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Why Port Adelaide are struggling more than you think

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15th April, 2021
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It’s crunch time for Port Adelaide.

The Power have won three of their first four games after coming off a narrow victory over the reigning premiers and continue to be held in high esteem in premiership conversations.

Yet quite truthfully the team haven’t played particularly well.

Two soft kills to start the season have afforded Port Adelaide a nice percentage and a smooth ride in the media.

However, the team have gone from being ranked first in clearances and tackles, second in inside 50s and third for disposals to ranking as a mid-tier club in all categories this year.

Over the last 12 months Port Adelaide haven’t lost many games, and when they have, with the preliminary final exception, they’ve ensured there is no doubt about the result.

Indeed the performance against West Coast in Round 3, a flattering 37-point deficit, was an example of the Power’s shortcomings against the best teams.

Easily manipulated and without an answer against well-known tactics, the match flew under the radar just how poorly Port Adelaide played.

Great teams can flick a switch and quickly adapt to adversity.

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Kane Farrell

Kane Farrell. (Photo by Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Responding with the narrow victory over a Richmond team seemingly going through the motions, now is the time we really need to see more out of the Power.

The midfield’s regression is a big concern.

Statistically the core is individually enjoying a great start.

Ollie Wines is having a career-best season, Travis Boak continues to be a star player and Willem Drew is realising some of his potential.

The advantage of having big-bodied midfielders and winning plenty of contested ball shouldn’t equate to worse midfield results.

Going from first in the competition to eighth in clearances is a poor result; going from first in the competition in tackles to 12th through the first month of the season is even worse.

Quite clearly the wins from Port Adelaide have been developed through a good set-up behind the ball and the points of difference through the midfield, with the players on the wing working harder than most others in the competition, and the injection of one classy individual in the midfield.

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This makes the upcoming pre-bye period super important given the long-term injuries to crucial parts of the current structure, Xavier Duursma and Zak Butters.

It might seem quite unbelievable that two 20-year-olds can be so sorely missed, but both players have been enormously important while other areas have been lacking.

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For Duursma, he and Karl Amon epitomise the work ethic and gut running that creates so much space through the middle.

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Duursma has averaged 20 disposals and six marks through the first four matches of the season, owning one of the wings and pushing so far back to offer assistance in defence that it has allowed an otherwise one-paced midfield to cover central spaces and run in one direction.

Owning space through the middle when not in possession has been a way the Power have overcome the pressure drop-off over the first month.

Butters’s emergence has unfortunately been cut to an extremely short sample size, but getting more midfield opportunities and time around the ball really offered a cleaner, more skilful way of exiting stoppages for the club.

As Robbie Gray’s time becomes slowly more forward-exclusive and Connor Rozee struggles with injuries, Butters’s mix of toughness and excellent reading of the play assisted to break the monotony of sameness within Port Adelaide’s midfield.

Removing these two key cogs of the Power’s machine makes the upcoming run a little trickier without a heap to gain and a lot to lose reputationally.

Until the team’s bye, Port Adelaide will face Carlton, St Kilda, Brisbane, Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, Collingwood and Fremantle.

With only the Bulldogs playing well at the moment and with the Lions looking to find form at home, this is a relatively straightforward set of fixtures for a premiership contender.

Port Adelaide aren’t playing like premiership contenders.

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Robbie Gray of the Power juggles the ball

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The biggest challenge facing them is the necessity to adjust to different game styles while needing to find different gears themselves as well as filling in key gaps.

Carlton prefers a one-on-one defensive set up, which suits the likes of Charlie Dixon and the high-flying Mitch Georgiades, but use good pace to try and flick a switch in transition.

Port Adelaide is currently trying to defend through the midfield like a rugby defensive unit, covering space and trying to block runners, rather than through their usual tough tackling.

The Saints have a similar type of midfield to Port Adelaide – one-paced and tough – while Brisbane will want to use their elite and long-ranging kicking to go aerially in transition.

Finding that extra strength and class around the flanks and stoppages will be super important to hurt these teams the other way.

Without Duursma and Butters the defensive running really takes a hit and the method of exiting defensive 50 and stoppage must be adjusted.

We have already seen Dan Houston move back into the midfield, while Steve Motlop has been used between the arcs a lot more to provide some more class around the ball despite poor ball use.

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The expectation would be that Robbie Gray spends more time through the middle, as does Connor Rozee when fit. Getting creative and bringing in the likes of Kane Farrell or Boyd Woodcock to take positions outside of the stoppage would be intelligent.

Ultimately the defence and the Power’s transition have been the key to overcoming midfield woes.

Aliir Aliir’s inclusion has been enormous given he has recaptured his peak Sydney form with his reading of the play and well-balanced defensive play.

Tom Jonas and Tom Clurey have held up their ends of the bargain, with Aliir able to focus on the aerial game and flying around packs.

The work of the wingmen to push back, with Karl Amon enjoying a career-best season, has helped cover slower starts to the year for the likes of Hamish Hartlett and Darcy Byrne-Jones.

Amon’s work has been incredible – he is ranked elite for disposals, marks, metres gained, rebounds and score involvements.

His role is that much more important now without Duursma on the opposite wing, as he will now need to cover the ground laterally as well.

Aliir Aliir of the Power handpasses the ball

(Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Port Adelaide have brought in Lachie Jones at the right time in hindsight for what he will add to the team, presumably playing a larger role across halfback, with Hartlett likely part of the structural reshuffle to play higher up the ground.

Jones’s strength is in his physicality and ability to gain serious metreage by foot.

But this strength through intercepting and quick ball movement in transition is the only tactic Port Adelaide have shown so far in 2021 and is heavily reliant on the work ethic of their players.

At times the Power have been caught out due to a stagnant, slow build-up out of defence, which has cost them.

When challenged Port Adelaide are still unconvincing.

Against the Eagles the Power fell apart, and any defensive effort couldn’t extend past two uncontested Eagle possessions.

When faced with the Richmond challenge, it was having numbers defensively and a strong contested marking ability with bomb kicks that allowed the Power to get some space.

Winning the clearances didn’t help whatsoever once Butters left the field, further highlighting the actual struggles facing Port Adelaide’s midfield.

In 2020 the team could win in multiple ways, able to bully the opposition in each third of the ground and gain a huge upper hand.

In 2021 the forward line has been inconsistent, the midfield has been underwhelming and the defence has stood up.

Port Adelaide are leaving their defence open to more attacking forays without the elite pressure of last season through the corridor.

Points conceded sit higher, but make no mistake, the backline is holding up well.

The counterattacking nature of the offence has worked to a degree and will need to see Karl Amon take on huge responsibility with how deep he runs.

Amon could finish the season as an All Australian.

But if they want to be genuine contenders in 2021, the Power simply have to recapture that midfield dominance and provide their forwards with easier shots on goal.

Reliance on contested marking will only work for so long, and with Charlie Dixon out of form, Jacob Weitering, Dougal Howard and Harris Andrews will have a field day.

It has now been made much more difficult without Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma available, and the next three weeks will tell us plenty.

Should the Power see themselves as in with a shot at the premiership, we will see the tackling numbers increase, efficiency out of stoppages improve and less reliance on contested marking inside forward 50.

At their best Port Adelaide will beat any opponent in any conditions and in a multitude of ways.

With how things are trending, the Power are far from their best.

Port Adelaide simply cannot keep the current mix of players in the midfield and expect to be relevant in 2021 without key moves.

The question is whether coach Ken Hinkley makes the changes before the pressure on the defence becomes too much.

Time will tell, but after a month of the 2021 season the Power are not premiership contenders.

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