Rumours of Richmond’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Too many people look at final scores and come up with a grand opinion that ignores the truth, which is that the Tigers are one of the greatest teams in modern history. Winning three of the past four flags, losing in the preliminary final, no one can discredit their credentials.
Richmond have earned enough trust across the competition to demand the respect to never be written off, no matter what position the club is in.
All we have known for the past four years is that this machine is constantly tinkered with to fire up at the right time, often without fail. And it isn’t uncharacteristic for Richmond to be belted, we’ve seen it on a number of occasions over the past few years.
In fact, it’s almost tradition for the Tigers to be completely outplayed by the opposition at times throughout a season.
What separates the team from a lot of others is that Richmond tend to like holding their cards close to their chest.
This means that when an opposition team clearly employs a tactic that beats Richmond, the coaching staff are able to analyse and identify the internal issues and subsequently use it to tweak the team going forward.
In the home-and-away season, it tends to mean losing margins for the Tigers in these sorts of games push to the extreme, as making significant adjustments within games can give away an advantage the coaching staff set up.
Indeed, coach Damien Hardwick has been vocal in highlighting how much his team learns from losses and the work the staff put in to ensure the same tactics don’t work twice against them.
The mindset has worked for four years and the results can be seen – no team has an active winning streak against the Tigers.
So in 2021, it isn’t ridiculous to believe that external parties are overreacting to results, while the club feels confident internally.
Breaking down what has happened so far, there have been three distinctive ways in which the Tigers have been torn apart.
Against Sydney, the quick ball movement caught Richmond by surprise and the team was able to take plenty of marks around central areas, playing keepings off when it felt under pressure and making the reigning premiers look lost.
It was the Swans running in waves at the Tigers out of stoppages and hitting up their medium forwards that did the damage.
Against Melbourne, it was a completely different style that tore the Tigers apart, with the Demons operating at a 1:1 kick-to-handball ratio and using their hands to manipulate Richmond’s strong midfield spacing.
The league’s only undefeated team stretched out their opposition, stayed strong in defence with their existing structures so not to falter under pressure as time wore on, and used their superior fitness to run the game out far better.
Christian Salem and Steven May were able to sweep up the loose balls and hit up their teammates in the middle, while every midfielder, whether it be Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver or even Ed Langdon, gained ground with handballs.
Then, in their most recent loss, Richmond completely stopped after half time against Geelong, with the Cats’ ability to change pace catching the Tigers off-guard.
Richmond covered off the typical Geelong strategy of controlling the ball in defence, who then went far more direct and destroyed a strong defence.
Of course, as has been the case with many clubs this season, Richmond has had to deal with a number of injuries to key personnel.
At different stages through the opening two months of the year, the Tigers have missed Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Dion Prestia, Kane Lambert, Dylan Grimes, Bachar Houli and the aforementioned Vlastuin.
The upcoming few weeks will also see Shai Bolton and Shane Edwards missing.
Nevertheless, the results are eye-catching and for some, heavily concerning.
Naturally, this is the driving factor behind popular headlines sounding the death knell on the Richmond era.
It isn’t unfamiliar territory, where the 2019 season is often conveniently forgotten.
The team’s six losses came at an average of 46.2 points, and the Tigers suffered eight-goal losses at the hands of Collingwood, GWS and the Bulldogs in the opening seven rounds of that year.
Similarly, the Tigers suffered a significant number of early-season injuries and had their detractors at that time too.
The coaching staff’s ability to isolate each performance was as applicable then, as it is now. The adjustments, and evidence of such in previous seasons, have generally been related to defensive structure, as the results have seen the team scored against heavily.
The transformation of Richmond’s defensive gameplan has been substantial.
With Alex Rance, the team had a generational key defender who almost played as two different players, such was his desperation and application to creating unity in the defensive unit.
As Rance departed, David Astbury and Dylan Grimes became the key cogs, with the latter taking on Rance’s style of desperation.
In the years to come, Richmond ensured that the defensive unit was cohesive but well protected by a full-ground setup, where players occupy space rather than a man. Wherever the opposition have the ball on the ground, the Tigers have generally had superior ground position where they can get multiple players to any contest.
The players pride themselves on their work ethic.
This season offers up a different challenge, in that there are more situations where defenders across the competition are exposed to one-on-one contests, which hasn’t been quite the Tigers’ preferred style.
As Richmond continue to look at adjusting their defensive scheme to not be as isolated, it’s important to realise that the injuries have played a part.
The absence of key defensive personnel that provide leadership and structure behind the ball, particularly the extended absence of Nick Vlastuin and his reading of the play, has been huge.
Only for half a game have the Tigers had both Vlastuin and Grimes available, with natural improvement and cohesion to follow as the team shifts from being undersized to having a better aerial game.
As we know, on the other side, Richmond’s offensive style is built on manic pressure and gaining ground position.
This has remained relatively consistent.
Over the last three seasons in particular, the Tigers have been head and shoulders above the rest of the competition for metres gained. Further proving the point, the club hasn’t been higher than 11th for average disposals per game.
The players themselves are cogs of the aforementioned machine, occupying space and swarm in groups.
Even when Lynch was added to the mix, it was still about bombing the ball forward and getting the ball over the back, ultimately beating out the opposition’s defensive line.
The Tigers have also consistently been in the league’s top four for inside 50s and intercepts in their dominant era, highlighting just how strong they have been on both ends.
In 2021, Richmond are ranked second for metres gained, second for inside 50s and fourth for intercepts, which shows that the key indicators they thrive in have been maintained.
The tackling numbers are decent, but the pressure acts metric are a far better indicator of how the Tigers are going, and that continues to sit at a high overall when the team is firing.
The slight query that has caused a question mark on the attacking prowess of the team is the drop off in marks inside 50, ranked seventh for the season.
Despite the traditional, scrambling approach, the Tigers have always been ranked highly in this statistic, however being just 0.8 marks inside 50 per game outside the league’s top four, this is hardly cause for concern.
So where does that leave Richmond overall?
The Tigers are obviously facing a difficult period coming up, and to expect a carbon copy of the 2019 season would be quite bold.
If they can head into the bye with six wins and six losses though, which is entirely plausible, it’s obvious that anything is possible.
But most importantly, we can be certain that Richmond won’t fall into the same traps that have seen them lose heavily to this point in the season.
It’s simply not in the nature of the playing group, nor the coaches.
Then there are the intangibles that make Richmond what they are, a group so hungry to succeed that their mental application to the task ahead of them when it matters most far exceeds that of their opposition.
In the short term, the Tigers may lose a couple more games with a significant portion of the best midfield missing.
But blooding young talent, as the team tends to do, only holds them in good stead going into the future.
It’s so easy to overreact to recent results. And quite frankly, you can be guaranteed that the masses will write the Tigers off at some point during the season.
Yet the offensive numbers are as good as ever, and the coaching staff are well aware of what needs to be fixed.
No team has proven that more than the Tigers.
There is plenty of time left in the season for Richmond to work their way into a comfortable finals position, and that’s all the club needs.
The machine will keep on rolling, regardless of popular narratives. Everything is pointing towards the Tigers being just fine, and the trends suggest no different.
Richmond are still a contender in 2021, it’s just unpopular to say so.