Read the title back again and think for a moment. The Eagles lost Sam Mitchell, the all-time leader in clearances (well, since 1998 when we first had the stat) over the off-season. Moreover, they also lost the player who was 4th-ranked in Matthew Priddis. Despite his age, Mitchell was a key part of the Eagles in 2017, the third most valuable West Coast midfielder according to Player Approximate Value. Priddis was second most valuable.
With this loss, West Coast should have regressed, and certainly nearly everyone assumed they would. Instead, according to the HPN Team Statistics, the Eagles 2018 midfield performance to date has showed the biggest improvement in an area of the ground of any team in the competition. It is also probably the sole reason for their improvement as a whole so far this year.
How important are clearances?
We must acknowledge that clearances on their own are viewed by different parts of the broader football community as having anything from a lot of value to very little value. We understand the skepticism. Truth probably lies somewhere in the middle because of course we’re going to sit on the fence here. We do however track clearance ratio among a set of Team Statistics because we think it has some analytical value.
Among the various “score sources”, it’s “points from turnovers” rather than “points from stoppages” which has the better relationship with the success of a side. If only that data was publicly available on a historical basis to show this publicly but we make do with what we have.
With this skepticism acknowledged, as a basic case there must be something in clearance ratios as an indicator of midfield capabilities. We can probably assume that a side which is good at getting the ball out of stoppages first must also be more likely to win that inside-50 differential battle, something we know correlates much more highly with winning games. Teams winning clearances get opportunities to use the ball first and therefore more reliable access to the ball.
Where this gets complicated is that the exact value of clearances as a measure of quality probably depends on aspects of team setup, which varies between sides and by situation. This is particularly in cases where teams are using unusual positional strategies such as:
- prioritising clearances at the expense of forward potency by placing an extra close to stoppages while conceding out-numbers closer to goal,
- conceding stoppages to try to force broken turnover plays, eg. reducing presence in close, but placing players half a kick from the stoppage, in order to attack the second possession, and obtain outside run
- choking up stoppages in order to prioritise not actually conceding a clearance and exerting physical pressure over winning the footy directly.
The Eagles have improved in both clearances and inside-50s areas in 2018, not only in comparison to their 2017 performances but also to years prior to that. The improvement is particularly significant when looking at inside 50s.
What’s changed at the Eagles?
Without Priddis and Mitchell (a one-year visitor to the club), there has been a leap across the board when it comes to team contribution to clearances and inside-50s, and seemingly there’s been a change of philosophy when it comes to the movement of the ball.
In 2017, the Eagles kicked the footy 1.32 times for every time they handballed – a rate very marginally above the league average of 1.22. This was similar to their 2016 rate of 1.31, their 2015 rate of 1.24, their 2014 rate of 1.38, their 2013 rate of 1.44… you get the picture. In each of these seasons (bar 2014), this was above the league average, despite having one of the most prolific handballers in the game (Brownlow medalist by default Matthew Priddis) at the so-called coalface.
Without Priddis and Mitchell this year, the Eagles have kicked it 1.85 times for every handball, way beyond the league average of 1.38. Sure, those two used to handball a lot, but the size of the change suggests it goes beyond mere removal of a player or two, and instead represents a major philosophical change to the way the side approaches the game. This is likely a explicit, coached instruction, to move the ball by foot instead of hand. The Eagles also have the third highest number of marks this year, and second highest number of marks inside-50 – meaning the kick-happy game plays to the strengths of the Eagles’ tall, leading-centric forward structure.
In the opening half-dozen games of this season, the Eagles have improved their inside-50 ratio the most of any side this year, a fair bit ahead of a finally somewhat fit Fremantle and no-longer “consciously decelerating” Hawthorn. At either end of the ground, the side is about the same as they were. Their forwards are about as efficient at scoring per entry and their defence concedes roughly the same scores per opposition entry as over the past three or four years. It’s just their midfield is providing a better balance of scoring opportunities compared to recent seasons.
With respect to clearances by player, it appears that there has been an improved output across the board, from their in-and-under types getting the job done. Many of those same faces (Shuey, Sheed, Gaff, Redden and Yeo) are also then putting the ball inside-50 frequently. The change hasn’t been new personnel, just a redistribution of the workload. It seems to be working so far. Currently, the Eagles have 15 players performing above 0 for Marginal Player Approximate Valuye per game (mPAV, as explained here), which is the league average level of per-game, per-player value. This list doesn’t include potential All-Australian specialist defender Tom Barrass, or the so-far impressive Brad Sheppard. In short, the Eagles have had a lot of above-average players who know what role they have to fill, and how to approach the game.
The closest to a hegemonic contributor to the midfield is Luke Shuey, who is getting a larger share of the WC clearances and inside 50s than last year; both categories he led the Eagles in last year as well. He is doing so while kicking the ball more often than he did last year (58% of his disposals, up from 51%), and more often than Mitchell (48%) or Priddis (34%) did.
The other huge chunk of this story is of course the return of Nic Naitanui, and his benefit to the midfield as one of the game’s most unique and impactful ruckmen. His influence alone is probably best illustrated by PAV, which sees him as the 22nd most value player in the league (and second most valuable Eagle) so far this year.
For a guy coming back from a major knee injury, this is extremely impressive! The Eagles have managed to ease him back into footy after the ACL injury ruled him completely out of 2017. He’s taking longer breaks, playing 11% of the game less than he did in 2016. He’s averaging 57% time on ground so far this year, down from an average of 68% across his 2016 games (excluding the one where he injured his ACL).
His lower time on ground has translated into perhaps slightly more ruck output per minute than he used to get, which may mean he’s attending more bounces or just winning hitouts more often:
…but unsurprisingly, the Eagles are not using the shorter onfield bursts to let him have more impact on general play:
Perhaps crucially to this discussion of the Eagles’ midfield, they’re leading the league in the percentage of hitouts won. That’s obviously all down to Naitanui and his extremely capable back-up in Scott Lycett (himself currently the Eagles’ 4th most valuable player according to PAV).
The Eagles are performing quite well in the HPN Team Ratings:
But, like we discussed with North Melbourne last week, they have faced a low-rated set of opponents so far:
As teams become more and more exposed to the new-ish kick-focused approach from West Coast and different midfield workload, we can expect teams to provide better counters to their success. Rushing the square after the bounce, not contesting ruck contests at times, throwing two or three spare back and trying to pierce the Eagles defensive set-up slowly… the options here will be plentiful. Smart teams will find a way to beat the new look Eagles, and Simpson’s men will have to counter that, and so on.
Such is the beauty of modern football’s tactical back and forth.