Stats That Matter: The Tactical Evolution of AFL
The cessation of the 2020 AFL season, after just one round, was understandable, albeit demoralising for fans.
Whichever way you feel about the contemporary AFL, whether you love or loath the way the game is presently played, what’s undeniable is that we’re at the pinnacle of tactical evolution and club to club, game-plan variance.
While traditionalists have flinched at the sheer rapidity of the these changes, perhaps longing for a more simplified time, progressives have embraced the 'brave new world', intoxicated by the direction and tactical uncertainty of the modern game.
To be clear, this is not a right or wrong proposition, however at Stats Insider we’re keen to use the AFL’s hiatus to analyse just where the game has been, and to speculate on where it might be going.
Over the coming weeks we plan to drill down into various areas of the sport to ascertain just how, when and why certain aspects of the game have changed.
However by way of an introduction, we thought we’d conduct something of a ‘lay of the land’, and investigate the AFL’s last 15 years- a timespan that’s corresponded with such profound change, rendering the sport almost unrecognisable to what came before.
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TAMING THE LIONS
If the dissolution of the Fitzroy Football Club and their 114-year history wasn’t painful enough, watching them be absorbed into the Brisbane Lions and launching into the game’s most dominant force in 50 years was the icing on the cake.
Over a six-season stretch between 1999 and 2004 the Lions, fuelled by a raft off AFL concessions, won a hat-trick of flags, housed a boatload of future Hall of Famers, Coleman and Brownlow medalists and existed as a beacon of league-wide scorn.
While the Lions made for a competitively uncomfortable period in AFL history, they also profoundly changed the game, spawning something of a tactical revolution.
At their best, the Lions were an unstoppable force that gained even more potency when Final’s time arrived. While the Lion’s juggernaut ironically never won a single Minor Premiership, they boasted a truly astonishing 14-4 record in September, reserving their very best for the biggest occasions.
While the Lions continually kicking sand in the face of their opponents didn’t make for the most enjoyable trip to the beach, bringing down this bully provoked a league-wide obsession, and one which changed the game forever.
Prior to Paul Roos’ elevation to head coach, the Sydney Swans were no stranger to success. They’d made Finals in 5 of the 6 previous seasons, witnessed Tony Lockett become the game’s greatest ever goalscorer and revelled in Paul Kelly’s 1995 Brownlow triumph. They’d qualified for the club’s first Grand Final in 51 years and had just pressed play on what was to be Adam Goodes’ remarkable career.
Those years drastically altered the Harbour City’s relationship with the AFL, however by 2002, the Swans were miles away from genuine premiership contention, which was a notion continually reinforced by Brisbane who beat them 8 times out of 11 during the Lions’ peak years.
Yet, having their brains continually beaten out planted a seed for the Swans in terms of how to best return to prominence and start contending for flags again.
The recipe they discovered set in motion a tactical avalanche which is still playing out to this day.
Under Paul Roos the Swans implemented a brand of football that was largely perceived as aesthetically regressive and overtly negative, and which would even endure the wrath of the AFL.
With that said, what the Swans conjured up was a logical reaction to the Lion’s super team, and by winning the 2005 premiership would wind up becoming a league-wide inspiration to clubs, demonstrating that a lack of top-tier talent could be trumped by tactical know-how if implemented correctly.
The Swans sent numbers to stoppages the likes of which the game hadn’t previously seen in an attempt to strangle the game and take away what the opposition wanted to do. They tackled maniacally and with unprecedented volume in a bid to create stoppage situations.
Forwards regularly pushed up into the midfield, midfielders were comfortable stepping back and operating in defence.
The Swans moved the chains drastically when it came to traditional positioning, demanding all of their players could fulfil multiple roles within a given game.
Adam Goodes morphed into one of the sport’s most brilliant players, winning himself a couple of Brownlow medals in the process despite not having an even remotely defined position. Traditional key forwards like Barry Hall transformed into endurance athletes, getting up and down the field regularly, while still being relied upon as key targets up forward.
The Swans also showed the football world that exceptional talent and exquisite skills weren’t paramount, with midfielders such as Brett Kirk, Jared Crouch and Ben Matthews emerging as vital cogs thanks more to their elite running ability and tackling prowess than anything they were capable off providing from an actual skills perspective.
Granted, the Swans under Roos weren’t always a joy to watch, but they were genuine pioneers.
Despite intense criticism for their style, they showed the world that there was more than one way to win, and that indeed, ugly could also be very beautiful.
Their methods also inspired the next wave of tactical innovation.
What’s the antidote to all-out defence, where stoppages reign supreme and where there’s precious little air to breathe?
It’s a question the AFL world continues to grapple with, however it’s one that the Geelong Football Club, at the height of their powers, very much solved.
The origins of the Cat’s eventual dominance of the AFL can be found firstly in their complete mastering of the AFL draft, and ultimately through allowing coach Bomber Thompson to spread his tactical wings.
Between 1999 and 2007, the Cats bought in no less than 14 All-Australians through the Draft, a couple of Brownlow medalists and an eight-time club leading goalkicker.
What Stephen Wells and his recruiting team routinely dialled up each November will never be replicated, however it took some years until the Cats’ engine really started to purr.
When they finally did, the AFL’s collective mouth was left wide open, with their 2007, 119-point Grand Final opus the AFL’s ‘Total Football’ equivalent.
After years of underperformance and almost facing the axe in 2006, Bomber Thompson chose to let the creative juices and sublime skill of his squad run free, and what resulted was some of the most scintillating football the sport had ever seen.
They became an-ultra high possession machine, using an unprecedented amount of handball and play through the middle to break through the increasing prevalence of midfield congestion and flooding.
Their link-play through the likes of Gary Ablett Jnr and Jimmy Bartel was simply breathtaking, complimented by the heavy industry of players such as Joel Corey and James Kelly.
Lockdown defenders like Matthew Scarlett and Tom Harley allowed running defenders Corey Enright and David Wojcinski to break the lines, while the Cats could always rely on the requisite toughness and leadership of Joel Selwood and Paul Chapman.
The Cats milked every single drop of talent from their list, broke a 43-year premiership drought and would go on to add a couple more to the collection in coming years.
Their style was a phenomenal response to the league’s increased strangulation and one which hasn’t been replicated since.
What the Cats manufactured inspired the sport’s next tactical swing and it came in the form of a nuggety 134-game midfielder who would end up becoming perhaps the sport’s greatest ever coach.
Over the last 15 years, Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has become the AFL’s pre-eminent tactical mind, entrenching himself as one of the game’s greatest ever coaches.
His dizzying success with the Hawks speaks for itself, as too does his incredible intellectual legacy, with Clarkson disciples peppered all over the league and pocketing premiership after premiership.
Over the last ten years, Clarkson has not only re-positioned the Hawks as the leagues’ most successful club, but he and his assistants are responsible for taking the game in a variety of directions, establishing something of a tactical renaissance, challenging almost every aspect of traditional thinking regarding the sport.
Yet, it was the 2008 Grand Final when Clarkson first established his greatness, authoring one of the September’s biggest ever boil-overs.
Geelong entered the 2008 Grand Final in staggeringly good form, producing one of the AFL’s greatest ever home and away seasons which saw them lose just once, and post a 161.8 percentage.
That Cats team had a disposal differential of +62 (one of the highest ever recorded) and which was a testament to their possession monopolisation which they’d lauded over the league.
Clarkson’s response was to dramatically deny the Cats what they like to do best, and while Geelong won the possession count by 6 that day, the Hawks tallied up a phenomenal 54 more marks as the Hawks controlled the tempo and denied the Cats the kind of freedom they’d established and had used as the bedrock of their dominance.
Although the Hawks didn’t immediately back-up their 2008 premiership, when they did return to prominence it was based largely off the territorial dominance and ‘Tiki-Taka’ approach which was the next innovation to sweep the league.
Over 10 seasons between 2007 and 2016, Hawthorn qualified for 9 Finals series, made a handful of Grand Finals and added four premierships to their impressive collection. Most crucially, they would take the sport into areas it had simply never been before.
This was a team defined by exquisite skill, pronounced toughness, phenomenal conversion up forward and underpinned by intense tackling pressure inside 50.
Playing against the Hawks at their peak was an utter chore, with their patented forward pressure led by the likes of Cyril Rioli, Luke Breust and Paul Puopolo ensuring opposition possession opportunities were rushed, and often delivered straight back.
The sublime foot skills of Grant Birchall and Brent Guerra in defence were mirrored in midfield with Jordan Lewis, Luke Hodge and Shaun Burgoyne able to dictate play, complimented by the work rate and intensity of the likes of Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell.
Having two of the game’s greatest ever forwards in Lance Franklin and Jarryd Roughead ensured that few of the opportunities were wasted.
The last seven AFL premierships have been won by either Alastair Clarkson or by an Alastair Clarkson disciple, reaffirming that we are most certainly living in an AFL world defined by the great Hawthorn coach.
The Bulldogs’ groundbreaking 2016 flag, one which ended an agonising 62-year premiership drought, was made possible by coach Luke Beveridge and the tactical prowess he brought over from working with premiership teams at both Hawthorn and Collingwood.
The West Coast Eagles under long-time Clarkson assistant Adam Simpson won the 2018 flag in large part through implementing the ‘Eagles Web’ which was a defensive variation on the Hawks’ famous ‘Clarkson Cluster’.
However, the most recent Clarkson disciple to dominate the league and create an even more impressive tactical footprint has been Damian Hardwick and the Richmond Football Club.
Over the last three seasons, and in claiming a couple of flags, the Tigers have not only established themselves as footy’s finest, but have taken the sport in a dramatically bold new direction in the process.
After just 2 Finals appearances in 30 years, the Tigers have qualified for 6 of the last 7 Septembers, broken a 37-year premiership drought and introduced the football world to an entirely new way of winning.
While this current Tiger’s team contains so many of the hallmarks of the great Clarkson teams, particularly in regards to its forward pressure and precise foot skills, its chief, radical deviation has been through effectively conceding clearances to opponents.
This Richmond team is so comfortable in its ability to pick off the opposition, they’ve sent less and less resources to stoppage situations, knowing they’ll be able to cause more damage on the counter.
While for most clubs, this tactic would be highly risky, it’s one that has fuelled Richmond’s current success and reignited one of the league’s largest and most passionate fan bases.
The Tigers have been brave and bold in backing a new vision for the sport, and have consequently reaped the rewards.
When footy does resume it’ll be compelling to see who’ll add the next chapter of innovation to the league, and to see which new direction the sport will be taken in.
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