Beating the Dees: What can other teams take out of Dockers’ playbook?

The planets aligned last week for Fremantle. Steven May was concussed after a few minutes. His back-up, Harrison Petty, was hobbled. Their break-glass-in-case-of-emergency key back option, Tom McDonald, was out. A crook Christian Petracca was on half rat power. Clayton Oliver was tagged out of the game (for a half). Max Gawn was beaten. Melbourne kicked inaccurately.

Almost every move Justin Longmuir made in the coaches’ box was carried out to the letter. After half-time, they hardly missed in front of goal. They dominated clearance, and controlled the skies. The Dees were stuck between the devil and the deep red-and-blue sea.

Illness to Christian Petracca was one of a long list of things that went wrong for Melbourne in their loss to Fremantle.Credit:Getty

This is a long list of what went wrong for the Demons, or right for the opposition, for them to be beaten. Rarely will this all happen again. This may seem dispiriting to rival clubs, but there is room for error – as the margin of 38 points attests. The Dockers played extremely well and bolted in, not merely falling over the line.

Demons defeats are rare. Fremantle found a way to beat the Dees, but by no means is it the only way.

To tag or not to tag?

Longmuir’s move to run James Aish with Oliver has been widely hailed as a masterstroke. Oliver had 24 possessions to half-time but just 12 in the second half when the Dees were overrun. With Petracca ill, their two midfield guns were rendered ineffective.

Should teams tag Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca?Credit:Getty Images

The tag, or a “cooler” as it is called today, clearly worked for Freo, but it’s worth noting Adelaide and Greater Western Sydney did not clamp down on Oliver or Petracca in their upset wins last year.

Petracca polled two Brownlow votes for his 30 possessions and two goals against the Giants, while Oliver was best afield with 38 disposals and three goals in Adelaide.

Logically, it is easier to win if the opposition’s best player has no influence, so why then is this strategy not used more often?

“Without giving too much away sometimes tagging can pull your stoppage apart,” Crows coach Matthew Nicks said after their win over the Dees in round 10 last year.

Even pro-tag coaches are prudent in its deployment, wary that its overuse can stymie a team’s long-term development and remove its surprise value.

There is also the worry of being a player down in their team defence. St Kilda great and Western Bulldogs AFLW senior coach Nathan Burke is aghast at this reasoning.

“I don’t agree with that whole garbage of one man down,” said Burke, who played from 1987-2003 when the tag was common.

“The fact you can stop their No.1 ball-getter who starts chains of four to five possessions and gets others in the game, that does more than anyone who might not be standing in a hole in a zone.

“To say you’re a man down in your zone defence, push a half-forward up or bring a wing in closer. If one person creates a huge big hole I don’t know what the rest are doing.

“Every time it’s effective a team wins the game. The number one thing you want to do as a team, you don’t want to give the other team what they want. What they want is Clayton Oliver getting a whole bunch of possessions and clearances from the middle and starting the attack from him. Don’t give them what they want.”

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Mayday

Such is May’s ability to both guard space and an opponent, the Dockers sent regular backman Griffin Logue forward to defend him, effectively sacrificing a forward. The role became redundant when May was concussed minutes into the game, but the Demon’s absence was keenly felt when the Dockers surged after half-time.

Steven May was concussed early in the loss to Fremantle, leaving a big hole in Melbourne’s defence.Credit:Getty

With McDonald unavailable, the knock-on effect meant Jake Lever had to take the No. 1 forward instead of the second, Petty the second instead of third and so on. When Petty was injured, running back Jayden Hunt stood Matthew Taberner, giving up 11 kilograms, 11 centimetres and a free kick that led to a goal.

Freo’s first three goals in the second half came either from marks to big forwards or free kicks from defenders under pressure. Their small forwards – Lachie Schultz and Michael Frederick kicked six goals – feasted on the soft drops from the May-less marking contests to either ratchet the pressure or score.

“The biggest thing for me was they got the ball in deep,” one assistant coach said. “Get it to 70 out then attack the goal square and have talls get it to ground. Their ground players got going because of it.”

The stat for goals per inside 50 can be misleading for teams that force repeated entries when the zone is more congested, but the Dockers’ scoring percentage of 40 (12 goals from 30 entries) after half-time is more than double the Dees’ season average conceded of 18.

That the Dockers, 12th for points scored, could inflict this much damage should encourage other clubs, Burke said.

“You wouldn’t say it’s a star-studded forward line,” Burke said. “There’s lots of teams with better forward lines than Freo. Look at the Saints with [Max] King, [Tim] Membrey – that’s better than Freo’s.”

Beating Gawn, Jackson

In 2019, Port Adelaide pair Scott Lycett and Paddy Ryder targeted Gawn physically. Human bulldozer Shane Mumford did likewise last year, polling a vote in the AFL coaches award for a 10-possession game.

The Crows did not allow Gawn to mark unopposed by sending Reilly O’Brien with him to force a contest. Sean Darcy had his biggest impact against Luke Jackson when he was proactive in finding space. The cherry was his mark and goal after streaming forward from a centre bounce.

Teams need to find a way around Max Gawn, says St Kilda great Nathan Burke.Credit:Getty

“He runs back and stands in a hole and pays scant regard to his opponent,” Burke said of Gawn.

“You have to find a way to take him out of what he wants, and be smart about kicking the ball around him. It astounds me how often they kick the ball to him. Hopefully, sides start to figure out the Gawn/Jackson combination and don’t keep playing into their hands.”

Clearance and pressure kings

In four of the Dees’ five losses in 2021-22, they have been beaten at the stoppages by an average of more than nine. When Carlton beat them in the pre-season, that too came from a lop-sided clearance count. The exception came in the one-point loss to the Crows, where they won the clearances by 23 but allowed their opponent 45 more uncontested possessions.

Slaughtered by the Dockers 11-3 out of the centre, their undermanned defence was placed under duress. Nor could the Dees handle the Dockers’ pressure around the ball. As one assistant coach put it, they trust the player at the contest to nail the tackle and slow the ball, so others can guard the outlet to either put more pressure or force a turnover. In 2022 football jargon, their “contest method” is strong.

Fremantle’s pressure on the ball-carrier is a major factor behind their success this year.Credit:Getty

“Picture the centre circle all around the ground,” Burke said. “They have blokes who are good in and under winning it, and the outer circle they structure really well. If a handball gets out [from the opposition], they hit him really well, and if it goes another layer they hit him well too.

“Both Geelong and Melbourne struggled to get through it effectively. Whilst they’re defensive, it’s not because they flood back but the way they structure themselves, who they stand next to, being able to read really quickly before it’s handballed.”

There are rich dividends if teams get this right. The Dockers outscored the Dees on turnover by 35 points.

Be bold

The Dockers lost all fluency in their ball movement in the second term when Melbourne gained the ascendancy at the contest. They played “scared”, Burke said, as St Kilda did in the first half against the Dees when worried about the “slingshot” effect from turning over the ball.

The Dockers flipped the contest numbers in the second half, which opened up more gaps in Melbourne’s defence.

“If you can be really good at the contest and take the ball forward they can be exploited,” Burke said. “When you’re unsure that’s when the Melbourne way can damage you. You have to be brave, bold and take them on.”

“You play keepings off, it plays into their hands,” Burke said. “We saw St Kilda do it in the first half, which, speaking with Brett Ratten afterwards, wasn’t their game plan.

“If you can be really good at the contest and take the ball forward they can be exploited,” Burke said. “When you’re unsure that’s when the Melbourne way can damage you. You have to be brave, bold and take them on.”

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