By Seven Hours Behind
"New Year, same goal."
A new season is around the corner. What awaits? Finals? Top four? Many supporters (myself included) suspect a top two finish (and the genuine premiership tilt this provides) might be another season away.
It's a good time to ponder because anything is possible. Every year when the fixtures are released, my head turns to the first third of the season. Round 7 has been the statistical 'drawbridge' for many years now: the last decade shows the composition of the top eight at this point almost always play finals. Those opening rounds are like a mini-season; a few teams underachieve while others exceed expectations. Anything worse than a 4-3 win/loss ratio after this point and goals need to be adjusted. Our ladder position seven games in will tell a lot about our prospects for the year.
Still, the team (privately) and supporters (publicly) have high expectations this year; frankly it's a nice change. As everyone knows, we are coming into 'the window'. Over the summer I wondered how many times the fabled premiership window has actually followed script? Not many. St. Kilda stockpiled quality players for years and have never won a flag. Many thought Geelong had their first window shut thanks to Nick Davis at the SCG in 2005, and then manufactured another run outside the usual timeframe two years later. Collingwood have never really 'bottomed out', instead blooding young players through their list for years.
In any case, the premiership window is a nice idea to give all supporters hope that good years will follow hard ones. The theory for Fremantle’s stage in the cycle goes as follows: last year a young team surpassed expectations but were dealt a reality check in the second week of the finals. With bigger bodies, more experience, and better composure, taking the next step comes this year or next. But is our claim to a top four spot that simple?
As a supporter, it's often hard to say. We hear about players sticking to ‘roles’ and ‘responsibilities’. But apart from a more direct and physical style of play, it’s difficult to identify specifics. So how will Fremantle actually play this year? With a similar game plan to 2010, one would think. Perhaps a simpler question for laypeople like myself is what's changed since Fremantle started winning? Here were the three signs I could identify:
SPEED: Firstly, there's more pace. The club has drafted young players who use space well on big grounds (like Subiaco) and trained them to play to their strengths. In the days of Peter Bell, Troy Cook, Shaun MacManus, Josh and Mat Carr, this was not the case. Despite the wonderful 'in-and-under' players they might have been, we were frequently 'burned' once the ball left the stoppage. Because we lost more clearances than we won, this transferred the pressure downfield and left the defence vulnerable.
In my view this led to what so many of us found frustrating about Fremantle’s play in the less successful years: watching the opposition rack up ‘Inside 50’s‘ at leisure gave the feeling they always had more space and time than we did. The fact is they probably did. When Fremantle toiled hard to move the ball forward, it seemed slower and more cautious because we didn’t have the speed (or foot skills) to find players who’d created space. The good lead often wasn’t rewarded and the pressure closed in on the player carrying the ball. This often led to us rolling back in our seats with a sigh when an apparently indecisive player was caught holding the ball; in fact the blame lay across the team for others not running to present new options. Pace is everything: it's a tonic that appears to give everyone more time, space and confidence. Fremantle have made it a strength.
SKILLS: Secondly, the team now find and use the ball better. This started in the middle. The clearance work improved out of sight last year. Sandilands led the competition in hit outs to advantage (every ruckman's favourite statistic). Also, a more flexible group of half forwards, half backs and dedicated midfielders developed who could rotate through the stoppage work. There are now a group of 10-12 players who can enter a stoppage and have the confidence to hold their own or win the ball. This gave the whole team flexibility, and flexible players make an opposition’s job much harder. A number of times last season the midfield played smart, running off tired opponents into good space. We can all recall Ballantyne, Crowley and Hill (among others) breaking around half forward and running into seemingly straightforward goals from this very tactic.
Sharper foot and hand skills have meant the forwards can lead and present with more confidence. The forward setup works well, and importantly they frequently score goals in bunches. The more statistically minded followers of football will tell you nothing points to a win like kicking three goals in succession: look back at teams who score a run of three unanswered goals and it frequently is the scoring pattern which breaks a tight game open. Big first half scores in a number of home games last year allowed the team to dictate the tempo and control the game.
ROLES: Lastly, roles in the team appear well defined these days. Hayden Ballantyne, Michael Walters and anyone else in the forward pockets are expected to harass the defenders with forward pressure. This reduces the opposition's half back's time to set up the play and causes turnovers. At the other end, our halfback playmakers give the attack a spine and direction. I don't know about the rest of you, but when Michael Johnson, Paul Duffield or Nick Suban take the ball somewhere in the back half and the heat is on, I breathe easier knowing the ball is going somewhere reasonably sensible.
Importantly the midfield has a genuine leader. Sandliands is an immeasurable asset, but every team needs a character in the Sam Mitchell or Lenny Hayes mould, who the rest of the midfield look to for inspiration. I speak of course of David Mundy. He would be close to our third A-grade player now. For the record, my definition of an 'A-grader' is a player who would walk into any other side in the competition. On this measurement, Mundy has the credibility and respect across the league now to join Pavlich and Sandilands in this group. As this blog mentioned at the end of the last year, he is one great season away from becoming a midfielder as influential and unplayable as Brendan Goddard: too tall and good overhead to use a ‘run-with’ small midfielder; too fast to mark with a tall defender; and too good a ‘linebreaker’ to leave without a tagger. To be the inspirational character and the most skillful player in the centre square requires a lot. If Mundy has a season to drag the team deep into September, a rare 'club champion' discussion would ensue. I am confident he can take that next step.
When coaching the Brisbane Lions, Leigh Matthews had a frighteningly simple way of explaining the game. He said football is about three things: use, pressure and contest. Or to put it another way: when we have the ball; when they have the ball; and when the ball is in dispute. In each of those three areas - and considering all the improvements listed above - Fremantle have made significant progress over the last twelve months. A season of promise beckons. Will they meet the expectations 2010 created? Time will tell.