"Under the Bonnet: How the Demon's Defence Has Set Them Up For Finals"

For a team with a tendency of burning its own inside-50s and being scored against too easily at the other end, having 16 fewer entries than St Kilda likely wasn’t Melbourne’s ideal recipe for a victory.

Only on five other occasions under Simon Goodwin have the Demons lost the count by 16 or more – all of them ending in losses.

Previous matches under Simon Goodwin with an inside 50 differential of -16 or more
Inside 50 differential
Round 9, 2020 v Port Adelaide
51-point loss
Round 6, 2019 v Richmond
43-point loss
Round 19, 2019 v St Kilda
19-point loss
Round 20, 2019 v Richmond
33-point loss
Round 12, 2018 v Collingwood
42-point loss


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While the plan obviously wasn’t for the inside-50 disparity to turn out the way it did against the Saints, the general defensive concept staying true from start to finish indicated a clear plan from the Demons – arguably its best single game performance in the Goodwin era.

There were two areas of focus for Melbourne – stop the Saints’ run off half back, and most importantly prevent shots from the hot spot area they focus heavily on.

A few weeks ago on Stats Insider, we delved into how the Saints’ stunning accuracy had been predicated on taking shots from minimal distance and angle. Indeed for the season their expected points per shot is the highest in the competition. 

However, the piece did end with one caveat. Ominous in retrospect:

“From here opposition teams will adapt and adjust, likely forcing the Saints into a higher degree of difficulty in implementing their preferred style.”

Melbourne decided if St Kilda was to beat them, it wouldn’t be by shots from high-percentage areas. And after a shaky start, that’s exactly what the Demons prevented. To the vision.


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The first line of Melbourne’s defence was all focused on stopping St Kilda from getting into the corridor.

When St Kilda does that, it opens up the whole ground and leaves multiple options for the likes of Jack Steele, Jack Billings and Brad Hill to deliver to.

Here Dougal Howard looks towards the centre but is faced with a strong line of Demons. His only option is a long looping kick to Billings, and by the time it’s got there, the defence has shuffled across.

The only option for Billings from there is wide to the flank and once the ball gets there, Melbourne can defend a potential entry much easier because it can only come in from one angle.

When there’s a good first line of defence, it allows those further behind the ball time to set up, knowing the ball movement is slower and one-dimensional – especially against a St Kilda outfit still at the stage of its development where it wants to repeatedly hit the hot spot.

In this example, even when Zac Jones gets a handball receive, he’s surrounded by Demons. Forced to go long, it’s chopped off by Steven May, picking up one of his 12 intercept possessions for the night.


Of course, the best-laid plans in the world won’t work if a team doesn’t have the personnel to carry it out.

May’s turned a forgettable debut season in red and blue into a distant memory with his performances in 2020, leading the Melbourne defence impressively. Although there are a handful of players in his position who are in the running for All-Australian contention, he deserves to be in the discussion right alongside Harris Andrews and Jacob Weitering.

Without May at the helm, Melbourne’s defence wouldn’t have been able to execute when it was under siege.

When it’s a three-point final margin, naturally the final minutes come under heavier scrutiny. But the third quarter proved to be the key from a defensive point of view.

St Kilda had 15 inside 50s for just two goals, and it was where Melbourne’s plan really shone through.

The Demons banked on St Kilda’s plan being to keep working at the hot spot with minimal change. 

When they realised they were spot on, there was no reason to change. Richard Little charted St Kilda’s third quarter entries on Twitter and the repetition was evident.

courtesy of @alittlefitness

For the entire match, St Kilda only retained eight of 36 long kicks inside-50, a miniscule rate and a big tick for Melbourne’s defence.

With four rounds remaining and now both sides in a finals fight, the result has far-reaching ramifications.

While Melbourne wouldn’t want to be going from week to week losing the inside-50 count this heavily, knowing it can defend like this, if needed, can be an enormous boost to confidence when under the pump. We already know it can normally outpoint most sides around contests with the engine room feeding off Max Gawn.

Meanwhile St Kilda needs to assess how to best approach teams who use the Melbourne defence, because the secret is out now. Can it burst through the wall, or will it find another route to victory?

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Ricky Mangidis

After spending several years working as part of North Melbourne’s media team with access to the inner workings of the coaching staff, Ricky has parlayed that knowledge into a deep understanding of current trends and game styles across the AFL, bringing a unique eye to the way today’s game is played.

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