‘Under New Management’: Patience Required For Rhyce Shaw and the Roos

So far in our 'Under New Management' series we’ve taken a look at two AFL sides – Carlton and St Kilda - who, under their new coaches, are providing some cause for optimism for their respective fanbases.

Today, we go in a different direction and look at North Melbourne, a club who under new coach Rhyce Shaw currently find themselves in the bottom three on the ladder, and committing to a rebuild that just 12 months ago they seemed desperate to avoid.

Once again, we’ll break down the stats over five key areas: how well they’re winning the ball, moving the ball, scoring, defending, and the demographics of the sides they’re putting on the field.

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WINNING THE BALL

One of the biggest differences for North Melbourne under Shaw – and one of few areas of significant positive improvement – is that they’ve become one of the league’s best sides when it comes to winning the clearance.

Under Brad Scott in 2019 they recorded a -3.4 clearance differential, but in 2020 so far they are averaging +4.4 clearances on their opposition, ranked second in the competition.

They have also significantly lifted their efforts when it comes to defensive pressure. Under Scott in 2019, they were averaging just 5.52 pressure acts per minute of opposition (13th) and only 1.02 tackles- the least of any side in the AFL.

In 2020, they’re up to 6.02 pressure acts per minute which is good enough for fourth in the league, and 1.25 tackles per minute, which has them ranked seventh.

Unfortunately despite the lift in those pressure and tackling numbers, they don’t appear to be getting reward for effort.

They are the second slowest side in the league when it comes to forcing turnovers, with their opponents giving up the ball after 46.7 seconds of possession on average.

That’s a decline from last year under Scott, where they forced a turnover every 45.5 seconds on average, ranked 15th in the league at that time.

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MOVING THE BALL

Unfortunately for the Roos, while they haven’t been able to force their opposition to turn the ball over more quickly, neither have they been able to hold onto it for longer when they’re in possession.

North are keeping their hands on the ball for just 41.1 seconds on average in 2020, ranked 13th in the league – a fair fall from 2019 under Scott, where they were retaining possession for 43.9 seconds, ranked 4th.

It’s clear that the way North are looking to move the ball has changed a bit since the Scott era. They’re moving the ball more quickly, kicking it more often, and recording uncontested possessions less.

But the outcome so far is that they’ve gone from averaging a -1.3 inside 50 differential under Scott in 2019, to -3.3 so far in 2020. It would be hard not to call that a backwards step.

This is clearly still a work in progress for the Roos, and until they get it right, they won’t be doing themselves just reward for their improved ability to win the clearances.

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SCORING

North scored a relatively impressive 1.58 points per minute under Scott in 2019, which was good enough for eighth in the competition. That’s dropped back to 1.41 points per minute this season, ranking them 12th.

Their accuracy on goal has remained more or less on par with the past, going at about 47% both under Scott in 2019, and so far in 2020.

North are recording an inside-50 for every 7.29 disposals in 2020, which is the 11th most of any side in the game. That’s an improvement on last year when they were ranked 17th, but it’s debatable where moving up in this stat is really a valuable thing to do.

More telling is that they’ve declined from scoring a goal from 23% of inside-50s under Scott in 2019, to 21.3% (ranked 8th) under Shaw this year.

It is certainly not an area of the game where North have totally lost their mojo, but there’s been a step backwards. Given just how wide the gap has been between Ben Brown’s form this year and last, that’s understandable.

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DEFENDING

One of the killer stats for Brad Scott towards the end of his tenure was defence – in the ten games he coached in 2019, North conceded 1.8 points per minute of opposition possession- the most of any team in the league.

This isn’t an area that Shaw has completely revitalised, though he has stemmed the bleeding. In 2020, North are conceding 1.59 points per minute of opposition possession – still the fourth-worst of any side in the league, but a marked improvement.

The primary source of this defensive improvement seems to come not from an ability to defend up the ground, but instead a better organised back six.

North are conceding an inside-50 to the opposition for every 6.63 disposals, the fourth-worst mark in the competition, and a notable decline from where they were at under Scott last year.

But, they’ve gone from conceding a goal from 26.1% of inside-50s under Scott in 2019 - ranked 17th in the league - to just 21.6% of inside 50s this season, ranking them eighth.

Scott’s 2019 Kangaroos allowed their opponents to score a goal from 47.5% of shots, while in 2020 North have tidied this up to 43.6%, the third-best mark of any side in the league.

That suggests that North’s defenders are making it hard for their opponents to generate quality shots on goal – even if the opposition is finding it easier to move the ball forward quickly.

DEMOGRAPHICS

North didn’t make much in the way of sweeping changes to its list at the end of last year, and so it’s no surprise that the 22s Shaw is putting on the field this year are pretty similar to what we saw under Scott in 2019.

North are the seventh oldest side in the league on average so far in 2020, in 2019 under Scott they were sixth.

It’s a similar story when it comes to average experience, they’re fielding 2215 games of experience in the side each week on average, down from 2335 under Scott last year, but still high enough to be the seventh most experienced side in the league.

RELATED: For Young And Old: How Age And Experience Affect AFL Results

CLOSING THOUGHTS

There’s some positives in North Melbourne’s 2020 season on the stats sheet, if you want to look for them.

A re-organised defence is making it harder for opposition forwards to get good looks at goal, and the Roos are winning clearances, laying on pressure acts and tackling more often than they did under Brad Scott last year.

Those areas of the game give Rhyce Shaw a little something to hang his hat on – but taking in the full picture, it’s clear that he and North Melbourne still have a long way to go.

North’s ball movement has gone backwards, and their scoring potency has gone with it, while their increased rates of tackling and pressure haven’t yet made the opposition turn the ball over more often.

And while the defenders are holding up well, it often feels like the players further up the ground aren’t doing nearly enough to impede movement of the ball into North’s back-50.

Overall, it’s hard to get a clear understanding of exactly what Rhyce Shaw wants North Melbourne to be. For every puzzle piece that’s in place, there’s at least two or three that are still missing.

Whether or not Shaw succeeds as a coach will come down to whether or not he can add more strings to North Melbourne’s bow. He’s made some improvements, but many more are needed.

To be fair to him, it’s been an unusually difficult year to be a first-time AFL coach. There’s a pandemic going on and the Kangaroos are also dealing with one of the AFL’s longest injury lists.

What is clear about North Melbourne’s future is that we can expect the team to get a lot younger demographically in the near future. The message has been clearly broadcasted that they are going to the draft and rebuilding.

That’s the right call. You simply can’t be fielding one of the league’s older and more experienced teams each week while being this poor on the field. It’s a recipe for disaster.

That may mean things get worse before they get better at North Melbourne – although they may not. Perhaps some young blood and fresh legs is just what the club needs to reinvigorate itself.

Rhyce Shaw hasn’t turned this team into a winning outfit yet, but it’s clearly something that was never going to happen overnight. A little patience may yet go a long way.  

Note: The stats on points from stoppages/possessions used in this article are recorded as they were published after each game in the Herald Sun.

For a small number of matches these stats were never published, and there is also known to be a small number of typographical errors in the original source data.

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Josh Elliott

Josh Elliott is an RMIT Data Science student and rusted-on North Melbourne fan who believes that a well-jittered scatter plot is the height of humanity's artistic achievement. He does not enjoy pie charts or donut charts but he does enjoy eating pies and eating donuts. Follow him on Twitter @JoshElliott_29

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