It is a function of any comparative exercise, from sport to food to beer to literature, that some things are good and others are not so good. Indeed, some things in any category of thing are bad.
Many professional sporting competitions try to limit the extremes of excellence and shithousessness by enforcing competitive equality measures, with varying effectiveness. In global terms, the AFL is one of the more proactive with these approaches, with an all-encompassing draft filtering talent entry, a relatively low salary cap all clubs can meet, an off-field spending soft cap, and enough funding redistribution to enable all clubs to fund competitive off-field operations. It may speak to Australia’s status as a social democracy, and the belief in a “fair go”.
Still, even on a level playing field, some teams will suck. In 2018 Carlton suck. But they won’t suck forever.
How are Carlton doing?
Across the board Carlton are struggling – it’s not one player or position in particular, but general underperformance against league average.
The 5th best Carlton player this year is more like the 10th best at most other clubs, the 11th best more like the 15th best elsewhere…and so on. But there are some particular highlights and lowlights across the side, and let’s start by looking at the lowest of the low…
Man, that defence…
The Carlton defence is the most porous in the league, allowing about 1 scoring shot for every 2 inside 50s conceded and about a third of a point (easily the league highest) per opposition possession. Liam Jones rates as their top player according to our Marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) metric as introduced here and listed for all players for 2018 here, and he rates only just inside the top 50 in the league. Most sides would ordinarily expect at least two players in that range, if not three.
Jacob Weitering in 2018 has rated as one of the worst dozen or so players to play at least half the season so far according to total mPAV, and has appeared to be declining year on year to date. Even the much maligned Paddy McCartin has made steps forward this past year, but it appears that uncertainty over role and structure has stripped all confidence from Weitering, who remains extremely young. Around Jones are a number of rapidly aging veterans, young players who aren’t developing fast enough and bit parts who don’t quite fit. Two exceptions exist in Marchbank and Plowman, the two most promising players gleaned from Carlton’s GWS asset recycling program, but both have struggled to be fit at the same time and happen to play similar roles.
With the absence of Docherty and the loss of Tuohy, at every point in their list the Carlton defence has struggled relative to the league average.
There’s been plenty of hand-wringing about Carlton getting foisted seemingly endless numbers of prime time games, but this seems like it cant have been deliberate given the complexities of fixturing with a super computer juggling hundreds of demands. And hey, the silver lining is there are usually high scores ín Carlton games due to their defensive ineptitude, which should please the shock jock understanding that more points means more excitement.
It’s not only defence
To be fair to the Blues defence, they have had little respite all season, as in the middle they’ve lost the inside 50 battle week after week. Like has been the case in recent years, the Blues have been able to rely on a few players to contribute above expectations, but have badly lacked depth, with the value contribution dropping off quickly beyond the top few.
One surprise so far has been Zac Fisher, who is one of the best (if not the) most valuable second year player in the competition this year. According to both PAV (a cumulative across the year) and mPAV (a per-game measure), Fisher is the best of the bunch so far this year, meaning he has largely flown under the radar in a bad side. But the flipside is in a more capable side, a player like Fisher wouldn’t have such a pivotal role in which to shine.
Fisher’s emergence has given the Blues a third (or perhaps fourth) solid midfielder, but beyond Cripps, Ed Curnow, Fisher and Murphy (who is increasing his time away from the middle), the depth is thin. Kruezer remains one of the competition’s best ruckmen, but often he is required more up forward. Andrew Phillips (another GWS offcut) has shown he is something approaching AFL level when fit, but getting both these talls into the same side and into some form, without injuries, has been a struggle in the past three seasons.
The one thing that the Blues have been able to do well is win clearances, the credit for which largely lays at the feet of Cripps and Kruezer. Cripps sits third in the league for relative share of team clearances, but often his disposal leaves a bit to be desired. This is a bit of a conundrum – should Carlton wait to get the ball in the hands of their better users, or put up with Cripps’s rushed kicks? HPN would certainly chose the latter considering their current list state.
Part of this is the down to the departure of Bryce Gibbs to Adelaide, who has unquestionably been the recruit of the year to date. The Blues lacked options to cover his sizeable absence. They went on another run grabbing recycled players in over the offseason, with Matthew Kennedy (again, GWS), Darcy Lang and Aaron Mullett all notionally able to help fill the gap by covering other roles, but all three have been hampered by injuries or form issues so far. They don’t have to be the long term solution; just fill the gaps until one comes.
But the forward line might be alright
After being led in goals by Matthew Wright for the past three seasons, and with Levi Casboult copping fan derision at every step, there might be a way forward for the Blues’ offence after a long period of turmoil.
In a super small sample size, Harry McKay looks like a real talent, and although omitted this week, has looked to be one of the better young KPFs in the league. He sits 4th in the league on points per disposal and 8th for scores per disposal.
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McKay’s 2017 figures look eerily similar, which bolsters the sample. This is good company to be in – Franklin sits five places below in points per disposal, due to his increased activity higher up the ground. If McKay tracks anything like the other three names here, the Blues have a steal on their hands.
Charlie Curnow is the one that gets much of the plaudits, but he’s not the only one who deserves them. Jarrod Garlett has been impressive so far in his second chance in the league, and Jed Lamb is more than making the most of his third. About half of Lamb’s inside 50s end in goal assists, which is pretty impressive, despite the smallish sample size. It’s the type of threat that Lamb always threatened to produce, but struggled to with consistency issues.
The path for the forward line to be a standout is clearer than the other two lines, which should be some consolation for Blues fans given how many other young sides struggle to piece together this part of the ground.
The good news
The good news for Carlton and their fans is that due to those aforementioned equalisation measures, it won’t be this forever. Like a deciduous tree, things will get ugly before they get nice again. Carlton have many exciting potential players on their list, but they also have a lot of dead weight – seemingly deliberately so. The recruitment of Lobbe, O’Shea, Mullett, Lang et al speaks of a team not trying to contend in the short term, but instead to build a good cultural environment so they can do so in a few years time as more talent filters in and develops. The latter three were considered to be solid figures around their previous clubs, and will likely provide more off-field than on it.
The goal for bad teams, and for rebuilding sides especially, is to sit on the respectable side of embarrassing, in order to maintain the trust of the board and fans. You don’t want to go full Mark Neeld in terms of ineptitude, but keep showing green shoots and ignore the hysterical footy press as best you can, and things will turn.
In 2016, we have analysed the likelihood of teams who finish bottom 4 rebounding into finals in subsequent seasons. They make for positive reading for any struggling side, especially when we consider the greater strides towards off-field equalisation that have occurred in recent years but didn’t exist across most of the 2000s.A side finishing bottom 4 is a better than even chance of making the finals in one of the three seasons following. Carlton finished bottom 4 last year, and we can assume they’re probably going to be one of the sides who take a little longer to rebound given they’ve declined this season, but all things being equal, we still should expect to see them in finals by 2021 or 2022. After all, around 73% of bottom 4 sides in recent history have made that move.
Another couple of high draft picks this offseason, and some more shots on overlooked young talent at other clubs, might see them to start to push forward. They are at the literal bottom of the heap right now, but with players like Cripps, Curnow, Fisher and McKay the path seems brighter than first thought.