Investigating The AFL's Early Season Stats And Trends

The “lets not get carried away” robots are at their loudest and most annoying in the early part of the season, cautioning against drawing conclusions from such a shallow dataset. 

While the robots are well intentioned, they’re both annoying and have a pesky habit of trying to ruin all the fun. 

There’s of course neither a magic date nor perfect accumulation of numbers to begin untangling the early part of the season. With that said, move aside robots because we’re jumping in.

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Yes, the footy does seem a little quicker this year

In recent years the AFL has continually tinkered with the sport’s rules and regulations in an effort to engineer a potentially more free flowing, higher scoring product.

And whether or not you agree with the constant interference, or the intention, the fact is the games are looking rather different this season.

While there are countless ways to assess the changing face of the sport, one of the standout features of the 2021 edition is how relatively less often we’re seeing tackles in relation to disposals.

Through 18 games, we’re seeing a tackle applied for every 7.03 disposals which is the lowest ratio we’ve witnessed in 16 years.

The result has been a decidedly less congested game with far less stoppages, and which has indeed corresponded with more robust scoring.

While comparing the early stages of 2021 with last season isn’t entirely fair owing to the peculiarities of that campaign, it’s perhaps more prudent to drag the early rounds of 2019 before the jury. 

Through the first 18 games of that season, we had 14 instances of a side producing at least 25 scoring shots. That number sits at 17 this time round. Interestingly, over the first two rounds of that season there were no less than 15 examples of a club being unable to break through 70 points. We’ve had just 6 example so far, with North Melbourne responsible for two of those performances.

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It’s still best to have the footy up your end

Sure, possession is cool and having the ball in your hands is wonderful, yet what’s even better is if you can be productive with your possession, and propel your team into scoring opportunities.

Last season, of the 10 teams with the league’s best disposal differential, only 4 actually qualified for Finals, with the likes of the Giants, Fremantle and Sydney all enjoying the bulk of possession in their matches, yet failing to do all that much with it.

Conversely, teams like Brisbane and Richmond, who ranked 11th and 14th from a disposal differential perspective thrived without the footy, using their counter-attacking prowess and lethal efficiency to underpin deep campaigns.

What proved much more rewarding than mere disposals, was inside-50 differential. Last season, 8 of the league’s top-ten in that statistic played finals, while the top-four indeed corresponding with our preliminary finalists.

And we’re already seeing a similar trend this season.

While Richmond are ranked 10th for disposal differential, their massive +23.5 inside-50 edge easily leads the league, with the likes of Port and Bulldogs filling out the podium.

On the flip-side, Hawthorn are ranked 6th for disposal differential, yet sit a lowly 16th from an inside-50 point of view, explaining why they’ve already spent a good deal of the season playing catch-up on the scoreboard.

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Do clearances still matter? 

Well it depends on who you ask.

If you’re consulting Richmond, you’ll get a strong ‘no’ to that question. The Tigers have run roughshod over the competition these past four years, finishing 11th, 18th, 16th and 16th from a clearance differential standpoint. Yet rather than devoting resources to clustered situations, the Tigers have preferred to pick off opponent’s rushed and desperate forays forward, using the speed, brains and precision of the likes of Bachar Houli, Jayden Short and Nick Vlastuin to punish rivals on the counter.

With that said, Port Adelaide led the competition from start to finish last season fulled by how irrepressible they were at stoppage situations. Their +4.8 clearances differential over the course of the season led the league, while their +9 figure is doing so again in the early part of this season. For Port, it certainly helps having Scott Lycett’s dependancy and competitiveness in ruck situations, yet it's the likes of the evergreen Travis Boak that keeps this Power clearance engine purring. His 95 clearances ranked 7th in the league last season, while his 16 so far in 2021 have him placed 5th.

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Final Thoughts

The season is of course still preciously young, and there’s plenty of water that still needs to go under the bridge, while the fixture itself has played an undeniable massive role in the data we’ve so far accumulated.

While Richmond have of course looked, as always, outrageously strong, Carlton and Hawthorn haven’t exactly presented as worthy adversaries. Conversely, Brisbane’s 0-2 start can largely be put down to them playing a much-improved Sydney, while also having to travel to Kardinia park to face Geelong, to say nothing of a certain highly-controversial umpiring decision.

It'll be riveting to see which stats hold up over the coming weeks and months, particularly in regards to data which speaks to the AFL's rule modifications.

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. 

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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