While many may commend Collingwood for their valiant loss to Port Adelaide, I just can’t.
That felt like a game Port always had under control and would’ve won much more comfortably if not for their errant kicking – 9.7 to Collingwood’s uncharacteristically accurate 7.3.
It’s a loss that puts Collingwood in context. They’re a struggling outfit who’ve finished about where they deserve, no higher.
Those who thought the Pies were resurgent coming off the back of two wins against sides Carlton and Gold Coast, who’ve finished outside the eight, were fooling themselves.
While we can blame injuries and fixturing and all sorts of things, the truth is simpler: Collingwood’s system has broken down.
And it’s been broken since the 2018 grand final.
Playing with spirit
Collingwood’s efforts are always spirited. There might be the odd exception here and there – the losses to West Coast and Melbourne – but they obviously play for their coach. They’ve done this consistently for Nathan Buckley during his list build.
The problem is you can’t base your brand on spirited efforts. How long can you maintain manic intensity? We all have our off days, and the opposition can be equally as manic, so what gives you the edge?
That always comes down to strategy – who plays smarter, more cohesively and with a better system. These are three things that have been lacking at Collingwood.
Collingwood love to try extricate themselves from congestion with handballs. This mimics what the Bulldogs did so well in 2016 and what Geelong did in their heyday.
It feels like the instruction is: don’t panic, keep handballing, and find your way clear. But the more pressure Collingwood invite, the more they fall back on another handball. The more they handball, the more pressure they invite. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Then they ultimately butcher a handball, retreat to an unfavourable position, put their target under unnavigable pressure or just boot it blindly to get it out of there.
While the intent might be sound, the execution and outcome aren’t.
Where’s the run?
In his speech at the 2018 Copeland Trophy Buckley suggested part of the reason Collingwood lost the 2018 grand final is that they lost some of their “dare” – their willingness to try and make something happen.
John Noble and Isaac Quaynor are exciting prospects because they’re instigators when they get the ball. They take on opponents, dash madly through the centre and usually try and kick long.
It’s an indictment on this side that two youngers have to create that run.
Where else is it coming from?
The midfielders lack that audacity. Against Port Adelaide Adam Treloar kicked a beautiful goal in the first quarter where he took on several opponents, broke through tackles and snapped truly. Then he was anonymous for the rest of the game, as were the other midfielders, the odd cameo aside.
Down back Jack Crisp has lost that run out of defence. Brayden Maynard seems to be getting dragged too far back. Opposition coaches try to ensure Darcy Moore is decoyed away from forward entries.
So Collingwood rely on slow, safe ball movement that allows opposition to congest and pressure them. As with the handballs, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
The more opposition pressure Collingwood, the safer Collingwood try to become in moving the ball until either they lose it or mount an assault to a packed forward line.
Jordan de Goey barely touched the ball in the first half against Port Adelaide. We know De Goey is an explosive and dangerous forward, but Collingwood’s movement never exploited his strengths and thus he was left with the impossible task of trying to manufacture something from nothing – the same dilemma his predecessors have faced.
In the games De Goey has kicked bags – against Gold Coast and Geelong – he hasn’t succeeded because of the system but because of his own freakish ability. Most of the time he’s making something out of nothing rather than finishing good work, like being able to lead to a surgical entry.
There is something obviously broken in the way Collingwood move the ball forward. Media often connect Collingwood to potential key forward trade targets such as Ben Brown and Tom Lynch before him, but they’re not going to fare any better the way Collingwood brings the ball in.
In 2018 Collingwood were the third-highest scoring team (behind Melbourne and Richmond). In 2019 they dropped to sixth. In 2020 they’ve dropped to 13th and are the only team in the eight who haven’t scored more than 1000 points.
Too often individuals take the brunt of the ire – for example, Mason Cox is accused of not marking it or playing his role – but it’s obvious that the forward set-up isn’t functioning correctly and will asphyxiate its goal kickers.
After Collingwood recruited Dayne Beams the media raved about the quality and depth of the team’s midfield, but right now, just 18 months later, it looks decidedly shallow.
Scott Pendlebury remains the premier midfielder in that side as a 32-year-old with 314 games under his belt. You would hope that by the time a player reaches that point of his career other midfielders would be coming up to succeed him.
As an example, going back to 2003-06, the likes of Nathan Buckley, Scott Burns, Paul Licuria and Shane O’Bree led the midfield. From 2007 onwards the likes of Dane Swan, Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas and Sharrod Wellingham had succeeded them.
We haven’t seen that transition here. The midfielders who’ve come in haven’t progressed to the standard of their predecessors. It means their ageing captain is still their best midfielder.
Some of this might be due to the quality of players coming in. But, in other cases I believe it’s about their role – for example, Adam Treloar is an explosive line-breaking midfielder but Collingwood allow him to get trapped on the inside.
The question becomes a matter of defining roles that’ll maximise a player’s strengths and tat will help them contribute most to the team.
Somebody like Brayden Sier becomes pivotal to that set-up as a first-use midfielder – a big-bodied midfielder who feeds the ball out and allows his teammates to exploit their own unique talents for the benefit of the side.
Going back to that 2007 model, it was a great midfield unit that found another level when Luke Ball arrived in 2010. Ball fought for first use and fed it out to the likes of Pendlebury (who could use his class), Swan (who could use his run) or Thomas (who could use his pace) to construct offensives.
Right now it just feels as if that midfield doesn’t have a genuine structure, there are no defined roles to monopolise each individual’s strengths, they don’t knit together to create a cohesive synergy and they have little relationship with their ruckman.
Collingwood have used 40 players this year yet haven’t tried 2020 draftees Jay Rantall and Trent Bianco. Other youngsters rated once upon a time, such as Matthew Scharenberg and Nathan Murphy, have failed to get a look-in.
The 2020 AFL model where there’s no VFL and the scratch matches are glorified training runs obviously make it hard to groom talent, gauge form and select on worthiness.
Still, I would’ve thought Collingwood might’ve tried their remaining youngsters or experimented laterally rather than persevere with players who’ve been struggling regularly at AFL level.
For a while there Matthew Scharenberg was anointed as that third tall defender, but he’s been leapfrogged. Why not try Scharenberg as a midfielder or even a forward? If they can do it with 2020 draftee Trey Ruscoe, why not with Scharenberg?
Why not give Rantall and Bianco a run in the AFL and expose them to senior football rather than continue to pump games into a player who’s likely not to be there next year or one who has struggled consistently?
While Collingwood experimented to a small extent – for example, with Flynn Appleby as a small forward – they kept going with what they knew even though it provided the same return time and time again.
There is no doubt that injuries, fixturing and a uniquely affected season have impacted Collingwood’s on-field endeavours at times. But they’ll also distract from what’s happening within that group.
In 2018 I saw an audacious Collingwood get within a kick of a flag. They ran, they risked, they created.
Collingwood have lost that audacity, and the problems we’re seeing now we’ve seen before – namely between 2014 and 2017.
Back then we complained about overuse of the ball, about the breakdown in chains, about the disjointedness moving forward and about being exposed on the counterattack.
We’re doing it all over again.
While personnel is always a factor, the root of the problem here is the system.
We see occasional flashes of functionality. Teases.
It’s not enough.
If by now it hasn’t gelled consistently from quarter to quarter, game to game, it’s not going to. We have years of evidence that attests to that.
All that other stuff, like injuries and fixturing, are just smokescreens.
If Collingwood are going to move forward, they need to discover a workable, effective system that is going to consistently hold together.
Because this one isn’t cutting it.