This week on the ABC HPN discussed how teams are rushing back to stop the Tigers from effectively using their intercept and rebound strengths, and the result has been a low scoring Tigers struggling to break through.
Richmond’s preferred approach in recent years has been to move so quickly they score before opponents can retreat, but what happens when sides commit, and overcommit?
The performance by the Swans on the weekend was assisted by the weather, but was also perhaps the first example of a limited side matching the Tigers by committing to a fully defensive approach.
The discussion that followed in the media post game, and through the rest of the week, was nearly theatrical in nature, focused mostly on stoppage setups, and hid a lot of what was in play.
Are there ways that the Tigers can get down the ground better, and then score better?
When Ross Lyon pointed out that the Demons were playing on too regularly, he was sort of right, and sort of wrong.
— Footy on Nine (@FootyonNine) July 8, 2020
Play-on rates are an indicator of speed but not whole picture – you can move the ball fast without having high play on rates. For the Tigers, it’s often the kick out of defensive 50, or the one after that, that is held up. That’s often around defensive half back or the wing.
When that happens, and an opponent is able to use the extra four or five second to chase back, the Tigers have been extremely willing to go the long kick down the line. No side likes long kicks more than the Tigers – again, football is about territory and possession.
But if you can’t consistently retain the ball, then gaining territory loses a fair amount of its power. As noted in the ABC piece, the Tigers aren’t great at winning the ball in stoppages and when they do, they aren’t especially dangerous out of the contest.
There’s a balance, and it appears that the balance is a bit out of whack. Instead, a more useful way to go may be to utilise switches more (which the Tigers do really well at times), look even more aggressively inboard, or use short kicks, potentially on the 45 degree angle.
These options won’t gain territory, but will help them retain possession and shift the defence around.
The Tigers have looked their best this year when they have thrown caution to the wind (a little) and gone for more aggressive, quicker options, even with the knowledge that their defence might have a hard job stopping scores going the other way if their foray is rebounded.
With a sizeable missing/injury list, that may not be something they are willing to chance any more.
The forward 50
Once the Tigers get the ball forward, they are often outnumbered. The Hawks and Pies were often running two or three extras in situations where the Tigers had a “set” ball outside of 50, and the Swans were running even more.
The piece illustrated several ways in which the Tigers have effectively gotten the ball forward, and at least one didn’t make the cut:
This one makes the defenders racing into the hole worthless by kicking it goalside to a deep Lynch, who just holds his position while watching the flight of the ball. That’s a really hard kick, and the Hawks were playing extremely aggressively in denying the hotspot whenever possible.
A lot of the time, that defender would be either goalside or on his shoulder, with the spare defender in front of Lynch to deny either a lead or the bomb to the hotspot.
There are other ways to get through though, and one that’s not really even looking to get it inside 50.
Bomb it long
Long time readers would know about the utility of the long bomb goal, and how it’s a better percentage shot than any kick inside 50 other than a pass to a player likely to mark it.
The equation here is pretty simple. Total inside 50s this year are about 1.51 expected points. Richmond are going at about 1.35 points per inside 50.
Kicks to a mark are worth the chance the mark is taken and the chance the goal is kicked.
For instance, imagine a kick to a lead 45 metres out on a 45 degree angle. That’s a shot from the 50% kicking range. Let’s say the player is about 80% likely to mark it. 50% times 80% times 6 points for a goal makes it an entry worth roughly 2.4 expected points. That’s a good entry!
But if there’s no clear leads available, kicks to general contested situations like “the hotspot” have a far lower yield. In those cases, the long bomb is the better option if the player is in even plausibly within range of their longest kick.
The conversion rate since 2018 from outside 50, according to Stats Insider shot charting, for all teams is between 31% (North and St Kilda) and 40% (Geelong). At worst, the expected yield from what teams are currently doing is roughly 2 points per entry.
It should be noted that so far this year the Tigers are only successfully kicking goals from shots outside 50 at a 27% clip. The “small sample size” sign needs to be pointed to at this point.
Almost every AFL player can launch the ball from outside 50 in terms of pure distance. The list of who can’t get that range would be more notable than who can. But the Tigers have a number of solid options among those who currently back themselves.
Most Tigers fans will probably point to Jayden Short, a long range specialist who can do this:
As an outside midfielder or smaller defender, he mostly shoots from at least 45 metres out. Short is such a dead-eye from the left flank that he should be searched for literally whenever defences are slightly napping.
Other players with the known capability and willingness to go from the 50 beyond it include Dustin Martin, Dion Prestia, Jack Riewoldt and, recently, Mabior Chol.
Prestia is currently injured but these guys are all, with some quirks, around or above 40% conversion rates from outside 50.
Martin generally only shoots from long range on the run, while he barely takes a set shot from beyond 40 metres. Riewoldt, for his part, seems to prefer his 55m shots to have no angle on them. Those are both tendencies which could be worked on with clear instruction and a license to risk it, perhaps expanding the threats of two of the Tigers’ biggest stars.
So why not ask those with range to go for the bomb more often, especially on slow transitions where the defence is back?
Why not see who else might be capable in the “designated cannon” role?
The deft kick
As the piece yesterday demonstrated, some of Richmond’s best entries have come on targeted entries with speed inside 50. But if the speed goes away, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the targeted part needs to disappear too.
Teams are working on “fake hotspot” kicks on a week to week basis; entries that look like miserable bombs but end in pinpoint passes. Not all of these come off, but Richmond appear to be more hesitant than most in trying them (at least subjectively).
Riewoldt has often lead to the pockets, which has provided options and space, while the use of the lateral or even backwards top of the arc pass to open up new angles has worked in the past for the Tigers as well.
Even if there are a lot of bodies inside 50, there’s generally enough space for a targeted bullet pass to a well timed lead – even if it is outside 50.
In short, patience and short passes might be required.
Lock it in
Sometimes, though, you just have to engage in the melee. Another way to deal with very heavy traffic is to lean into it. This is by far the worst way, but is what the Tigers have done a lot. It looks great when it comes off, but it just doesn’t come off much.
The theory is that if you can’t clunk a mark from a high hotspot entry, then you can tackle on the deck, trying to force stoppages, errors, and potential free kick situations.
These actions aren’t easy to measure but one indicator is the number of tackles made inside forward 50. Very notable in the Richmond v Sydney game this past weekend is that the Tigers had just four tackles inside 50.
That’s low on a good day, let alone one as wet and scrappy as this was.
The extra numbers down back make it easier for defences to both get the ball out of the scramble, and use the extra numbers to get it securely away – which may be leading to the change. If the Tigers try to match numbers, it will leave them exposed on the counter attack. In that sense, it’s a no-win situation.
Still, Richmond have had the least inside 50 tackles of any side this year, and opposition backmen have found it easy to get and retain the ball, even though it’s been very difficult to move upfield thanks to Richmond’s own deep defence.
The 2017 and 2019 Tigers were different animals. In particular, Richmond in 2017 didn’t have as much up front as 2019, lacking Tom Lynch and not yet having developed the Dustin Martin full-forward mismatch weapon to its true potential.
Instead, a lot of the time they played that repeat entries game, their defenders tasked with preventing escape while their small forwards and midfielders went to work, tackling, pressuring, harassing, forcing mistakes.
It should be noted that stoppages inside 50 are the cause of fewer goals than most think, with the defence usually holding a numbers advantage at the contest and behind ball. Shots from stoppages are usually under pressure and hard to convert. However, goals are kicked weekly in this way.
By 2019 the Tigers’ counterpunching game was very well developed, meaning more players sitting back and less players crowding their forward line. Their personnel also improved, so they needed less in the way of scrappy repeat entries and pressure play.
When you’re kicking to Martin, Lynch and Riewoldt, and doing it often off fast breaks, you really should be tackling less often than when it’s Riewoldt and a bunch of smalls. But if Martin, Lynch and Riewoldt can’t be targeted due to congestion, then it may be time to throw caution to the wind, even if it leaves them very exposed.
In 2017, the likes of Butler, Rioli, Riewoldt, Castagna and Grigg, all made at least one tackle per game inside their forward 50, with midfielders like Lambert, Caddy, Edwards and Martin also contributing regularly.
There were also fringe players such as Townsend, Miles, Graham, Bolton, and Lloyd who put in similar efforts for parts of the season.
Currently in 2020 only Bolton, Higgins and Riewoldt have made one tackle inside 50 per full length game. Not all of those other 2017 pressure players are still at the club in 2020, and to an extent this reflects Richmond deciding they had a surplus of that kind of type.
However, there’s enough left that they should be able to partially replicate the 2017 model Tigers – Castagna, Graham, Higgins, Martin, Rioli, Caddy, Pickett and Lambert are all fit, in the hub, and could all be helping lock the ball inside forward 50 a bit more, taking a bit away from the defence against rebounds.
Whether it would be a good idea or not remains to be seen. Matching those defensive numbers while protecting against the counter attack is very tricky and regular goals from stoppages are not a reliable win condition.
There are many ways for the Tigers to recapture their attacking momentum, but if there’s one thing that’s for sure, it is that you should read the ABC piece on Richmond this week.