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Head-to-head with the AFL boss

With top spot on the AFL ladder waiting for either Collingwood or West Coast after their clash at the MCG today, I’m tipping the Magpies will go back to what’s tried and proven to break apart the Eagles midfield and claim the big prize.

Collingwood have won the last six battles against West Coast. Two of them were finals and one of those was last year in a victory that made me, as coach, extremely proud of my players.

It’s hard to believe that the last time the Eagles beat the Magpies at the MCG was when I was coaching them, more than 17 years ago in 1995. The old saying suggests that the longer it goes, the closer you get to rectifying it.

But on recent evidence, you would have to be brave to bet against Collingwood today.

When I was at West Coast, we were always very confident about beating Collingwood because we just felt we were stronger. When I was coaching Collingwood in recent years, we thought we had West Coast’s measure for the reasons I will explain now and they are tactical advantages I think we will see again today.

Coaching great John Kennedy Sr once said predictability is your greatest asset because you just know what every one of your teammates are going to do. But when that is your main weaponry and you don’t really have a Plan B or C that is nearly as effective as your Plan A, then you become predictable to the opposition.

So it’s up to the opposition to be able to beat you in your area of strength. It’s not a criticism, but at Collingwood we were very familiar with the way West Coast played and I think the Magpies are just a tick in front of the Eagles in terms of the changing of the game.

Firstly, we thought we could knock over their forward line because we know how they liked to take the ball in. One main strategy plank, therefore, was to take out Quinten Lynch because he was their hit-up player who was a massive supplier inside the front 50.

We usually did it with Alan Toovey, who carried an injury into last year’s qualifying final and still did a magnificent job. I expect that might happen again if he is deemed fit enough for the task.

Lynch is obviously a lot bigger, but Toovey could always go with him on the lead. He would always be sitting on his shoulder and running with him and that meant he was never going to get as much football. It stopped a lot of supply.

Then to West Coast’s back line. We know Darren Glass and Eric Mackenzie play tight, while Shannon Hurn often drops out to become a quarter-back and we were sure to never let him do that.

I think Hurn battles one on one and can be exposed because he’s not quick. It didn’t matter for us who was on him, as long as they took him to the most vulnerable position in our attack.

He is nowhere near as adept as Glass and Beau Waters as one-on-one footballers and he can be vulnerable. Collingwood have got a number of players who can put an opponent like him in a dangerous position.

What we also know is that Collingwood know that Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui love to get forward. So we had team rules for Darren Jolly and Leigh Brown (now replaced by Chris Dawes), to reverse the roles and push hard into attack.

It puts pressure on Naitanui, who is not a great defender, and Cox, who struggles to defend a ruckman going forward.

I think Collingwood’s real advantage lies in the midfield. Matt Priddis is West Coast’s main ball getter and if a player like Dale Thomas goes to him he will hurt him because he will get forward on him with pace that can cut him up on the rebound.

Daisy did it on Gary Ablett recently, even when the Gold Coast captain had 53 possessions. He is well-equipped to do it again today.

Overall, I don’t think West Coast are a quick side and that’s why Carlton were able to stay in the game with them last week. I have no doubt Collingwood have superior pace which is dynamic, and that will be significant against the Eagles on the MCG.

The ground is different to Patersons Stadium. It is very wide and when Collingwood apply their pace through the width of the ground, that’s where West Coast will really struggle against them.

Scott Selwood has improved with age and his job on Chris Judd last week was outstanding, but he can only pick up one player. It will probably be Dane Swan and not many people can go with him.

The players who fall out are then Steele Sidebottom and Dayne Beams, who are both averaging more than 32 possessions a game in the past four matches.

As a coach, I always looked at the previous four matches of my team and opponents as a form guide. Anything longer than that is a waste of time.

So let’s compare the four matches before Collingwood beat West Coast by 52 points at the MCG in round 10 last year, compared with the same lead-up to today’s game. It shows how the two teams have adapted to the game in the new season.

Collingwood have won all four of their matches, while West Coast are 3-1. Their disposal numbers have increased, while West Coast’s have marginally decreased.

The contested possession and clearance numbers of the two teams are about even, but while Collingwood have increased their uncontested possession numbers, West Coast’s have dropped off.

That tells me the Magpies are spreading better. Their spread is second to none and they are absolutely destroying sides.

There was never any doubt in our minds that our spread was better than West Coast. And the stats show that it still is.

A danger to Collingwood is that the Eagles have a fanatical forward press, which has helped them limit the spread from top sides. The only question is, can they do it and sustain it on the wider ground.

We know Sidebottom and Beams have been outstanding in that area and with Swan, well he wouldn’t win a Brownlow without being outstanding in that area. Thomas adds plenty to that mix, too.

If you asked me where they are going to hurt West Coast, look no further. The Eagles have players like Matt Rosa and Andrew Gaff who play outside and run, but they are up against genuine midfielders who break out from stoppages and tear teams apart.

When the ball drifts, their spread is magnificent and that is when those Collingwood players are so dangerous.

When I was coaching, I liked a ratio of about two kicks to one handpass. In these four matches last year, Collingwood’s ratio was 1.52/1 and this year it is 1.37/1, so they are handpassing more.

West Coast were 1.3/1 and now they’re 1.44/1 so they’ve increased their emphasis towards kicking. That has come about because sides this year are generally kicking their way out of trouble more rather than handballing.

The defences are about even, with Glass leading at one end and Nick Maxwell marshalling the troops at the other. Both captains are outstanding in their leadership and both teams have kept teams to low scores in 2012.

By my four-week comparison period, Collingwood’s attack has a significant ascendancy, 112 points to 96 per game, even though they have had a drop-off of nine inside-50s per game, while the Eagles are almost identical to last year.

It is interesting to note that last year, 34 of the Eagles’ goals came from Josh Kennedy, Mark Nicoski and Mark LeCras, who have all been out injured this year. The Magpies got 26 goals from Travis Cloke, Andrew Krakouer and Dawes. This year, with Krakouer out injured, Cloke and Dawes have come up with eight.

It shows their goal spread is superior, given their total scoring ascendancy over West Coast in the past four games, and the Eagles haven’t quite been able to make up for the loss of their injured stars.

Collingwood are down about 10 tackles a game and West Coast down six, but that is reflective of their dominance in games.

I got howled down earlier in the season when I said there had been change in the way Collingwood were playing. I stand by that fact, but also notice that the bias has also swung back to defence in recent weeks and it shows in their results.

I always had a history sheet that showed me how we went against an opponent the last time we played them. It told me what didn’t work, but more importantly, what did and what we should do again.

I have no doubt Collingwood will do a lot today of what has worked in the past because you certainly go to the well again. So to the coaches, who were both my former captains.

Nathan Buckley is a first-year coach who has taken over a top side. It is easy to wreck a good football side as a coach and harder to make sure you keep it winning.

In that, Nathan has done a fantastic job in making sure a good side is playing very good football.

John Worsfold coached a bottom side only two years ago and the inroads he has made are outstanding.

Both teams are highly-disciplined and the coaches make sure that their players don’t reflect too greatly when something goes wrong. If there is a goal scored, they don’t commit the second error of pining over it. They get on with it.

They have both been hit hard by injuries, but have both been able to get on with winning and both are again capable of continuing that today.

While we were always confident about beating West Coast, we went in with great respect for them and never went into a match thinking they couldn’t beat us if we didn’t do things correctly. Kennedy and LeCras were always a worry for us, but neither of them are playing today. Daniel Kerr can hurt you, but he’s not a great kick and does not carry the ball.

He can set up players, but I think Collingwood more than match them on the outside, as I’ve explained. It means the Kerr or Priddis lay-off hand-pass doesn’t necessarily equate to a freedom of run.

Collingwood will go back to the well again today in a match where both teams, who I think will finish in the top four, will be hiding nothing and sparring hard to get the psychological advantage for later in the year.

And if they do it well, they should win the game.

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