Does The AFL Fixture Release Even Matter?

With the 2022 AFL fixture released it’s only natural for everyone to immediately and hyperbolically decide the fate of every team in the competition.

Already we’ve seen plenty of opinions as to who has the easiest fixtures and who has the hardest, with everything from venues to the times of the actual games being discussed….. though no one specifically asked for a Friday night concurrent double-header, did they?

There’s so much noise where the fixtures release is concerned that it ultimately begs the question: Does the fixture actually matter?

Have a chat to Melbourne fans after the club jumped from 9th in 2020 to sitting at 11-1 after 12 rounds in 2021 (a more than handy position to be in on the way to a minor Premiership and eventual flag) and they’ll say that they love the fixture.

Conversely, take a look at 2019 and see that Richmond was 9th after Round 14 before going unbeaten for the rest of the season on their way to that year’s Premiership and their fans might suggest that the fixture doesn’t really mean that much.

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When we discuss the fixture and the importance of it we’re really only actually talking about the first month or two of the season.

Sure, it’s important to analyse the impact of which teams a club may play twice as well as the travel schedule if all things are equal in 2022.

We are, however, all smart enough to know that the importance of the fixture is only really limited to a short space of time from a macro perspective.

If we give too much credit to the boffins at HQ to define the successes or failures of clubs, then we’re either over or under-reacting to what’s actually happening in front of us.

There are so many things more important than who a team is scheduled to face that we end up analysing because subconsciously we accept the irrelevance of the long-term fixture.

Come March, we’ll know about the injury status of all 18 clubs in the AFL, we’ll know about the positional changes undertaken during the off-season, we’ll know about the quality of draftees and how many are looking to play and we’ll learn of any controversies or off-field distractions that inevitably pop up.

The preseason might give us an idea of tactical changes or adjustments, or intra-club highlights packages may purposefully provide red herrings, and given the love we all have for the game, we’re far more likely to have a greater grasp as to what expect of the upcoming season.

The fixture itself is only rolling in terms of time, not opponent, meaning we know who each team is going to play for the entire season.

When it gets to Round 8 and injuries, suspensions, form and tactics have truly taken shape, the fixture analysis many are undertaking now has been catapulted into space, such is the irrelevancy.

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Let’s take a look at Carlton as an example.

From Rounds 10 to 16 they don’t leave Victoria, they only play the reigning premiers in Round 22 and have a couple of primetime fixtures early on to get them going.

Carlton’s first five opponents are Richmond, Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn, Gold Coast and Port Adelaide.

Analysis of the fixture is based on history, naturally, but that gives us absolutely no indication of what to expect in the future.

The Blues “should” win at least two of those games given previous ladder positions, while playing two Preliminary finalists and the team they’ve struggled against for a decade indicates the clubs has no chance of winning the other three games.

Their following three games are against teams that missed the finals, Fremantle, North Melbourne and Adelaide.

Already, the December consensus is that after eight games, Carlton “should” have at the very least have a 50/50 record.

Though this is irrelevant.

When the fixture is released we never have close to enough information to be able to accurately or confidently predict anything.

Even if Carlton had four wins after a month, all the aforementioned factors, further amplified during the season, will far outweigh who they’re scheduled to face on the grand scale.

If they have an injury-free run and their highly rated opponents turn out to be underperforming, Carlton could win every game from that point onwards.

A few key injuries and it doesn’t matter who Carlton plays, they could become a bottom four team.

In Melbourne’s magical 11-1 run to start the season, they defeated Richmond, Geelong, Western Bulldogs and Brisbane.

Their one loss was to Adelaide.

Pre-season, only a microscopic number of us thought of Melbourne as genuine contenders and macro-scale fixture analysis would never have had the Demons in that position.

Similarly in 2019, no one would’ve had Richmond outside a finals spot more than halfway through the season.

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The fixture is an excellent scheduling tool for fans, it’s great for anyone participating in fantasy sports and from the logistical point of view for clubs, it’s fantastic to be able to plan in advance.

Yet it’s increasingly clear that the true value of the fixture for actual football is on the micro scale. 

Week-to-week, or fortnight-to-fortnight is the only logical approach to any sort of scheduling assessment and form analysis given the volatility the AFL consistently provides us.

We all know that every single player and every single team in the AFL lives by the motto “one week at a time”.

Clubs are smart enough to understand that their success on the large scale is not defined by 22 fixtured rounds in December of the previous year.

Simon Goodwin didn’t look at last year’s fixture and tell his team that they’d win 17 games and have a draw in the home-and-away season, nor did Damien Hardwick look at the 2017 fixture in December of 2016, three months removed from a 113-point loss to Sydney and identify that his team would win 15 games and go on to the flag.

Perhaps it’s time supporters started churning out the “one week at a time” phrase at the water cooler, just to hammer in the point that absolutely nothing is predictable in the AFL.

It’s absolutely fine to be excited by the release of the AFL fixture, it gives us a little sniff that footy is coming back, usually within a month thanks to AFLW.

But to place great significance on the entire season’s fixture is a blunder only those outside of AFL clubs would continuously make, regardless of whether it’s December or March.

It’s just another attempt at an event for the AFL with a practical benefit for many, rather than a predictive one.

Let’s visit the fixture on a micro-scale when the season starts, but until then, do not stress.

The season is still to be played out.

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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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