The Giants in 2018 have been hobbled by injury, but they have shown some creativity and originality in how they’ve tried to play footy given this reality. GWS have nothing if not top end talent at their disposal, and some of the quirks of the Giants 2018 methods suggest Leon Cameron and his coaching staff are looking for new ways to use that talent and to cover holes forced by injury and lack of player development.
Take for example the use of a spare man tag. Most sides in the competition run a spare man (or two) down back at least some of the time. The spare usually comes in two forms – the aggressive spare or the defensive spare.
The aggressive spare is largely a tool for attacking the back of stoppages. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to call them an outside midfielder, regardless of their notional placement on the field. They start centre bounces at the back of the square then charge the contest. They can also serve a similar role floating to the defensive side of other stoppages in general play, but having the intent to attack the contest rather than sit back and rebound.
These aggressive spares can be countered by running with them and seeking body contact to disrupt their attacking movement. They can also simply be mirrored, opponents attacking the same contests from the other side as well. This kind of spare defender usage is almost purely an attacking option (one reason the AFLW’s field restrictions are misguided is that they stop this tactic).
The defensive spare is probably the one more often pictured by fans at home and the one Cameron has grappled with. A defensive spare sits in a gap sort of between opposition forwards, who are in 1-on-1 contests across the forward line. If the forwards don’t have enough spacing, or the threat of speed, or if a kick is misplaced, the spare defender can hoover up errant kicks and launch a counter attack.
GWS have come up with an inventive counter to the spare defender. They get their least dangerous forward (either a resting player, a genuine defensive forward or whatever depth player they have available) to follow the spare man around.
When we watched the Giants play the Bulldogs at Manuka, the man with this job was generally Himmelberg or Lloyd. They would actively follow the spare, which resulted in their nominal defensive opponent following them. Instead of two situations with a 0-on-1 and a 1-on-1, there was just one situation of a 1-on-2, which meant that the Giants could at least contest any errant kicks.
Additionally, it gave the remainder of the Giants forward line even numbered contests, and an area in the forward 50 that forwards and upfield teammates would hopefully know to avoid. As the Giants are such a talented clearance side (based on data from the last three years), a forward 50 stoppage would be a very high value situation for them, and if the 1-on-2 contest can cause that where a spare defender might otherwise freely rebound, a stoppage would be a big win.
It was a different perspective on using space on the paddock that is a football field. It’s a small move, and easily countered by adding a second spare or removing the first one, but it is a sign that the GWS coaching staff are thinking about the mini-battles.
Makeshift Forward Lines
As a whole, the Giants forward line has struggled this year, but much of that is down to personnel. Out of a total of 48 possible games, their six most valuable forward contributors from 2017 have played 24 total games (with Steve Johnson retired).
Having your best forward line available roughly half the time isn’t good to begin with, but the Giants also often haven’t been able to use their available players in the actual forward line due to their other availability issues. Due to Mumford’s retirement, Rory Lobb has played four games primarily in the ruck, with Jonathon Patton chipping in with a couple more. Lobb does pretty well in the ruck and around the ground, but for all of Patton’s strengths (which are plentiful) being a primary ruck isn’t one of them. Indeed, Patton’s time in the ruck led to him being dropped to an undistinguished NEAFL outing, which suggests it also impacted his fitness and confidence.
Without two of their three key forward targets, the Giants have had to find attacking options in other ways.
Harry Himmelberg has played extensive stints in a Cam McCarthy-like leading forward role, but he doesn’t usually have the strength for one-out battles – he has just three contested marks and four marks inside 50 for the year. They’ve used Ryan Griffen a bit out of the goal square as a solo target, which has worked while he has smaller defenders on him but he struggles against bigger bodies. Toby Greene can also be used in a similar way when available, and is an excellent mark for his size. However, none of these guys are really adept at being a second key forward behind the always excellent Cameron, and certainly none can be the primary target if Cameron misses. Crucially, most of them would be more useful elsewhere.
The ideal structure that the Giants would have drawn up before the season would have seen Patton and Cameron as the focal points of the attack, with Himmelberg chiming in as third tall, Greene physically dominating the best small or medium defender, and resting midfielders or players like de Boer, Reid, Lloyd and Griffen filling the gaps.
Those first four players (Cameron, Patton, Himmelberg and Greene) have played just three games together this year, for two wins and a draw. More importantly, with that set-up, they scored 96 points per game. In the five games without that four piece arsenal, they have averaged 70 points per game. That is potentially the difference between a side missing finals, and a side pushing towards top 2. Availability and form from these four will help the side considerably.
Hot takes like this one from Champion Data don’t take set up and player issues into account. It’s not a crisis, but more a mild concern that should right itself.
Very Defensive Midfielders
Another one of GWS’ six most valuable forward contributors in 2017 was Josh Kelly, ostensibly a highly skilled goal-scoring midfielder with a very high ceiling. Kelly has been used in his three games a differently than he was last year, when he averaged a little under 5 clearances per game. This year his clearances have dropped dramatically to just above 1 per game this year. His goals per game average is up slightly on last year, but even more dramatically his rebound 50 average has increased significantly. This is down to another one of Leon Cameron and Co’s tricks – using true midfielders to disguise the lack of small and rebounding defenders.
Most sides use their better midfielders up forward when not in the middle of the action, or rest them on the bench, for either less energy sapping duties or to provide a secondary target up forward. Think Dangerfield, Ablett, Fyfe, Treloar, Bontempelli, and perhaps most effectively Martin. The Giants have done this a bit in recent years, with Kelly, Ward, Shiel and Coniglio all having spells up forward to some effect
This is not unusual for most clubs, or that unexpected.
What is more unexpected is rotating midfielders down back. The Giants faced a crippling issue this year – a lack of talented smaller rebounding defenders. Where last year they had Nathan Wilson, Zac Williams, Heath Shaw and at times Lachie Whitfield to rely on, in 2018 the first two names disappeared from their available player list due to trades and injury respectively. Whitfield has filled one of those gaps more regularly in 2018, but they don’t really have a replacement for the other one to two slots. Using tall/mid defenders in more creative roles, and the rotation of mids to fill small defender roles, seems to be where they have landed.
Across the entire league, for non-rucks (at least 10 hitouts this year) with a midfield mPAV of at least 0, the Giants have by far the highest defensive mPAV average in the league.
This means they use their midfielders for defensive purposes much more than any other club. To show this more simply, we’ve created a simple tool called RB/IF, which is a ratio of inside 50s to rebound 50s – the lower the number, the more defensive a player is.
Using that same grouping (+0 rated midfielders on mPAV, excluding rucks), the Giants have the lowest RB/IF in the league, ahead of Gold Coast (who don’t have many qualifying players. This is a quick and easy way to see that the Giants most important midfield contributors are also carrying quite a load defensively, and are being used more than any other club to get the ball into the midfield.
Another way to look at it is to break it down at the player level and look at possession locations. These are possession heat charts for four key Giants midfielders including the injured Kelly:
And these are heat charts for four of the game’s better midfielders:
This might be a limited sample, but there is a trend emerging both on the maps above and the underlying data. The Giants are using, either out of want or need, many of their star midfielders in defensive areas, perhaps more than other clubs are choosing to. None of the Giants’ key quartet has spent much time playing anything like a resting forward role, instead being positioned more defensively. Other teams have top midfielders with quite defensive-leaning possession profiles, such as Lachie Neale and Ollie Wines, but many of those sides balance that with other midfielders playing more attacking roles.
For Kelly in his three games, it seems to have been a shift from in previous years. The development of Taranto (who is projecting to be even better than Kelly at the same age) allows them the flexibility to shift one of the most valuable players in the league to different, and perceived to be less valuable, parts of the ground.
The problem is that using players in this way has consequences. The ability for the Giants to move the ball up forward has been damaged this year, with them sitting below the competition average on inside 50 balance for the first time since they became a finals threat. Instead of having the four players mentioned above available as link players, their use in the play has often been spent before the Giants have had a chance to score.
And as discussed previously their forward efficiency has taken a hit. Their defence is about the best in the league at stopping the conversion of inside 50s, but unlike the other strong defences (the rest of the top 6 are North Melbourne, Geelong, Richmond, Sydney and West Coast), they seem to be robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Unlike the forward line, the small rebounding defender issue isn’t as easy to solve. Adam Tomlinson has been roving the ground a bit more than in previous years, and could conceivably play a more specialised distribution role from defence. Adam Kennedy would have been slated to help there before the season started, but his knee issues look like sidelining him long term – likewise Will Setterfield. Former number 5 draft pick Matt Buntine, who would be a regular in most AFL teams, isn’t quite the right fit for this role either. The reserves have been thin on the ground, winless in the NEAFL after round 1, and with a percentage of 54.7%.
The solution they’ve come up with of pushing midfielders into defence is far from ideal, but might be the best one they have at hand. This week the defence should struggle even more with the perennially underrated Phil Davis missing. He is a rare talent who can provide some drive off half back while being both an intercept defender and also able to combat the biggest of tall forwards.
Davis may be the closest defender in the league to being able to match up on Ben Brown, and in his absence GWS have tapped the trend-setting Tim Mohr, the original AFL man-bun. They will need to counter Brown with some combination of Mohr, Jeremy Finlayson and Nick Haynes.
Salvaging the season
What we’ve been trying to say is that GWS might still be the most talented team in the league when fit, and they might even be covering their absences better than expected through creative coaching. The words “when fit” are critical though – because the dropoff from the first choice Giants in some positions to the next bunch is often quite steep, maybe the steepest in the league.
Our preseason preview noted that GWS had one of the shortest lists of proven above-replacement level players in the league with just the 19, including Williams with his snapped Achilles. Our preseason mPAV projection used historical game numbers by list ranking, and therefore assumed teams wouldn’t always have their best players. It shocked us by ranking the Giants 14th. We wrote:
According to mPAV and our prediction system, the Giants will likely have to give around 170 games to players that didn’t display themselves as being best 22 last year.
The Giants’ best 15 or so players are superb. They will almost certainly be a contender if they can avoid a spate of injuries and only play 30-32 players across the year, but perhaps more than any other club, they will be keen to avoid digging into the untested depths of their list.
Something like this possibility has now come to pass. The Giants have already played 31 players, and the lack of depth has been exposed. According to overall mPAV, the Giants have nine of the top 80 players in the league, but only one of the next hundred. The number of players who have a positive mPAV (above 0) is 14, which is pretty much in line with the preseason prediction. The “elite” players are there, but there’s a major gap behind them.
The two goals for the rest of the season for the Giants are to get into the eight, and to do so with some form of health. If they can do both of those things, they are still a decent chance of making a Grand Final. Otherwise, it’s a lost year for them.