A month and a half into the 2021 season, the AFL landscape is becoming clearer.
Surprise packets the Sydney Swans have come back to earth after their fast start. Winless North Melbourne have sunk perhaps even further than the gloomy pre-season forecasts predicted.
At the other end of the table, the unbeaten Western Bulldogs have joined the list of serious flag fancies.
The Dogs have burst out of the gates, running and grinding their opponents into the ground. With a rock-solid midfield rotation and a rising key forward, at face value they have all the hallmarks of a conventional premiership contender.
Scratch below the surface though, and you’ll find they’re defying convention too.
The ground game
To outsiders, one of the standout features of Australian Football is how much time the ball spends in the air. Of all the many and varied types of football around the world, the Sherrin might well earn the most frequent flight miles.
It’s long been held that in order to win games — and premierships — you need to dominate in the air. Talented big men are among the most prized possessions in football; a key to contender status.
But while the Dogs have unearthed one of the brightest young forwards in the game, Aaron Naughton, their style of play is still largely based on ground-level dominance.
The Dogs like to control possession through their use of handball. At the same time, they stop opposing sides from doing the same.
If they can maintain their current pace, the Dogs will have the highest season handball differential for at least four decades.
With a plethora of talented midfielders, the Dogs have decided to lean into their strengths and work for the right kick rather than simply take the first option. This has led to a massive inside 50 differential so far this year, gaining roughly three entries (and scoring opportunities) for every two opposition forays.
The Dogs have also led the way at stoppages this year, winning first use of the ball more often than any other side.
A key factor is their tight inside midfield rotation. The Dogs have used by far the fewest number of players at centre bounces, with only five non-rucks winning a single centre clearance. Only one other, Bailey Smith, has attended a centre bounce this year — and that was only after the injury to Josh Dunkley against GWS.
This is a concentration unique in the league this season, and helps maximise the talent at their disposal. But coach Luke Beveridge insists it’s not a totally new development.
“It was a bit of a misnomer that Josh Dunkley wasn’t playing midfield last year,” Beveridge told the ABC.
“What had happened was that when Dunks came back from injury last year, we were — I wouldn’t say outstanding — but we were going really well at the centre bounce. And the four main boys going through there in Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Tom Libratore and Bailey Smith, well they were doing an extraordinary job.”
Winning the ball is just one part of the equation though. What you do when the opposition has it might be even more important.
The aim of the game in footy is pretty simple: Kick the ball between those two big sticks. But how you get the ball into a position to do that isn’t quite so straightforward.
Some teams like to retain possession by using the kick-mark game, inching down the ground one chip at a time. Others throw caution to the wind and embark on lengthy handball chains, taking risky options through the middle.
The Dogs have clearly put a lot of thought into how to best adapt to the rule changes introduced by the AFL this season. While a lot of discussion has centred on the attacking element of the “stand” rule, it’s the defensive side that’s seemingly been far more of a focus for the Dogs’ coaching staff.
“You’ve got to defend it differently. You can’t rely on that front line of defence – sometimes it’s just not there,” observed Beveridge after last week’s win over the Giants.
Defending in 2021 is undeniably different than in years past. Regardless of whether a side leans more zonal (like the Dogs) or man-on-man, there has been a period of adjustment for everyone.
The Western Bulldogs have quickly become adept at denying space in the corridor, forcing sides to either switch their point of attack or kick it long to a contest down the line. When the opposition takes a mark or wins a free kick, the Dogs rush to clog the usable space in front of the ball carrier.
The strategy requires great discipline with regard to spacing and commitment to covering switches, but so far it’s holding up.
It’s a key reason why the Dogs have lost the general aerial battle for the year (80 to 103 marks outside forward 50 per game), but have won the battle inside 50. They’ve taken a league-leading eight more marks inside 50 per game.
They can concede a lot of turnovers occurring higher up the ground, sometimes leaving their defence exposed. This places a bit of pressure on the deeper defensive troops such as Alex Keath. If they get isolated, they can be scored against.
Despite this, the Dogs have been exposed down back less than any other side, with the deep defenders communicating well so far. It’s early days, but the strategy looks like a solid blueprint for defending under the new rules.
Can you beat the boys?
Sitting at six wins and no losses, Beveridge already knows that the fans’ expectations are growing.
“I don’t know if fans ‘dare to dream’ or they become harder on you because you are playing so well and they expect it,” Beveridge said.
“I hope the fans understand, like us coaches, how hard the game is at this level.”
This week the Bulldogs play the Tigers, who are fresh off a loss to the competition’s other undefeated side, Melbourne. Facing the reigning premiers is tough at any time, let alone when they’re out for revenge. Richmond has not only set the pace for much of the last four years, but they also present a vastly different stylistic test for the Dogs.
The Dogs will also face Port Adelaide and Melbourne in the not too distant future. Despite their flawless record so far, it feels like there’s still a lot to learn about how they’ll fare against other contenders.
If they can carry their perfect record through this weekend, hope will be truly rising in the West.