After about a month and a half of anonymous football, this was a good week for a reminder, for themselves as much as anyone: Fremantle are very, very good.
Seemingly destined to fall in that frustrating fifth-to-seventh range for the finals – still an outstanding improvement after six straight years of missing the eight – the Dockers’ win over the Western Bulldogs suddenly has them more than just a sneaky chance for the top four.
No matter where they end up, though, they are going to be very hard to beat for any side going around. Provided, of course, it’s a dry day.
It’s difficult to get a gauge on just what Freo do so well without watching them live. If they come to your neighbourhood anytime in the next few years, it’s well worth heading to the ground to see them go about it. The Bulldogs won’t be the only side to whom they teach a footballing lesson.
During recent losses to Melbourne, Carlton and Sydney, plus an underwhelming draw with Richmond, the Dockers’ style of ball movement made a noticeable switch. They played on more, attacked through the corridor with far more dare, and attempted to take games by the scruff of the throat themselves rather than the death by a thousand cuts routine that proved so damaging for the Demons and Geelong in famous early-season wins.
At Marvel Stadium, freed from the wet conditions that stymied them last week, the Dockers’ old reliable method was back: accurate short kicks, slingshot footy from the turnover, and beautifully weighted passes to leading forward targets when inside 50.
Freo had 18 marks inside 50 for the match – their most for the season by a long way. The ball use was rarely short of exquisite, and rarer still from that all-important final kick.
From 50 inside 50s for the match, that meant the Dockers were getting a good shot at goal from more than a third of their entries. That level of efficiency is just ridiculous, especially for a side as renowned for their defence as this one.
To be sure, the Bulldogs’ defensive set-up – and just as importantly, their pressure on the ball carrier – is and was below standard. But to pick apart a perfectly reasonable performance from a perfectly reasonable team was absolutely outstanding from Freo.
The Dogs’ strategy without the ball is noticeably vulnerable to teams with elite kicking skills – think Sydney a few weeks ago, or Brisbane the week prior to that. They guard space ahead of the ball, but leave more gaps than most sides, almost daring the opposition to take the risk of a chip pass.
Their infamous move to shuffle 15 metres back from the mark on every occasion is reflective of their entire approach: they are happy to give a team a sideways pass, or gain incremental ground upfield, because they are confident that eventually they will be able to force a long kick up the line, which can be safely neutralised. Then, from a boundary throw-in, their famous contested ball strength kicks in to win it back.
The problem against Freo was that the Dockers simply refused to miss that risky kick. As such, that long kick up the line was seldom needed: when you’re hitting targets at 83 per cent efficiency for the match, an absurd number considering their 241-147 kick-handball ratio, it would be a waste to throw it on the boot.
The Dockers claimed 140 marks at Marvel Stadium – again, a season high, with 130 against Melbourne the only time they’ve even come close. 129 of those were uncontested, as Freo continually moved the ball with laserlike precision 15 metres forward, then 20 metres forward, until they found themselves on the edge of 50.
You only need look at the Dockers’ list of mark leaders to know how this game was played: Luke Ryan had 15, Heath Chapman 11, Jordan Clark 10, Brennan Cox 9. Then, up the other end: 8 from Matt Taberner in just a half and change before a calf injury, and seven from Rory Lobb, who could hardly have done more to justify the Dogs’ desire to get him on the books next year.
Of the latter duo, the great thing about the Dockers’ underrated duo is that, when at full flight, they lead into space better than most. Comparing them to the Bulldogs’ trio of talls in Aaron Naughton, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Josh Bruce was a fascinating contrast: the home side expected, and demanded, the ball to be sat on their heads so often that on the few occasions a Dog streamed up the ground looking to hit up a lead, they kicked straight to a Dockers defender with the forward caught flat-footed.
Elsewise, it was just long, desperate bombs to an outnumber – especially in the final term as the Dockers locked down with the match in their keeping.
That, of course, is what brought the Dockers unstuck against Melbourne in the wet last week: pressured and harrassed from the moment they won the ball, they were unable to get the ball into sufficient space, nor in the hands of their best users. The result was panicked Hail Marys that the Dees’ defence feasted upon.
What was just as impressive was the Dockers’ efforts against the Bulldogs’ much-vaunted midfield brigade – and it’s here more so than in their known strengths that makes this Freo outfit a genuine September dark horse.
Against Carlton at Marvel Stadium earlier in the season, the Dockers were on the end of a fearsome hiding out of the guts. The clearance count was 44-30 in favour of the Blues – 14-5 from the centre directly – and the result was the sort of territory dominance that not even Freo’s defence can cope with.
With 64 inside 50s to just 40, a 31-point Blues win was probably the best they could have hoped for. What was noticeable against the Bulldogs was just how much Freo had learned from it.
The Bulldogs still won the clearance count 36-29, and 15-10 from the centre – not quite the Blues’ walloping, but a count that usually brings about a red, white and blue win. The contested possessions, as well, were 133-104 the Dogs’ way: remember when that was seen as the catalyst for victory on nearly every occasion?
There was, of course, a key reason why the Dogs were so rampant in contested ball: an underrated but critical part of the Dockers’ set-up is their desire to have midfielders hold space. The Bulldogs will regularly have two, even three, players jostling for the ball at the bottom of the pack – it’s rare to see Fremantle have more than one at a time.
Whether it’s Caleb Serong, Andrew Brayshaw, Will Brodie or someone else, the rest fan out around him, a handball’s distance away: further on the outside are Blake Acres, Nathan O’Driscoll, and any number of their litany of half-backs keen to have the ball in their hands.
It works both ways: when the Dogs won it, which was more often than not, the set-up prevented any spread from the contest, with the Dockers closing ranks and forcing that long, hopeful ball forward that is manna from heaven for the purple back six.
But when Freo won it – and with eight clearances, no one did that more than Serong – they suddenly had options open everywhere. Usually, it was a handpass backwards to Hayden Young, or Chapman, or Ryan, who’d proceed to pinpoint a pass. But at other times, when they sensed an opening, Brodie or Brayshaw would surge it forward, through the Dogs’ press.
That would usually end up in the hands of David Mundy, who, in the final weeks of his career, is still just about the best kick inside 50 in the game. Little wonder the Dockers’ forwards were spoiled for choice.
Without the ball, too, the Dockers are expertly coached – and it’s here where the genius of Justin Longmuir becomes even clearer. Not only is it a perfectly set up web defence behind the ball, allowing no space inside 50 with every midfielder doing their bit to run back and support, but things instantly open up the moment they retake possession.
Whenever the Dockers intercepted, either with a Ryan mark or just from ground level, their first thought was to move wide – a contrast to the past few weeks, when they’ve looked to attack the corridor more. This return to old values seems to suit them far better, opening up spaces further afield for their exceptional kicking skills to make use of.
Of course, all of this might have been for nought had Freo not been ruthless in front of goal. But especially in setting up the game in the first half, the Dockers kicked everything that came their way.
Front and centre in everything was Lobb, who has seldom looked more crucial to the way Freo go about things. With Taberner now injury prone, Jye Amiss a few years away and Griffin Logue an admirable but limited stop-gap in attack, Lobb is the closest thing this team has to a spearhead.
There is no question the Dockers’ hopes of a flag in 2023, 2024 or 2025 will have plenty to do with whether he stays or, as expected, goes to the Bulldogs. His game on Saturday was as good as you could see from a tall forward in modern footy.
Leading out from deep forward, Lobb was too quick for Dogs debutant Sam Darcy, and too long in the arm for Zaine Cordy when the switch was made. His first three marks all set up fiendishly difficult set shots: the first kicking from just outside 50, the second two on the wrong flank for a right-footer.
He made them all look easy. By the time a fourth chance arrived during the third quarter, he was kicking them like Carey.
A pair of misses thereafter prevented a big bag, and probably will cost him best-afield honours – but he will only have grown in Luke Beveridge’s estimation ahead of a possible union next year.
There were, when all is said and done, two plays that confirmed the Dockers were not to be challenged, and exemplified the impact they can have in this finals series, top four or no.
The first came midway through the third term, moments after a Josh Bruce goal had drawn the margin back to 19 points. It seemed to be game on. But the Dockers would win the centre clearance, and force it wide to Nathan O’Driscoll, hotly pursued by a multiple All Australian in Jack Macrae.
Did the Docker panic, as the Dogs had done all day? Nope. He tucked the footy under his arm, burned off Macrae with sheer pace, bounded to 50 with two bounces, and sent through a gorgeous drop punt right through the big sticks, clutching the jumper as he did so.
It’s been a while since a foot injury cost him his place in this Freo team; but back for his first AFL match since Round 8, the first-year Docker’s electric pace and outside run make him a massive asset for this team to have.
The second came shortly after, with the Dogs again challenging. The Dockers burst through their rivals from a stoppage, a rarity for much of the day, and the ball came to Caleb Serong on the burst.
His kick was, I do not lie, the best of the season. On the run, with Dogs all around him, his pass to a charging Blake Acres was unimprovable. Any slower, higher or shorter, and Ed Richards would have been able to spoil; any further out in front, and the Bulldog would have likely run Acres down.
Not just any team can make a kick like that look so easy. But Freo aren’t just any team.