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How the Suns can salvage their 2021 season

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20th May, 2021
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The Gold Coast Suns are quickly falling into the same groove that has haunted them for years.

At various times throughout the season, they’ll be labelled as brave, courageous, valiant and competitive. They’ll receive praise for their good efforts and poor performances will be met with an exasperated cry of familiarity, rather than a genuine analysis of what’s gone wrong.

It’s an insult to the players, the coaching staff and the organisation as a whole. Plenty of people have an opinion, mostly negative, on the Suns and the fact they’ve never made finals creates the question regarding the club’s validity.

That malarkey isn’t worth the time of genuine AFL fans.

No, what’s most insulting to the Suns is the strange mix of coddling and criticism that have gone together hand-in-hand for years.

When focusing on results and on-field play, reviews of the Suns are almost child-like in nature, and ultimately need to stop.

Let’s draw the line and assess the club in 2021, not as a business investment and not as a club in its infancy.

The Suns have had a couple of nice wins and some close losses, but a team pushing for finals would’ve wanted more than that.

Of course, the injury list has been lengthy, to the point where the Suns were missing five of their tallest six players for a prolonged period.

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Jariod Witts’ absence as both captain and one of the league’s best ruckmen has been covered valiantly but ultimately unsuccessfully after he turned the Suns into one of the better clearance teams in 2020.

Jarrod Witts

(Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

We haven’t been able to see much of Matt Rowell in his career, but his impact in a handful of games has been big.

Sam Day has been a regular fixture over the past couple of season and, while Ben King has been excellent, more support would be nice.

Connor Budarick’s loss went unnoticed to many, but after just one season, he became a key cog of the defensive unit.

Then, ad hoc unavailabilities of the likes of Touk Miller, Nick Holman and the aforementioned Lemmens have left gaps within the team.

Players like Rory Thompson, Jack Hombsch, Jacob Townsend and Zac Smith may only be seen as insurance, but their absences have created a domino effect that has stretched key positions.

For this reason, any time the Suns lose a close game, they receive an encouraging adjective from analysts that serve to wrap a nice little bow on how Gold Coast tried their best.

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Half a season will be lost and the Suns will have won just three or four of their first 11 games, with no one taking notice.

It’s for this reason that the Suns need to set themselves up for a genuine assault on the top eight in 2022, and it starts with making real changes for the rest of this season.

Competitiveness within games is a nice pat on the back for a bottom four side.

The Gold Coast Suns are not a bottom four side, even with the players they have been missing.

There are definitive changes that the coaching staff should be making to look back on 2021 as a step forward, despite the shortcomings that have been thrust upon them.

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Clearly, the midfield has developed a nice, tough edge with strong spread away from the contest led by Brandon Ellis’ mini-resurgence.

Brandon Ellis of the Suns marks

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Some may see the makeshift ruck duo of Caleb Graham and Chris Burgess as a success, but Stuart Dew will understand that he cannot do this for the entire season.

By putting these two players in the ruck, particularly Graham, the Suns are stunting the growth of players in their actual positions.

In just his third season and at 20 years of age, Graham has shown the early signs of a promising key defender, with his reach and spoiling ability on full show when the Suns have exposed their defence to an incredible amount of pressure.

By playing him in the ruck, there’s a halt in defensive development that could hurt if it’s prolonged, particularly for a raw prospect.

With three VFL games under his belt, it seems appropriate that Zac Smith has been selected to play to relieve Graham and Burgess of their burdens and if the club doesn’t trust Smith’s body, then the Suns would do well to target a mid-season recruit to fit their needs, such as Southport’s Fraser Thurlow or Norwood’s Michael Knoll.

Former Cat and Port-listed Wylie Buzza has also been a rumoured option for the club.

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Gold Coast lead the competition for kicks and are ranked second for marks, quite clearly looking to control possession as their tactic for 2021.

It has resulted in some marvellous individual numbers, with Brandon Ellis and Jack Lukosius both ranked in the top ten for marks.

The Suns control the ball in defence in a similar manner to how West Coast look to maintain possession and manipulate the opposition’s zone.

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As things stand though, the team is chipping the ball around aimlessly, with no sustainable end game.

If they were to emulate the Eagles, their ball use would need to be far better and more decisive going forward.

The Eagles operate with a 75.8 per cent disposal efficiency and kick a goal with 28.63 per cent of the inside 50s, averaging 9.1 goal assists per game.

West Coast’s uses short kicking to drag their opponents out of position, which creates easier entries into the forward 50 and makes their offensive transition much more effective.

Gold Coast on the other hand, have a disposal efficiency of 72.5 per cent, kicking a goal with 20.36 per cent of their inside 50s and an average of 6.8 goal assists per game, one of the worst offensive efficiencies in the competition.

In fact, the saving grace with the Suns in offence is their tackling inside 50, ranked fifth in the competition thanks to the tireless efforts of Nick Holman in particular.

With how the Suns are currently playing, they are hoping for a low-scoring contest that stays contested throughout the midfield for their tacklers to really go to work, and once they have the ball, they want to play in a slow methodical manner.

This flies in the face of what we expect to see from this team. A team that is looking to improve must learn to play in multiple ways, but Gold Coast have seemingly committed themselves to a strategy that has no offensive upside, ranked second-last for points scored.

Given the midfield’s strength in tackling and pressure, it behoves coach Dew to take advantage of this clear positive.

The Suns have strong pressure players all over the ground and have the run and spread to be able to run in waves. Through the midfield, Miller is enjoying a career-best season, Hugh Greenwood is the league’s best tackler and David Swallow has recaptured his best form.

David Swallow of the Suns leads the team out

(Photo by Russell Freeman/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Nick Holman, Sam Flanders and Izak Rankine are applying a heap of pressure in attack, and Sean Lemmens is holding down the defensive pressure fort quite well.

The beauty of the Suns’ inside midfielders is their ability to work hard defensively on the ground, so the Suns should make the most of that and have them set up strongly at all stoppages in the back half.

With Jack Bowes, Brandon Ellis, Lachie Weller, Oleg Markov, Rory Atkins and Noah Anderson, the Suns have many players that have engines to set up outside the contest and rush the ball forward with great speed and long-range kicking.

The future also looks bright with Jeremy Sharp and Jez McLennan having strong futures with their foot skills.

Wil Powell has developed a nice two-way game in defence, while Jy Farrar is playing a good role as a third tall defender while Sam Collins and Charlie Ballard do their thing.

With the firm belief that Ballard could be one of the best interceptors in the league, letting Graham develop his defensive skills would push each defender a rung down the accountability ladder.

Right now, once each player has the ball, their focus is looking sideways or incrementally forward. On average, Gold Coast’s opposition are gaining 225 more metres than the Suns in each game, which ranks the club 15th. Ultimately, the Suns need a purpose when setting up the defensively and strength in numbers and tackling should be able to free up the good users in the defensive half to focus on getting the ball forward.

Which leads to one final suggestion for a major change Gold Coast should look to implement in 2021.

The name Jack Lukosius was omitted above because it’s time the Gold Coast Suns unleashed their “generational talent” as their centre half-forward and create the best key forward duo in the competition.

Already, Lukosius has been moved up to the wing more in 2021, averaging 4.3 inside 50s, four rebound 50s and is one of the league’s leaders in metres gained.

Having him higher up the ground means Gold Coast can capitalise on the rebounding abilities of existing talent.

Jack Lukosius kicks

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Truthfully, Lukosius wasn’t really an intercept marker and was a liability on the defensive end anyway, so it’s clear that getting him out of there was necessary.

But now that Atkins is in the team with Ellis and Lachie Weller, along with the soon-to-be return of Matt Rowell to help push Noah Anderson out a little, the Suns will have plenty of presence on the wing.

Gold Coast simply have to play Lukosius in attack.

Likened to Nick Riewoldt for his incredible work ethic and leading patterns, this move opens up many options.

The football intelligence and understanding of the game at Lukosius’ disposal, evidenced by the kicks he is willing to take on, must be maximised offensively.

With King the dominant player closer to goal, Lukosius as a key forward opens up the entire 50 behind him, which decongests the forward line and creates space. Lukosius can kick for goal from anywhere within 60 metres and will attract a traditional centre halfback, who won’t be able to keep up with the third-year player from a fitness perspective.

We’ve already seen in the first nine games that Lukosius has already doubled his score involvement numbers to five per game and having over a shot on goal per game and that’s from a wing.

Just imagine how high his numbers will get if he is the main concern of the opposition’s defence, thus creating free opportunities for teammates.

Gold Coast have great depth on the flanks and wing areas, and without offensive inspiration in 2021, there is no better time than the present to pull the trigger and create their future forward line.

Overall, there is a sense of inevitability as to how the year will play out for the Suns, which is an indictment on any football club.

But in making a few simple moves, the Suns can switch the narrative and change the immediate outlook to one that is far more positive.

We know that the club has a good defensive setup, but the most successful teams in the AFL are extremely efficient at both ends. Switching Lukosius forward and focusing on gaining yardage by foot may seem simple enough, but they are moves and mindsets that have to be considered for this season to be a success.

2021 isn’t a year to be wasted and plenty can still come out of it.

The Gold Coast Suns just need to be willing to adjust.

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