"Forget about style; worry about results."
(Bobby Orr, NHL Legend)
After all the theories and speculation, at last - we've seen how the team looks in the Lyon era. Last year's on-field season ended with injuries, disappointment and a long list of hard questions for the playing group. So what can we expect in 2012? And what has the preseason taught us?
The short answer is it's hard to say. The Eagles loss and patches of the other games suggest we still don't respond well to sustained pressure. The famous St. Kilda forward tackling was clearly on show in the first NAB carnival match against Essendon, but after that it more or less vanished in the televised matches. The players are clearly adjusting to new coaching techniques, and Lyon is getting used to new players. It will all take time, and this importantly, is the point. There are suggestions however, of an changing style across the three positional areas:
FORWARD: The attack could become dynamic over 2012, but at present it lacks something: call it a clinical edge. Remember our two leading goal kickers registered 25 majors each last season, so we're coming from a very low base. When high balls went deep in the forward 50 over the NAB Cup, Mayne, Bradley and Anthony didn't take enough contested marks: they were easily bullied by defenders, outmuscled, and reliant on slices of luck. Is it partly delivery? Perhaps. But good forwards take contested marks whatever the quality of service from the midfielders.
A good run of form from Pavlich will help the goal tally, but not solve the issue. His plan to lead from the goal square means his path to the ball will be congested: like Lance Franklin and Jonathan Brown, he'll be double-teamed, or have a defender dropping in the hole when he leads. This supporter has spent time wondering whether we'll come to miss Ballantyne's presence up forward: for all of Reiwoldt's exploits, Milne's work around the forward 50 contest was a critical complement in the Lyon blueprint. Is there a net benefit to having Ballantyne in the midfield? Is his energy in the centre really greater than his ability to poach goals off forward 50 spoils? That remains to be seen.
CENTRE: The ruck duties do not have a clear answer yet. Repeating any Cox/Natinui rotation system is hard because the gap between Sandilands and Griffin, Clarke or Bradley is so much greater. After the 'turf toe' issues of 2011, there are doubts Sandilands can carry the bulk of the ruck responsibilities over 22 rounds, and potentially a finals series. But he can't be replicated. Again like Ballantyne, the tough choice must be made by Lyon's panel whether the two goals he might 'pinch-hit' up forward outweighs the way he dominates the hit-outs. For those who say he can do both, they might be right, but any footballer will tell you a rest up forward and a rest on the pine are two different things.
Ideally the issue will solve itself, with one of the backup ruck options putting up their hand in a big way over the first few rounds, and declaring he wants to be in the 22 every week. Kepler is Kepler, and Griffin is a ruckman who'll do what it says he can on the box; but what does the future hold for Zac Clarke? What will he become? What does he want to become? Could he develop Dean Cox's endurance? Could he impose himself more in the game's big moments? The season will go a long way to determining these questions: hopefully Sandilands' height advantage up forward doesn't obscure the fact we have one the most dominant ruckman in the competition. One of the backups must step up.
DEFENCE: Already the defence looks sharper. The talk out of Lyon's former players is he places a high priority on the midfield and halfbacks helping alleviate the pressure of defence; presenting options, getting back in numbers to support run from behind the ball. This is a big, big season for the likes of McPharlin, Johnson, Broughton, Suban, Dawson and Silvagni. Watch the DockerTV interview with Lyon on 21 September, 2011 and it's clear he believes a premiership window does not materialise if a club is outside the best four defences or the best four attacks. Big challenges await to make this side a defensive unit as ruthless as Geelong, Collingwood or Hawthorn.
OVERALL: For those who missed the fine print, the 2011 Doig Medal top ten were the following names: (1) Matthew Pavlich; (2) Nathan Fyfe; (3) Greg Broughton; (4) Luke McPharlin; (5) David Mundy; (6) Aaron Sandilands; (7) Stephen Hill; (8) Antoni Grover; (9) Hayden Ballantyne; and (10) Chris Mayne. The disappointing season last year is best reflected in the fact half of the players on that list had very average years, both in the eyes of most supporters, and by their own standards. Summer preseasons always offer up new names: the word on the street is players like Mellington and Neale turned up to Fremantle Oval in October with the type of attitude that showed they didn't want to die wondering if they could've made more of their shot at an AFL career. Every supporter loves to hear that.
Add Morabito and Barlow's respective returns from injury and the starting 22 looks fresher, deeper, and more competitive to get into. Lyon has said it's time for middle-tier players like Duffield, Johnson, Ibbotson and Crowley to lift their performances. That's a message in itself, to all of the playing group. The injury crisis last year meant underperforming players couldn't be dropped: this year one senses passengers will not be so lucky.
The first four rounds will be difficult: Geelong (h), Sydney (a), Brisbane (h) against Mark Harvey, and St Kilda (a) against Lyon's old team will be a draining opening month, and supporters must prepare for 2-2, or perhaps even 1-3 to open the season. But four rounds in would not be the time to heap the pressure on via talkback radio. In this supporter's mind, the club have hired a clear communicator, and a deep thinker on the game. The circumstances of his arrival, and the extent to which it was the right decision, is plainly now for history and results to judge.
For now, supporters wait and watch for signs of a changing style; certainly to make the season competitive, and just maybe to produce some early and surprising results.