Saturday, October 1, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Post-Finals 2016

In my last post before the finals I said that the top clubs were quite close this year, making the finals series hard to predict. Still I would have put a very low probability on the Western Bulldogs – rated as a just-above-average side at the end of the home and away season – winning four straight finals to win this year’s premiership. Indeed I thought the Bulldogs would be lucky to escape the first week.

Instead the Bulldogs had easily their best four weeks of the season, improving by between two and three goals per match in the rankings after going backwards over the preceding two months. Their level of performance isn’t unprecedented, not even in the past year – the Bulldogs’ opponents in the Grand Final, the Sydney Swans, performed at a similar standard over their four matches up to the end of the preliminary final. But the Bulldogs definitely performed at a much higher level right when it mattered most than they had shown over the season up to that point.

Why? Was it because that the Bulldogs re-gained some of their best players for the finals series? I initially thought this couldn’t be the whole explanation, and that some of their players must have played a lot better during the finals. But it’s not clear that, on average, their players did improve. Looking over each player’s average SuperCoach scores before and during the finals some players such as Clay Smith, Tom Boyd, and Liam Picken did seem to clearly play a lot better. However, other players such as recently-recalled pair Jake Stringer and Easton Wood, and Matthew Boyd, seemed to play worse, even if it wasn’t noticed that much while their team kept on winning. Perhaps then it was in large part due to the players that returned – Wood and Stringer, but in particular Jack Macrae, Jordan Roughead, and Tom Liberatore – and that these players were a lot better than the players that replaced them during the final weeks of the home-and-away season.

Still that to me doesn’t seem to quite nail the explanation. Maybe it was that the Bulldogs’ opponents under-performed during the finals? I don’t subscribe to views such as it was the Bulldogs’ ‘spirit’ that got them through. Or if it was their ‘spirit’, what specifically was it that they did better as a result? I reckon there’s an interesting ‘study’ to be done by someone as to how the Bulldogs suddenly turned into a side that could knock out four teams that had won 16 or more matches in consecutive weeks.

It’s probably the most unlikely premiership win in my lifetime. I wouldn’t say it’s the most unlikely there has ever been – the Bulldogs had certainly shown more than the Fitzroy team that came from the ‘bottom’ to win it all in 1916. Nevertheless the Bulldogs became the first club to win four straight finals to take out the flag. [Correction: Adelaide did it too, in 1997, but they didn't need to.]

I said earlier this season that the Bulldogs’ lack of premierships had come from their lack of great, as opposed to good, sides. This Bulldogs team, taken over the season as a whole, wasn’t great either. But for the final four weeks they absolutely were, and in the end that was all they needed.

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