After recently discussing the potential of our back half and as we continue to count the days until the national draft, I thought I might now turn my attention to the midfield. Whilst our list is not yet complete for 2015 – with at least six new names to be added across the senior and rookie list – I think we can at this point safely discuss the most likely composition of the all important engine room.
Whilst it cannot be ignored that 2015 was a disappointing result, there were nonetheless some individual positives that should serve us heading forward. Taylor Adams further established himself as a dependable week-by-week contributor and extractor, offsetting the retirement of Luke Ball and to a certain extent the departure of Dayne Beams; Jack Crisp surprised all and sundry, adding depth to the midfield and another accumulator with solid efficiency in general play; along with, of course, the promising early signs from Jordan De Goey.
The loss of Dayne Beams last year set us back in terms of midfield class, but after one season sans Beams we have made some progress in filling the void. That gap should hopefully be bridged more – if not completely and with abundant gains – by the recent addition of Treloar in combination with further improvement from De Goey, Adams and Crisp.
The departure of Beams was difficult to stomach, but I think most Magpie fans would now baulk if given the option of swapping De Goey and Crisp – without even factoring in Greenwood – for the return of Beams. Beams is obviously a high end established talent, but De Goey and Crisp have complemented the team well and provide that extra bit of versatility by the simple virtue of having two players with distinguishing attributes.
Simply put, with these two players in the earliest stages of their career, there is the potential of making up for what we’ve lost in the short term and more than likely, much more in the long term.
Of our original first choice midfield, Dane Swan turned the clock back somewhat and despite the fact that his absolute best is behind him and he will likely be less of a full-time factor out of the centre, with a clean bill of health he can still play a valuable role in this team in 2016, split between the forward half and with bursts on-ball.
Our skipper in Pendlebury, who recently became a Pie for life, was clearly carrying an injury for much of the second half of the year. Testament to his class, despite looking to be in discomfort and perhaps not being his usual sharp self in some instances, he performed admirably nonetheless. Still, there was something lacking with Pendles at critical moments and the task for the club – one that we’ve made some progress in – needs to be finding a balance that distributes the workload so that Pendles can be at his silky best, for longer.
Whilst there has been some talk about using Pendlebury across half-back for periods as a general of sorts and distributor – which I’m not opposed to – his place is still very much as our premier midfielder.
Taylor Adams tends to win scorn and favour in almost equal portions, but after his season in 2015 I do find it difficult to understand much of the remaining angst — without, of course, factoring in some residual sentiment from the trade of Heath Shaw. I’m not oblivious to the fact that Adams can burn the ball by foot – sometimes quite spectacularly – but in only his second season for our club he averaged 27 disposals and 5 tackles, whilst I also felt that he made some inroads in terms of not being as ambitious with his decision making by foot.
At only 22 years old, he played some huge games for us this year, most notably against Port Adelaide and Geelong, crashing through the 35 disposal barrier on three separate occasions.
I admit that I’ll still be a little nervous when Adams is looking to escape our back-half by foot, but a lot of this can be improved by playing the percentages in such situations and improved patterns team-wide in providing options. Ultimately though, his contested work whether winning the ball or nullifying the opposition from doing so is vital. He’s a combative bull, which is a needed element at the coalface, but he does need to curb some of his excesses in this regard due to how important he has become to our line-up.
The jury remains out on Greenwood at this stage until we can judge him across a full season, but if he can replicate his performances against Selwood and Cotchin whilst finding the ball himself and providing another hard body in close, he’ll prove as important as any. I can’t see a place for both Greenwood and Macaffer in the same midfield, as our offensive capability will be blunted, but they may be interchangeable from a player management point of view.
Jack Crisp was one of the better stories of 2015 from a Collingwood perspective, thoroughly deserving his third place finish in the Copeland Trophy. He’s capable of winning the ball at the contest, but his ability to get up and down the field also provides us with a linking and carrying option outside of the stoppage. Averaged 22 disposals in his first year at the club and just shy of 5 tackles per game, not to mention his ability to kick a running goal, dobbing a total of 16 for the season.
I see Crisp as a peripheral player to the primary midfield based largely on his potential to perform an equally valuable role operating from a wing. His ability to find targets by foot – some of considerable difficulty – is one that we should continue to tap into outside of the clenches; some of his delivery to leading forwards, either putting it to their advantage or weighting the ball nicely into space, was a feature. That said, I do expect him to clock up considerable time in the middle whilst featuring at centre bounces often enough, whilst his tackling and size – enabling him to get his arms free to dish off – will prove important around stoppages.
The arrival of Treloar and the second year prospects of De Goey are the two factors that have me most excited ahead of next year. This is based largely on the fact that both players possess a nice balance of inside/outside attributes, having the scope to provide the sort of breakaway clearances that are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most desirable variety.
Treloar is a hard working two-way runner, capable of a turn of pace when required to break free of congestion. As a 19 year old, De Goey already possesses some natural core strength and the confidence to call on it, enabling him to shrug and shunt his way through traffic and get into the unfolding space. Such ability should not be underrated, as through the agency of both players we can hopefully reduce the amount of blind kicks forward and get a better return on our clearances.
Not since Swan at his best, Wellingham when not in cruise control or Dale Thomas’ 2010-2011 zenith have we had players capable of winning or receiving the ball in close and breaking the play open. In Treloar and De Goey, we may have reinjected this back into our midfield dynamic. Having such well-rounded players is vital, as they can act as a damaging vanguard when the team is on top, but owing to their shared tenacity can also help arrest the situation if momentum shifts.
Treloar’s arrival also improves our class deficiency in the middle, meaning that we won’t be relying so heavily on Pendlebury as our only unquestionable prime mover. If Adams continues to perform at a similar or even improved level and De Goey avoids the second year blues and develops further, our midfield may once more inspire envy from quite a few quarters.
Steele Sidebottom is going to be another obvious element to our midfield rotations, although with the recent bolstering in quality and depth I am hoping we’ll get to use Steele a little more forward and as a hard running linking player along the wings. Steele’s craftiness in the forward half is something we haven’t been able – or willing – to harness as often in recent years, but with our recent list changes we should be able to afford this luxury once more.
Travis Varcoe is another who should play a part, after serving up some humble pie to the sceptical in his first season in our colours. I do expect Varcoe to continue to feature in several roles next year: whether mopping up down back, lurking in the forward line or patrolling a wing. Like Sidebottom, Varcoe’s hard running and repeat efforts is a real strength, particularly when getting involved multiple times in a single passage of play. Owing to his natural skill set and no doubt the time he spent with Geelong during their prime, he knows better than most on our list how to negotiate traffic with clean and creative hands. Not dissimilar to Treloar or De Goey, he is another who can add a breakaway quality to our clearances.
Of course, there is also the recent addition of James Aish, who we’ll be looking to add some polish outside of the contest. From what I’ve seen of Aish, he doesn’t possess notable pace so is not a linebreaker in that sense, but like Sidebottom his game awareness should get him to the right spots more often than not. If he can receive and accumulate whilst using the ball with high efficiency, he’ll be a much needed addition.
Admittedly, after an indifferent second year due to injury and other distractions, Aish is still something of an unknown quantity. He was highly regarded as a junior and his first year was noteworthy, but it still remains to be seen how well he fits in and develops at our club. In terms of age and midfield scope however, he does offset the recent departure of Freeman, whilst acknowledging that pace is something we may need to inject once more.
An important part of any midfield is of course the ruck, with Brodie Grundy shaking off his second year blues to make some notable inroads in his development this year. Jarrod Witts spent a fair bit of time in the VFL after it became evident that neither Witts nor Grundy were yet capable of becoming genuine forward threats, along with losing some mobility around the ground.
Where we seem to struggle the most is out of the centre bounce, as several teams really got a hold off us in terms of centre clearances, nullifying much of the momentum that we ever managed to build. Repeat forward entries from play-resets are the lifeblood of scoreboard pressure, but as Witts doesn’t get the most out of his reach advantage due to a lack of leap and Grundy is often preoccupied with his opposing number in such circumstances, our midfield has been without silver service in this regard.
Around the ground it is a different story, where Grundy tends to thrive being able to physically engage his opponent as the ball comes to earth. We’re able to break even or win at a reasonable rate at around the ground stoppages, but how we construct the clearance from there needs improvement and if we’re to really become a force, one and hopefully both of our rucks need to be better at the centre bounce.
Returning to the men at the big men’s feet, our rotations can potentially be extended by the likes of Broomhead, Elliott and Fasolo; then depending on how the club views the scope of such players then Langdon and Williams may also be options; and even further down the line, Maynard and Scharenberg may come into consideration.
On these players, as commendable as it is that Elliott is continually looking to improve and add to his game, I’m reluctant to see him amassing the ball up the ground if it takes away something genuinely potent from our forward half. Of course, if Elliott proves damaging as part of the midfield and his absence from the forward 50 is ably offset by Howe and Fasolo then it might be tenable.
For mine, Fasolo needs to continue to focus at being the best and most consistent possible forward he can be. Much like Elliott, I prefer players thriving in positions that most naturally suit their skillset — which also applies to the likes of Williams and his defensive cohorts. With our apparent depth of utility sized defenders, if Langdon or in the longer term Scharenberg prove to be capable and damaging midfielders, then we can probably afford to tap into that well more so than we currently can forward of centre.
Broomhead for mine is the player with the most scope to add something to the midfield whilst operating predominantly as an opportunistic high half-forward — hopefully in conjunction with someone like Sidebottom. The task for Broomhead however will be to establish himself once more as a best 22 player after being robbed of the opportunity halfway through this year.
Of course, with the rotation cap there will be a surge from all teams to increase midfield depth or push players to further limits in order to maintain performance and ascendancy for in the middle, but at the same time a balance must be struck as there remains a need to have specialists at either end of the ground.
Becoming too fixated on midfield depth could result in a continuation of blue collar play, where several statistical categories look healthy if not ideal – contested ball, disposal count, clearances and inside 50’s – but the scoreboard tells a conflicting story.
Which brings me to the final and most important part — structures and chemistry within the midfield. Over the course of the season just finished our team was able to win its fair share – and often more – of the ball but certainly in the second half, didn’t get reward for effort. I felt in the first half we were a little more adventurous with our play, or at least a little quicker, but after failing to get over the line against some of the league’s benchmarks we went back into our shell and only emerged sporadically, if really at all.
We hunted for a few weeks and failed to land a trophy kill, then against Port Adelaide we appeared to shift towards fearing a loss or defending a respectable scoreboard, rather than striving for the win. Things broke down around the ball thereafter, as we became much more static and reluctant to spread, often resulting in a game of hot potato where the buck was passed to flat footed teammates. Everything slowed down, and genuine scoring opportunities dried up.
I expect it to take a few weeks, perhaps longer, for someone like Treloar to fully find his feet amongst his new teammates — something that we also witnessed with Jolly and Ball. If we can improve further in terms of our injury list and management, we can keep the same players on the park long enough to build some synergy in the middle. Once this has been established, we then just need to find the right mix and chemistry to get the most out of every centre bounce.
It goes without saying that we need to improve our system at stoppages, reducing the amount of times we have too many players drawn to the contest and limiting our outlets in the process. I think part of this stems from our players being indoctrinated into a high intensity mindset; it may also be a legacy of the “cheating” discussion in recent times when the preparedness of our midfield to defend and run both ways was called into question.
Whatever the possible reasons, what we have witnessed recently has been players being too exuberant at applying pressure and committing to the contest en masse. As commendable as that is and despite it achieving results in some situations, it is more advisable to strike a better balance whereby we play a little smarter and as a collective, better assess the unfolding play and act accordingly.
It is easier said than done of course, since you are dealing with several elements and variables, be it each player’s unique instincts or benchmarks in terms of effort. Finding the right balance in this regard is achievable however, with the right drilling and understanding. This is one crucial area that Buckley and his assistants need to make further inroads in, making significant improvements and more important still, maintaining such improvement across the season.
In general play, we’ll be looking to improve our disposal efficiency once more with a view to improving our overall ball movement. Whilst a major part of this comes down to personnel and their strengths and weaknesses, we need to look at improving our running patterns so that we can improve at creating space for one another, resulting in more obvious and less difficult options presenting. Hawthorn is obviously the benchmark in this and whilst it isn’t realistic to emulate them entirely, we can take pages from their book.
At any rate, I would prefer to avoid the sort of static stop-start football – with players either slowly positioning themselves laterally or worse still, not moving at all to provide an option – that plagued much of our second half of the season.
With the new additions, developing youngsters and hopefully a healthy senior contingent to choose from, there’s plenty to look forward to out of the middle next year. With all of Pendlebury, Treloar, Adams and Greenwood supported by a secondary cast of De Goey, Swan, Sidebottom, Crisp, Varcoe and perhaps a few surprises courtesy of Aish, Broomhead and others, the depth and quality of our engine room has clearly been improved in comparison to our 2015 list.
The challenge is to maintain the commitment to contested and two-way football that was on show for most of 2015, whilst improving our efficiency and attacking punch. We’re in the midst of a changing of the guard, so next year will be a case of Adams, De Goey and Treloar as the next generation hopefully stepping up to drive us forward – as we saw to some extent in our last clash with Geelong – whilst further capitalising on the experience and immense quality of Pendlebury, Sidebottom and Swan.