Have Sydney and GWS Swapped Identities in 2021?

Picture this. It's January 2021. Somewhere between Moore Park and Homebush, in a dark corner of a quiet underground car park, John Longmire and Leon Cameron meet in secret.

They are dressed in dark clothing. No sign of their club uniform. Their caps are pulled down to hide their identities. Forget Tom Hickey. Forget securing Collingwood's first round draft pick. Right here, they pull off the biggest trade of the year. 

They swap game plans. 

In years gone by the Swans had one of the most recognisable brands of footy in the competition: dour and stoppage-focused, a low-scoring war of attrition. 

In contrast, the Giants developed a run-and-gun method dubbed the "Orange Tsunami" relying on swift ball movement from the back half into an open forward line. At their best they were unstoppable, with a combination of speed and elite ball use. 

Then the 2021 Season played out. Sydney appeared to morph into a highly-skilled ball movement team all of a sudden. The Giants, blessed for years with top-end talent, had adopted much more of a blue-collar game style.

Was the data supporting what we were seeing on the field? Or were our pre-conceived ideas of each teams brand clouding our judgement a little? The truth probably lies somewhere in between. 

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Way back in 2005, Sydney were famously chastised by Andrew Demetriou for their "unattractive" game style. 

Back then they were averaging 90 stoppages per game (a league-high), a gap of seven more than the next side. In that same year, the Swans averaged 86.5 points per game (14th of 16 teams) and 74.5 points against (ranked 2nd). 

Ironically, their much-maligned unattractive style earned them the 2005 Premiership, as well as a Grand Final berth the following year. For many, our opinion on the Swans was rusted-on during those seasons and it has taken until 2021 to change. 

When the Giants finally hit their straps in 2016 after a few tough foundation years, they had a clearly established style of their own. As the second-highest scoring offence in that season averaging over 100 points per game, GWS found the balance between winning stoppages and turning them into scores (#1 stoppage points differential for the season) and being able to win the ball back on turnover (#3 points from intercepts). 

Ball movement was their biggest weapon - with an explosive core of players they had the lowest kick-to-handball ratio in the defensive half, flicking the ball around in defence until they found space, then launching it into a stacked front six. No one averaged more inside 50s than the Giants. 

Like the Swans, our perception of the Giants was formed across those subsequent seasons and proved incredibly hard to shake. Until 2021 changed everything. 

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Out of nowhere, Sydney became an offensive juggernaut. They averaged 90 points per game across the home & away season, behind only the Brisbane Lions and Western Bulldogs. They had ranked 15th and 12th in Points For in the previous two seasons. Seven times they posted scores of 100 or better, their best figure in six years. 

Over a single off-season, the Swans had morphed into a completely different team. Our previous notion that the Swans were a dour stoppage side had been destroyed, and no one saw it coming. They finished 2021 with the most points from intercepts of any side, the second-highest goal per inside 50 percentage and developed into a lethal kicking team with the best D50 to I50 success rate in the league. 

The outlandish game plan swap theory was starting to look a little more plausible, until we looked more closely at the Giants. 

Even back in their Grand Final year of 2019, GWS had graduated from just a run-and-gun ball movement side into a much more mature team with a fair bit of grunt at the contest - they were 2nd in contested possession differential, and 2nd again in clearances. An average of 99 stoppages per game that year, the 3rd highest figure in the competition. 

The difference in 2021 was that they were forced to develop this working-class style even further. Jeremy Cameron had departed, their ruck stocks were decimated by injury and they simply weren't enjoying the sort of field position of previous years. An inside 50 differential of -83 this season, ranked 12th. The only finalist to have a negative figure in that metric. 

So they did it the hard way, grinding out enough wins to make the finals. 

Their midfield represented a new hard edge - Hopper, Taranto, Ward and Green formed the nucleus of a tough, uncompromising on-ball brigade. Even Josh Kelly spent more time at centre bounces compared to previous season. Throw in Shane Mumford playing half of the season and you've got a tough day at the office for opposition mids. 

On the scoring front it was definitely hard work for them - an average winning margin of only 22 points. Six of their matches decided by 10 points or fewer. The days of being the highest scoring offence in a season were long gone. 

Ironically, the Swans were involved in eight matches under a two goal margin themselves, even with their new-found offensive potency. Further proof that they aren't the dour Swans of old - defensively they have a few issues.

The real clincher is when you look at the reliance on stoppage and turnover scores for both teams. 42% of the Giants scores have come from stoppages (a league high), with the Swans all the way down in 16th. On turnover, 64% of the Swans' scores come via that method, ranked third. The Giants are 17th. 

Sydney still have elements of the old Bloods in them - they have the highest pressure factor of any side this season, for example. GWS managed to at least post a similar average score to the likes of Melbourne and Geelong in the second half of the season, so their offence and ball movement has improved. 

While it's not exactly time to call them the "Red and White Tsunami" or the "Unattractive Giants", it's a great window into the reasonably new-found styles of both teams. And the perfect time to see them go head-to-head this weekend. It sets up for a fascinating elimination final.

GWS will be happy to lock things down for long periods on Saturday, while Sydney would love an open contest to put their kicking skills to work and post a score the Giants might struggle to match. 

Stoppage v turnover. Who wins? Can't wait to find out.

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Pete Roberts

Pete has spent 20 years as an AFL analyst, managing the unique environment of the coaches box on game day. He is now a freelance sports tech professional and publishes weekly match reviews and previews on Behind The Footy

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