Don't Sleep On Sam Mitchell And Hawthorn

Sam Mitchell is a winner.

While Hawthorn’s hierarchy handling of his appointment as new head coach was beyond farcical, the dust has settled and the Hawks have another brilliant mind in charge heading into his first off-season.

The 39-year-old himself is one of the most decorated players in club history. Mitchell’s a 4-time Premiership player, 3-time All-Australian, 5-time best-and-fairest and a Brownlow Medalist, as well as being one of the smartest players to ever grace the AFL.

Of course, a lot of credit for Mitchell’s development as a player and a coach goes to the man he replaced, yet the new man in charge will be keen to prove his worth.

Despite the controversy and subsequent ignominy of a messily-handled coaching turnover, the actual transition for the playing group will be quite easy.

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Sam Mitchell is a winner, just like Alastair Clarkson.

There’s a reason as to why West Coast sought Mitchell out for the final stages of his playing career, as they looked to build a winning culture from someone with experience.

A player-coach for all intents and purposes in 2017, he signed on as an official assistant coach for West Coast in 2018, helping the club to a Premiership. They haven’t been the same since he left.

So now, Sam Mitchell has a list all to himself, one that people look relatively poorly upon, yet a list full of hidden potential that provides the Hawthorn Premiership captain with an opportunity to flex his smarts on the competition.

The Hawks have been on a downward spiral since 2016 in all reality, with the 2018 season an aberration that didn’t feel real at the time and was proven right with a completely expected straight-sets exit.

In the seasons since, they’ve finished 9th, 15th and 14th, the latter a result of a late-season flurry of positive results that a conspiracy theorist would point at Clarkson’s desire to leave the club with a slightly worse pick.

In 2021, Hawthorn was ranked 1st for disposals, 3rd for tackles, disposal efficiency and one-percenters, 4th for intercepts and 6th for tackles inside 50, all impressive numbers and on paper, indicative of a good team in-and-out of possession, with good ball control.

The issue was, even with all good ball use and defensive pressure, the Hawks were ranked 10th for inside 50s, 13th for points for, 15th for marks inside 50 and conceded the 4th-most points for the season.

Defensively, they were good at intercepting and tackling, but it was tactically disjointed and there was no flow-on.

They conceded the second-most inside 50s, running bounces and metres gained, as well as the third-most marks inside 50.

Offensively, despite having the third-highest disposal efficiency, only 20.33% of their inside 50s resulted in marks, ranked in the bottom four. 

Hawthorn’s opponents also ranked first in the league for intercepts.

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With middling clearance numbers and the league’s highest turnover count, we are left with a confusing team, particularly given the stark contrast between their worst (which was on display for 80% of the season) and their best which they flashed over the last month or so and where they lost just once in their last six games. 

This is where Sam Mitchell comes in, as he possesses the same aura of the man he replaces.

What has made Hawthorn so good for such a long period of time has been the way in which they’ve been coached. 

Clarkson is a teacher and spent a lot of his time teaching players how to play in multiple positions using real game-time, as well as highlighting certain statistics as indicators for the way he wants his team to play.

Even at Hawthorn’s worst, under Clarkson, you felt they were always learning something.

Mitchell doesn’t walk into a senior team that is ranked last in every category and he knows it.

As one of the greatest teams of all time, the Hawks had elite ball users off half-back particularly to complement their interceptors and were able to spread the ball from clearance situations efficiently and get the ball inside 50.

In attack, they had mobile key forwards and a combination of great goal sense and elite speed and pressure at their feet. There was no need for an outstanding ruckman, just someone who’d be competitive and follow-up.

Just in case there are questions about how easy this handover will be and why Hawthorn is already a step ahead of where most will have them, West Coast’s 2018 premiership team had an identical setup to that of Hawthorn at its prime. 

While Adam Simpson had that experience and was in charge at the time, it was abundantly clear the influence Sam Mitchell had in helping the team take the next step.

It makes a huge difference when a winner is in charge.

Now in 2022, Mitchell takes over and immediately gets the boost of having James Sicily return, as well as the hopeful return to full fitness of Jack Gunston.

Many believe that Hawthorn has a lack of elite young talent to be able to carry them forward in reaching great goals, yet they possess two of the very best recent draftees that best suit the Hawthorn way.

Denver Grainger-Barras’ trajectory is eerily similar to that of Jacob Weitering and could be the best player from his draft class, while Will Day may be the most underrated half-back in the competition, even after just 16 games.

Accusations of a “vanilla” midfield are warranted given how average the clearance and ball movement has been out of the middle for Hawthorn, but with existing high standards in tackling, Mitchell needn’t completely provide a restructure.

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Hawthorn has the fifth draft pick as well as the largely untried Finn Maginness and Connor Downie to go with the glut of inside types at the club, while having talented, young high half-forwards like Dylan Moore and Tyler Brockman will run through.

And if Sam Mitchell has anything to do with it, which you’d suspect he does as senior coach, Hawthorn fans are going to be excited about the young key forwards creating solid partnerships. 

Jackson Callow, Jacob Koschitzke and Mitch Lewis, with Emerson Jeka in the wings, has sky-high potential.

Crucially though, Mitchell has been back at Hawthorn for a couple of years and has a full understanding of the squad, the tactics and possesses a strong vision of what he sees from this group.

While there were plenty of rumours about Hawthorn being heavily involved in trade week, there’s a significant reason as to why they weren’t.

Sam Mitchell has grand plans for the club he became a legend at as a player.

The Hawks have clear strengths, a young playing group and a good draft hand, with a great footy mind in charge.

Many may predict doom and gloom but this Hawthorn team has potential to rise, and to do it extremely quickly.

It wouldn’t surprise if Hawthorn pushes a top-six finish by 2023.

Sam Mitchell is a winner, so anything is possible.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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