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Opinion

Is 2021 the best AFL season in recent memory?

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Expert
19th August, 2021
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How do we judge what a good AFL season is?

Rule changes were introduced to seemingly improve the overall quality of the game and we know the higher-ups are always looking for AFL matches to be more free-flowing, seeking offensive growth to counteract defensive concepts.

After 2020, a season severely impacts by the global pandemic resulting in shortened games, shoved into any open spot during the week and giving clubs a new challenge, we have returned to some sort of footballing normality this year.

Not that 2021 has been without its obstacles.

The pandemic has remained of course, fixtures have been thrown into disarray and we’ve had clubs commit to same-day travelling, even finding out their fixtures just 24 hours prior to playing.

Crowds are absent in Victoria, quarantine laws are preventing some players from actually playing and trying to remain composed and well-planned is becoming nigh-on impossible. Perhaps that’s the new normal.

In recent seasons, we have had the 6-6-6 rule implemented, a shot clock has been brought in and technology has become both our best friend and our worst enemy. Interchange caps are the bane of an AFL fan’s existence, or at least the logic behind it is.

It wasn’t enough for the AFL, unhappy with the direction of coaching, so more rules were brought in place.

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Standing on the mark with the inability to move has encouraged players to run off and get the ball going quickly, given the immediate pressure has subsided after winning possession. It’s also hard to legislate, resulting in either 50-metre penalties unfairly paid or ignored, and the defending player really does look quite silly at times.

Similarly, more space is required to be given to players in these situations and there have been enough infringements that would make ticket inspectors jealous.

We’re down to 75 interchanges now, which was meant to create more space to attack. Who could have foreseen that players would be more tired, and look to control the ball and slow the game down to catch their breath?

Ultimately, it’s all about the consumer, us at home stuck to our TVs and radios seeking solace in our great game. Apparently it was broken, or in the process of breaking. We weren’t entertained enough.

As part of the desire to make the competition more eye-catching, the AFL has always desired to have teams become as equal as possible, closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Zach Merrett celebrates with Essendon teammates Nick Hind and David Zaharakis.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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The Bulldogs shocked the world in 2016, winning the premiership from the seventh position on the ladder. That season, five teams finished with over 130 per cent and nine finished with over 100 per cent. Astonishingly, seven teams had at least 15 wins, which hadn’t been seen before.

Brisbane and Essendon finished with three wins and 61 per cent each, although the Bombers had understandable challenges that faced them.

2016 was the season that the AFL longed for, a new team crowned premiers, the average score was 88 points per game, the highest since the regular 90-point average in the early 2010s, and the accuracy stayed at 53.23 per cent, remaining consistent.

Since that point though, we have undergone a transformation in rules and regulations, with the AFL doing its best to manipulate the game for the entertainment of the masses.

Once again, it makes us think about what truly makes a great season in the AFL and whether 2021 is the best we’ve seen in years.

Do we judge it based on new contenders emerging, with a level of unpredictability in the end result?

Richmond followed the Bulldogs’ shock victory with a premiership of their own, breaking a long-standing drought and capturing the hearts of many. They brought forward a new, manic style that was hard to stop.

Subsequently, they became one of the greatest teams in the modern era, winning three flags in four seasons and becoming the most hated club going around, as is the case with successful clubs. If the AFL were seeking a new contender yearly, the Tigers put an end to that pretty quickly.

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Dustin Martin of the Tigers celebrates kicking a goal

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

2021 has brought back the new contenders, with the Demons a chance to snap their 57-year drought, Port Adelaide could win their second-ever flag, while Brisbane and Sydney are the types neutrals love, clubs that were unexpected risers into contention. Even the Cats haven’t won in a decade, and the Bulldogs would only be winning their third premiership.

But can we honestly say the culmination of the season, the result of one final game, is the deciding factor on whether we actually enjoyed it?

It’s true that the grand final is the most memorable part of any season result-wise; we saw it in 2018 with Dom Sheed and West Coast’s incredible victory. It’s what we remember of the classic rivalry between the Eagles and Swans in the mid-2000s.

Those types of results are few and far between though and honestly, grand final results defining a season tends to hold true with the supporter base of the victorious team predominately. They’re the ones that replay the game dozens of times and rightfully see the year through rose-coloured glasses.

Surely the scoring trend is concerning for the AFL given the desire to open the game up. Statistically, we’ll ignore the 2020 season given the shortened quarters, although to suggest there are asterisks on any sporting achievement during a global pandemic is nothing short of ludicrous; if there is one, it goes in favour of the successful teams for their teamwork and strength.

Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs fends off Travis Boak

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

In the 2016 home-and-away season, it was 88 points per game. In 2017, it was 89 before dropping to 83 in 2018 and 80 in 2019. In 2021, it has been 79 points. The accuracy of 52.32 per cent is the best since 2017.

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The desire to open the game up has resulted in another reduction in offensive output, but are we truly seeking high-scoring shootouts?

Maybe the quality of individual games is worth exploring, the range of margins may be worth exploring. It’s not necessarily always the case, but close footy tends to be good footy, flying in the fact of the necessity to give us endless goals.

Again, focusing purely on the home-and-away seasons, the trends have been positive, to the point that 2021 may take the cake if this is our preferred metric of judging the year.

Again, touching back on the infamous 2016 season, with such a close top seven, but a large overall discrepancy between the best and worst teams, the results only backed up the gulf in quality.

24.87 per cent of games, 49 overall, were decided by at least ten goals. That’s right, a quarter of every game in the home-and-away season was a huge blowout. Overall, 54.31 per cent of games were decided by more than five goals, which clearly flew in the face of equalisation.

We look at it so fondly, given the end result, but it was an ugly season for the neutral and was the key factor behind the need to change rules.

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Since 2016, there haven’t been more than 26 games decided by over ten goals in a single season, which is a definite positive. Between 2017 and 2019, around 30 per cent of games were decided by 41+ points which was an improvement, but we don’t tend to necessarily look fondly on those seasons as great footy, but more in the eyes of familiarity, before the pandemic took over.

In 2021, the improvement has been significant. Just 23.81 per cent of games have been decided by 41+ points, with one round left in the home-and-away season. Only ten per cent of games (19 matches) have been extreme blowouts, and three of them came in Round 22.

Less extreme results on the upper end have been matched by closer results at the other end.

Round 22 was the first time this season that a round hasn’t had at least one game decided by ten points or less. Like three of the last four seasons, these results have accounted for 22.22 per cent of games.

2021 has matched its reduction in blowouts with an increase in closer games.

43.39 per cent of games have been decided by 20 points or less. We’ve had to deal with less meaningless footy overall, as momentum shifts and a level of evenness across depth on AFL lists has given us more to look forward to.

Volatility still exists, but instead of it being directed at the quality of games through margins, it’s been about the end result, with the unpredictable performances of teams stealing headlines.

David Mundy celebrates a goal.

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

The average score per game has dropped by ten points in the last five full-length seasons, yet the contests have been closer and more captivating.

There is certainly an argument to be made for the tightening of results being a huge tick of approval for the desire to make the competition more equal, particularly when we see a similar gap between the first and eighth, with eighth and 18th.

How each person decides to rate a season will ultimately be of their own choice, and it may well come from a variety of different reasons.

What has been successful in 2021, however, is that we are truly in a competition where any team can beat any other on any day unless you’re a bottom ten team against Port Adelaide, which helps somewhat limit the footy fatigue that tends to hit in July/August as we approach finals.

Once a season is done and dusted, we can generally throw a blanket over the results of home-and-away season games and pick out the highlights we choose to. That doesn’t change where the year has been full of demolitions or tight games.

For the most part, however, we should appreciate the 2021 season for what it is.

Not all the rule changes have actually made a difference, it’s more likely that the ongoing effects of interrupted seasons, preseasons and the fitness flow on has had more of an impact.

But 2021 has certainly been a strong year of footy and as we head into finals, it’s nice to think that we can appreciate the contests that have been put in front of us during these times.

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