In 2019 the AFL saw an unpredecented phenomenon. After only a single coaching sacking in the previous two seasons, four coaches left their clubs mid-year, three replaced by caretakers who would eventually be promoted to the ongoing position.
Rhyce Shaw was the first, stepping into North Melbourne’s hot seat after Brad Scott resigned his position, but was joined in less than a fortnight by David Teague, replacing a sacked Brendon Bolton.
Both had the chance to coach roughly half a season, while the third, Brett Ratten, led St Kilda for only the last six games of the year, after Alan Richardson resigned in July.
The AFL had not seen a caretaker coach receive a permanent promotion in nearly ten years, and so it is potentially paradigm-altering that not one, not two, but three found their way into the top job.
How did their sides change when they took over? What did they have in common, and what set them apart? Will they prove the beginning of a new trend, or just a weird outlier?
Some of this will only become clear with time, but we know enough to take an early look.
The caretaker effect
When a coach sacking occurs mid-season, rather than at the end of the year, it’s usually a sign that the situation at the club has become so toxic or untenable that it simply cannot be allowed to go on.
Once the ugly business of axing is done, a mood of refreshment quickly sweeps through, and on-field form tends to enjoy a rapid spike in improvement.
Take 2019. Shaw, Teague and Ratten all enjoyed wins in their first games as caretakers, all three coming as upset victories against sides above their own on the ladder.
To land the ongoing role these three must have done something right, and they all delivered improved form in the time they led their respective clubs.
Shaw enjoyed the biggest uptick, improving North’s average result by not that far short of four goals under his tutelage, while Teague enjoyed an improvement of a little over three goals, and Ratten a little over two.
How did they achieve this? There are two clear statistical trends that occurred across the board.
The first is improved defence. Every club wants to do well in this area of the game, but if the players and the senior coach aren’t on the same level then on-field performance tends to suffer.
At the time of their respective coach exits, all three of North, Carlton and St Kilda were below-average sides for tackling pressure. But in the matches they played under caretakers, they all jumped past the AFL average.
This has a noticeable and valuable flow-on effect. All three sides found that their increased defensive pressure was forcing their opponents to turn the ball over more often, giving them back possesion more often.
That marries well with the other trend of note – better ball movement. North, Carlton and St Kilda all found that under their respective caretakers, their ability to retain possesion and use the ball effectively improved.
Each club improved the directness of their ball movement – increasing the number of metres gained per disposal – while giving themselves more time to make the right ball-use decision, decreasing their disposals per minute.
Neither of those stats are particulary interesting in isolation, but what it all adds up to is a significant improvement across the board in the possession battle.
Carlton went from a side giving up eight and a half minutes of possession to their opponents – the worst in the league – to one only two minutes adrift on average. St Kilda jumped from -3.7 to +2.3.
North Melbourne rose higher than either of them, transforming from a -0.75 average to become the league’s best possession side in the second half of the year, averaging five more minutes with ball in hand than their opposition under Shaw.
This package of effects is roughly uniform across all three caretakers and feels like the natural outcome of sacking a coach mid-season and so loosening the leash on the playing group. You could reasonably call it the new coach bounce, or the caretaker effect.
What separates our trio of caretakers – and what may well come to define which of them go on to success, and which don’t – are the decisions of direction where they differed, and will go on to carve out unique paths for themselves and their clubs.
One of the most fundamental decisions belong to a senior coach is how to select the 22 from week to week, and a mid-season change in coach often leads to a mid-season change in fortune for at least a small handful of players.
When their coach sackings occurred, Carlton and North found themselves a fair distance from the AFL’s average on-field age – but in different directions.
The Blues were one of the youngest sides in the comp, not that far from a full year under the average on-field age, while North Melbourne were more than half a year over it.
Both of these sides corrected heavily to come back towards the mean – that is to say, the Blues began selecting older, and the Roos started selecting younger.
Both still finished the year on the same side of the average they started on, but were much closer to it by the end, showing clear shifts in selection policy, albeit in differing directions.
St Kilda’s move was less pronounced. Already one of the league’s youngest sides on-field, they got slightly younger under Ratten, but not by an especially significant margin.
Perhaps more telling for Ratten’s Saints, instead, was the shift in centre-clearance winners.
While stats telling us who coaches are putting at the centre clearances aren’t easily available, we can make an educated guess based on which players wind up winning them most often.
Under Richardson, the Saints won about 69 per cent of their clearances through prime-age players (age 23-27), and the rest mostly through youth, with almost no veteran presence to speak of at the centre bounces.
Ratten, while still keeping young players in the team, put even more of the ball-winning load on his mature players, with prime-agers winning 87 per cent of the club’s centre clearances under his leadership.
An even more dramatic change was seen at Carlton. Under Bolton, Carlton had been the AFL’s No.1 club for percentage of centre clearances won by young players. But under Teague, the Blues moved heavily to favour putting their veterans at the centre bounce.
In the second half of the year, Carlton were again No.1 in the league – but this time for the percentage of their centre clearances won by players 28 and over; a complete and total change of tack.
North were the only side who trended younger in this stat – upping the centre-clearance percentage of their youth from 11 to 30.
The caretaker coaches also differed noticeably in another fundamental decision not just for footy, but any sport – whether to favour defence or attack.
In ten rounds under Scott, the Kangaroos were the worst defensive team in the competition. They were conceding 1.78 points per minute of opposition possession, the worst of any side in the league to that point in the season.
Perhaps it was no coincidence then that North’s powers that be selected Shaw, the club’s defence coach and of course a successul defender himself, to hold the caretaker role.
If that was indeed Shaw’s direction then he delivered on it superbly, bringing North back to a better-than-average 1.54 points conceded per minute.
Where the needle didn’t move was in attack – the Roos were an almost perfectly average offensive side both before and after Scott’s departure.
Big improvement here was instead seen from Teague, not coincidentally Carlton’s forwards coach, who took the Blues from a bottom-two offence at 1.41 points per minute to an above-average 1.58, while also achieiving a small improvement in their defensive work.
Something more perplexing occurred in the case of Ratten. His St Kilda was a more effective team on the attack, but actually suffered a noticeable back-slide in defence, becoming one of the league’s worst defensive sides during an admittedly short period of time at the end of the year.
What comes next?
When charged with the role of caretaker coach Rhyce Shaw, David Teague and Brett Ratten followed the script perfectly, and delivered exactly what clubs expect a caretaker coach to do.
They brought a change of wind to their clubs which refreshed the playing groups and saw them lift their efforts on-field, improving their team defence and ball use across the board.
Shaw and Teague in particular wound their sides back in from some extreme positions. Shaw inherited a North Melbourne that was old and struggling in defence, and brought them back towards the league average in both respects. Teague did the same but in a different direction for a Carlton side that was much too young, and lacklustre in attack.
Ratten’s impact on his side’s gameplan had less clarity – but, perhaps this shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, given he came into the role much later in the season than his caretaker colleagues.
Being a caretaker is one thing, but steering the direction of a club for the longterm is quite another. All three face challenges both unique and simillar.
Shaw made North a side that could dominate possession but is yet to turn them into an offensive or defensive powerhouse. Which direction will he go in, and how successul will he be? He’s a defender by trade and presumably by mindset, but his list isn’t necessarily built to be a backline of kings.
Ratten’s moves at the centre clearances – if not his choices at selection – showed a desire for his side to mature, and the Saints’ busy offseason will provide him with the cattle to do just that.
Can Ratten succcesfully adopt five rival players into the side while also building a coherent and effective brand of football? It’s an almighty task, but the potential rewards are in line with the size of the challenge.
Teague’s move to push veterans back into prominent roles proved a masterstroke that won him a senior coaching job out of left field, but the passage of time alone will prevent it from being Carlton’s long term solution.
Can he do what Bolton couldn’t and find the right balance of young and old that allows the Blues not only to be competitive now, but prepares them to rise up the ladder in eyears to come? He’s received a nice blend of mature and youth talent with which to engineer it.
Shaw – the only one of the trio to trend significantly towards youth – also received the least in the way of new playing stocks, with North instead opting to invest ahead of time in 2020 draft assets.
He probably enters 2020 under the least expectation of immediate performance, ironically despite possessing the oldest list of the three.
The trio will all have to find ways to navigate the end of the honeymoon. What was a fresh breath of air will eventually grow stale, and that’s when their worthiness as senior coaches will truly be tested.
History suggests that success for all three is an unlikely outcome. But, they have a chance now to write that history – and the decisions they make will shape not just their own prospects, but those also of the AFL’s caretaker coaches to come.