How far off defending their premiership are the Eagles?

As HPN has stated in the past, and as is illustrated by the commonly given “score sources” statistic in television broadcasts of the AFL, there are three primary modes of score origins.

  1. Turnovers.
  2. Clearances (centre and stoppage).
  3. Kick-outs.

Turnovers generally make up about two-thirds of all scores, and this is rising. Stoppages make up about another third and kick-outs are a small sliver. The Tigers in 2017, either consciously or accidentally, were one of the first teams to bet hard against the importance of clearances, and started to place their most important players in the most useful places to either generate or capitalise on turnovers instead.

In the march to their Grand Final win last year, the Eagles were a similar side. They were neutral or worse in regards to stoppage win rates, but their intercepting and contested marking made them dominant in winning the turnover/intercept battle. This, combined with the incredible effectiveness of their forward line, was enough to cover for their relative inability to win the ball in the middle.

This year, this is not so much the case. The Eagles have seen almost the worst decline in intercept differential, just ahead of the injury-hit Tigers and Demons. Generally, their clearances are down across the board, but interestingly this is mostly down to a centre clearance deficiency – with their stoppage clearances bumping up a little.

However, their damaging forward line, and stout defence, is keeping their heads above water so far. To make the leap to the top three that have started to separate from the rest of the competition (more on that in a moment), it is likely that they have to generate more inside 50s, either from intercepts or stoppages. Teams appear to be targeting non-McGovern areas, so the rest of the West Coast defensive effort, including the defence contributed by players through the middle, may have to find more opportunities to attack the loose and loose-ish ball.

Of course, being more aggressive in looking for turnovers can lead to a more porous defence, something the Eagles may not want to tinker with too much as long as they’re racking up some wins. But, on the mid-season data that we are now seeing, the Eagles will have a hard time repeating 2018 if they can’t narrow their inside 50 differential, at least a little, by the end of the season. Some of the territory issues might just be pegged back by the Eagles’ schedule opening up, but there’s probably other adjustments needed too.

How far off are the Eagles?

This brings us to a broader look at how teams are rating right now in the race for the flag. We’re far enough into the season that we have a good sample of team form, so it is a good time to check in with the HPN Team Ratings.

HPN has adjusted these ratings for schedule of strength, because certain teams like West Coast have played more difficult opponents to date, relative to other teams like Port Adelaide.

These are team ratings based on how effectively they control territory and how effective they are within the scoring zone represented by the 50m arcs. The Midfield rating is measured by inside 50 ratio, something largely contributed by midfielders, but also influenced by roles such as half backs and intercepting defenders playing that turnover game that’s trending towards greater and greater importance.

The Forward and Defensive ratings are based on points per inside 50, scored and conceded. These, too, are influenced by turnovers, with sides who sit deep and defend inside 50 tending to look quite strong in the defensive rating while looking weaker upfield.

Historically, the HPN method of analysing team strength across parts of the ground suggests a minimum threshold for premiership contention. Since 1998 when the inside 50s statistic became available, premiers have nearly always rated at 105.0 or greater overall, with each individual component of their rating generally being over 100, ie. better than league average. In that time, the most lowly rated premiers have been the 2016 Bulldogs (just below 105) and 2005 Swans (just above), who could both be said to have had unlikely and rather surprising runs through their finals campaigns that really outdid their regular season performances.

As noted above, the Eagles are not currently a leader, sitting instead near the front of a currently fairly distant trailing pack. Three teams are currently locked within the premiership zone, with Geelong looking clearly the strongest among them. Like the Eagles, the Geelong profile is a “book ends” one – strong up forward and down back.

The difference is that the Cats are breaking even in territory and getting at least equal looks at scoring opportunities, and their potent mix of forward options is scoring more efficiently than any other side. GWS have a similar but weaker profile, slightly above average in midfield territory terms, and with very strong and efficient scoring power once they enter forward 50.

The third apparent contender, Collingwood, instead have quite a dominant midfield. They’re second behind Port Adelaide in their inside 50 ratio, but unlike the largely wasted Port Adelaide dominance, the Pies are actually scoring at a strong rate, capitalising on the opportunity mismatch and defending reasonably as well. HPN looked recently at Collingwood’s aggressive deployment of a spare player at midfield contests, and this is one tactic which is probably contributing to their ability to control territory this year.

The next question, then, is who can make the jump into this top group. The Eagles, as noted, are a “good bookends” team, but have been losing the territory battle through the centre quite badly, starving their potent forwards and placing a very heavy burden on defenders. Among the chasing group, however, the Eagles are the only team who rate strongly in two parts of the ground. Fremantle and Adelaide’s defences are currently their main highlights, while the injury-hampered Richmond are holding up okay in the centre but sport a below-average defence and forward line. The Hawks, interestingly, are looking pretty average everywhere, which can be a good base to start from.

However, if the Eagles can get to an near even inside 50 balance, and start to dominate the turnover game again, they may be the favourite to turn the top 3 into a top 4.

 

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