Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a coach like having the “full support of the board”. Hearing that a “full review” is to be conducted might be a close second.
In a footballing context, reviews are usually only done when it’s clear a problem exists. “Full” reviews are commissioned when the problems are myriad.
Following a round 12 loss to West Coast, Carlton president Mark LoGiudice announced the club would be commissioning a full external review of its football department.
According to LoGiudice, no stone would be left unturned.
The longest-serving member of the coaching staff, John Barker, has already left. Sometimes the stones are turned quickly.
Fremantle great Matthew Pavlich was named on the three-man review panel. He said they’d examine everything from leadership, sport science, and the Blues’ football program, through to the team’s culture and the “brand” of football it has been playing.
A throwaway comment by Pavlich hinted at one of the perceived problems:
“You hear some of the narrative about their team, I think they’re scoring very well. I think some of the things defensively they might have to look at.”
Despite boasting some of the finest individual defenders in the league, Carlton’s defence has struggled at times, with opposition teams able to fight their way back into games from nearly any situation.
Defence wins premierships?
Bear Bryant, famed coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide American football team, once said that offense sold tickets, but defence won championships. Winning titles was something Bryant knew just a little about, having won six national titles as a coach.
In the Australian football context, the reality is a bit more balanced. Good attacking teams can blow opponents off the park, but many successful sides have been built around the mentality of stopping first and scoring later.
Unlike in Bryant’s day, there are multiple pathways to success.
Devoted footy fans might have noticed that Carlton’s backline sets up a little differently to other sides.
No team leaves its defenders more isolated than the Blues, who face more contested defensive one-on-one opportunities than anyone else. It’s a shift that has noticeably happened since David Teague took over from Brendon Bolton.
When the ball is coming in slowly, the Blues can usually muster enough defensive support to get by. But when it’s moved quickly, including from midfield turnovers and stoppages, their defence is often left exposed.
Teague clearly trusts his cornerstone defenders, but it’s a narrow tightrope to walk. Jacob Weitering and Liam Jones are two of the AFL’s best at defending one-out, but they certainly get a lot of practice.
Defending inside 50 works on a descending scale of priorities. The first is to prevent the opposition from having open players in the forward line or on leads. After that, sides try to limit the number of players being exposed one-out. The best-case scenario is to force the opposition into bombing the ball into attack.
Carlton trusts its defenders to hold their own against their immediate opponents. In a way, it’s old school footy. They’ve prioritised the attacking side of their game, but it’s produced mixed results to date.
The Blues aim to generate attacking waves at the expense of having extra defensive protection, especially after winning their own ball. If this initial forward push fails, they can be left vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Carlton also occasionally pushes an extra number to the stoppage, giving opposing sides a “spare” in defence. This turns Carlton’s defence into a defacto high press, trying to lock sides in. If the Blues fail to win control of the ball, it can quickly turn ugly.
This attacking mindset has resulted in some beautiful passages of play. But football is all about balance, and at this stage the Blues haven’t been able to find that.
Carlton has toyed with some more defensive structures in recent weeks, especially with how they use Zac Williams and Adam Saad, but it’s still very much a work in progress.
The million dollar question
Carlton came into this season with the clear ambition of pushing hard for finals. In the past two off-seasons, the Blues have recruited mature role-players such as Williams, Saad and Jack Martin.
The focus now turns to locking down their homegrown stars. For Carlton, names don’t get much bigger than their co-captain and three-time club champion Patrick Cripps.
Often feted as one of the premier midfielders in the competition, Cripps’ value — both to Carlton and their rivals — will be interesting to monitor.
Cripps’ counting stats have always been strong, and he still sits around the top 10 for centre clearances and contested possessions per game. Digging a little deeper, however, reveals a slightly different picture.
Racking up numbers is two parts talent, and one part opportunity. The big-bodied West Australian often sees plenty of chances in neutral ball opportunities but doesn’t win much more than his fair share. More concerning for Carlton may be the relatively poor performance of Sam Walsh and Ed Curnow in these situations, given both attend a lot of centre bounces.
Aside from the contest, Cripps’s biggest strength may be a sign of his weakness: ball security.
Compared with the new breed of versatile midfielders, Cripps has been found wanting when it comes to driving the ball forward. He currently sits 190th in the league for metres gained per game, and 87th for inside 50s. For a midfielder who wins as much ball as he does, Cripps has a relatively low rate of turnovers, but this may be a sign that he could be more adventurous.
Despite his height, Cripps hasn’t been really used as a target inside 50, and rarely takes grabs up forward. It may be the key to unlocking his true value to Carlton, and progressing the development of the club’s host of young midfielders. Adding that string to his bow might take his game to a new level. That’s not to say that Cripps isn’t talented or valuable right now, but there’s still plenty of scope for improvement.
At present, it would be hard to imagine that Cripps will command either the dollar values or contract lengths that are rumoured for the game’s top echelon, but his on-field and cultural importance to Carlton is still significant.
That is, if that existing culture survives the full review.