A season that promised for so much for Collingwood ended in a 68-point semi-final annihilation at the hands of Geelong.
The disappointment was almost tangible for coaching staff, players and fans, given the particularly vicious change in emotion and performance after the extraordinary qualifying final victory in Perth against West Coast.
Making finals and finishing with the third best defensive record in the home-and-away season are big ticks, particularly given the challenges that injury and unavailability created.
Let’s break down Collingwood’s 2020 season.
There is no success for Collingwood this season without Taylor Adams.
Justly rewarded with an All Australian jacket, Adams had an enormous season that will earn him plaudits.
Leading from the front with consistency that was often overlooked, the 27-year-old averaged 23 disposals, five tackles and five clearances a game, not dropping below 17 disposals in any game and finishing in the league’s top ten for contested possessions.
In his 19 games, Adams finished with at least 100 Champion Data ranking points in 15 of them, beaten only by teammate Brodie Grundy, Melbourne’s Max Gawn and Sydney’s Jake Lloyd for consistency until the end of Adams’ season.
It would be a shock if Adams wasn’t appointed Collingwood captain by the start of 2021.
Similar in impressiveness and importance was the defence, and its tidiness and efficiency. The concession of 100 points in three games (West Coast, Melbourne and Geelong) were outliers in an otherwise inspired group that conceded fewer than 40 points on eight occasions, even without Jeremy Howe.
The defensive success was system-driven, with players selected in specific roles that worked well as a machine, but there is little doubt that certain individuals were paramount in importance to its smooth operation.
Brayden Maynard was a strong All Australian candidate for much of the season, with his offensive work taking a big stride forward alongside an ability to smother his direct opponent.
Ranked fifth in the league for metres gained and fourth for intercepts, the 24-year-old took the necessary steps to move into the league’s best medium defenders.
What cannot be understated is Maynard’s passion for his teammates and his willingness to do anything for the team.
There were shades of Luke Hodge in the way Maynard carried himself throughout 2020, and vision of him trying to lift spirits in the locker room after the semi-final loss suggests Collingwood have found their defensive leader and likely understudy to Adams in the future.
It’s amazing to consider that it was just two seasons ago that Darcy Moore had been struggling with injury and a lack of positional clarity, but his All Australian selection is a reward for two years of elite work.
The aerial intercepting almost overshadows the unselfish defensive nature of Moore’s game, rating above average for spoils and elite for his one-on-one work.
Perhaps it doesn’t play out the way it does in the back line, however, without the efforts of Jordan Roughead who possessed an elite rating for his defensive work for a large portion of the home-and-away season.
It came unstuck as the season reached its finality, but Roughead’s no-nonsense role allowed for the effectiveness of Moore and Maynard higher up the ground, which was vital in preventing large scores in most matches for Collingwood.
Having key defenders at 200 and 203 centimetres (Roughead and Moore respectively) meant the Magpies could control the air with ease, meaning Howe’s absence could be covered a little easier.
Jack Crisp is also deserving of individual recognition. He had another strong season in a couple of different roles.
Crisp played his role in the midfield when required, particularly with the absence of experience at different stages in 2020, but also spent time patrolling the back of the square as a strong tackling presence, almost as a wall ahead of the defensive 50.
However his best moments seemed to come in the final six weeks of the season, where Crisp had moments of courage in taking contested, intercept marks that helped Collingwood will themselves over the line.
The veteran found himself standing in front of more packs and throwing himself into uncomfortable situations, understanding that his team needed it to experience success.
This, perhaps, best describes Collingwood in 2020.
At many key moments throughout the season, certain players were able to identify when they needed to put themselves in positions that would inspire or save their team, even if it was against the natural instinct.
Nine wins and a draw from 17 games for an eighth-place finish mightn’t sit well with a lot of Collingwood fans, but again, it may have been a better result than it should’ve been.
Season 2020 wasn’t a campaign of great celebration, but it was one that defined the future in a couple of different ways.
Steele Sidebottom’s absence for a majority of the season and Tom Phillips’ continued regression in form allowed for the emergence of Josh Daicos. The 21-year-old took a huge and unexpected leap forward.
Averaging 17 disposals and four marks while kicking ten goals in his 18 games, Daicos controlled the wing and displayed an excellent two-way running ability that found him in nice spots to provide relief for the Magpies.
Daicos will continue to work on his distribution and ability to accelerate away from tackles when games reach their most intense points, but he is already a key member of this Collingwood team.
Isaac Quaynor also took a big step in establishing himself as part of the Magpies’ best 22, although this wasn’t much of a surprise.
The numbers don’t quite reflect Quaynor’s defensive strengths, which are nice traits to have along with his natural offensive skill.
He ran many intelligent defensive angles to cut across and bring the ball to ground. Generally attributed to leading patterns, this ability to determine the quickest way to close on an open opponent is something we don’t see from many smaller defenders, and is something the Magpies should exploit.
Silky smooth with ball in hand and a good distributor to boot, Quaynor might be closer to being the complete package for a half back at 20 years of age than many may think.
Darcy Cameron’s role against West Coast in the elimination final victory was perhaps a sign of a tweak in the game plan.
Regardless of who fills the position, depending on Cameron’s status going forward, Nathan Buckley’s flexibility and understanding that the use of Brodie Grundy would be more effective elsewhere is encouraging for the Magpies going forward.
Despite comments from the coaching staff suggesting otherwise, Grundy looked limited towards the end of the season and really struggled to have any impact in the ruck.
In switching Grundy to a contested bull sort of a player in the second half and aiming to break even in the ruck against Nic Naitanui, the Magpies have potentially opened the door to a new position in their team, which offers more time in the ruck and allows for a secondary tall to believe they can have an impact alongside Grundy.
At his best, Grundy is the best ruckman in the league.
But if his body won’t allow him to do that for 22 games in a full season, using him as a big-bodied midfielder and playing another ruck or forward is an intriguing prospect.
The overachieving argument arises because of the clear issues at the Magpies in 2020.
Of course, the unavailability of some players only exacerbated holes that had previously been covered by a game style that suited the pieces on hand.
Jeremy Howe, Steele Sidebottom and Adam Treloar were the key absences, as well as Jordan de Goey to a lesser extent.
The Magpies had defensive success even without Howe, largely due to the height that enabled an aerial advantage over smaller opposition.
Yet Howe was still an obviously big loss for the team, with Jack Madgen the direct beneficiary of the open spot and he plays a completely different style of game, which isn’t aerial and surprisingly less accountable.
The injury to their high-flying defender placed more pressure on the back of Darcy Moore in the air and when he wasn’t in the area, the defence looked far shakier.
Many will point to the forward line as the biggest issue with Collingwood, given they were outscored by even Gold Coast and Hawthorn.
The obvious link would be to suggest Jordan de Goey’s absence was far more important than it actually was.
He kicked 14 goals in his ten games and was used in the midfield at the start of the season, which is a reasonable return.
For a variety of different reasons, however, the 24-year-old is far less important to Collingwood than fans (and perhaps the player himself) think.
Collingwood have tallied 12 wins and ten losses without De Goey since the start of 2018, and for all the highlights that may be provided, the constant praise and positivity are unjustified and mask far greater issues.
Over the previous two seasons, the Magpies were beneficiaries of some outstanding offensive performances.
Josh Thomas kicked 60 goals, Will Hoskin-Elliott kicked 61, Jaidyn Stephenson kicked 62 and Tom Phillips chipped in with 27 goals from the midfield.
Season 2020 saw a significant drop-off in attacking efficiency, with only Brody Mihocek (25) kicking more than 14 goals.
However, what made the likes of Thomas, Hoskin-Elliott and Stephenson so damaging across 2018 and 2019 was the biggest issue for Collingwood this season: a fully functional midfield.
For years, Collingwood’s strength has been the midfield, with star names and strong output driving the team into the upper echelon.
Strong clearance work matched with excellent run and spread to execute the famed Collingwood switch. There had been many levels that would allow the team to find space and get the ball to free players inside 50.
This season, however, was ugly.
Collingwood, much like the Bulldogs, were guilty of over-possessing the ball with no clear direction once the ball was in hand.
Averaging the most disposals per game during the season, the Magpies were ranked 12th for clearances and tenth in the league for inside 50s.
Once they won the ball in defence, Collingwood played a familiar possession style of footy, without the ability to completely stretch the ground that we have seen previously, as well as struggling to transition the ball in any meaningful way to create easy scoring shots.
Collingwood shared the ball around in the midfield when it got there, but were otherwise directionless for most of the season when putting the ball inside 50.
This is where the absence of Steele Sidebottom and Adam Treloar for half a season really had an impact.
Daicos had a nice season, but Sidebottom’s gut-running and ball use, particularly incisive inside 50, has long created such great opportunities for Collingwood that he is almost too underrated for his own good.
Treloar, for his weaknesses in efficient kicking and defensive running, is a star at extracting the ball, bursting away from contests and, importantly, bashing the ball inside 50.
The 27-year-old’s ability to get the ball deep inside 50 is most beneficial to lead-up forwards, as seen in the previous two seasons, as it pushes defensive units further towards the goal square and creates space for players to lead into.
Treloar came back for the final fortnight of the home-and-away season as well as finals, but was clearly hampered.
These were the two biggest losses for Collingwood in 2020 and highlighted the lack of midfield depth, which flowed onto the unclear game style and forward-line issues.
Given the slowness with which the ball was moved around, the Magpies’ forwards dealt with a congested forward 50 and a lack of personnel to be able to excel.
Ranked 15th for shots on goal and 16th for marks inside 50, the midfielders didn’t give their forwards a chance at all.
If Mason Cox wasn’t taking the big marks, no one was.
Brody Mihocek is impressive, but he’s a lead-up forward with one-on-one contested marking ability, rather than someone to burst packs.
Jamie Elliott played significant amounts in the midfield but isn’t one to thrive in a congested area despite his marking ability, while Stephenson and De Goey are lead-up players all the way.
Will Hoskin-Elliott (mainly on the wing), Josh Thomas and Callum Brown combined for 21 goals from their combined 42 games.
Assuming everyone is fully fit, Collingwood are immediately improved through the availability of their best 22 players at the start of 2021.
It’s easy to say that this will equate to better output for Collingwood, but the club needs to fill in the blanks that became apparent throughout this season.
The point of order is to reassure Jaidyn Stephenson that his 2020 was an aberration and that criticism levelled towards the 21-year-old should be ignored.
This was just his third season in the AFL, after two incredibly successful years to commence.
It got to the point where Stephenson was devoid of all confidence, seemingly due to the extra focus, however the Magpies allowed him to keep working.
Perhaps it’s reflective of the issues at Collingwood, but Stephenson was the equal second-highest goal-kicker for the club this season, and he will be fine.
Collingwood definitely needs to bolster their midfield, particularly to assist Treloar and Adams extract the ball and win contested situations.
Brayden Sier is the obvious player, and his three games were good before injury cost him.
The Magpies should look to ensure he stays at the club and plays in Round 1 next season, as he is the perfect piece to the puzzle.
If the team is looking to work within a budget, there are a couple of options.
It makes Will Brodie a logical fit as a result, particularly if the club doesn’t have full belief in Sier.
The 22-year-old has only managed 20 matches in four seasons at the Suns and is desperate for a senior opportunity, but has shown some great promise in his limited exposure at senior level.
The Suns haven’t played Brodie due to his ball use and tendency to spread further from the contest, which results in more clangers.
But at Collingwood, Brodie can work within a box and feed the ball to more explosive players, potentially pushing forward more to limit how damaging his turnover could be the other way.
Another player that could work is Connor Blakely, who faced similar obstacles under Justin Longmuir this season.
At 25 years of age, Blakely should be entering his prime and has rarely spent time in his preferred position at senior level over the past few seasons, which could make Collingwood an attractive proposition.
Of course, any rumoured unrest regarding Clayton Oliver would make him the number one choice for Collingwood, and 16 other clubs, and any salary cap issues would magically disappear in a bid to land him.
The key position forward spot also needs to be filled.
Early on, it appeared Collingwood was in the market for Jeremy Cameron. That has become increasingly unlikely, but Cameron isn’t the type of key forward Collingwood are seeking.
Ben Brown would fit in better, particularly given his reach.
While Brown can be a good contested marking player, he thrives as a lead-up player, which would be a greater output of the same sort.
And the interest in Jack Gunston is real but perhaps unrealistic, as Hawthorn are unlikely to want to part with one of their best players.
Once again, if the Magpies are knocking on the door of Gold Coast for Will Brodie, they may as well target Peter Wright.
Wright would be a wonderful selection after bafflingly not getting a game in 2020 despite being available.
For his price, Wright’s mix of lead-up and pack marking can make him the focal point of an attack that will rotate players around to create separation for him.
The 24-year-old can also play the ruck or forward role as well, while his follow-up work at ground level is impressive.
Collingwood is the best landing place for Wright and it would be a mutually beneficial fit.
The final player that would be a nice addition matches the thrifty approach the Magpies should take in the off-season.
Jarrod Brander was a first-round pick in 2017 and has managed just 11 games in three seasons at the Eagles.
At 195 centimetres, Brander’s strength is his mobility and ability to play anywhere on the field, which was shown in patches of senior footy this season.
He could potentially play as a tall wingman or a lead-up option from high half forward, but Collingwood could see a budding key defender or intercepting defender.
Collingwood are lacking young key-position talent and Brander is the sort of shrewd move that could fly under the radar and fit in beautifully as the Pies look to play more of their youth.
Ultimately, Collingwood are a finals contender but they are lacking more than most think.
We should expect to see Collingwood lean a little further into their youth with the quality of player coming through, which should improve the club’s depth.
Season 2020 ended up being a good campaign against the odds, but the Magpies need to move with the times to ensure they’re in contention.