Lion Revival: How Brisbane Saved Their 2021 Season
Barring a Zac Bailey miracle against the Pies, Brisbane’s early portion of the season resembled a horror movie.
The first scene was a brutal annihilation at the hands of Sydney within their Gabba fortress. What followed was an agonising 1-point loss to the Cats at Kardinia Park which contained a particularly gory umpiring decision that required adult supervision.
The aforementioned Zac Bailey miracle helped the Lions register their first win in round 3, only for an insipid performance to follow against the Dogs in Ballarat where a season-low 54-points plunged the club to a 1-3 start, with their top-4 aspirations appearing doomed.
Yet suddenly, this horror movie has turned into a family-friendly, feel good flick jam-packed with hope.
The Lions have since reeled off 5-straight wins, and according to the Stats Insider Futures model, are now a 78.7% chance of playing finals for a third-straight season.
Just how have the Lions pivoted from a production lacking in direction and desire and into one that's now full of purpose, direction and possibly even a premiership?
'We need a bigger boat'
With Brisbane's reigning Brownlow Medalist Lachie Neale requiring ankle surgery, the spotlight was suddenly fixated on the Lion's midfield, with a desperate need for others to step up in Neale's absence.
Enter Jarryd Lyons.
After being picked up from cross-town rivals Gold Coast as a delisted free agent, Lyons has emerged as one of the leagues' most underrated midfielders, stepping up sensationally over the last few weeks.
In last week's Q-Clash, the former Sandringham Dragon amassed 37 touches at a slick 81% efficiency while also contributing 7 score involvements. And he was just as impressive on the defensive side too, contributing an insane 36 pressure acts as well as applying 9 tackles in one of the season's most dominant midfield performances.
This game, however, was not an anomaly.
He's one of the AFL's most courageous players, averaging 13.9 contested possessions per game (the 7th best mark in the league) while his 9 ground ball gets and 4 stoppage clearances per game position him as an elite midfielder. His 5.4 tackles and 23.4 pressure acts per game are also top-20 numbers in the league.
With Neale absent for a couple of months, and with Cam Rayner gone for the year, and with Dayne Zorko living and thriving in a different kind of role, skepticism was understandable as to who would step up. Lyon's has answered the call, and helped save Brisbane's season in the process.
'Unleash the beasts'
When the Lions managed to lure Joe Daniher away from Essendon and up to the sunshine state, it looked to be the perfect acquisition.
Another key forward to help Eric Hipwood and to create a ‘big three’ along with 2019 All-Australian and 2-time Lions leading goal-kicker, Charlie Cameron.
However, this ‘infallible’ plan didn't quite hit the ground running with the trio managing just 17 goals between them over the first 4 games, often lacking any semblance of cohesion or chemistry.
A few tweaks however have completely transformed their output.
The Lions moved Daniher further up the ground, urging the former Bomber to get more involved in the play, and create more of presence (and outlet) further up field. Doing so has had the dual effect of opening up more space inside-50 for Hipwood and Cameron to flourish.
In the subsequent 4 rounds, the 'big three' have managed 33 goals between them, marking a drastic improvement and contributing towards the Lions averaging 103.4 points per game since round 4. Since Daniher has been unleashed, he's reeled in 32 marks of his own as opposed to the 21 he managed in a more confined role.
While Daniher's own score involvements have jumped from 23 to 32 as a result of the switch, it's probably been Cameron who's benefitted most. The former Crow had cobbled together just 4 goals in the opening 4 rounds, yet he's racked up a further 15 since, once again lighting up the forward line with more space to use both his brain and electrifying speed.
Calm and composed
One of the reasons why this sudden change in the Lion's form is so fascinating is because there hasn't been any one singular move or change of style.
Coach Chris Fagan exudes such a calm presence on this team and his four decades of management in the game have allowed his club to calmly ride the bumps of the first few weeks and implement a few structural changes without causing a massive distraction.
Incremental gains can make a major difference, evidenced through the forward line modifications, but also through a midfield that's upped its contested possession differential to +87 over the last few weeks, from a concerning -36 over the first 4 rounds.
It's a similar story where clearances are concerned with the club jumping from -14 in the early portion of the season, to +48 over the last few weeks.
Perhaps most striking is a mark differential which has jumped from -1 all the way up to +140 over the last 5 rounds.
Taking the next step
After a poor start, Brisbane have hit back hard, and proven that if the a club has all of its structures in place, change can be enacted swiftly.
While it's still not yet even the halfway point of the season, the Lions have already proving how adaptable they are which will hold them in great stead for perhaps a very deep run come Finals time.
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