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Is there actually a tactical benefit of coaching an AFL game at ground level - or is it just personal preference?

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Roar Pro
22nd May, 2024
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The legendary Ron Barassi was a pioneering coach in many ways.

His innovations included observing matches from an elevated viewpoint. This is hardly controversial – you can see and interpret what’s happening much better that way.

Nevertheless, coaches had adhered to the longstanding tradition of looking on at ground level until Barassi began coaching from a lofty perch.

The elevated viewpoint soon became regarded as a no-brainer for a serious coach.

Today, however, some AFL coaches, including even successful ones like Craig McRae, have reverted back to coaching from ground level.

This is intriguing, even puzzling.

It’s still obvious that the elevated view is far superior for anyone striving to analyse a game as it unfolds.

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Did Ross Lyon allude to a factor in his recent remarks about runners? Perhaps some coaches have concluded that these days, with the use of runners restricted – which was not previously the case – they can be more influential at ground level.

That is, interacting with players frequently as they come off and go on might seem more effective than remaining remote in the coach’s box with a limited ability to communicate with players on the ground through a telephone.

It’s interesting to compare the coaches. Chris Scott and John Longmire are seasoned analysts and astute tacticians.

Scott’s transformational deployment of Jeremy Cameron and Mark Blicavs has been rightly hailed.

Longmire’s tactical nous was recently underlined when he assigned James Jordon to curb Freo’s Jordan Clark and, the following week, Sam Walsh, both with pronounced success.

Craig McRae Collingwood Bench

Craig McRae speaks with Nick Daicos mid-game from the bench. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

These days Scott and Longmire remain in the coaches’ box and retain the best view. So does Justin Longmuir, another thoughtful coach whose post-game press conferences consistently demonstrate a comprehensive grasp of the match he’s just supervised.

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In contrast, Chris Fagan and Michael Voss prefer to coach at ground level. Has anyone asked them why? Is this preference enhancing their coaching, and are their teams benefiting?

Carlton, for example, seems very predictable with the big bull midfielders Voss prefers – so no dash and zip apart from Walsh, which made Longmire’s decision to tag him all the more effective – complemented by the renowned pair of key forwards, who don’t seem as influential as might be expected.

This particularly applies to Charlie Curnow, who doesn’t have to do much to get commentators enraptured.

Kane Cornes recently urged Carlton to use Curnow like Cameron of Geelong, which sounds like a good idea in theory as Curnow has the physical attributes for such a role.

But this adjustment would require Voss to have the tactical sophistication to authorise it and Curnow to have the game awareness to implement it.

Last year Carlton turned things around comprehensively after a poor patch and stormed into the finals. How this came about is revealing.

Michael Voss addresses the Blues.

Carlton coach Michael Voss. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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It seems to have resulted less from on-field refinements and more from reinforced cohesion, notably the much-touted team-bonding get-together at the Curnows’ Torquay residence. It was complemented by collective relief that the Carlton hierarchy resolved to shun the club’s notorious tradition of ruthlessly sacking the coach.

Plentiful injuries have hampered Carlton’s progress this season. But tactical flexibility has again been inconspicuous, apart from Curnow bolstering the defence occasionally.

While this has proved worthwhile at times, having him back there when the Blues were about six goals down against Sydney didn’t seem astute. Voss understandably looked nonplussed and resorted to a rare visit to the coaches’ box.

Michael Voss was a superb captain, tough and skilful with outstanding leadership attributes.

He blended his fierce follow-me look with, at other times, his engaging cheekiness and lovely smile, characteristics that no doubt serve him well in his man-management as a coach.

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But is Carlton likely to maximise the playing talent at its disposal with a coach who prefers to watch at ground level, keeps his team’s structure relatively predictable, doesn’t place much emphasis on disrupting opposition planning by canny match-ups as John Longmire does, and sometimes gives the impression that his perception of a match boils down to whether it looks like “our game” or “our brand”? We’re about to find out.

If Voss reverted to the elevated view Barassi pioneered, perhaps Carlton’s tactical agility during matches might improve.

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