Collingwood is spluttering.
These latest performances aren’t just a couple of outliers, but symptoms of a much deeper problem that’s been developing over the course of the last 12 months: the ability to score.
In 2018, there were only three quarters in which Collingwood failed to score a goal: Round 8 (a defeat to Geelong), Round 16 (a victory over Essendon) and Round 20 (a loss to Sydney).
Throughout 2018, Collingwood played a mid-sized forward line where players rotated through full-forward and somebody just about always contributed with a mini-bag.
Jordan de Goey kicked 48 goals for the season, Will Hoskin-Elliott 42, Jaidyn Stephenson 38, Josh Thomas 38, Brody Mihocek 29 and Mason Cox 25 – that’s a handy return from a forward line with, at that time, no real genuinely recognized goalkickers.
Collingwood amassed 2046 points for the home and away season – an average of 93 points per game. In today’s league, that’ll win you most matches.
Come 2019, Collingwood played spasmodic football. They tried to reintroduce Dayne Beams to their midfield, did reintroduce Jamie Elliott as a forward and had to deal with a long-term suspension to Jaidyn Stephenson, a long-term injury to Mason Cox and hamstring issues to Jordan de Goey.
Mihocek kicked 36 goals, de Goey 34, Elliott 26, Stephenson 24, Thomas 22, Hoskin-Elliott 19 and Mason Cox 19.,
As a side, they amassed 1885 points for the home and away season – which averages out to just over 85 points per game. It’s still a good return but does show a decrease in productivity.
But how many goalless quarters?
They produced their first against Melbourne (17th on the ladder) in Round 21. In the qualifying final, Collingwood went not only goalless but scoreless in the last quarter. In their preliminary final just two weeks later, they produced another goalless quarter, kicking three behinds in the third quarter.
As they hit the pointy end of the season, the issues were becoming evident.
Now we’re in 2020, and in two of Collingwood’s four games since the resumption they’ve already produced four goalless quarters – two against Richmond and two now against Essendon. In those four quarters, Collingwood has scored collectively seven behinds.
Currently, they’ve amassed 315 points for the home-and-away season – an average of 63 points per game.
While the shorter game time has to be factored in, as well as a general defensive malaise that’s fallen over the league, anybody who’s watched Collingwood this year could attest to how easily their system breaks down, how quickly they can go from dominant to dominated and how impotent their forward line has looked.
So what’s gone wrong? How did a team that scored with freedom and unpredictability lose its mojo?
Mason Cox has struggled since his 2018 preliminary final heroics, playing cameos. Cox tries and is unfairly judged at times, but there has to be a query on how viable a 211cm forward is. If clubs could convert behemoth talls into gun forwards, then everybody would be doing it.
Historically, the best key forwards are around 190cm: Tony Lockett was 191cm, Jason Dunstall 188cm, Nick Riewoldt 193cm, Lance Franklin 199cm, Jack Riewoldt 193cm, Jeremy Cameron 196cm, etc. These players are tall enough to contest in the air, but still mobile enough to compete when the ball hits the ground.
Cox does well to compete in the air, although he can have games where they just don’t stick. He’s not credited enough for some of his tap-work in contests, guiding the ball to advantage. But for his size, he’s still too easily pushed out of contests or blocked and not quick or agile enough when the ball hits the ground.
With Elliott’s return, the forward mix seems imbalanced, which poses the question of whether Elliott, Stephenson, and de Goey have the synergy to make it work. It looks great on paper. But the reality is that combinations generate chemistry, and this one just hasn’t done it.
Jordan de Goey has been used more in midfield bursts, but this year seems – so far – to lack the power and explosiveness to surprise opposition or to cause them to panic. Jaidyn Stephenson starts brightly but has a tendency to fade – as a young player (and particularly one coming off an extended layoff) that’s likely to happen.
Will Hoskin-Elliott has been played higher afield and struggled. Hoskin-Elliott would seem to be one forward with genuine goal nous and freakishness but doesn’t get a chance to display it because he’s being used in other roles.
Sometimes, this has been out of necessity (filling in for injuries in defence), but other times it seems a conscious choice to try to turn him into a midfielder.
Callum Brown (an inside mid) and Tom Phillips (a winger) have been used at half-forward and have struggled to show any consistency. Brown tries to make things happen whenever he gets the ball, but lacks a forward’s polish and genuine x-factor.
Phillips has failed to show any consistency in this new role. I can’t imagine opposition coaches are dealing with many headaches working out how to stop these two as forwards.
Josh Thomas has increasingly struggled. Thomas is another mid who’s been slotted into the small/medium-sized forward role. In 2018, he would’ve likely slipped under the radar as opposition prioritised the likes of de Goey, Stephenson and Hoskin-Elliott, but has struggled now that he’s got more focus on him.
Ball movement hasn’t helped either. Last year, the team too often grew preoccupied looking for the perfect construction, moving the ball slowly through a series of short, precise possessions, but often stagnating infuriatingly.
By the time they got it into attack, the opposition had produced such congestion that any forward would struggle to operate. Alternatively, the mids went for the chaos ball, bombing it long and hoping for the best.
They’re terrible ways to move the ball.
Collingwood always look at their best when they move the ball quickly and audaciously – a formula that now seems lost. What has happened to the free-wheeling side that surprised so many throughout 2018 and got within a kick of winning a flag?
They have lost their verve, or are playing to a change in the gameplan that has become counter-intuitive and asphyxiating, or have shuffled their soldiers into roles where their output has decreased – or a combination of any or all of those.
Another issue is the lack of a genuine crumber. The likes of de Goey, Stephenson, and Elliott can crumb, but their strength is playing as a lead-up forward. Hoskin-Elliott and Thomas were the two closest to crumbing forwards, although it wasn’t exactly their forte either.
What Collingwood really need is that Leon Davis, Alan Didak, Andrew Krakouer, Paul Medhurst-type who naturally will be front and square, and capitalise on a half-opportunity. The one player I think shows genuine crumbing ability is Steele Sidebottom, and given he’s struggled in the midfield whenever he’s tagged, a shift might be worthwhile when he’s available.
While it’s understandable that some of their forwards are going to mature and evolve into midfielders, their absence has created a vacuum that is now putting pressure on lesser options, as well as pushing those options higher into the opposition’s prioritisation, e.g. de Goey at full-forward will draw the best defender; when de Goey is in the midfield, that best defender now goes to somebody else.
Everybody moves up in the queue.
Collingwood built their 2018 premiership assault on the unpredictability and freedom of their forward line, so until they fix this problem in 2020, they will remain frustratingly inconsistent.