Is Collingwood for real?

Collingwood is real. No amount of denialism will change that. You can get a beer at Stomping Grounds (or The Tote), watch the footy team at the ‘G or the ressies at Victoria Park, or even glance at houses and apartments that you have no hope of affording to buy. Collingwood, both as a place and a football club (but not a soccer club), is undoubtedly present in the temporal plane of existence.

But are they for real? Is the 2018 version of the Magpies worthy of consideration for greater things in this AFL season, or are they merely fodder for the eventual premiers?

Much like the rising tide of gentrification of the suburb of its namesake, Collingwood is both seemingly booming this year but different to what is was in the past. Let’s find out how.

The small forward line is sort of working

The rise of “small ball” in the AFL has been mooted over the past few years, but it hasn’t really taken off to date. Sure, the Bulldogs ran with a limited set of key position forwards, but they had smalls imitating how a standard forward line would look. The 2017 Tigers had Jack Riewoldt as key target, one of the most dangerous modern KPFs, and Dustin Martin, perhaps the most dangerous player currently, also masqueraded as a tall for most of last season. Both these sides also more or less won premierships from upfield, succeeding in spite of their weaker forward set up, rather than through the strength of small forward prowess.

While those forward lines were smaller, they weren’t much smaller than other historical forward setups. This year’s Pies, by comparison, are a different proposition.

In 2018 Collingwood have largely operated with an open forward structure, with just one key forward at times (Mason Cox). In recent weeks, first year mature age recruit Brody Mihocek has stepped up as a second tall(ish) target (with surprisingly robust contested marking numbers for a player his size), and earlier in the year Ben Reid filled this role. But for the most part, the Pies have gone smaller, though not tiny.

Instead of unleashing a crew of diminutive fleet footed runners, the Pies have overloaded their forward line with a bunch of solid bodied but quick forwards. They have used players in the 185-190cm range, who can beat slower defenders on the ground, but also smaller defenders in the air. In the age where matchups are increasingly rotating through a match, these types of players can regularly cause mismatches, keeping defences unbalanced as the pieces switch locations and roles.

Will Hoskin-Elliott is the best example of this. At GWS he was often unable to find a spot in a talented best 22, and was often shifted from being an outside runner through the middle, to a more specialist smaller forward role amongst other trials. While WHE was a talented player, there was a lot of class in the middle stopping him getting consistent game time there.

At Collingwood, a similarly talented midfield has caused the coaching staff to make his move forward more permanent; a move that has worked so far. Hoskin-Elliott is averaging a career low for clearances and turnovers per game, but career highs in score involvements, marks inside 50, goals and tackles inside 50 per game. Similar statistical stories emerge for their other leading goal kickers in Thomas and De Goey.

The Pies still have bail out options in Cox and (when he goes up there) Grundy, as an emergency kick up forward, but due to these mid-sized options – and classy ball use through the middle – this often isn’t required.

Why not use it by hand?

In the 2018 season, teams have split onto the kick heavy, handball heavy or balanced paths, with a wider spread of kick to handball ratios than seen in previous seasons. Along with St Kilda, the Dogs, and Melbourne, the Magpies have been as handball heavy as any other side. They’re also one of the few handball-heavy sides to have increased this tendency in 2018, with the league as a whole shifting towards kicks and only five sides moving the other way.

The Magpies also currently rate first for handball differential, showing their willingness to run and carry within games even where the other team is using it less by hand. That differential is up from 6th in 2017. Collingwood handball about 21 more times than their opposition on average, often preferring to rely on their speed and effective running patterns through the middle, rather than risk a long kick to an uncertain target. With fewer tall targets up the ground this is partly borne of necessity, but also partly of style. Some sides without many targets handball a lot less than them.

The Pies have also gone all-in on winning the clearances, sitting on top of the league for clearance differential, ahead of the Giants and the Lions. As HPN has indicated in previous weeks, this is perhaps more an indicator of style than skill, since the Tigers sit last for this category in 2018, preferring to concede space at stoppages and rebound off turnovers from post-clearance situations.

Again, this may be borne of using the tools available to each side, with Nankervis not being a strong tap ruckman, while Grundy is both one of the best two or three in the game and also an effective groundball player. The Pies have risen up the clearance rankings in the past three seasons, finishing mid-pack in 2016 before landing second in 2017. It’s likely that the changes to the ruck rules, as highlighted in last week’s post, has also helped the Pies.

There really is no one “golden” strategy in the current AFL, and the optimal approach for a side will largely depend on the talent at a coach’s disposal. It appears, both from the eye test and from results so far this year, that the Pies have found something that works for them after years of trial and error.

Engaging risk

If there was a major criticism of the 2017 Collingwood team, it is that they largely failed to play an exciting brand of football. They were risk-adverse. That’s a sensible state of being, but one that requires a superiority of talent to pull off effectively. They did not have that.

The value of creating turnovers cannot be overstated in the modern game. About two-thirds of all scores are created from them, and generally sides who win the turnover battle are the sides who succeed across the season:

Notably however, the Pies merely break even here, and have in fact gone slightly backwards in turnover differentials. Last year they conceded about 1 less turnover per game than they recieved, this year they’re dead even. What’s changed, however, is the level of risk:

Collingwood games contain 11 more turnovers than they did last year and 16 more than 2016. Their games are now the 5th most turnover-laden after being 10th last year, indicating that they’re more willing to take risks and give up turnover opportunities more often, in exchange for the greater opportunities they obtain themselves.

That defence though

Unfortunately for the Pies, injury has struck at the wrong end of the season. All teams suffer injuries through a season, and this seems especially the case this year for finals contenders who are not Richmond or North Melbourne. Winning a premiership takes more than just skill and strategy, but also a fair dose of luck too. Collingwood have fielded 36 players during this season, and while there are outliers (the 2016 Bulldogs), generally sides who play fewer players from their list during a season are more successful at the end.

While the Pies have a number of players unavailable right now, the various forward and midfield absences such as Treloar, Reid, Elliot and Wells have been impressively covered over the year.

It is the losses of Jeremy Howe and Matt Scharenberg which are particularly biting right now – especially with respect to their intercept prowess. Howe and Scharenberg sit inside the top 3 at Collingwood (and top 25 in the competition) for average intercepts per game, with Howe also inside the top 10 for rebound 50s.

Filling these gaps won’t be so easy this late in the season – especially if Howe continues to miss games. While not all known as intercept players, other potential defensive pieces in Reid, Dunn, Goldsack and Moore are unavailable to try to fill this gap. Tom Langdon has contributed in these areas so far this season, as has Jack Crisp, but beyond these two there do not appear to be ready made answers to generate these critical intercepts. Langdon and Crisp also sit inside the top 10% in the league for giving away turnovers – which Howe and Scharenberg do not.

So are they for real?

The real answer for whether or not the Pies are for real is likely yet to come – although not before the end of the Home and Away season. The Pies will face just one more potential finalist before the end of the season (Port Adelaide); about the softest draw of the remaining contenders.

They’ll need to use this time to hone methods to cover their now extremely makeshift defence. Collingwood’s best hope is probably to protect it by winning the ball higher up the ground, and using a strong midfield to limit the number of opportunities that their defence needs to see in each game.

Playing higher up the ground, and focusing on winning stoppages, has risks. Often, if an extra player is deployed near a stoppage it is at the expense of a spare defender, which hurts the ability to kill quick forays forward. But, if the Pies choose to throw an extra down back, they will potentially lose their ascendance in the contest and lose a chance to score themselves. Without a stellar intercept defender in the selected side, creating scoring from stoppages might be their best path forward, given the likely leaky nature down back.

As mentioned above, Cox and Grundy have been good in the air this year, and in killing bail out kicks down the line – which is another attacking for of defence. Collingwood is third for contested marks per game partly due to their influence. Given the ability of both in the ruck to turn hitouts into clearances, it might not be the worst thing for Collingwood to use these two to create as many stoppages as possible.

Collingwood has beaten just one side in the current top 8 (Melbourne) despite going close against a number of others. It is largely untested whether their relatively unconventional approaches can stand up to the top end of the competition, or whether another year of testing and tinkering is required.

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