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The 'midfielder's sweet spot' is why Brisbane can win and the Kangas can't in 2022

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Roar Rookie
21st May, 2022
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In 2019, GWS Giant Steve Coniglio asserted that he and fellow Giants mid Josh Kelly were each in the “sweet spot” of their AFL careers.

The question is – for midfielders, just what is and where is the ‘sweet spot’ to be found; in essence the question of whether it is really a thing.

Well, it is, and it’s exactly why North Melbourne cannot compete in 2022 and why Brisbane are a genuine contender.

In 2019, Coniglio lined up in Round 1 aged 25 (and a bit) and with 118 games under his belt. Kelly had just turned 24 and came into the season with 100 games to his credit. In essence, the ‘sweet spot’ is when a young midfielder opens the door to their ‘prime’, when their development and learnings come together with their physical maturity and endurance base built upon repeated pre-seasons.

It is the capacity to be a four-quarter impactful player. It is the capacity to perform better under fatigue and to better execute skills, as well as improved decision making.

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Many midfielders spend early years playing limited midfield time and may play as a medium forward or run across half back. The entry point or doorway to the ‘sweet spot’ looks to typically be around age 23-24 and around 80-100 games.

For some players, it’s very obvious. Take Gary Ablett Junior for instance. Debuted in 2002 nearing age 18. His season 2007 saw him line up in Round 1 about a month shy of turning 23 and with 100 games’ experience.

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That season he returned 30-plus disposals ten times but significantly only twice in the first 11 games and from halfway through to the finals he repeated that effort on eight occasions; this in contrast to a maximum of 27 disposals in a game in 2006. Through season 2007 Gary Ablett Junior had ‘arrived’. That doesn’t mean that he was at his peak – that was still to come. By 2009 he was hitting 40-plus half a dozen times.

Gary Ablett of the Cats celebrates a goal

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

Christian Petracca made his debut in 2016 for Melbourne aged 20, and showed obvious talent as a No.2 draft pick. His trajectory has been partially clouded by COVID. Round 1 of 2020 saw Petracca aged 24 and with 86 games behind him, across 17 games of a very strange season he returned 400 disposals. That’s 400 in shortened games played in a compacted season.

He was lifting his game to a new level after having averaged below 19 disposals a game in 2019. And so come 2021 and a stellar season, 730 disposals from 25 games with 12 30-plus matches, including a mighty 39 in the grand final and 101 across the finals series.

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Petracca has entered the sweet spot doorway in 2020 and was showing what his peak can look like in 2021.

What does this mean for a club like North Melbourne? On this measure, North only has Jy Simpkin. To a lesser degree Jed Anderson and Hugh Greenwood have gone past the age criteria however for various reasons have been slower to accumulate the games.

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Luke Davies-Uniacke will turn 23 in June and is approaching 60 games. There is valid reason to expect that 2023 will be the year we see him truly emerging. Tarryn Thomas in 2023 will turn 23 and should be reaching 70-80 games through the middle of the season – likewise he should be entering that sweet spot zone. It can only happen with time, growth and experience.

A player like Bailey Scott is approaching age 22 and 50 games and is starting now to show signs that he’ll be able to grow from promising junior to an able senior. Perhaps too by the back half of 2023 he’ll begin to emerge. However, for North Melbourne, 2022 is a bridge too far.

Consider Brisbane. This season and last players such as Hugh McCluggage, Jarrod Berry and Brendon Ah Chee have been entering that career sweet spot. They now can be more impactful for longer. It’s natural ‘list improvement’. They now provide far greater support for the experienced pros in Lachie Neale, Dayne Zorko, Jarryd Lyons and Daniel Rich coming off the backline.

This provides Brisbane some phenomenal midfield depth, and allows them to validly imagine themselves taking it right up to Melbourne.

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Carlton is interesting – with Patrick Cripps peaking and fit they have recruited to support him. Adam Cerra for example – while only 22 is already past 80 games. Matthew Kennedy is physically a little older at 25 and has just reached 70 games and George Hewitt of course is 26 and nearing 130 games.

This has given Carlton the midfield depth to immediately contend. And Cripps is the key – and his doorway to the sweet spot was entered in 2018 around age 23 and 80 games. The advantage then for a player like Sam Walsh is that he isn’t the cake; he’s the cherry on top.

And so to North Melbourne, where Jason Horne-Francis has entered the system. If able to be retained he will ideally develop around a maturing midfield.

North Melbourne need to retain the talent and may no longer need to consider a Josh Kelly-style recruit. However, while under Chris Fagan the Brisbane Lions went from 17th to last to 15th and then the top four in the last three seasons; it’s hard to see David Noble being able to replicate that at North in the short term.

There just isn’t that base of experienced mids to build around. However, when Simpkin is joined by two, three and more other mids entering that ‘sweet spot’ then expect to see the Kangaroos far more competitive.

But for now it’s simply not possible.

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