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A team of 2020's most under-appreciated players

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Roar Guru
25th September, 2020
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1900 Reads

With plenty of focus on this week’s All Australian team announcement, it feels appropriate to focus on those other players who have enjoyed a successful 2020.

Having unashamedly watched almost every game of 2020, putting together a team of those players who fly under the radar is an enjoyable and difficult task.

There have been plenty of predictions and squads prepared throughout the season, heaping praise and putting a lot of attention on stars of the competition that will likely receive individual awards.

And while this team may feature a couple of players who should definitely be in contention for the All Australian team, it’s quite the opposite to those who receive recognition and fanfare.

In fact, if anything, the below team features a majority of players that opposition fans wouldn’t have followed or understand just how good they’ve been.

Perhaps that’s the loose criteria applied to the players who have qualified.

All must have had excellent seasons in 2020 and have not been social media darlings for whatever reason, nor pumped up in forums or by AFL journalists in articles.

Dustin Martin of the Tigers and Nat Fyfe of the Dockers compete for the ball

(Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media/Getty Images)

While the All Australian team is a mismatch of perceived star performers picked based on reputation and statistics, the below is the sort of team that teammates and coaches would love – the ultimate team players that would be rated highly in a best-and-fairest award.

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Therefore the below is the under-appreciated team of 2020. It is a team that would work beautifully as a team rather than a collection of individual stars.

Full back line

Callum Wilkie (St Kilda)
Wilkie is one of the league’s best third-tall defenders. An unassuming and quiet sort of player, the 24-year-old is perhaps St Kilda’s most accountable defender, whether he’s spending time on talls or smalls, and finished the home-and-away season rated above average for spoils and elite for one-on-one contest losses.

The second-year defender is also rated as one of the league’s best kicks, averaging nine kicks per game at an incredible 85 per cent disposal efficiency, providing a reliable rebounding option that St Kilda has utilised during transitional play in 2020, averaging four rebound 50s per game. The Saints would not have made finals without Wilkie’s efforts, and he more than earns he spot in this team.

Liam Jones (Carlton)
Statistically, Liam Jones was the best key defender in the league. While Jacob Weitering is a good player, it’s his veteran partner in crime who was ranked best in the league in defensive one-on-one contests, spoils and third for intercept marks.

The 29-year-old has continued his career renaissance, proving to be a vital cog in the Carlton defensive machine that has been rock solid against the competition’s best key forwards more often than not forcing the opposition to target the like of Lachie Plowman and Sam Docherty when isolated in defence.

Jones played every match for the first time in his career, averaging eight disposals, four marks, six intercepts and ten one-per-centers per game.

Adam Saad (Essendon)
Not enough credit is given to Adam Saad for his defensive work, with his trademark dash off half back taking all the attention. Since moving to Essendon, Saad’s defensive rating has ranked highly out of all small defenders in the league, and while his accountability in 2020 may have lessened thanks to the presence of Mason Redman and Martin Gleeson, Saad’s numbers are still well above average.

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North Melbourne’s Jack Ziebell chases Essendon’s Adam Saad

(Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Despite the shorter games and lower time-on-ground percentage than last season, Saad posted career-high averages in disposals (19), one-per-centers (3.6) and metres gained (404.8). The 26-year-old also rated elite for rebound 50s and score involvements, proving to be a shining light alongside Jordan Ridley in an otherwise dismal season for the Bombers.

Half back line

Nick Coffield (St Kilda)
Nick Coffield was the breakout star of 2020. He has somehow avoided any and all attention from those outside St Kilda. Given the lack of midfield minutes, he isn’t as popular as teammate Hunter Clark – the two will always be connected given they were taken in consecutive picks by St Kilda in 2017 – but the 20-year-old was a picture of consistency and reliability as the team’s chief interceptor on the half back line.

Coffield was rated elite for his aerial work, averaging six marks and two intercept marks per game, while rating above average in spoils, kicking efficiency and score involvements off half back. After just three seasons and at 20 years of age, Coffield has established himself as a key to St Kilda’s fortunes, and will be a player to look out for during the 2020 finals and in the coming seasons.

Brennan Cox (Fremantle)
Justin Longmuir took over a team missing their three best key defenders for most of the season, knowing he had to set up strongly from the back as that was Fremantle’s best way of showing great improvement this season. Once Griffin Logue went down and the Dockers played a game with no key defenders, the opportunity was given to Cox, who took the ball and ran with it extremely well.

Having struggled his way through the forward line, Cox was very impressive throughout 2020 in defence, with his strength in one-on-one contests being a key feature as the only actual key defender for Fremantle. It seemed a natural fit for the utility, who averaged an impressive six intercepts and six spoils in the game, pushing into the top ten in the league in that category.

Going forward, whether Cox looks for an opportunity at a different club to stay in defence or swings back into attack for the Dockers, the 22-year-old has increased his value and deserves recognition for his efforts, beating out the likes of Sam Collins, Jordan Roughead and Tom Barrass into this team.

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Callum Mills (Sydney)
Much like with his teammate Isaac Heeney, the constant question about when Mills will become a full-time midfielder continues to be a key narrative for the Swans and their fans. And much like Heeney, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Mills doesn’t necessarily have to play in the centre full-time, such is his value across half back.

Sure, the third pick in the 2015 national draft performed strongly in his bursts in the centre this season, but his defensive ability and strength in the contest improved out of sight in 2020. Mills’ defensive responsibilities were increased this season with the issues at the Swans, and ended ranking above average for contest losses. He rated elite for tackles and intercept possessions (ranked eighth in the league), rated above average for disposals, efficiency, metres gained and marks, while still having time to push forward and average a couple of score involvements per game.

The 2020 season was an impressive season for Mills on multiple fronts, and he is still only 23 years of age.

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Centre line

Sam Walsh (Carlton)
There isn’t a heap left to say about Walsh that I didn’t already say in the piece I put together a month ago, except to say that in the period of matches since then, the 20-year-old produced even better footy.

Overall, Walsh was Carlton’s best midfielder for 2020, capping it off with 31 disposals, 22 contested possessions and six clearances against the mighty Lions. One of the hardest workers in the game, Walsh was above average in almost every key midfield category.

Sam Walsh runs with the ball

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Jarryd Lyons (Brisbane)
Jarryd Lyons should have, at the very least, been in the conversation for a starting spot in the 2020 All Australian team, rather than simply this fictitious line-up of underrated achievers. By now, it should be universally accepted that Lyons is a very good AFL-level midfielder who has made it work at his third club. An admirable quality of Brisbane’s midfield group is the two-way work that each player is able to produce, which is something Lyons has brought in abundance.

Rating elite for pressure acts, tackles inside 50, intercept possessions and score launches among countless other categories, Lyons’ positioning on the AFL field has played a huge role in Brisbane’s ability to control one half of the ground. Always known as a renowned tackler, the fact Lyons has continued to add attacking nuance to his game to assist with forward thrusts has added another dimension to an incredibly strong team.

Lachie Neale will win the Brownlow and deserves all the plaudits he’s receiving, but expect Lyons to poll well for a top 20 finish and continue to match, if not beat, his teammate for consistency as we approach finals.

Jarrod Berry (Brisbane)
An injury suffered in Round 16 against the Suns has put a little bit of a negative spin on Berry’s statistical output this season, with the numbers slightly underplaying his true performance throughout 2020. For a player that is naturally suited to a contested style, and the numbers appropriately reflect a contested possession rate of 45 per cent, Berry lines up on a wing and the outskirts of stoppage situations more often than not, and has become really good at it.

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The future skipper of the Lions, Berry has the same two-way ability that Lyons has, and uses it even better in contested situations given his height. Averaging 1.3 spoils a game as a midfielder almost acts as a pseudo-intercept statistic given the way in which he nullifies aerial contests on the wing. Breaking even defensively is all that Berry needs to do given his tackling and extraction ability, but perhaps most exciting was his attitude on the offensive side, where he averaged over one shot at goal per game as well as finishing with 15 tackles inside 50 for the season. That is rated elite for a midfielder.

Half forward line

Liam Ryan (West Coast)
Ryan features here ahead of Dan Butler, who seems a more likely addition. Liam Ryan is a remarkable player for the Eagles who proved to be their best forward this season.

Liam Ryan celebrates after winning

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

His final five matches of 2020 in particular are indicative of an incredibly talented player with the sort of multi-pronged threat offensively that can make him a star of the competition. What he lacks in tackling he makes up for in aerial assertiveness and classy entry inside 50, averaging an elite two marks inside 50 per game and six score involvements, kicking 25.16 in the process.

Jack Gunston (Hawthorn)
Jack Gunston finished equal third in the Coleman Medal. Having watched every Hawthorn game this season, seeing his name that high on the leader board was a shock, but a testament to Gunston’s overall ability in a malfunctioning Hawthorn team.

The 28-year-old has been swung around a lot in recent seasons and is likely held to an impossibly high standard by AFL fans due to his previous output, but his 2020 season was excellent. In 16 games, Gunston averaged 12 disposals, four marks, two inside 50s, ten pressure acts and kicked 31 goals. He rated elite for metres gained, ground ball gets, score involvements and above average for tackles inside 50. He is a star.

Zak Butters (Port Adelaide)
Butters took the big step forward out of Port Adelaide’s recent draftees, and he has had a big impact on where the Power have finished this season. Averaging 15 disposals, three tackles and three marks a game, it’s what Butters does with the ball rather than a statistical burst that has cemented a breakout season.

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Ranked fifth in the AFL for goal assists while kicking 11 goals in 15 games himself, Butters perfected the role of being a conduit between a bustling Port Adelaide midfield that loves to get the ball forward – at times aimlessly – and a forward line hungry for decent service. What often goes unnoticed is Butters’ work rate and his cleanliness below his knees, often swooping on a loose ball in the defensive half and saving the Power from a potential opposition score.

Full forward line

Mitch Wallis (Western Bulldogs)
Even after kicking 20 goals in 2018, no one could have seen Wallis establishing himself as one of the league’s premier medium forwards just two years later. There is no one stronger than Wallis in one-on-one contests, and he has proven to be the Bulldogs’ most reliable attacking option in 2020, kicking 24 goals in 17 games and only going two games where he didn’t directly provide an impact on the scoreboard.

Added to the strong benefit of his ability to hit the scoreboard as a reliable shot for goal, Wallis was rated elite for tackles inside 50 and marks inside 50, proving himself to be a talented and hard-working option in attack. Taking the best part of his midfield game and adding it to his offensive arsenal bodes well for the back end of his career, as the Bulldogs look to be a top team in the years to come.

Mitch Wallis

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

Matt Taberner (Fremantle)
It was a joy to see Matt Taberner get through the majority of the season unscathed and put together consistent footy, after years of injury-riddled seasons masking the elite talent seen on an ad hoc basis. At 198 centimetres and with some of the best hands in the competition, it was unsurprising to see that Taberner finish the season in the league’s top five for contested marks, marks inside 50 and goals.

The aerial presence was a welcome sight for a Dockers team that worked so hard defensively, as it gave them a target that worked hard and could get his hands on the ball from any position. While there were quiet patches, only once did Taberner go goalless, and that was a 0.3 performance against the Demons, who possess Steven May. It was a strong season overall that brought a smile to many Dockers’ faces, and the 27-year-old will look to back it up in a full-length season next year.

Bayley Fritsch (Melbourne)
For someone who cops a bit of criticism for being too goal-centric and lackadaisical, Fritsch has managed to find himself in the competition’s top ten for goal assists and marks inside 50, indicating that the work rate is there offensively. Formerly a swingman of sorts, with his smooth kicking used off half back at times for the Demons in his first two seasons to good effect, this was Fritsch’s first full year as a forward, and he played the role well.

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In fact, had he kicked straighter, Fritsch would have definitely been in line for individual honours and perhaps the Demons would be playing finals. From his 16 games, the 23-year-old kicked 22.24 and was clearly Melbourne’s best forward in a roller coaster of a season. Such is his versatility that it’s hard to know where Fritsch’s best position is, but perhaps 2020 was his most influential season and is definitely one to build upon.

Ruck line

Reilly O’Brien (Adelaide)
Tweets aside, no one has given O’Brien enough credit for how hard he worked in 2020 to set a standard for the disappointing Crows. No ruckman worked as hard defensively as the 25-year-old, who averaged an elite four tackles and two intercept marks per game, often spending a chunk of time in the defensive 50 to protect his back line unit, which struggled considerably outside of Daniel Talia.

There is still a bit of work to do in the ruck department for O’Brien. He is rated average for hit outs won and hit outs to advantage. But there is plenty to work with given his ability around the ground. O’Brien ranked in the top five for hit outs and contested marks in 2020, with his ability to stay fit and consistent culminating in Adelaide winning three of their last four games.

Touk Miller (Gold Coast)
While Gold Coast went from the hottest commodity to a tired, sorry team at end the season, Touk Miller was able to hold his head up high as the most consistent player at his club. The inside midfielders are an overlooked bunch, and Miller is just as good as any in his defensive work around the contest, shutting down any free space an opponent may have.

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Miller averaged 20 disposals, five tackles and four clearances a game in 2020, enjoying the lack of attention while Hugh Greenwood was the focus of the opposition to nullify at the stoppages for his contested work. There was nothing spectacular about the 24-year-old’s season, but it was perfect for the coaches and he will be rewarded in the club’s best-and-fairest.

Tom Liberatore (Western Bulldogs)
This was Tom Liberatore’s best season. Statistically, he has gone well in the past, particularly in 2013 and 2014 when he was the Bulldogs’ best midfielder. But this year felt like a new, refined “Libba” – the one who had a nice touch to his uncontested kicking, and the one who finished in the top 20 across the entire competition in score involvements.

Of course, it’s unsurprising that Liberatore was an elite player in ground ball gets and contested possessions, complementing the star power and class of the Bulldogs midfield when Dunkley hasn’t played the role. When there may have been question marks on Liberatore and his spot in the centre, he adjusted his game slightly and is as good as ever.

Interchange

Shaun Higgins (North Melbourne)
As the season slowly wore on and North Melbourne’s performance as a team got worse and worse, Higgins drifted more to the outside and further back in the field, spending time off half back towards the end of the season having played more of a wing role for the majority of 2020. It’s easy to see why the 32-year-old is still a target for Geelong however, with Higgins ranked in the league’s top ten for uncontested possessions and top 20 in metres gained, effective disposals and total disposals.

What has always separated Higgins from other above-average midfielders is his decision-making and ball use, regardless of whether he is playing as an inside or outside midfielder. If he played for more successful teams at the right time, there’s little doubt that the way Higgins plays would be likened to Scott Pendlebury on a far more regular basis with the time he seemingly has in possession, which is why North Melbourne still made a point of getting the ball into Higgins’ hands as much as possible in 2020.

Shaun Higgins of the Kangaroos runs the ball

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Jack Henry (Geelong)
Statistically speaking, Henry was one of the league’s top five defenders, rarely losing a one-on-one outright. Henry reads the play extremely well, as do all of Geelong’s defenders, and his ability to kill contests by coming across as an extra has always been a feature of his play. For someone so athletically gifted, there’s a visual misconception that perhaps Henry takes more intercept marks than he actually does, averaging less than one per game.

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In the final six games of the home-and-away season, Henry averaged nine kicks and five marks a game, which was a positive sign. The 22-year-old might be surrounded by strong interceptors, but he is the best aerial contortionist of his teammates and should look at increasing his numbers in the coming seasons. It was a truly outstanding defensive season for Henry, and one that should be given more credit.

David Mundy (Fremantle)
In the nine games between from Rounds 8 to 17, David Mundy averaged 21 disposals, 11 contested possessions, five tackles and five clearances. For all the credit given to Fremantle young brigade, the likes of Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra and Caleb Serong could not possibly have performed as well as they did if it wasn’t for the inspired efforts of their 35-year-old veteran, who averaged around 70 per cent time on ground.

Mundy has always been a clearance specialist who enjoys winning the hard ball, but in a season featuring a congested fixture and young talent to protect, for the veteran to stand up and perform as he did in every game is a testament to his character. This season proves that we should get one more year at least out of Mundy, who is a bona fide legend of the AFL.

Shai Bolton (Richmond)
Admittedly, Bolton has been receiving more recognition as the season has gone on, thriving in a midfield role that has helped him establish himself in Richmond’s best ten players. Winning the Yiooken Award was the first of what should be a fair few individual awards for Bolton, who averaged 16 disposals and five inside 50s a game this season, ranking in the competition’s top ten for that statistic, as well as running bounces.

What helps Bolton stand out more than others to make this team is the point of difference he provides a premiership contender, adding genuine pace and long-distance kicking out of stoppages. The fact Shane Edwards was missing certainly assisted the 21-year-old, but the fact he can play as a midfielder/forward gives Richmond a future star.