne twice and Sydney, North Melbourne and Carlton once. Even though the reigning premier has looked disjointed and lackadaisical all season, you’d be feeling unkind if you didn’t think they’d start sizeable favourites in those five games. From there West Coast’s finals hopes hinge on how they go against their middle-class peers, with two games against each of Hawthorn and Adelaide likely to go a long way to determining whether the Eagles make the eight.
The other teams who’ve played difficult slates include Collingwood (4.8 points per week), Essendon (4.2) and North Melbourne. At the other end of the spectrum we have Carlton, Port Adelaide and Brisbane, who’ve each had a schedule worth an extra five points or more per week to their bottom lines.
Unfortunately for the Blues, who’ve gone 1-6 over that period, the calmness of the first seven weeks is about to give way to a significant storm leading into the bye. Carlton play Collingwood, GWS, St Kilda and Essendon through to Round 11, the most difficult four-week stretch in the league from now to then.
Their fellow cellar dweller Sydney also faces a tough run to the halfway point. The Swans have Essendon, North Melbourne, Collingwood and GWS to take them to 11 games, with the game against the Roos coming in Tasmania. Sydney’s fixture has been broadly neutral through seven games, although they have underperformed it by around about a win. While competition around the middle of the ladder looks as tight as it did last season, it’s possible a gulf is about to open between the bottom rung and those still in the finals hunt.
One team that has spent time down around those levels in recent years, the Fremantle Dockers, might be the most surprising riser of the season to date. At 4-3, the Dockers have the league’s second most miserly defence and are conceding just 1.34 points per minute of opposition possession (ranked No. 1 and 17 per cent better than average). They’ve also underperformed their Pythagorean win total by around 0.7 wins, and that’s despite their fixture penalising by 0.2 wins.
All told, it suggests Fremantle might be a 5-2 team, not a 4-3 team, and jostling with Collingwood, GWS and Brisbane for a spot in the top four. As it is, they’re not too far behind them anyway. They’ve got there by winning the games they should have lost and losing the games they should’ve won in the main.
By contrast, there’s a handful of teams running well ahead of their underlying performances. These include the Brisbane Lions (3.6 Pythagorean wins versus five actual wins), Gold Coast Suns (1.8 versus three), and – yep – the Richmond Tigers (2.9 versus four).
On a schedule-adjusted basis, Richmond rates as the 13th-best team in the competition through seven rounds – stunning at face value, but when you consider the team’s injuries it’s not completely out of the question. They’re at the bottom of a pack of five teams with schedule-adjusted percentages in the 90s, including Port Adelaide, Hawthorn, St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs. On that basis it’s not completely mad, is it?
With all that in mind, the takeaway for me is there is only one team we can trust through seven rounds: Geelong. The Cats looked great coming out of the gate, and as I said in the comments on my piece talking about Geelong earlier in the year, the last four April premiers have turned out to be the September premiers.
Will that hold as we head towards the bye? Given their fixture, you can count on it.