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Opinion

Ross Lyon’s defensive approach is turning the Saints into a dangerous force

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2nd April, 2023
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During his time with St Kilda and Fremantle, Ross Lyon was well known for structuring games around a defensive style that ultimately focused more on being conservative rather than taking risks going forward.

Freo’s current scoring woes are not only just down to a lack of forward options, but they’re also carrying the slight fragments left behind from Lyon’s influence, an issue that Justin Longmuir is still trying to solve.

Despite reaching a Grand Final with the Saints in 2010 with his philosophy, the game has well and truly evolved into a more attacking brand of footy with further emphasis on quick movement and intensity.

Before this season commenced in his second stint at the Saints, Lyon admitted that times have changed.

“You need more than one gear, certainly. I think the trend now has been to go forward more quickly. The uncontested and control game is disappearing,” Lyon said.

Exciting footy is what neutrals and fans want to see and they rightly want their money’s worth in terms of tickets. Many assumed that the days of defensive focus and kick-to-kick possession demonstrated mostly by Alastair Clarkson’s Hawthorn were long gone.

Ross Lyon addresses his St Kilda players.

Ross Lyon addresses his St Kilda players. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

What if an ultimatum was offered to those same fans with the option of winning a premiership based on a defensive identity? Would they accept it?

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So far in 2023, it’s clear that Lyon has stuck to what he’s most comfortable with and used the few months of pre-season to get the defensive solidity right.

Saturday night’s 92-74 win over the Bombers at the MCG improved St Kilda’s record to 3-0 and sent a stern warning to the rest of the competition that they mean business.

What would have teams on edge through analysing their most recent performances would have to be the Saints’ potential to shut out opponents and limit scoring opportunities with great effect.

Consistency has stood out regarding the defensive side of the game. At one point during last week’s encounter with the Bulldogs, the Saints avoided conceding a goal for 99 straight minutes of actual game time combining the first two rounds.

Against the Dons, they conceded their first goal of the match with just under five minutes remaining in the first term.

A clear pattern is already starting to emerge. They kept Fremantle, Western Bulldogs, and Essendon to scores of 52, 41, and 74 respectively, conceding an average of 55.7 points per game. Those three clubs are no easy beats by any means.

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In those 15 minutes where the Bombers failed to kick a major, Brad Scott’s men recorded 11 inside 50s with just a solitary behind to show for it. Composure in possession and getting the likes of Douglas Howard and Josh Battle to clog up the empty pockets of spaces were noticeable from a St Kilda point of view, which already has them set as a tough side to break down due to suffocating opponents in their own half.

Lyon’s comments after he took over the reigns at the Saints last year implied that he doesn’t contain the strongest list, but has some exciting personnel to work with.

“I don’t think we’re the quickest, but we’ve got really good endurance athletes. In the longer term we know we need to build our spine and capability,” Lyon said.

If you look at their list, there are no real stars that jump out, but there’s a lot of potential and consistency that can be built on as a unit over time.

Slowing the game down on their terms might be due to that very reason. After three rounds, the Saints rank first in the AFL for total disposals with 1208 and third in the marking department, averaging 110 per game.

They also don’t mind handing over possession to their opponents, as there were times when Essendon was forced to kick the ball around in untroubled areas of the ground to try and pick out options. That’s a credit to Lyon for the Saints’ defensive discipline and structure.

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Regardless of form and talent, styles make fights at the end of the day.

The majority of the competition looks to play expansive, free-flowing, and attacking footy, consisting of pressure and intensity from start to finish.

This will make it a fascinating watch when the Saints come up against a side like the Magpies in round five. Will the Saints’ defensive pressure be enough to keep it close against the true premiership contenders and make it a scrap.

Former coach Brett Ratten had his players playing some entertaining stuff, leading to many confused faces after the surprising dismissal that followed. Lyon won’t want to lose the majority of that forward play and identity, but it’s clear from the outset that he is sticking to what he knows best.

Call it boring, call it frustrating, but it’s a system that has worked in the past and is proving to still have an impact in the modern game.

Can Ross Lyon and his Saints keep marching on?

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