AFL 2019 Elimination Final Preview – West Coast v Essendon – the clearance beasts go head to head

For this finals series HPN will be running brief final previews using some of the stats we have at hand. This is the first in that series.

West Coast v Essendon

HPN Team Strengths

Team Mid Score Off Score Def Score Avg score Opp Mid Opp Off Opp Def Avg opp Adj Mid Adj Off Adj Def Adj overall
West Coast (7th) 95.5 111.7 104.6 103.9 100.6 98.6 99.9 99.7 96.1 111.6 103.1 103.6
Essendon (13th) 92.9 98.7 103.3 98.3 99.8 100.7 100.6 100.4 92.7 99.3 104.1 98.7

Both the Dons and Eagles are weak in the midfield territory game, losing the balance of entries inside 50 over the course of the year. Both are relatively strong at each end to compensate. As with last year, West Coast’s attack is the strongest in the league, while both sides have above average defensive units with All Australian candidates or members.

However, the Bombers attack has been inconsistent through the season, with the absence of Joe Daniher being keenly felt. As we’ll see below, the offensive load has spread widely for Essendon and it’s been inconsistent as a result. Due to various injuries, form dropoffs and reshuffling of players, Essendon’s forward setup has been dangerous some weeks and absolutely nonthreatening in others. It appears that they are getting closer to full strength for the finals, but cohesion may be an issue.

Keys to the game

West Coast

  1. The marking battle

In wins against top 8 sides, the Eagles get about 11 more marks, and three more contested marks, than their opponents. In losses against top 8 sides, they have about 17 fewer marks, and two fewer contested marks, than the sides that beat them.

Controlling the ball in the air is critical to the style of West Coast, and they’re well equipped with strong aerial players to accomplish this. They are also more handball-adverse than any other finalist, usually finding success when they can hold the footy more than their opposition. A key part of that battle is finding uncontested marking targets and precise kicking to advantage or at least neutral contest situations if there aren’t free options.

2. Avoiding chaos ball

In a league focusing on winning the ball off the turnover, the Eagles are more determined than any other side to avoid them. Only two sides in the finals turn the ball over more than they win the ball from turnovers (more on the other turnover losing finalist later). Instead, the Eagles focus on not wasting opportunities that they are given, and hoping that they can coax opponents into making costly mistakes.

Jeremy McGovern, the anchor of the Eagles defence, accumulates more interceptions against top 8 sides than the bottom 10, which is likely an indication that the better teams are more game to take on the areas he patrols and try to work around him. Spoiler alert: they mostly can’t. A long bomb strategy, or quick movement to avoid the vice-like setup, is probably key to limiting the influence of the Eagles’ strong intercepting defenders.

In wins against top 8 sides, there are about 130 total turnovers (between both sides) against about 135 in losses against such teams. If the game becomes fast and frenetic, the Eagles won’t be liking it.

3. Winning the stoppages

The counterbalance to reducing turnovers is that stoppages are potentially increased due to a preference for playing for the reset rather than pushing risky advantages. That’s something West Coast has leaned into this year. No side has a better rate of winning stoppage clearances this year than West Coast, and only the Bulldogs are better at it in winning efforts against top 8 teams.

Part of this has to do with their adherence to the two ruck strategy, and a fair chunk to their placement of key layers at stoppages. The return of Naitanui will help them exploit this more, even if he plays limited minutes.

If the Eagles can win clearances into uncontested marks up the ground regularly, the Dons will be in a lot of trouble.


  1. Clearance specialisation

Most finals sides have made one of two decisions – to eschew winning clearances and try to blunt them and win the ball back afterwards, or to focus on the more plentiful stoppage clearance setups rather than the much less frequent centre clearances.

The Dons stand alone among finalists in being pretty good at winning centre clearances, and considerably less so at winning stoppage clearances. Both the Tigers (who have seemingly given up on clearances completely since succeeding last year while doing terribly at them) and the Cats follow down this vague path, but the Dons sit at the forefront.

Zigging when everyone else zags sometimes works out, and given the Eagles have such strength in the ruck department, avoiding around the ground stoppages might be a valid strategy to beat them.

2. Avoiding chaos ball, part two

As mentioned above, only two sides in the finals turn the ball over more than they win the ball from turnovers. One is West Coast; the other is Essendon. While the Bombers don’t have Jeremy McGovern, they do have Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley – two former All Australian defensive forces.

The path to victory for Essendon largely rests on the ability of their defence to restrict the super-effective Eagles forward line. If Hooker, Hurley and co can make the Eagles’ midfield second guess their entries, they have a hope of killing enough opportunities to keep up.

In Essendon wins against top 8 sides, there are about 146 total turnovers (between both sides) against about 139 in losses against such teams. Unlike the Eagles, the Dons will be trying to create chaos, and make any clean ball a disputed situation (including potentially their own).

3. Tackle, tackle, tackle

Physical pressure seems to be a common theme in Essendon’s impressive wins this year, averaging 11 more tackles than their opponents in top 8 wins. A huge data note here – tackles are not usually correlated with success, given that it indicates that a side is usually chasing the ball than they have it in their hands.

However, as the Eagles are so ball control focused and would seemingly prefer to play for stoppages rather than accept a lot of loose chaotic ground balls, having an eye to physically disrupting the Eagles game and causing mistakes could help with the two keys above. The Dons this year had about 12 fewer disposals per game than their opponents, meaning that a disposal disparity was not uncommon. Making the Eagles’ clean outside ball use less clean and less outside might be their best shot.

Player Breakdowns

Below, HPN has arranged its marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) based player valuations for the two selected teams. As expected given overall team ratings, the Eagles tend to look a little stronger across the board. A big bonus is Nic Naitanui slotting back in. In limited games he’s shown that he’s still an offensive and midfield weapon and even somewhat useful in terms of aerial defense.

For Essendon, their five ins this week are mostly among their best players, with Stringer their best available forward, Hooker among the most valuable in defence, and Heppell and Stringer in the most valuable half dozen through the midfield

The Eagles have a markedly greater concentration of offensive firepower compared to the wide spread of load seen with the Bombers, but may carry a more evenly distributed load in the midfield.


Note: the HPN tipping model this year was bad. Don’t gamble, especially not with this information. Look at the work of Squiggle for a variety of better performing models.

West Coast by 21.


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