During the week, I mentioned how North Melbourne shaped as a team who could trouble us with their current form and speed of ball movement. There were some similarities between the Kangaroos and the likes of Hawthorn and Carlton, but I had hoped that maybe we might have learned something – or at least found another level in form – since those forgettable outings.
Yet we find ourselves back in the basement of the Westpac Centre, face masks on, scalpels in hand, having to dissect another defeat that we can’t simply put down to an off night.
First things first, full credit to North Melbourne who put together an impressive performance. Having jumped them at the outset, they muscled back control of the game and then had our measure for the remaining three and a half quarters. We kicked the first four goals of the game, leaving the Magpie faithful to cringe when realising that in over three quarters of football, we only managed to scrap out another four goals.
North were clinical and used every bit of the ground in spreading us thin and opening us up. They created overlaps almost at will, mopped everything up down back and executed just as well in front of goal as they did in general play. We played poorly, that was obvious, but North Melbourne were a big reason for that and the coaches, players and fans alike will only be setting themselves up for yet another fall should we subscribe to the tempting notion of it being “just one of those nights.”
We’ve seen this before this year, this is the fifth time by my count.
Before getting into the bulk of this review, which as you would expect will be largely critical, I’ll deal with a few rare silver linings on this storm cloud of a performance.
First and foremost, Dayne Beams was once again our best player, continuing on with his incredible form both through the midfield and when in range of goal. Having extended his contract during the week, many would have been worried that the relief of locking away another three years may have resulted in a momentary dip in form. Beamer has proven that he’s far too good for that, he was clearly our most productive and possibly our only positional winner on the night.
Alan Didak was moving at close to his best and managed to find a reasonable amount of the football in only his second game back. We know what we’re going to get with Didak, his defensive and contested work will never be at risk of being described as ferocious, but his class and potential damage factor as an outside player still exists. Once again our forward line was dysfunctional – cancelling out some of Didak’s best attributes – but his evasion and movement took another step in the right direction.
Then there was Paul Seedsman, he didn’t find us much of the ball this week as last, but had some good moments where he stood up. He’s probably playing at AFL level a little prematurely as a result of our injuries this year, but he has provided enough glimpses to further convince me of his future credentials.
Despite his lack of size at this point, he had a frantic moment where he laid two or three strong tackles on much larger opponents to lock the ball within our forward line in the third quarter. He took some solid overhead marks to release the pressure down back throughout the night and I’m also a fan of his vision when finding an option. Even in the first quarter when he adjusted and sent what was, for all appearances, a pretty dinky kick to centre half-back, we had two open players there to gather and send us forward through the corridor.
I don’t mind that high risk/high reward attitude from players who, once getting their footing at the level, have the ability to pull it off.
Finally, despite initially being used as a third forward in a bewildering move that saw Heath Shaw standing the much bigger Lachlan Hansen on the goal line, when Tarrant was shifted down back he looked solid. He was beaten on the lead once or twice, not entirely his fault as our players failed to block up the space, but he also had some good wins in tough situations.
With Nick Maxwell suffering a possible ankle or soft tissue injury, we’re going to need some strengthening down back and Tarrant is the logical choice at this late stage.
That was pretty much it of the positives however, now we’ll have to contend with an exhaustive list of the not so good.
It has to be said, that our structure and game plan has been all over the shop this year, perhaps even non-existent. We’ve won games largely on the back of individual talent standing up, last week against Sydney and our efforts earlier in the year against Adelaide were perhaps the only two occasions where we’ve seen something close to a team performance.
I was taken by our courage last week, perhaps blinded by it to some extent, but it all came undone last night as we were beaten on every line. Nobody would suggest that North Melbourne are a more talented outfit than us, but last night was testament to how a team is much more than the sum of its parts. North are in good form, are clearly confident with the game plan and understand their instructions. Above all else, they are playing for one another.
In contrast, our Magpies were unsure of themselves, sloppy in even the most basic aspects of the game and appear to have been worked out by a few teams this year. We’ve been exposed for pace and spread several times this year, last night was just a repeat of the areas of the game that we’ve struggled to combat in 2012.
You wouldn’t find a Magpie fan who doesn’t admire, even revere, Nathan Buckley. I’m prepared to cut him some slack in his first year as coach, particularly given the turmoil of the handover and the exodus of a significant portion of our coaching staff as Neeld and Watters secured top jobs. All the same, we do have to question some of his work this year.
Most glaring last night was the decision to play Heath Shaw on a key position player. Even before Hansen had taken Shaw deep, we were robbing ourselves of our best rebounder from half-back as he was forced to play a more conservative role. When Hansen did drag Shaw to the goal square, that no move was made to prevent the inevitable from occurring was criminal.
In some part I understand the gamble, as the coaches were perhaps banking on Hansen being exposed at ground level, but it was a fanciful long shot that suggested we weren’t paying full respect by playing with a straight bat. The mismatch had a ripple effect throughout our defensive line, as every player down there was mindful and shook by North’s key targets. It gave North Melbourne’s ball carriers extreme confidence when heading forward, deflating the spirits of our defenders in turn.
Our lack of structure wasn’t just apparent in one bad match-up down back, as when we did have the ball our movement was unconvincing. This isn’t entirely Buckley’s fault of course, as our field kicking and handballing was atrocious for the most part. We routinely saw handballs fired to the feet of players, kicks fall short or sat on the head of the target, if not shanked all together.
The problem in terms of structure however, is that we’ve seen our ball movement be a shadow of its former self for most of the year. We’re either slow and stagnant, eventually having to conjure something from a stoppage inside 50; or we’re routinely butchering the final entry with blind long balls to low percentage positions, or shallow entries to contests that leave us exposed on transition.
The vibe, the feel. Sometimes it’s just those simple observations or perspectives of the state of play that suggest something isn’t right. There’s no better example of how our structure is failing, than the feeling that the ground is so much larger, that there is abundant space when the opposition has the ball, compared to the feeling of our boys operating in a hallway, a rumpus room at best, when we have it.
Whilst our players were beaten all over the park, it stands to reason that Buckley was also beaten on the whiteboard and in the coaches box.
We may have been missing Swan, but North Melbourne were also without two of their important midfield components in Adams and Wells, along with their best defender this year in Grima. There are no excuses for last night’s performance, nowhere to hide for anyone who had a hand in it.
Up forward, Travis Cloke and Chris Dawes were poor once again. As tempting as it might be considering everything that has played out this year, we can’t lay all the blame at Cloke’s feet. He was poor by any measure, but he presented and got separation several times last night only to contend with a half-volley. That length might be ideal for an Adam Gilchrist, but it’s woeful in this sport.
His poor game wasn’t entirely a result of the delivery though, as he no longer leads as searchingly as he once did, nor does he bother to try and protect the drop zone or correct his position when the service isn’t of five star quality. His second efforts and defensive work no longer stress opposition defenders, he’s too easily removed from the contest these days despite his once monstrous presence, even at ground level.
I was hoping that last week might have been the spark Chris Dawes needed for the remainder of the season, but what confidence he gained last week was well and truly shot to pieces last night. He was well beaten by his opponents, monstered in the ruck by Goldstein as you would expect, culminating in a dropped chest mark under no pressure when we were desperate for a steadying goal.
Dawes has always struggled with overhead marking, but there were at least two occasions last night when he’d done well to gain position and had to stretch out and mark, yet opted for marking it on his chest and was spoiled accordingly. He’s making life too easy for defenders and even opposition coaches, who now have confidence in playing a smaller, more mobile defender on him if they want to generate run out of defence.
To some degree, Dawes has suffered this year having to play a role that he was never suited for. We’ve suffered as a team from the retirement of Leigh Brown. With that said, it should be remembered though that Dawes was in fairly poor form in the second half of last year when he was a stay at home forward, but the persistence in this role hasn’t helped. Dawes is a player currently devoid of confidence and all too often, his frustration and emotional state has been visible on field.
Our options have been scarce of course, it is an area that needs addressing in the upcoming trade and draft period should the club deem Witts and Ceglar unready, yet you can’t blame the faithful for being frustrated that we’ve persisted for so long without trying a different approach.
I’ll state once again though, as difficult as it is to watch both Cloke and Dawes go about their business at the moment, there is no place for the sort of jeers that Dawes received from the crowd last night when marking on the wing late in the last quarter. He’s well aware of how poorly he’s travelling, he probably should have spent a week or two in the VFL to try and build some confidence this year, but that sort of treatment from the fans just adds to the ugliness.
We could pretty much tear apart the game of most of our players, but that would become tedious and nauseating. Scott Pendlebury was well below his best and will hopefully kick back into gear with the return of Swan, whilst Steele Sidebottom was industrious once more but hasn’t had the same influence on games as he did during his blistering first half of the year. Steele’s 2012 form has plateaued somewhat in the last month, for his obvious talent and ability he has been one of the main offenders when it comes to poor delivery.
The youngsters are probably being shown up a little for readiness at this level, at this point in the year. Ben Sinclair was involved during the first half, wayward in front of the sticks bar one excellent running goal, but I’m forgiving to a degree as we shouldn’t forget the form he had built earlier in the year prior to injury. Sinkers has deficiencies in his game that he needs to work on, with the messy structure and team battling to find form at the moment, those deficiencies are standing out more.
Jamie Elliott has done well to string together several games in his first year, but he’s another who is currently having no impact. Our current ball movement and setup hinders his sort from making a statement, as he’s not a natural crumber or opportunistic goal sneak, but a lead up target in a team that is currently indecisive and hard to read when heading forward.
I seriously rate the kid, but he’s hanging on by a tether at the moment and given a different injury situation with the likes of Krakeour, Caff and Goldsack, it’s safe to say he would be developing at the lower level for the time being. This game is taxing on first year players, particularly at this point in the season, he may just be cooked for 2012. If he can turn it around somewhat or no other options become available, I’m not opposed to him experiencing some September football.
At the end of the day, there have been plenty of areas that needed addressing throughout this year and last night probably confirmed that we haven’t made too many inroads. It has been something of a transition year for the side with the change in our coaching department, something that hasn’t been aided through injuries earlier in the year.
We have to be proactive though and start getting some semblance of form and function happening on field. The club made a stand and outlined what we’re about off-field with the suspension to Dane Swan, but we now have to make it clear what we’re about on field. They say form is temporary and talent is permanent, but in this game of ours it is rare that a team can turn form around two weeks out from finals.
Rare, but not impossible. Here’s the part where I try to give us all a little hope.
Back in 2002, after a solid patch during the middle of the year, we limped into finals having barely secured a top four finish with just 13 wins. In the month leading up to September we lost to Hawthorn, were belted by Essendon before a narrow victory against the Saints, finishing the year with a 41 point defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs.
We travelled to AAMI Stadium to face the ladder leaders in Port Adelaide, without Nathan Buckley and carrying suspect form, only to witness the beginning of a September campaign that was as brave as anything I’ve seen in my time following this great club. We came up short in the Grand Final, not for lack of heart or effort.
What I mean to say is, our form is far from great, we have been exposed five times this year in quite demoralising fashion, but come September we’re still presented with a simple equation.
Three – quite possibly four – games. Win them, win it all.
It’s a long shot that we can turn it all around and realistically the chances are slim, but I’m forever a hopeful Pie and perhaps even more so in 2012, a year that has been trying and somewhat unfamiliar after our efforts in the previous two years.
Always remember that it is times like these that make us appreciate the opposite end of the spectrum that much more.
Stick fat Magpie fans, side by side.