How long can North keep being the surprise packets of the competition?

Look, the Roos probably won’t make the finals, but there are some really promising signs for a Kangaroos side which had been expected to give Brisbane, Carlton and the Gold Coast company at the bottom of the ladder.

North has largely built their competitiveness on a vastly improved defence, although our rating of it may perhaps be inflated by the monsoonal game against Gold Coast in round 1 and facing an inept Carlton forward line as well. This quality defending has allowed them to prosper using funky structures to achieve at least an average level of forward efficiency, while maintaining a so-so midfield.

After five weeks of the HPN Team Ratings, North currently sit in fifth. Yep, we can’t believe it either – behind just Hawthorn, GWS, Richmond and Collingwood (who might be as big a shock), and above Adelaide, Geelong, Port Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne.

This improved rating has largely come from down back. A defence led by veterans like Tarrant, Thompson and Macmillan always probably should have had the potential to improve on last year’s weak output. Tarrant, Thompson, Daw and Macmillian are in the top 25 for Defensive mPAV – the only side with that many inside the top 25 so far. North are also one of only two sides in the competition with at least two of the top 10 current defenders (GWS also has two). North has seemingly finally found the right place for Majak Daw as well, with his contested marking so far this year being very strong – 8 in 3 games, the 3rd highest average in the league (across an admittedly small sample size).

It’s the defence that has been the bedrock for success, but plenty of sides have had isolated strong areas of the ground in recent years only to be let down by being weak across other parts of the ground – think Essendon and Brisbane last year. North’s roughly league average attack, and their winning enough forays inside 50, is perhaps pivotal to their success rather than just the defence alone.

Up forward, Ben Brown has continued his stellar 2017 form, combining with Jarrad Waite and Jack Ziebell to approximate something like a league-average attack. Brown is currently second in the league for both points and scores per disposal, and he and Waite have combined to score 43.8% of the Roos points so far. If you add Ziebell into the mix (who has been more of a deep forward this year), the three have combined for 56.2% of the entire Kangaroos score for 2018. For marks inside-50, the three account for 62.3% of the Roos total so far this year.

These are extremely high figures relative to the league, but one which has some explanation in their style of play so far this year.

At the game against Hawthorn on Sunday, the reason for this concentrated output became somewhat clear:

That’s North setting up with just three forwards, usually the aforementioned Brown, Ziebell and Waite. They’re also running four wings – forget the behind the square “plus two” deployed by other sides such as Melbourne. After each goal, the Hawks went back to defend in a “normal” set-up, before being forced to sprint to the wings to cover the “flanks”:

(Hawks mid and small spare defenders in red, looking to find the spare “forward wing” North players in blue)

To begin with the Hawks smaller defenders followed these notional forward pockets to the wings, and they chucked the extra man up forward, then tried an extra down back. This is what the Hawthorn forward set-up looked like in comparison – let’s go with the “clogged toilet” analogy:

That is 13 players behind the edge of the square in the Hawks forward line, all above the 40m mark from goal, between the two horizontal edges of the square. There were 5 such players in the North forward line, with a forward and defender deeper.

The benefits for this strategy were hard to immediately see. The Hawks dominated out of the centre stoppages for much of the third quarter, probably aided by the injury to Shaun Higgins.

(The long stoppage while Higgins was being treated.)

But at the bounce Brown was starting deep, with Ziebell and Waite leaving him space. Brown does exactly one thing extraordinarily well. He is a leading machine. He’s nearly two metres tall with enough speed to get the ball in places that opponent defenders simply can’t get to, and with superb hands, he is the perfect candidate for this isolating approach.

(That’s Brown deep, isolated one out circled in blue. The spare Hawks defender, in red, is crashing the square, creating even more space in the hole behind. Also note how all eight wings are crashing the contest.)

If North failed to get the ball forward off the bounce (as was the case for most of of the second half vs Hawthorn), Brown would work his way to a wing to provide a target for the rebounding defence, usually positioned opposite to the side where Goldstein was set up. Waite would usually lead back into being the deeper forward option, but Ziebell (usually against a slower defender) was occasionally used in this role.

These three present a lot of options for a side which is in other ways desperately short on offensive talent. It is reminiscent of the “Pagan’s Paddock” North of old, but with a couple more moving parts. Crumbing is largely ignored in this set-up, which is likely for the best if your potential crumbers are mostly lower level players compared to the opposing defenders they would be dragging to the contest anyway.

The bet on this approach has logical roots in three areas.

  1. Talent
  2. Space
  3. Confusion

Firstly, after two years of renewal, North just don’t have a lot of AFL level talent up forward on their list. They have three very good players there including a redeployed Ziebell, but not much beyond that. Why drag a losing 1 v 1 contest towards the ball, probably causing a turnover, when you can help the odds of your talented players actually winning the ball (or creating a stoppage) by staying out of the good forwards’ way?

Secondly, creating space is critical to get the best out of players who excel on the lead, such as the Roos trio. While Brown and Waite can compete very well in contested marking situations, the odds of snagging a mark on a lead are always much higher. Assuming opponents run just one spare defender, that’s potentially just four defenders closing off space (a second spare defender probably forces a different approach but creates opportunities in other ways). The options for the Roos to find clear paths increase dramatically.

Third and finally, going with four wings and three forwards sounds weird and is weird, and as a result it isn’t likely something the opposition has practiced much to counter. Novel tactical approaches can either provide an advantage because they are a generalised better way to approach a problem, or simply because they disrupt the current solution, thus disadvantaging the unprepared opponent. The Roos’ current gambit, which is contingent on who they have available, seems more like simple disruption than a soon-to-be generalised innovation, but we will wait and see.

Elsewhere, the midfield wasn’t terrible last year and isn’t this year either. Cunnington, Higgins and Ziebell (when not playing forward of the ball) are very good football players, and there’s the prospect of support coming at some point – but probably not in 2018 or 2019.

The three big red flags here are hard to avoid, however. Firstly, North have more or less played a full-strength side all year, with just 24 players hitting the field to Round 5. Already, the Kangas have fielded a handful of below-replacement level players (usually out of a hope for youth to emerge), and the rest of their list isn’t exactly stocked with proven talent. Higgins has been their best player so far this year, and if he is out for a significant period of time, it is unlikely that there is depth to replace him adequately in the midfield.

Secondly, according to our team ratings and schedule adjustment, North have faced the easiest draw to date, but that ends now. The win over Hawthorn was a great win, but their only quality one so far. The next month is tough; if they can break even over the course of it, they might be for real.

Finally, it is unclear how much of the Roos’ early success has been down to talent, and how much rests on funky tactics papering over an ordinary list.

When they have the ball, North play a style tailored to the limited pieces at their disposal. We can see via team statistics that they play direct, goal-to-goal footy and it’s channelled through strong contested marking players.

Brisbane Lionss20180.1980.3950.1690.2550.4860.259345127%0.3761.3282.6522.481115.80%87.40%1.38271.76260.1830.258
Gold Coasts20180.1970.3750.1670.2000.4210.186359102%0.4411.9373.1012.929113.30%91.00%1.35981.42070.2020.233
Greater Western Sydneys20180.2450.4930.2450.1880.3500.17038974%0.3681.3332.4892.751103.30%98.90%1.71531.28880.2380.189
North Melbournes20180.2400.4540.2020.1680.3580.179377109%0.4321.5463.2402.91996.20%97.80%1.65651.19780.2440.176
Port Adelaides20180.2350.4480.2050.2400.4250.15744663%0.3771.4332.5962.84498.60%105.50%1.62311.6260.2240.224
St Kildas20180.1700.4110.1920.2330.4980.21834758%0.3561.2812.4882.63992.50%96.40%1.26041.66180.1740.235
West Coasts20180.2640.4860.2500.2240.4250.240375257%0.3861.8832.5542.46094.10%113.40%1.80561.54720.2920.230
Western Bulldogss20180.1860.4300.2700.2900.5000.32436653%0.3281.4692.2202.354108.80%96.70%1.36121.95220.1900.288

The Roos are near the bottom in their ratio of kicks to uncontested marks across the league, meaning they don’t find players in space much. They’re near the top in their contested possession ratio (ie they don’t get a lot of uncontested ball). They’ve shown a strong preference for kicking the ball rather than moving by hand.

All this adds up to demonstrate that North are not afraid to move up the ground quickly by targeting their strong contested targets in Waite, Brown, Goldstein and Daw. Those four generally don’t lose pack contests – breaking even at worst which provides opportunity for contested ball at ground level or a stoppage with Goldstein rucking. Plus they occasionally they even win the outnumbered marking contests directly. All this is allowing North to achieve, for now, a pretty much league-average balance of inside-50 entries and a similarly middle-of-the-road rate of scoring per foray forward. They’re probably doing this in spite of the limited spread of talent they have to work with in these areas.

Whether or not the eccentric offensive tactical scheme holds is one big question mark, but the other question is how legitimately good their defence might be. We discussed the quality backline personnel, and so far they’re conceding the least points per defensive inside-50. It might well just be built on solid fundamentals from experienced personnel and it may well stand up against stronger sides. However, the more astute teams might find that the plethora of talented talls, coupled with a still fairly one-paced midfield, can allow the Kangaroos defence to be exposed via horizontal movement creating cracks as they shift to cover. To an extent, that’s how Hawthorn temporarily turned things around on the weekend, and surely other sides took note.

They should almost certainly regress from here this season, but North fans should enjoy it while it lasts.

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