Next week’s numbers game will show the competition is a race in three, or four, or at most five, as we hit the half way mark.
One of the top-line units is Collingwood. Just not the Collingwood we thought we would see coming into the year.
The Pies had a near-euphoric experience last September. One assumes like a near-death experience, it has changed them. Or, more specifically, and far less dramatically, it has changed the way they play their football.
Ten rounds into the year, Collingwood sits a clear second on the AFL ladder, with eight wins and the third best percentage in the competition. As it stands they’re outrunning the maths a little, but still sit a more-than-comfortable 1.6 Pythagorean wins ahead of the West Coast Eagles in fifth place. A top four spot is theirs for the taking with 12 games to go, and you would be brave to be against it.
There is no shame in the club’s two losses, either. Geelong is the best team in it, and West Coast played their game of the season (in this column’s opinion) in Round 3 – albeit that was at the MCG, where you may have expected the Pies to play with a chip on their collective shoulder.
The tally itself isn’t what’s interesting. Coming into the year an 8-2 record at this point of the season was arguably the expectation of most of the punditry, and most of the models. It had been four long seasons since this column warned about the rise of the Pies as a competition-slaying juggernaut, and after adding some critical pieces last offseason there was no way Collingwood was going to shrink in its own disappointment.
Something which has become clear these first three months of the season is Nathan Buckley has completely renovated Collingwood’s game plan. They are a different team to last year, playing a style of football that allows them to take games by the collar and bend them to their own will.
Last year’s Pies were a force of nature, of tackling pressure and a will to move the ball forward with their hands. This year, the balance of their ball movement portfolio has shifted more towards careful and considered possessions, and an intent to control the pace of play.
Through ten rounds of 2019, Collingwood has taken an average of 93.5 uncontested marks per game, ranked second in the league behind the GWS Giants. That’s up from 80.8 per game last year, which pegged the Pies seventh in the competition. In line with that, Collingwood’s uncontested mark differential has turned markedly, from -5.5 per game to a hefty +14.5 per game.
In turn, the Pies’ turnover rate has plummeted to a turnover for every 6.02 disposals, from 5.45 last season. They’re doing it by kicking more and using the full width – and length – of the ground when they play.
Collingwood’s kick to handball ratio is up from 1.17 to 1.37. But what’s interesting about that is where it places Collingwood relative to the rest of the league: in both 2018 and 2019, Collingwood’s kick to handball ratio is below league average.
We are surely another middling round away from another bout of state-of-the-game talk. There’s reason to believe what we’re seeing – another slight dip in scoring, more conservative ball movement, and a big share of games where a good 10-minute patch is enough for win – is merely a product of how many teams are going about their football.
There is more kicking, more working into territory and space, and from a defensive point of view a desire to set up to create turnovers. The league at large has evolved, quickly, into a meta-game where setting up to counter a turnover has become the dominant strategy. Hence, teams are acting conservatively as a default position, and looking to attack in bursts.
Kicking is up, substantially. Marking is up, although not as much. The correlation between time of possession and game margins is up, although again the difference is marginal.
In a league where conservatism is the new black, teams with the ability to turn on their afterburners when given the chance are set up for success. Which is where the Pies are – and in all likelihood will continue to – make their mark in 2019.
Collingwood is the third highest scoring team in the league through ten rounds, scoring around two goals more per game than you would expect given their slate of opponents. They’re behind only GWS (+15.3 points per game) and Geelong (+20.1).
Of those teams, the Pies arguably have the most potent forward line, and the one which is the most challenging to plan for as an opposition analyst. That’ll stand Collingwood in good stead as we move into the second half of the season, and beyond.
What’s more, Collingwood’s defence looks far more settled than towards the back end of last year when injuries saw it change week to week. A significant reason for that is because the ball is entering the Collingwood defensive 50 just 48 times a game, the lowest mark in the league.
The Pies have changed things up, and so far it’s working well. Collingwood isn’t exactly the team we thought they’d be coming into 2019. The manic pressure is still there, but it’s not the critical success factor.
The stoppage prowess and perfectly timed moves through the midfield are still there, but they aren’t the team’s only avenue to scoring. Collingwood isn’t the team we thought they’d be, they’re more rounded, and better.
They, along with Geelong and the GWS Giants, have separated themselves from the rest of the chasing pack as we reach the half way point of the season. Just how far ahead are this trio? We’ll find out in next week’s Numbers Game.