I watched Fremantle live for the first time this season against Collingwood last Saturday and I learnt a lot — particularly that watching a game on television only gives you a partial picture.
So these are the facts behind the full picture that the Dockers gave me at the MCG.
I look at Ross Lyon and he is first and foremost a defensive coach. That is structurally sound because the sides that win the premiership are generally in the best two or three defensive sides and become the best on grand final day. So history is very much on their side.
When I heard Ross was going to Fremantle, my immediate thought was that the side had been hit with injury in the last year under Mark Harvey and could therefore be a better team.
Unfortunately, Anthony Morabito hasn’t been up yet, they lost Nat Fyfe to a shoulder injury and they haven’t had anything out of Aaron Sandilands. I’m aware of the quality of those players and make no mistake, good sides are the ones that run around with their best players out there.
They’ve been hit hard and still I haven’t heard one ounce of whingeing and moaning about injuries. That’s been a credit to them.
But there isn’t a team in the competition that hasn’t been hit hard with injuries. In this game it never matters who you’ve got sitting in the grandstand, it matters who is out on the ground.
Every 22 that runs down the race each week is your best 22 available, and that’s all you’ve got.
However, reality sinks in when you see that the new group coming through just hasn’t got the quality of those sitting in the grandstand. That becomes even more evident when you play the top sides.
Ross is more an optimist than a pessimist and that’s become very clear. So let’s look into his strategies.
At quarter time on Saturday when he said on Channel 7 there were just a couple of mistakes to clean up, I was quite surprised. I don’t know whether that was just for the audience or for his supporters because what I saw was that the fundamentals of trying to beat Collingwood were right out of whack.
For a start, releasing Heath Shaw as a loose player in the back half... he thrives on run and being able to intercept the ball.
And Collingwood thrive on having that extra number in the back half.
When I saw that set-up for a start I just thought Fremantle’s idea to protect their back line with an extra player to keep Travis Cloke and Chris Dawes quiet was simply going to allow the ball to go out of their front half too quickly.
It was like they were conceding Cloke, Dawes and Darren Jolly were going to take too many easy marks forward, and that the Magpies midfield was going to get too much football.
And if you look at the final inside-50 count of 69 to Collingwood and 33 to Fremantle, you can see the tactic doesn’t necessarily impact the general play in the way you would like.
You can have an army of players inside your back 50, but with those numbers you’re not going to stop a good side from scoring — and Collingwood are a scoring machine. What Fremantle’s plan didn’t do was slow the number of times the ball was going into Collingwood’s front 50.
When Fremantle swung the game around to make it more one-on-one around the ground, it then becomes your midfield against theirs and you have to back yours to push in and help out your backs, as well as pushing into the forward line to create opportunities. It takes away the initiative of the opposition.
I was staggered to see Fremantle drop off to start with only four forwards. Collingwood will always orchestrate an extra defender if there are only four forwards against them.
Football is very basic. If it’s two versus one player, 90 per cent of the time the two will beat one. But when you’ve got two versus three, your odds diminish and so on.
I’m not saying what the Dockers did was wrong, but having coached Collingwood for a number of years, what we always loved was having the availability of the extra back-line player.
They move the ball so quickly and spread so well that when you let them do it, all you’re doing is inviting disaster. This point is just so important.
The day of complete control of the football is just rubbish. You have to play chess when you’re playing top sides and Fremantle didn’t do that enough.
If you’ve got the ball just outside your back 50 and look up and think your best option is to either boot it up to a contest on the wing, or go back 30m to a man inside the back 50, take the former.
If the player back doesn’t have the opportunity to play on to the next player further afield on the other side of the ground, say 70m from goal, then you have not played chess. You’ve actually played into the hands of a team like Collingwood because you’ve transferred the pressure from outside the back 50 to inside it.
The Magpies will then rush you like no other side can and all of a sudden you’ve only got six seconds to get rid of a football with the opposition all around you.
Ask Michael Johnson when he marked a backward kick in the goal square and got caught in a tackle by not respecting Alex Fasolo, which allowed Jackson Paine to kick an easy goal.
Some teams like Essendon will kick the ball back to Dustin Fletcher, who will then stow it 55m to the third party on the other side of the ground, who will play on. That’s the important message.
Sydney also do it with Rhyce Shaw and with Lewis Jetta as the relief player on the other side.
I’ve been disappointed in the football I’ve seen this year and it is because of the way teams like Fremantle have gone away from the above principles. The frustration makes me want to give up coaching from the commentary box — I don’t want to have to slam down the phone again.
But when I see the poorer sides take the liberty of transferring that pressure to a more dangerous place... you reap what you sew and get what you deserve. The veins come out in the neck, the head throbs and you just wonder what in God’s name they’re doing.
Put simply, kicking the ball high to a contest where you can spoil it, get it over the boundary and force a throw-in, is much better than to be trapped inside your back 50 where the opposition will make you turn the ball over. As a consequence, you will lose the game on turnovers.
I’d love to know the number of times Fremantle kicked the ball back inside the Collingwood front 50 and either lost possession or got held up.
You’ve got to keep football simple so you’re defending the ball in the front half and not the back half. Give yourself a chance to compete with the best teams by following basic, mundane rules that won’t get you into trouble.
Collingwood had 14 more possessions than Fremantle, but still had 101 tackles, and you only have that many when the opposition presents you with the chance to get them. The Dockers tried to handpass out of trouble too often and that was like giving the Magpies a Christmas present in June because they will hunt you.
None of this is a shot at Ross or at Fremantle, it is just an observation that if they don’t clean those sort of things up in Melbourne under pressure against top sides, you will continually fail against them.
If what we saw on Saturday was their normal process, then they are 6-7 after 13 games for a reason. You might beat bottom sides like the Western Bulldogs tomorrow with what they were doing, but it’s not the methodology you use against a top side.
Now I’ve got a Twitter account I’m bemused by Fremantle people who claim I’m always knocking their team, or abuse me for giving their team only a C+ last weekend in my mid-season review because I didn’t take into consideration who was out of the side.
They are wrong. I acknowledge they’ve lost some very good players and I actually admire Fremantle rather than hate them. But I am unbiased now that I am in the media and Collingwood thrashed them in nearly every department, except for Matthew Pavlich.
In my heart of hearts, I’m not going to say anything false about them. They’ve got some real class out of their side, but they have a frightfully-slow midfield which is devoid of a quick Dane Swan, Gary Ablett or Chris Judd-type hunter.
They also have every right to go after a Travis Cloke, because they are crying out for a key forward to help out Pavlich.
In today’s football, you’ve got to be able to split the opposition’s defence and Chris Mayne should be a third tall option every day of the week instead of the second.
Their back line also lacks run and those problems combined tell me that my pre-season tip for Fremantle to make the top eight was sadly misguided. Please treat this as encouragement to improve and not a clip over the ears.
My intent is not to discredit or belittle them with criticism. I’d like to see Fremantle have success and we’re all just waiting for them to finally getting it right.