The Art of the Spare – how to deploy the extra player (or players)

It was a slaughter.

Everywhere Port wanted to go, Collingwood were already there. Every foray up forward was dangerous, and the ball was moving with so much speed that the most vaunted of Port tough nuts couldn’t keep up. When Port tried to get out of the pack, it felt like there was a Pies player ready to take the ball away, or apply pressure at worst.

Because there was.

Over the last decade there has an increasing fascination in football with the deployment of a spare defender, as cover against opposition attacks at the slight cost of your own attack. The spare often becomes the intercept marker, the 3rd man up, the most valuable man in a defensive set up.

Against the Power, under the dome of Docklands, the Pies deployed a spare – but not deep back in defence. Instead they sat 5-10 metres back from any stoppage, providing both a defensive backstop against the potent Power midfield, and an attacking release if Collingwood won the ball. For the first quarter, this job was largely done by Jack Crisp, who hovered near the ball, without getting sucked into the inner scramble early.

Crisp didn’t rack up a lot of clearances, tackles or intercepts, but he denied Port the opportunity to move freely, while providing the Pies an escape opportunity whenever they got the ball. On most contests, the Pies also managed to position a player on their goal side of the stoppage, providing the next player in the chain of possession, and making ball movement easier.

Every spare man creates a spare opponent – and Port deployed theirs at the base of the pack. This was, to put it bluntly, futile. Even when the Port spare was utilised by their rucks (Lycett and Ryder) successfully, Crisp and the other midfield cohort were waiting nearby, and the ball would soon be going back with interest.

At quarter time, Port Adelaide seemed to twig to the Collingwood plan, and manned up everyone relatively tightly at the stoppage, negating the previous advantage. Even though the Power won the last three quarters, the damage had already been done.

High up on level 4, near the 50 metre arc, an assortment of coaches, analysts and players watched the play unfold. With a handful of seats between them, each could watch to themselves, without giving too much away. Just after halftime, Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin had seen enough and made for the exit. Perhaps it was not to draw any extra attention, or perhaps he thought the game was over. Either way, he and his coaching staff had something completely different planned for the next day.

In the sunny confines of the MCG, the season of the Melbourne Demons hung by a thread. Commonly held as flag fancies before a ball was bounced, the Dees had slumped to one win from six starts. A win against Hawthorn was surely necessary if September football was still on the cards.

After a scrappy first quarter, the Dees were down a little against the inconsistent Hawks. For most of the first quarter, the Dees had been running a deep – very deep – spare defender. Scared of conceding the kick over the top to an opponent careening into space, Melbourne decided they desperately needed a super loose defender. As the game progressed, the spare was often joined by one, or even two, colleagues – creating a de facto extra back line. A fully back full back line.

Melbourne were desperately trying to avoid conceding quick rebounding opportunities, daring Roughead (in one of his last games for the Hawks) and Lewis (in one of his first) to beat them in the air.

Instead of quick forays forward, Hawthorn were forced to attempt to switch play backwards and sideways, using their own spare players, giving the Melbourne players inside defensive 50 ample time to arrange themselves. When Hawthorn did go forward quickly, one of Hore, Frost, Lewis or Hibberd were present to snuff out the attacks. The players seemingly had different roles in these situations – one would attack the ball, while the others would roll back and help support their fellow defenders from strong leads. It didn’t always work – but it evidently succeeded just enough.

The Demons have a very different defensive profile to most of the competition – with their mid and small defenders carrying a large amount of the intercept load. The Dees often don’t concede many inside 50s partly because they gamble to take the ball away higher up the ground. However if that high defence is beaten, goals can come quickly against them. Against the Hawks, they tried a more cautious version of the same strategy.

Conceding 1.82 points per inside 50 in the first six rounds of the off-season, the worst rate in the competition, the Demons were able to restrict Hawthorn to just 1.48 points per entry. Had they conceded at their season rate, they would have allowed around 91 points – and gone down by about two goals.

Allowed so many spare players themselves, the Hawks deployed in different ways. They used an extra back of their own (largely covering the hole between forwards), an extra mid at the stoppages. But even though these players were able to move the ball up the ground, they were unable to keep it where it mattered – near the goals.

In the end, the game was a stalemate – a engaging fight between two sides desperate not to lose. By moving from a single spare to using multiple players, in the part of the ground that they had been so vulnerable for most of the year, the Demons were able to successfully not lose the game.

After the game, Goodwin told The Age that it was “the best that they had defended in a long time”. Goodwin also added that “the pleasing thing for me is we have started to re-establish ourselves as what we want to play as – that’s a contest, defensive-based team that works incredibly hard.”

Clearly, Melbourne had an idea on how to deal with Hawthorn. After the game, Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson was less generous, stating that “Neither side showed anything today to suggest they are going to be any threat come the end of the year.” It certainly is a bold statement in a game that you have just lost. Interestingly, against GWS in the next game, Hawthorn deployed a much more defensive outlook, limiting the Giants to just 38 points.

Perhaps Clarkson came to a realisation of his own.

Both Collingwood and Melbourne, winners that weekend, were able to effectively utilise the spare in greatly differing ways. Collingwood established their spare player as an attacking weapon near the contest, Melbourne used multiple spares in an extremely defensive manner. These two models aren’t how other sides use them – both matches were more novel outliers than conforming to recent norms. However, but in almost every game, modern AFL teams take players from one part of the ground to play in another, creating empty space and outnumbered situations in different parts of the park to shape and manipulate ball movement options.

Innovation like this is what makes the game of Australian Football great, and the moves and counter moves of these tactical deployments being fascinating viewing on a week to week basis, and are especially notable live at the grounds. Attempts to limit where players can run surely hurts this, and hurts the diversity of the game.

So if you are heading to a game this weekend, look beyond the ball, and check where each side uses spare players.

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