Football is about evolution. Players evolve. Teams evolve. Strategies evolve.
Remain stagnant or become complacent and you get left behind.
After missing the finals for four seasons (2014-2017), 2018 was a breakout year for Collingwood. Despite all the injuries, they finally gelled as a side and played fast and daring football.
Since then, their on-field strategy certainly has never looked as competitive. They’ve had a number of players who’ve offered less than they did in 2018. A few youngsters (such as Josh Daicos and Isaac Quaynor) have come in and looked worthwhile.
But what’s going to give the side the competitive edge moving into a new season?
One thing that I don’t like when looking at Collingwood is how predictable they are on-field. Maybe I’m spoiled by growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, where coaches would experiment with players, making positional changes that could turn the game. Now it’s about structures, rotations, and exemplifying a brand.
But there’s room to speculate.
This season, Darcy Moore won an All-Australian guernsey as a centre-half back. Moore originally came to Collingwood as a forward. He was initially flung to defence in 2018, but ongoing soft tissue issues ruined his year.
In 2019 he played 17 of a possible 24 games. This year he’s played all but one – a game in which he was rested due to the congested fixturing.
But what else have Collingwood done to find solutions for positional holes?
Watching Collingwood struggle this year, everything’s seemed a bit samey for me. The point I always make is that it’s worrying that their 32-year-old captain has remained their premier midfielder when somebody else should’ve succeeded him.
That hasn’t happened. While some of that comes down to recruiting and what players Collingwood have had access to in the draft given their successive top-eight seasons, it also comes down to cultivation.
Could some player be of more use elsewhere? Could they become something else?
If Moore, a forward, could win an AA guernsey as a CHB, could there be other beneficial reinventions?
I hope in the off-season that the Collingwood brain trust seriously looks at how that side can evolve. We’ve seen what they have to offer.
In 2018, it almost won them a grand final. In 2019, it fell short in a preliminary final. And, this season, it’s fallen further behind.
Change is essential. Evolution is a must.
Or get left behind.
Before listing my starting 26 for 2021, I just want to preface that I’m not taking into account possible recruits, and I have no idea if Collingwood plans to trade or delist certain players (outside of typical scurrilous media scuttlebutt).
I’m also going to be a bit loose with positions so I can demonstrate some of the changes I’d like to see made. So here goes:
B: Jeremy Howe, Jordan Roughead, John Noble
HB: Jack Crisp, Darcy Moore, Isaac Quaynor
W: Josh Daicos, Jordan de Goey, Adam Treloar
HF: Jaidyn Stephenson, Will Kelly, Brody Mihocek
F: Will Hoskin-Elliott, Mason Cox, Steele Sidebottom
R: Brodie Grundy, Brayden Maynard, Taylor Adams
I: Scott Pendlebury, Jamie Elliott, Levi Greenwood, Brayden Sier
E: Tyler Brown, Trey Ruscoe, Callum Brown, Jack Magden
Collingwood’s strength throughout 2020. They only genuinely struggled in games where the side struggled as a whole, and the ball was continually bombed in and the defence was overwhelmed.
The two queries are on Jordan Roughead (he’ll be 30 next year) and Jeremy Howe (he’ll turn 31 next year, and is coming back from a bad knee injury). It’s not difficult to fall a step behind the game.
But the emergence of Isaac Quaynor and John Noble gives them some flexibility, and Jack Magden showed throughout 2020 he has something they can work with.
There are also a handful of guys in the VFL who the club would hope might put their hands up for positions in 2021, or at least put pressure on the incumbents.
The midfield has had a sameness about it since 2018.
One thing I’d love to see is both Jordan de Goey and Brayden Maynard pushed onto the ball.
Both are bulls and physical players – something Collingwood has lacked. Maynard also has a raking kick that would be a weapon delivering it inside F50.
If he’s fit and firing, Brayden Sier is a must (although he’s played just nine games in the last two seasons). As an inside midfielder, he allows the others to play more on the outside and construct offensives through their own unique skills, such as Adam Treloar through his pace and Scott Pendlebury through his poise.
This gives the midfield a new dimension and a physicality and dynamism it’s lacked.
The only surprise here is that I would use Steele Sidebottom predominantly as a forward. As a midfielder, he’s very good. As a forward, I believe he can be elite, showcasing audacity with the ball in hand, and capitalising on half-chances.
People seem to have forgotten he kicked ten goals in the 2008 TAC grand final. Yes, it was a while ago, but he’s shown repeatedly he has goal-kicking nous.
Using Will Kelly as a centre-half forward as this stage of his career is a reach. He looked great in his one game, but it is just one game. However, his presence allows Brody Mihocek to play as the third tall and to sweep up.
Other ruck-sized talls – such as Darcy Cameron and Max Lynch – aren’t alternatives to Kelly. Cameron covers the ground well given his size, but an F50 containing him and Cox (or Lynch) is just too slow.
Will Hoskin-Elliott looks dangerous around goal. Jaidyn Stephenson has had a sporadic 2020 due to his recovery from glandular fever but will rebound. I would look at him playing forward, with stints on the wing.
Mason Cox remains Collingwood’s best key-position prospect at this time. Cox will also be 30 years old next year. While he started his career later, he’s already at an age where you would want to be wary of any sudden decline.
If they’re going to use him forward they need to work out their system in delivering the ball.
Right now, the team behaves as if all they need to do is kick it in the air and he’ll mark it every time.
That might work if they moved the ball quickly, or isolated him one-on-one, but too often they move the ball slowly, let him get out-numbered and scragged, and then boot the ball nowhere near him.
Inspector Gadget wouldn’t be able to get to those entries.
They seriously need to look at their ball movement over the summer.
Too often, it becomes slow, indirect, and unadventurous. Opposition can press and Collingwood whirlpool defensively and lose surrender ground before, inevitably, losing the ball.
In a few games they’ve tried to play on at all costs, which is just another form of madness. Players keep running into traffic. At times, it looks as if teammates have no idea where the ball-carrier is heading.
Richmond play chaos football, but they do it with a system. There are always teammates supporting the ball carrier. Collingwood seems to do it randomly, as if it’ll ignite an offensive and draw others in.
They need a system that’ll allow them to play daring football, and that’ll support their movement going forward.
It just hasn’t happened.
They got close in their elimination final against the Eagles, but they still have periods of tempo football. It’s hard to judge what they were trying against Geelong, given Geelong’s dominance.
If Collingwood keep trying to make their control footy work, well, look forward to more of what we saw this year, in 2019, and 2014-2017.
This is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before, which is what makes it galling that they keep going back to it.
I have no idea what Collingwood plans to do with the likes of Nathan Murphy and Matt Scharenberg. Both were once highly rated.
Nathan Murphy got a taste in 2018 and then had an injury-riddled 2019. The lack of a feeder system in 2020 obviously hasn’t been good for him or other younger players trying to make inroads.
Scharenberg was a mainstay of defence in 2018 before doing his knee. They tried to bring him back for 2019, and then he was concussed in the last home-and-away game. It’s been floated again that he may pursue other options.
If he stays, I would like to see them trial him as a midfielder. He’s a nice size, reads the play well, and is a good kick – all assets that could translate to a midfield role.
Callum Brown looked great in 2018 with sure hands and a willingness to take the game on, but has looked progressively rushed since then. I don’t think it’s helped that they persevered with him as he struggled for form, which might’ve compounded issues.
Tyler Brown has shown glimpses of talent but needs to put on some muscle.
The COVID situation has forced cuts everywhere. Collingwood has most recently lost Garry Hocking. Prior to that, they lost assistant Justin Longmuir to Fremantle. Both were credited with improvement in different facets of Collingwood.
That’s left long-standing lieutenants Robert Harvey and Brenton Sanderson as part of Buckley’s inner circle.
With no disrespect intended to either man, surely it’s time Collingwood sought some fresh input. The same old ideas and same outlooks have only got them so far. What comes next?
Luke Hodge would seem an ideal candidate, given he comes from a successful culture and offers incisive analysis as a commentator. Ross Lyon would also be worth considering.
Collingwood need to galvanise their approach.
These are the sort of players I’d be focusing on if I was in charge of list management:
Either it’s a key-forward who can play full-forward or centre-half forward, or somebody who can play centre-half back and allow Collingwood to move Darcy Moore forward. And when I write “key positioner” I mean a “key positioner”.
Collingwood has had a fascination with trying to turn ruck-sized players into key forwards. There’s a good reason that this has never turned into a standard practice in all higher levels of Australian Rules.
A classy small forward
The forward line lacks genuine excitement and opportunism. This is a club who’s had some guns in Leon Davis, Paul Medhurst, Alan Didak and Andrew Krakouer. But that’s been lacking in the last two years.
On the flip side, a type like Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti – who applies that frenetic pressure – would be great. A lot of Collingwood forward entries rebound like they’ve hit a trampoline.
John Noble and Quaynor try to make something happen whenever they have the ball in hand. It would be nice if Collingwood could find a Brad Hill-type who has pace and can offer linkages.
An inside mid
If they changed it up as I suggested (using Maynard, de Goey and Sier) then an inside mid isn’t as urgent. But if the midfield remains as it has in 2020, then they desperately need somebody to win the ball and feed it out to the likes of Pendlebury, Treloar and Steele Sidebottom.
This same midfield has struggled in 2020 and isn’t getting any younger.
One of the most frustrating things watching Collingwood over the last two years is they set up the same time and time again. The return is spasmodic, and then they reuse the same set-up. About as adventurous as they’ve got is throwing Jamie Elliott into the middle or using Jack Crisp as a run-with player.
It would be great if the brain trust could look at the side and speculate about how it could evolve. That comes through change. That change needs to be meaningful.
Elliott and Crisp have had some good games as mids, but are still functioning like running players who need to be fed the ball.
I don’t think pursuing a Ben Brown or Jack Gunston is going to change much at the Pies if everything else functions the same around them.