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Opinion

How the Saints dismantled the Tigers

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Roar Guru
28th June, 2020
12

The Saints knocked off Richmond comfortably in Round 4 in what was a strong team performance overall.

While the reigning champions looked a shadow of their former selves in the early part of the season, they were made to look amateurish by a St Kilda team with a purpose-built plan to withstand pressure and attack.

It isn’t perfect for the Saints – they were demolished by Collingwood in Round 3 due to a lack of pressure higher up the ground, putting their own back line under the pump.

However, breaking down how St Kilda played against Richmond suggests serious hope for a club seeking to get back into finals.

Season 2020, of all years, is open to any team swooping in on the most impressive premiership in recent memory.

All it takes is mental fortitude and team chemistry to flow through.

The Saints look part of the way there, and I’ll break down why.

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Clear focus on half back
While St Kilda’s aerial defence was again tested at times, when the ball was brought to ground, the team looked far more calm and assured overall compared to recent seasons.

Dougal Howard was the big-money recruit and while more can and should be expected of him, particularly aerially given his strengths as a spoiler, his combination with Jake Carlisle is one that will click and showed signs of success against the Tigers.

Carlisle’s marking form has been excellent and while he tends to push the boundaries a little, the 28-year-old has always been better playing slightly higher up the defensive 50 with more freedom in his game.

He only had a handful of possessions but the fact he isn’t fumbly in the air is a great thing for the Saints.

For a number of seasons, St Kilda has had reasonable talent across half back and looked to take direct routes in transition, trying to maximise the ball use of Jimmy Webster and Shane Savage in particular.

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The predictability of this tactic wore thin at various times and was found to be directionless more often than not.

What the club has done so far this season, and certainly against Richmond, has been a far better display of mental acuity and composure.

Brad Hill’s position off half back is different to what we’ve seen of him throughout his career, but it works for a St Kilda team working hard with their running.

Bradley Hill

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The Saints have far better users, but Hill’s running capacity and sheer want to create one-two flurries through the midfield allows St Kilda to flick a switch they’ve been too hesitant to use in the past.

He carved up an oft-stagnant Richmond team with his powerful running and even found himself in the goal square by himself with Josh Caddy barely in frame, akin to a child chasing his older brother to no avail.

With Hill patrolling a back flank nearly to himself, it allowed the young trio of Hunter Clark, Ben Paton and Nick Coffield to focus on the other side of the ground to maximise their exploits.

It wasn’t Paton’s best offensive game of the season, perhaps slightly more defensively charged than the first couple of weeks since the restart, but with him holding up his end of the bargain, it allowed Nick Coffield to push slightly higher up the wing and restrict the influence of Kane Lambert and Josh Caddy across half forward.

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With Callum Wilkie perhaps the most consistent defensive presence on the team, with a no-nonsense approach defensively and possessing the league’s best kick to find teammates, it allows the rebounding line to focus their attention a little more offensively and higher up the ground.

The tactic can fall over when a team with great pace and willingness to roll forward, or elite possession, gets going, as the Magpies did previously and as Richmond were able to do in spurts.

A higher defensive line requires greater accountability by the deeper defenders without the rolling coverage that may otherwise be there, and the Saints haven’t shown consistency in that area yet.

But for the most part, against Richmond, it worked to have Hill controlling one side to himself with his younger teammates sharing the load on the opposite flank, with everyone fulfilling the requirements of their respective roles.

Greater running capacity
The reason why St Kilda are able to take a few less risks and operate a style that isn’t a kamikaze transition with long kicks out of the back line at all times is due to the work rate of their players higher up the ground, offering greater support on the defensive side of the wing.

Jack Billings’ work rate on the wing, particularly in the second half, assisted in releasing the pressure in possession for Nick Coffield and Ben Paton in particular in that section of the field.

Often we see young players blast the ball forward aimlessly under pressure, resulting in repeat entries and commencing the vicious cycle of needing to withstand sustained attacks resulting in scores conceded.

However in the last quarter and a half, the Saints bossed the game, controlling the match so that Richmond never truly looked like getting back into a winning position.

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Billings was excellent in the gut-running department, while Jack Steele got heavily involved in the last quarter in spreading wider from the contest in order to stretch the field and control possession.

Jack Billings

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The inclusion of Josh Battle, who has re-commenced the vague markings of a utility player, showed greater fitness and footballing nuance.

In the final stanza, Battle was re-positioned to the defensive side of the ground, and was able to play around 70 metres from the defensive goal to be a part of the controlling of the left side.

Ben Long is a gem
In the first round of the season, Long showed great potential in his new found role in the back line, with 14 disposals and 11 contested possessions in a back pocket.

However the game against Richmond was the most impressive overall showing Long has produced, highlighting just how talented he is.

Further to the earlier point about a defined defensive structure, Long was able to patrol the defensive side of the centre square, rather than playing so deep and needing to worry about accountability as he has previously.

All of Long’s 18 possessions were in the defensive half of the field, but only four were in the defensive 50, with his job requiring him to apply strong pressure higher up the ground and try and stop Richmond’s run at its source.

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It worked.

Long finished with nine contested possessions, eight intercept possessions and seven tackles.

His attack on the ball was ferocious when the opportunity was there for it to be won, and he was able to assist with counter-attacking through extraction of the ball.

We already know that Long is an extremely talented player, and some weeks, the Saints will choose to use his skills in a more outside role to assist with attacking transition.

But this position, almost liked a contested midfielder in the back half, stifled Richmond’s class and creativity and added another layer to the mix that St Kilda haven’t had in the past, and one they should use more often.

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The Saints no longer need to sit back and wait for the opposition, with Long able to adapt to any situation.

And while it may not always work, the aggressive approach in all areas of the ground means St Kilda are here to play.

Constantly rotating forward line
When it all clicks for the Saints, the forward line looks like a gem atop an impressively built crown that will be a dangerous team to play against.

Against Richmond, the Saints were moving pieces around like crazy, not allowing the Tigers to revert back to defensive stability when all else fails.

Only Max King was playing as a stay-at-home forward for long periods, and even then in the final quarter King was up the ground, pushing the defensive half just to help out.

Max King of the Saints celebrates a goal

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Richmond paid the ultimate respect by sending David Astbury to their young star, which freed up everyone else.

Tim Membrey played a good match, kicking three goals, but as per usual, it’s his running power to push high up the ground and take marks on the forward flanks that created space for the Saints.

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Jack Lonie must be seen as an underrated player across the competition, no longer confined to the role of pure small forward, while the late inclusion of Dean Kent provided a score bonus and another player happy to get moving.

Of course, most impressive was Dan Butler, putting his former club to the sword with the ease that has made him St Kilda’s best player in the opening month of the season.

Having shown shades in Richmond’s VFL team in 2019, Butler’s energy, pace and smarts allows him to play as a high half forward, running back to goal and often, scoring himself.

Like Lonie, Butler has broken the shackles of a former crumber’s tag.

On exposed form, Butler is in All Australian contention thanks to his ability to take the forward half of the wing, where Coffield, Long and Clark take the back half, with Billings patrolling through.

Winning the Ian Stewart Medal was a justified and impressive accolade to add to his CV.

The selection of Jonathon Marsh worked this time for the Saints, but for team balance there should only be space for either him or Paddy Ryder.

But for a clash against a Richmond team known for their ability to peel off and work as a defensive machine, Marsh’s athleticism and learnings as a defender allowed him to help limit the impact of Dylan Grimes at various times, which therefore didn’t allow Nick Vlastuin to roam the back 50.

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The operation to stop Dusty was a success
With eight Brownlow votes in his past four matches against the Saints, it was clear that a lot of time needed to be put in to stopping Dustin Martin.

What Richmond expected was a hard tag from Jack Steele, with the Tigers’ midfielders able to block and manoeuvre a previously malleable St Kilda midfield to give space to their star.

In the minds of the Tigers, when they rested him forward, he would be too strong for any of Carlisle, Wilkie or Howard.

When Seb Ross was tasked with the role, it left Steele open to tackle hard and impose a physical preference against the rest of the Tigers’ midfield that usually assists Martin so well.

Dustin Martin

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Ross did a fine job restricting Martin when he was in the midfield.

This was a great spot for St Kilda’s two-time best and fairest winner, as his role as the number one midfielder isn’t particularly damaging given his average ball use.

Ultimately, the Tigers had to adjust on the run, and it made for high disposals for their midfielders, without the damage caused of yesteryear.

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Richmond focused on clearance work, while St Kilda went defensive at the contest, and decided to focus on width.

They were able to cover the loss of the incredible Zak Jones by adjusting and spreading further to the wings, without their explosive midfielder.

When the Tigers threw Martin forward, he was ineffective and found very little space.

St Kilda might have given a couple of players specific roles to shut down the dual Brownlow Medallist, but the team defence ultimately shut down both Martin and the entire Richmond team.

Is it sustainable?
It’s one game against an out-of-sorts team, and the other stunning performance was against a disappointing Bulldogs team.

The loss to Collingwood was unsurprising and it won’t be the last time the Saints are beaten as the team’s chemistry continues to improve.

But the Saints are playing a style of footy that’s built to win.

It’s slightly more on the aggressive side without the aimless forward play that has come with almost a metronomic regularity over the past two or three seasons.

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It isn’t perfect, and as stated earlier, it can be exploited by a certain type of team.

Yet there’s something enjoyable about this St Kilda team that will only get better.

Fans of the club have experienced a roller coaster ride for a long time, and 2020 has certainly had an element of that thus far.

Finding consistency in the way the Saints were able to dismantle Richmond is the key, and if it’s found, the competition needs to look out.