Monday, August 28, 2017

AFL Power Rankings: Round 23 2017

I said last week that it looked like the eight ‘best’ teams according to my rankings would actually also be the eight sides in this year’s finals series. That’s still the case – but that’s only because Melbourne’s loss to Collingwood drops them out of the top eight ranked sides this week, with the West Coast Eagles, as they did on the actual ladder heading into the finals, taking their place.
And so the first week of AFL finals are set. As I’ve done for the past few years I’m going to try and predict the results of each final, using each team’s rankings points at this stage, along with my usual home ground advantage adjustments. In general this leads to a fairly orthodox pick for the flag. But this year the results may be somewhat of a surprise.
Qualifying Finals:
Adelaide defeats GWS
Richmond defeats Geelong

Elimination Finals:
Port Adelaide defeats West Coast
Sydney defeats Essendon

Semi Finals:
GWS defeats Port Adelaide
Sydney defeats Geelong

Preliminary Finals:
Adelaide defeats Sydney
Richmond defeats GWS

Grand Final:
Richmond defeats Adelaide

Wow - !! Did I just show that Richmond is the favourite for the flag? Well… no. I would say that clearly the Adelaide Crows are the team with the best chance of winning the premiership going into this year’s finals series.

The main problems with this straight head-to-head prediction method is that it doesn’t show how close the teams’ chances of winning each match are, and doesn’t show what is predicted to happen under alternative paths. Based on my rankings Richmond’s chances of beating Geelong in a final, and Adelaide in a final at the MCG, are about as close to 50-50 as you can get. If Richmond loses its first final against Geelong it is potentially thrown on to a tough path to the Grand Final, possibly having to face off against Sydney the next week (for which my rankings would not favour them), and then possibly Adelaide on the road after that (for which the Tigers would definitely not be favoured).

In contrast if Adelaide loses its first final it’s path will probably not be as tough, with a home final against Port Adelaide or West Coast the next week, and then a final against Geelong or Richmond the week after that. And at best the Crows will have two home finals, and then the Grand Final, quite possibly against a non-Victorian club.

My rankings actually rate the Sydney Swans as a slightly better team than Adelaide going into the finals series. But the Crows’ chances of winning the premiership are better, as they only have to win three matches to be the premiers, whereas the Swans – who finished in sixth – have to win four.

I’ll be back after the finals series finishes in five weeks time with my final rankings for 2017. Unless Richmond actually does win the flag, in which case you may hear from me in about November. Enjoy the finals!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

AFL Power Rankings: Round 22 2017

It looks likely now that the top eight ranked teams here – the same top eight since Round 19 – will also be the eight teams that make the finals this year. This may seem not that unusual, but there are usually one or two ‘better’ sides that miss out through a couple of results not going their way (e.g. North Melbourne in 2013). Combine that with a season where so many teams are bunched around the middle and it is sort of remarkable that it looks like we’ll have the ‘right’ eight sides in the finals.
This week, it’s the last of my ‘end-of-season’ team summaries, covering Port Adelaide to the Western Bulldogs. Again you can see the ranking points of these teams for each round of 2017 in the graph below.

Port Adelaide: Port started the season really well, beating the heck out of Fremantle, Carlton, Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Hawthorn. Beating the heck out of bad sides – that is, really destroying them – is something these rankings value, and as a result Port spent a good chunk of the season within the rankings’ top four. However, proponents of the view that thrashing bad sides doesn’t mean a lot were vindicated in this case as the Power fell away, and now look like that they won’t make the top four on the actual AFL ladder. In terms of the rankings Port’s big losses to Essendon in Round 12 and Adelaide in Round 20 did the most damage to their standing.
Richmond: Apart from Essendon the Tigers have been the biggest improvers in 2017. They were bad last season, particularly towards the end, but this season they returned to a level more in line with their performances from 2013 to 2015. Until this week I thought that they were probably not a top four side in terms of ability – and a relatively easy fixture had helped to get them there – but I’ve had to revise my opinion a bit after they finally did what good teams do this weekend, and annihilated another side. Either way, things certainly look a lot less bleak at Tigerland than they did at the start of the season.
St. Kilda: Like Collingwood the Saints have generally been about average across 2017. They had two games after which their ranking points jumped up – Hawthorn in Round 6, and Richmond in Round 16 – though in the latter case it came right back down again when the Saints were in turn well beaten by Essendon the next week. The team would probably be a bit disappointed it did not progress further this year, but they have still come a long way from 2014.
Sydney Swans: Last year’s top-ranked side Sydney started off badly, losing their first six matches, which was reflected here in the Swans losing about four goals of ranking points in just the first seven rounds. However, because they were so good last season they never fell below sixth in the rankings. Over the final two-thirds of the season they regained their 2016 form, and are likely to finish the season along with Adelaide as clearly the two highest rated sides. The Swans have been particularly good since Round 15 – a stretch that has included comfortable away wins against Geelong and Melbourne, big wins over Fremantle and Gold Coast, and wins against other top sides GWS and Adelaide.
West Coast Eagles: The Eagles went from being pretty good to just average in 2017, which resulted in them receiving perhaps a disproportionate amount of criticism during the season. Apart from the big loss against Essendon in Round 9 (and perhaps the loss against Hawthorn early in the year when the Hawks were performing badly) they were mostly OK, but the drop back from premiership hopeful to fringe finals side is the one that brings the most heat. In hindsight that loss to the Dons was really the first, big sign that the Eagles were not going to be among the ‘second tier’ of teams anymore.
Western Bulldogs: I like the Dogs, but I admit they possibly became a target for my analytic smugness during 2017. (This writer may be even more smug.) The Bulldogs won an improbable – though not at all undeserved – flag last year, and had fans, media, and bookmakers proclaiming them as one of the competition’s new superpowers. More than that they became the lightning rod for theories and narratives about ‘what it takes’ to win a premiership – heart and guts, a week’s rest before the finals, being a team rather than individuals – as if the other seven clubs in the finals were somehow significantly more tired, selfish, and unmotivated.
I enjoyed the Dogs’ flag, and was happy for their fans (most of them anyway). So it’s nothing against the Dogs themselves that I took some assurance in watching all of those narratives get exposed for the largely unsubstantiated ‘hot takes’ that they were as the supposed new powerhouse sat among the middle rungs of the ladder. Look: if you play finals series enough times eventually unlikely outcomes will happen. And after some tough preliminary final losses over the years the Dogs were due their day. But there was little that was destined about the Bulldogs’ triumph in 2016. Anyway … sometimes we should appreciate something precisely because it was improbable.
(Of course, if the Dogs somehow do it all again this year, I will seem like quite the fool in a month’s time ...)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

AFL Power Rankings: Round 21 2017

A couple of weeks ago the GWS Giants were the team that had lost the most ranking points in 2017. But with their big win against the Western Bulldogs this week they pass the title of ‘club that has taken the biggest step backwards in 2017’ to the Dogs, their 2016 preliminary final conquerors. Of course when you are high up to begin with you have further to fall. The Bulldogs are now ranked thirteenth (by a close margin) – which is a fair drop for a reigning premier – though they were never ranked higher than fifth here in 2017, even at the start of the season.

I’m going to continue on with my ‘end-of-season’ summary for each side: this week it’s Geelong to North Melbourne. As was the case last week you can see their ranking points for each round in the graph below.

Geelong Cats: The Cats were above average yet again in 2017. Their peak came in Round 5 a week after slaughtering Hawthorn, but losses to Collingwood, the Gold Coast Suns (!), and Essendon brought them down from a ‘four goals better than average’ side to about ‘two goals better than average’. That’s about where they have been ever since, and in an even season that’s generally been good enough to have them ranked third or fourth for most of 2017.

Gold Coast Suns: As of this week the Gold Coast Suns have become the first side other than the Brisbane Lions to be ranked last in 2017, after the Lions themselves thrashed the Suns in the second QClash of the season. They started off OK … after that aforementioned win against Geelong in Round 7 they were ranked as respectably below average. But it’s all gone horribly wrong from about Round 13 onwards, and based on form since then they have comfortably overtaken their fellow Queenslanders as the competition’s worst performed side. When even your departing coach regrets having come to your club in the first place you know you have some issues.

GWS GIANTS: As I covered a few weeks ago the Giants took a huge stride backwards this season, from being great to being merely good. I suggested then that injuries and suspensions (combined with some weaker ‘replacement players’) may have played a part. Big wins against the Bulldogs and Melbourne in the past couple of weeks have restored some of the Giants’ standing, so it may be that they are on their way to being a dangerous side in the finals again.

Hawthorn: The Hawks have had one of the odder seasons in 2017. In the first seven weeks they were awful, getting destroyed by Geelong, Gold Coast, and St. Kilda within the space of four weeks. But from Round 14 to Round 18 they were fantastic: including beating Adelaide on their home turf, having a draw with GWS, and narrowly losing their return bout with Geelong. Overall then they rate about average for the year, but – like Sydney – it’s really been a season of two very different halves for the Hawks.

Melbourne: The Demons have had easily their best season since these rankings began, and have been rated as above average since they also beat Adelaide on their home turf back in Round 8. Melbourne’s improvement this year could be seen as basically the next step in the steady progression of a young side. Actually though, it’s likely primarily due to the massive improvement of Clayton Oliver, and bringing in good veterans Michael Hibberd and Jordan Lewis. We’ll see if their other young players aside from Oliver have enough improvement left in them for Melbourne to take another step forward.

North Melbourne: The Roos had the semblance of still being an average side up to about Round 10, with only some close losses keeping them from being mid-range on the actual ladder. But after that they dropped away badly, due both to heavy losses and defeats to poor sides. They haven’t quite been as bad overall during that time as Fremantle and Gold Coast – both of whom they lost to – but the Kangas could be starting from a fair way back in 2018.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

AFL Power Rankings: Round 20 2017

And so – at the top of the rankings – we’ve ended up about where we started, with Adelaide and Sydney once again clearly ahead of the rest. The Crows and the Swans put some distance between themselves and the other top teams this week, with the Crows destroying Port Adelaide, and the Swans easily beating Geelong on the road.
Over the next few weeks, as we approach the end of the home-and-away season, I’m going to give a summary of how each team’s ranking points developed through 2017. This week I’ll look at the first six clubs in alphabetical order, which are Adelaide to Fremantle. You can see their ranking points for each round in the graph below.

Adelaide Crows: Adelaide has held the top ranking for most of 2017. Once the rounds got under way the Crows only surrendered the top spot in Round 8, following successive beltings by North Melbourne, and Melbourne at home. That may have been the correction that revealed the Crows’ true level of ability, because they have stayed around the 20-25 ranking points mark for most of the time since. Still the Crows are considered by many to have the best chance of winning the premiership this year. They have been a very good – although not dominant – side throughout the season.
Brisbane Lions: Brisbane has been clearly the AFL’s worst team so far in 2017, and has been on the bottom of the rankings for the entire season to date. But having both Adelaide and Brisbane in the graph this week helps illustrate one of the major themes for 2017: the teams became more even. The Lions have improved from being relatively awful to merely relatively bad over the course of the season. Their improvement picked up the most steam over the second half of the season, particularly with their big win against Fremantle in Round 12.
Carlton and Fremantle: These teams followed similar paths in 2017, with both being rated below average across 2017. Fremantle had some observers fooled that it may contend for finals earlier this year following a few close wins, but the Dockers’ mammoth losses against Port Adelaide and Adelaide should have had the alarm bells ringing. Carlton has steadily improved for much of the year – with its biggest improvement in ranking points coming after it beat the GWS Giants – but the Blues have similarly never really threatened to reach even an ‘average’ status.
Collingwood: Speaking of ‘average’ Collingwood has been consistently average to below average for the majority of 2017. Their performances from week to week have generally been reliably average, albeit with varying results. The Magpies slipped a few weeks back after getting comfortably beaten by Hawthorn and Essendon, but have since regained some ground with a win against West Coast, a draw against Adelaide, and a win by a big margin against North Melbourne.
Essendon: Obviously the big improvers of 2017. That was not a surprise, given that the Bombers regained several senior players from year-long suspensions. What was perhaps a surprise was how much they improved. The Bombers rose up well past their 2015 form to a level that resembled more their early-2013 performances. Young players like Zach Merrett and Joe Daniher are clearly better than they were a couple of years ago, and combining them with the returning veterans has resulted in a solid football team. For a stretch in the middle of the season there they were even an elite one.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

AFL Power Rankings: Round 19 2017

GWS has now lost the most ranking points of any club this season, and fallen from third to sixth on these rankings (though if the Giants had kicked a bit more accurately in front of goal on the weekend they would probably be fifth). It has been often noted by the media and fans this year that the Giants’ players have missed a lot of games through injuries. But how much has that really contributed to the Giants’ loss of form (noting that they are still an above average side)?
The biggest loss this year for the Giants has been Stephen Coniglio, who was one of the Giants most productive players last year, and has so far missed most of the season. Many matches have also been missed by Ryan Griffen and new recruit Brett Deledio. Deledio of course wasn’t there last season so he doesn’t really explain anything in terms of the Giants’ form compared with 2016.
The other regular productive Giants to miss significantly more time than last season are Toby Greene (who has missed five games), Steve Johnson (five games), Rory Lobb (four games), and Lachie Whitfield (seven games). Greene and Whitfield have lost time to suspensions rather than injury. Devon Smith and Nick Haynes have also missed matches, but at comparable rates to last season.
So Coniglio, Griffen, Johnson, and Lobb are arguably the only important players from 2016 that have missed significantly more time to injury this season. But the suspensions of Greene and Whitfield have added to that extra time lost. Johnson has also been a lot less productive than last season, which has added to the Giants’ decline.
In terms of other changes of form for regular players many SuperCoach owners will tell you (including me) that Heath Shaw has been significantly less productive than last season. Many SuperCoach owners (including me) will also tell you that Josh Kelly has been significantly more productive. If you consider statistics to at least be indicative of a player’s value then there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot more that is different among the Giants’ regular group. So it’s really more to do with the Giants’ ‘replacement players’. They have had to use them more often due to injuries and suspensions. Also, their ‘replacement players’ haven’t been as good – they lost a couple of better ones over the off-season in Rhys Palmer and Jack Steele, and Matthew Buntine has generally been unavailable this season.
The Giants were great last season with most of their top players being regularly on the field. This season they have lost a few of them for significant amounts of time, and have been merely good. They could well improve if Coniglio and Griffen become regulars again and others can stay on the park a little more often; if not then having to use their thinner reserves may keep them from reaching their heights of 2016 in the near future.