The journey from the bottom to the top isn’t instantaneous.
The growing pains of young sides sees bursts of positive change, but also the underlying signs of real trouble. Good weeks will be followed by bad losses. Young players that show solid signs will occasionally have weak games.
Coming into the 2021 season, North Melbourne was pegged by most as the team likely to win the wooden spoon and finish at the bottom of the ladder. Just a month ago, noted inflammatory AFL hot taker Kane Cornes called North Melbourne one of the worst sides in the AFL era. Since then, North Melbourne have won two of their four games, including a win in Perth against West Coast.
Recent weeks have seen significantly improved performances from the Shinboners, in wins and in losses. Most importantly, the process that new coach David Noble was seeking in May is starting to show signs of progress on the field, regardless of result.
Although the Roos are still likely to grab the spoon at the end of the season, the prognosis for the side is far better than most expected in January.
Building through the middle
One of the ways that young sides get exposed is in the physical contests. Playing in the AFL is a grind, and requires both the strength and knowledge of how to win the ball in contested situations, and transfer it to the outside.
Last year, North was slightly above league average in both clearances and contested marks, two of the simplest measures of the hard ball. This masked bigger deficiencies elsewhere around the ground, and was also something that was about to change.
Last off-season, the Roos embarked on a cull of their playing list, pushed further by a bigger cut to list sizes across the league. North went from having the sixth oldest list in the league in 2020 to the second youngest this year.
In the offseason, North lost or shed experienced bodies such as Shaun Higgins, Ben Brown, Jamie MacMillan and Jasper Pittard. As expected, early this year their relative weaknesses in contests, both aerial and on the ground, were exposed.
North took about two months to work themselves into competitiveness in tight. They were beaten up around the stoppages early, losing clearance differentials for their first six weeks. If footy is about territory and possession, they were struggling to effectively generate enough possession to dominate the territory battle. It left defence exposed and led to large scores being compiled against the young Roo defence.
Although the end result was a loss, the breakthrough game was a strong round 7 midfield performance against the side often tabbed as strongest in the clinches — Melbourne. North won both the stoppage and centre clearances, generating a then-season’s best six goals, one behind from total clearances.
It’s also directly led to more chances to keep the scoreboard ticking, doubling their scoring shots from clearances from around four to eight per game.
This improvement has launched a stretch of much more promising performances through the middle, winning the clearances in seven of their last 10 games, and the inside 50 battle in five games across this stretch. Generally, inside 50s are considered to be the most important thing for sides to win — with about 80 per cent of wins registered by the team who got the ball inside 50 more.
While longtime inside hardnut Ben Cunnington still wins more than his fair share in the contests, the improvement has largely been driven by the continued development of some of their younger talents such as Jy Simpkin, Luke Davies-Uniacke and Tarryn Thomas.
Simpkin, Davies-Uniacke and Thomas, North’s first pick in each of the drafts from 2016 to 2018 respectively, have demonstrated ability in fits and spurts. In the last couple of months they have been able to put it together at the same time.
Of the three, Thomas has shown the most promise, able to transition inside ball to the outside effectively. If he continues on his path of development, he has a real shot of shaping into one of the truly elite players in the competition.
Form for young teams can be fragile, however, and things may shift back for North. Judgement shouldn’t be made on a week to week basis, but instead with the longer view in mind.
Patience is a virtue
Another key shift for North has been how they use the ball when they get control of it. There’s sometimes a tendency for younger, inexperienced teams to not see the shorter options, and default to kicking the ball down the line more often than they should. With a top level ruck in Todd Goldstien, this may have been an easy strategic call for the side.
But North’s improvement has also been underwritten by more determination to find shorter targets and to work laterally to open up defences, waiting for the right target rather than the one that gains the most distance.
This subtle shift has seen a dramatic improvement in the impact of their classy ball users such as Aaron Hall, who is playing some of the best footy of his career. Hall gets almost all of his ball on the outside, and has become one of two trusted users who deliver the ball out of the defensive 50. His return to the side in round 7 against Melbourne coincided with North’s improved ability to move the ball.
The other key outlet from defence, captain Jack Ziebell, has thrived in a defensive playmaker role, controlling the game from the back. While North’s tall defenders aren’t the most attacking in nature, the use of these two down back somewhat makes up for this deficiency.
It’s not just on those with the ball in hand, it’s also the way the side has improved their ability to lead and find space. Where in early rounds the leading patterns looked a little stagnant, recent weeks have seen efforts redoubled to working for their teammates.
The Shinboners have also redoubled their emergency options, tending to play an extra tall in the forward half of the ground compared with their earlier weeks. This has given opposition sides extra pause when trying to defend those bailout kicks that are so commonplace in the modern game.
North’s recent resurgence points not only thanks to their successful early build, but a stronger underlying theme of the 2021 AFL season — that of competitive equality. The AFL, thanks to strong equalisation measures implemented in the past three decades, has increasingly turned into an “any given weekend” league, where the worst sides in the league can hang with the best.
Instead of chasms of talent from the haves to the have nots, the graduations down the ladder are less severe. North, extremely likely to win the right to draft first (if not the player selected first) in the 2021 Draft, has been competitive with the two competition front runners in Melbourne and the Bulldogs in their most recent match ups.
The big question for North’s football department, and for their fans, is when this competitiveness will be matched by a substantive rise up the ladder. At the start of the year, coach David Noble was less concerned with chasing wins this year, and more with setting up the side for the future.
Given the tightness of the current competition, similar patience for the potential rise might be worthwhile.