I decided to do a little unpacking of Richmond’s game plan, based on my own observations and a teensy bit of data.
Grant Thomas seems to have echoed a general consensus in his comment that the Richmond team was an ‘unskilled’ one and that the win, like last year’s Bulldog victory, showed that ‘intensity’, ‘hardwork’ and all those good football cliches can turn pretenders into contenders. I’m very skeptical of such thinking. The idea that one team is more motivated or harder working than others might hold weight for a random H&A encounter (sometimes teams just don’t seem to ‘turn up’), but I can’t accept there’d be a noticeable difference on this score across three finals encounters.
So what is the Tigers game plan? It’s my observation that over the last 10 years football has become about the press, both setting one up effectively and breaking through the opposition (Clarkson’s 2008 “cluster” was the first time I really began to notice this live, though no doubt the trend was well on the way from various teams). The Tigers, like the Bulldogs, give their press extra teeth by running a smaller, makeshift forward line that allows them additional midfield rotations (the Bulldogs in particular valued this) and greater pressure on the opposition HBFers, thus stopping a crucial source of counter-play and reducing the oppositions ability to ‘beat the press’. This game plan can be broadly categorised as “defensive”. According to TheSquiggle they are the 3rd weakest offensive team to have won a premiership in the AFL era (ahead of the the WB 2016 and Swans 2005), but are the 2nd best defensive unit to have won a flag (narrowly edging the 2012 Swans but behind their 2005 model). So what does this look like statistically? I had a look at their three finals games.
I expected to see that they dominated three key areas - Clearances, Contested Possessions, Tackles and i50s. I expected a deficiency in Uncontested Possessions. That’s simply what it looked like to me, watching these games live (I haven’t re-watched them, life’s too short).
The first thing that jumps out is the GWS game. They lost basically every statistic. Leon Cameron copped some flack for his coaching but I strongly suspect it was injuries (Cameron out, Lobb forced to ruck) and poor selection (Stevie J was cooked) that reduced their forward line to a shambles, they managed only 67 points from 59 I50s.
In the other two games we notice a few things, they had strong wins some areas across the Qualifying Final and Grand Final: Contested Possessions, +19 and +30, inside 50s +19 and +9, they also had far fewer Uncontested Possessions -28 and -47.
What is interesting is that they lost the tackle count in both (only just, -2 and -3), however they were able to force all three sides into significantly higher clanger counts (Geelong +8, GWS +14, Adelaide +8). This, perhaps, is the mark of an effective press. It’s not the tackles themselves (takes more than just hard work!) but the combination of tackling pressure and effective up the ground set ups.
I decided to compare it to the Bulldogs run last year. The Bulldogs lost the tackle count every game (by an incredible 43!! to the Hawks), but had fewer clangers in every single game (they also had 12 more free kicks than the Swans, jeezus can you imagine Blitz if that happened to us). Interestingly they had higher Uncontested Possession counts than Richmond, indicating they moved the ball less directly than the Tigers.
Now, the obvious question is simply perhaps “don’t good teams just make fewer mistakes?” so I unpacked that a little further. I decided to look at Geelong in 2011 as an example of a wonderful attacking team, they racked up more clangers than their opponents in 2 finals (1 tied) but also dominated the I50 count, indicating a more ‘high risk’ game plan. I also looked at Essendon 2000 (because, hey, why not!) and we had a higher clanger count in 2 of the 3 finals (12 more vs North, lol).
Now obviously, these are majorly small sample sizes but I do think it’s interesting that two very defensive teams have won back to back flags, when the historical trend has been that offense generally carries the day (as DJR would say, LOL Ross Lyon).
All data taken from afltables.com - as the samples were quite small I didn’t bother compiling it in a very thorough fashion, it’s easy enough for people to look up on their own.