Is The Lions Midfield Good Enough To Win The Flag?

This has all happened rather suddenly for the Lions.

From 5-17, to 16-8, to premiership favourites with both the bookies and Stats Insider's Futures Model

At the same time, it's happened very slowly.

It had been 10 years since they won more than 10 games in season. Dire seasons of 4 wins, 3 wins, 5 wins and 5 wins prefaced 2019. 

That kind of sustained commitment to being terrible is tough to shake. Here we are though, in a shaken state.

The transition is complete. At the start of last year, the names on Brisbane's list didn't look too impressive. Now the same names look exquisite. 

It feels like the Lions should be more obviously vulnerable. But the forward line is littered with dangerous opportunists, with height and pace and class. The defence is anchored by the best defender in the game and features wonderful ball users to launch attacks, and the midfield has become lauded as one of league's finest.

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Lachie Neale is the standout in that midfield and the player most easily linked with Brisbane's ascent. 

When Neale arrived at the Lions he was highly regarded as a top-class midfielder, but also kind of sniggered at, thought of as mostly an accumulator. He had more Seb Ross in him than he did Patrick Dangerfield.

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Now he has more Dangerfield. 

Neale still accumulates, but accumulates with menace. He plays with constant pace, always moving with zip and momentum. He's a forward 50 threat now, with 17 scoring shots through the first seven games after not topping 20in the previous four seasons. 

There's a confidence that Neale is playing with that is reserved for the elite. He grips the ball and moves with a comfort and ownership that only comes when you're properly brilliant.

He has plenty of help too. 

Hugh McCluggage was everywhere early in the win over the struggling Giants, gathering possessions on the last line of defence and then again inside attacking 50 in the same chain, full of dash and composure. At one point he smothered the ball and held it in one motion before taking off, like Kevin Garnett grabbing an opponent's shot at the rim.

Jarrod Berry provides size and burst and tackling power, while Mitch Robinson is much more than just a midfield sitcom character, providing necessary madness and exciting confusion, and also gaining valuable metres on the wing.

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Jarryd Lyons does everything. He covers the entire ground, takes intercept marks in defence, kicks goals from stoppages, and wins the ball in close and uses it deftly. Each of the past three years he's ranked in the top seven in the league for stoppage clearances per game, and one of those years a team chose to let him go.

The wild card is the captain, Dayne Zorko, who three years ago was one of the handful of best players in the game, and now is settling into a different phase. 

In 2017, Zorko averaged 25 touches a game and kicked 34 goals, rarefied midfield air. He's not the same explosive force now, and is dealing with injuries, but he's still a pivotal piece, another cannonball like Neale who provides burst and toughness at stoppages, and is always comfortable and dangerous around goal.

If there's a concern about the midfield it's that it's small. The three best inside mids - Neale, Zorko and Lyons - are 177cm, 175cm and 184cm. Against Geelong, a side with a giant, physical midfield, the Lions were overwhelmed and smashed around the contest. When everything was going wrong against the Cats, they couldn't stop the deluge because they couldn't get their hands on the ball. Clearances aren't everything but they do matter, and the Lions rank ninth in clearance differential this season, effectively breaking even. 

Most of the time, the Lions make up for their lack of size with speed and insect-like violence. The Brisbane pressure around the ball is tenacious - a lot of fast bodies constantly harassing. They move quickly and accurately with the ball too, always looking to play on, always looking for the angle inboard to the corridor to open everything up.

Daniel Rich is especially adept at that one particular pass, bulleting or looping, either way, a pinpoint kick from the back flank into the middle of the ground.

Against the Giants, the Lions played on their terms, in a wide open, frenetic game. Their speed, skill and aggression in moving the ball creatively defined the game and the result. When the Giants made their charge late, the Lions didn't retreat, and instead kept on attacking. In the fourth quarter, they didn't so much nurse a lead as they put it on a motorbike.

At one end, Harris Andrews was the best player on the ground, a wonderful, courageous, genius pest who feasts on intercept marks.

At the other, Cam Rayner won the match for Brisbane, a towering mark late in the third quarter and then a dribbled goal in the fourth confirming the win. 

Rayner had one moment in the second quarter, during a midfield burst, where he slid a left foot kick into Charlie Cameron that was so clean and perfect that the commentators assumed it must have been a fortuitous shank. In time Rayner will likely be the force of size and power to take the midfield to the next level.

Until then, though, it will remain excellent, but perhaps with a ceiling defined by height.

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Jay Croucher

Based in Denver, Colorado, Jay splits time between worshiping Nikola Jokic and waking up at 3am to hazily watch AFL games. He has been writing about AFL, NBA and other US sports since 2014, and has suckered himself into thinking Port Adelaide was the real deal each year since.

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