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'Disproportionate reaction': Forget the doomsayers - Sydney's shock loss to Richmond means absolutely nothing

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Expert
5th April, 2024
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3524 Reads

Overreacting to a single loss is one of the most overplayed scenarios in sport, but it’s important for the Swans to still believe that they are one of the flag favourites for 2024.

For supporters, the loss to the Tigers was a frustrating hiccup, particularly given the heavy favouritism and expectation.

More and more, at least for fans, the Round 2 win against Collingwood at the venue feels like an aberration, given it’s Sydney’s only win at the MCG from their last seven outings. Yet, Sydney was a premiership contender as soon as the trade period finished last year. The club entered the season as a likely top-end team. And with a 75 per cent win rate through four games, soon to be improved to 80 per cent before their early bye, they remain, a logical tip for the flag.

Of course, no one is specifically saying that after a Round 3 loss, Sydney can’t win the flag, but the reaction has certainly been disproportionate to the output.

It was an off game, for sure. The Swans were simply outhunted by a more inexperienced, hungry group with nothing to lose. It felt like they took the Tigers lightly and suffered the ultimate consequence.

If we look at the opening month of the season though, they key indicators are great for Sydney. Sydney’s defending well overall, they did so particularly strongly against two fellow flag contenders.

In each of their first three matches, the Swans forced their opponents to over-possess significantly, predominately through the midfield. They do a good job in defending space with their small forwards, whether it’s through tackling or implied pressure, and their occupation of space gives Sydney enough time to get numbers into the back half. As a result, the team is conceding just nine marks inside 50s, ranked as the fourth-best defence of that statistic. Playing the percentages, they’d rather force opponents to take flying shots from distance or difficult shots at ground level.

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Ultimately, the Swans are a bit undermanned defensively, so they’re using the pressure game higher up the ground to minimise the number of one-on-ones they’re exposed to at the back – Tom McCartin and Nick Blakey are performing well regardless, as is Lewis Melican given his opportunity, but being able to peel off, intercept and counter-attack is made easier with the team defence.

Where this fell apart in the end against the Tigers was the injury to Dane Rampe, who remains arguably their single most important piece. On the run mid-game, it’s nigh on impossible to tactically adjust to a team losing their best lockdown defender.

There were moments when the Swans felt like they were taking control of the game, but their quick ball movement caught them out without Rampe marshalling the troops. That’s fixable going forward and Rampe will return in around a month regardless.

Upon his return later in the season, we should expect to see more of Callum Mills behind the ball when not rotating through the middle. The positioning of such a steady player in the back half with experience, good hands and aggressive tackling will almost act as a version of Rampe across half-back.

It’ll force the opposition to try and breach a strong defensive line two times instead of one, which will just make it harder to be direct.

Offensively, they’re efficient and pretty direct. They’re one of the best teams in terms of disposals per score in the competition, they’re ranked fifth for inside 50s and marks inside 50 and are third for scoring shots per game through four games.

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Not to minimise the impact of the legendary Lance Franklin, but there’s more of an unknown about the Swans’ attack now without the domineering focal point and the team looks a lot better now.

The disappointing part of the loss against the Tigers was that their pressure game was well off what it is usually – as Robbie Fox, Will Hayward, James Rowbottom and James Jordon all average two tackles inside 50 per game – rated elite.

Tom Papley and Hayward rate elite for their marking inside 50, Logan McDonald is developing nicely while they’re getting a lot of run from advanced midfielders to help hit the scoreboard.

If we’re to look at the Swans as a whole, this really is a group that looks good all over the park and is functioning at about 75 per cent capacity.

Luke Parker’s impending return should solve the Isaac Heeney dilemma. As stellar as the 27-year-old’s start to the season has been, in no way should he be used as a full-time midfielder if the Swans are serious about his longevity for the season and his impact.

First, they can play the exact same role and split it 50/50 in the forward line. Heeney has been one of Sydney’s best aerial targets while rating above average and often elite for pressure at ground level. That’s the Swans’ go this season, to tackle hard inside 50 to slow down any counter-attacks. They can’t rely on Papley to do it, and Hayward likes to venture up the ground.

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Heeney looked gassed against the Tigers and that’s four games into the season. A pure rotation with Parker will increase the output of both players.

Another midfield dilemma to solve will relate to the inclusion of Taylor Adams, who spent last year at Collingwood more as a high half-forward.

One would suspect he’s part of the larger rotation that gets some more time in the middle, but that role is actually pretty suitable to him and the Swans with their team defence. His kicking is much better with space and his ability to hit targets inside 50 improved significantly.

More pertinently, having Adams and Jordon on respective forward flanks and pushing up may allow Longmire to pull the trigger and get Errol Gulden into the centre bounce rotation on a permanent basis. Gulden’s arguably the Swans’ best player and has been spending far too much time on the wing and as an outside midfielder to have a direct impact on the game. His fitness base is one of the best in the league and it’s benefitted certainly without having to crash into contests, but the 21-year-old’s cleanliness at stoppages has been lost in the opening month to the desire of using him as a runner.

Chad Warner and Errol Gulden celebrate a goal.

Chad Warner and Errol Gulden. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The inclusion of the three veteran absentees can occupy spots in attack and defence enough to push Gulden back into the midfield, which will be key to maintaining that two-way running.

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Sydney’s got so much untapped potential tactically that hasn’t been able to be used so far based on Longmire’s trust, which is perfectly normal early in the season, but leaves a group susceptible to bad, uncommitted performances, as the Swans produced against the Tigers.

And while a month isn’t enough time to truly judge a playing group, the early signs are that the Swans have improved their offensive ball movement and the way in which they want to score, while defensively, they’re defending the entire ground, they’re occupying space well and are particularly restrictive in allowing their opponents to hit up simple targets.

As a whole, that’s a pretty impressive collection of improvements that tend to be indicators in going a long way into September in the AFL.

Add the fact they’ve been pretty undermanned in this opening portion of the season, and it’s been a big tick overall. If you’d asked anyone whether the Swans would take having won three games in the opening month of the season, which included an away fixture against the reigning premiers and an opener against Melbourne, you’d have been met with a lot of positivity.

We’re in that exact situation heading into a clash against the cellar dwellers of the competition, and there’s no reason to feel anything other than positive about the Swans.

By the time the difficulty of the fixture ramps up, they will have welcomed back Rampe, while Parker and Adams will both have had good reps under their belt.

The Swans are one of the very best teams in the AFL in 2024 and overreacting to an early season loss serves no good for a flag contender.

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