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Historical clues to predicting AFL placements in 2020 (Part 2)

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Roar Guru
9th March, 2020
1

Based solely on last year’s placements and 124 years of history, focusing especially on the last quarter-century of eight-team finals – the ‘modern finals’ era – we can make some tenuous and some ironclad predictions on how your favourite team will fare in the 2020 AFL campaign.

In my previous article I examined the top-four finishers from last year’s campaign. Today I’ll continue down the ladder through the rest of the finalists.

5. West Coast Eagles

15-7, 112.5 per cent

Now the odds begin to slip ever so subtly away from the control of the competitors. We said the chances for a team five ‘positions’ away from the cut line – like Collingwood in fourth – were a remarkable 79 per cent towards repeating their finals trip in 2020. For the fifth-placed team, just four ‘positions’ above the cut line, the chances are still 70 per cent over the course of top-level footy history.

But if you narrow that scope down to more recent times, and especially to the 21st century, when the importance of the double chance has made the divide between fourth and fifth so sharp, the forecast for the Eagles isn’t so rosy.

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Nine of the last 19 teams who came up one slot short of the double chance came up short of finals themselves the next season, and you only have to consider the grim fate of the 2018 occupant of this post, the Melbourne Demons, to realise how far the fall could be.

In fact the average finishing place of the last 23 teams to finish fifth on the ladder in the previous season is about tenth. Only twice has a fifth-placed team finished higher on the ladder in the following season. So the historic odds are below 50-50 of even returning to finals.

Even the team most closely matching their resume – Adelaide won titles in 1997 and 1998, winning the latter from fifth place – fell to 13th the next year. Harsh news for a team that seemed a lock for a top-four slot until giving away their home closer against an also-ran Hawks team in Round 23 last season.

The last piece of evidence in this case? The last two times West Coast finished a season in fifth place (1999 and 2012) they fell to 13th the following year.

All other things being equal in 2020
According to this, West Coast have an uphill battle returning to finals this season. Thirteenth place seems bleak for the 2018 premiers, but then their cohabitants can tell them what it feels like to fall from first to 16th from experience. Besides, 13th place has been good luck for some teams the last few years!

Elliot Yeo of the Eagles gives the thumbs up for a goal

(Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

6. Greater Western Sydney Giants

13-9, 115.4 per cent

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The Giants had a weird ending to their 2019 campaign, seemingly entering finals on life support before rattling off three straight wins and then collapsing just short of the finish line in front of the world. Would it have been better to have lost their elimination final in a closer manner instead? Less memorable, certainly, but 16 other teams would have gladly traded places on that last Saturday in September for whatever chance they had against the Tigers.

Squads that finish in positions five to 12 the previous year are almost interchangeable as far as their generic odds of making finals the following season, within spitting distance of 50-50. Fewer teams in slots five and six have returned to finals the following year as have missed out. The list for sixth place reads very much like the one for fifth, except that one fewer team stayed above the water line for the sixth-placed clubs.

However, the Giants are on a four-season streak of making finals, and that bodes well for their chances in 2020. Teams in the 21st century with at least four years in a row in finals are a two-to-one chance of returning the next year as well. West Coast and Geelong can take heart in that bit of good mojo as well – they’re the only three teams with a streak that long coming into the 2020 campaign.

GWS has one other ace up its sleeve too: over the last 14 years the two teams that met on grand final Saturday have returned to the finals the following year at a 25-3 clip, almost 90 per cent. Admittedly, they’re not usually from as low as sixth, and the last team from the single-elimination bracket to make the grand final (2016 premiers Western Bulldogs) failed to return to finals 12 months later. But as we postulated at the beginning of this segment, it’s a problem that sixteen other teams would love to have.

All other things being equal in 2020
GWS has similar prospects as the other teams in this region. Flip a coin. They’ve got some advantages others in this middle third don’t have, but the difficulties are still formidable. Another sixth-place finish might not be frowned upon based on only these factors. But it wouldn’t be celebrated either.

Zac Williams of the Giants celebrates a goal

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

7. Western Bulldogs

12-10. 107.2 per cent

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Since 1908, when ‘finals’ started to mean something vaguely like what we mean by the word – the first decade of the VFL held a strange split-format round robin after the regular round robin that comprised the regular season – the team two spots above the cut line (seventh place today, fifth place in a six-team finals series, third in a four-team finals et cetera) has made finals the next year 55 per cent of the time. That may not sound impressive, but it’s the last position with a better-than-level chance of doing so. From here on down the percentages dip below 50 and never return to sea level.

The last time the Bulldogs finished seventh they famously had more success than they did last year. Back in 2017 the Doggies became the lowest-seeded team ever to earn the AFL premiership. The next season, though, they fell to tenth place. What position awaits them this year?

Over the last few years the results haven’t been particularly dramatic. Most teams have remained within a few slots of that seventh spot. The 2018 Giants moved from seventh to sixth the next year. The 2017 Bombers fell to tenth, as did the premiership-winning Dogs after 2016. In 2015 Adelaide moved up to fifth. In 2014 Essendon fell to 15th. In 2013 Port moved to fifth. In 2012 Fremantle slipped upwards to third, as did Sydney in 2011 (who also won the 2012 title) and the Hawks in 2010. Finally, North Melbourne fell to 13th in 2009.

So in the last six years three teams went up and three teams went down. Over the decade three teams went up as high as third the next season, while the bottom of the chasm seems to be 15th over that time. It’s hard to spot any patterns in there.

Here, therefore, is what I’ll plant my hat on: the Bulldogs ended their AFL season in seventh place four previous times since 1990. In three of the following seasons (2017, 2001 and 1991) they ended in tenth place. In 1996 they finished in 15th instead.

All other things being equal in 2020
Tenth place.

The Bont meets his people

(AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

8. Essendon Bombers

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12-10, 95.4 per cent

As hinted at last segment, from eighth place on the chances are less than even for each of the remaining 11 teams. Teams who barely slipped into finals have a 40.5 per cent chance of repeating that feat the next season, lower than both the ninth and tenth-place finishers behind them. Even smoothing out the funky curve their odds still don’t exceed even.

More damning, however, is that sub-hundred percentage they saddled themselves with in 2019. The last team to make finals without scoring more points than they conceded was the Dons of ten years previous, who finished eighth again in 2009 with a 97.8 per cent and a record of 10-11-1.

How did they do the next season?

They fell to 7-15, a percentage scraping 80, and just two teams separated them from the wooden spoon. North did something similar the previous season – seventh place at 97 per cent – and fell to 13th the next year. In topsy-turvy 2005 three finalists failed to finish above 100 per cent and only one reached the same position in 2006. The other two fell well out of reach of finals.

Ugly.

All other things being equal in 2020
It sure looks like a sub-finals season for a sub-100 per cent finalist like Essendon. The average finishing position of the five most recent examples we looked at was 12th, which sounds as likely as anywhere.

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Read the second instalment of this series tomorrow, when we cover teams that finished ninth to 13th on the 2019 ladder.