Sunday, March 31, 2019

AFL Power Rankings: Round 2 2019

Geelong should be considered a serious premiership contender in 2019, and probably should have been even before the season started.

Geelong has started off the 2019 season well, beating last year’s runners-up Collingwood, and demolishing last year’s preliminary finalists Melbourne. The Cats are now clearly the highest‑ranked team on these Power Rankings. Their current ranking is around the level and as far ahead of every other team as Richmond’s was for most of 2018 – the Tigers being last year’s minor premiers, and premiership favourites heading into the finals.

Geelong finished eighth in 2018 with 13 wins, and was bundled out of the finals in the first week by Melbourne. It was fairly common in the pre-season ladder predictions for Geelong to be tipped to fall this year, or stay in the bottom part of the eight. The reasoning seemed to be mostly ‘fringe top 8 team last year’ + ‘aging stars’ = ‘possibly out of finals’.

Further analysis tells another story though. Geelong could be considered one of the teams most likely to rise in 2019, because its 2018 was much better than its final ladder position suggested.

Geelong was better in 2018 than many thought

Geelong finished the 2018 home and away season with ‘only’ 13 wins, but a percentage of 131.6, which was better than every team except Richmond. According to the ‘Pythagorean wins’ formula, a team with a percentage that high would usually win 16 matches. That number of wins would have got the Cats into second, with a home final against West Coast and a very different path through the finals.

As I said in my fixture preview, Geelong had a tough fixture last year. Their only ‘easy double-up’ was Gold Coast, while Collingwood – who won two more matches – got Brisbane, Carlton, and Fremantle twice. The Cats then copped Melbourne, also arguably one of those teams that should have finished higher than they did, in the first week of the finals.

Collingwood still obviously had a better finals series last year than Geelong did. When you consider their performances over the whole of 2018 though, Geelong’s first round win against Collingwood this year shouldn’t be seen as that surprising (and it wasn’t to the rankings).

The midfield that does stuff outside the middle

Ask the average football pundit about why Geelong are going well, and they are likely to say it’s because of their much-heralded midfield. On the face of it though, Geelong’s midfield wasn’t great last year. The Cats were ninth for average inside 50s per game in 2018. They were eighth for average clearances, and #17 for centre clearances. Yet they ranked fourth for points scored during the home and away season, and had the least points allowed – even less than Richmond.

This at first seems like somewhat of a puzzle. Are Tom Hawkins and the makeshift forward line, and the relatively no-name defence actually performing better than a midfield that includes Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood, Gary Ablett, Mitch Duncan, Sam Menegola, and Tim Kelly?

To answer this, let’s first look at a team like West Coast. The Eagles line up pretty much how you’d expect a good football team should. The midfielders get the possessions, the forwards kick the goals, the defenders spoil them, and the key defenders and key forwards take the contested marks.

Now let’s look at Geelong.

Midfielders like Dangerfield, Menegola, and Kelly make significant contributions on average to the score sheet, while Duncan often drops back into defence. (And good luck working out who the ‘true’ key defenders are, or who was playing centre half-forward last year.) Perhaps, as Champion Data’s AFL Prospectus suggested this means Geelong struggles for a consistent set-up, or perhaps it means they have more ‘tricks’ they can throw at teams. At the moment though, whatever it is, it seems to be working.

The Cats' recent finals record isn’t great, but it can be changed

The major criticism of Geelong is recent years has been their finals record after winning the 2011 premiership. They have won three out of 12 finals over that time, which has some people doubting their ability to win the flag, no matter how good their home and away record is.

Given the amount of turnover in AFL lists, you could argue that the current team should be evaluated more on their record over the past few years – say, since Patrick Dangerfield joined in 2016. Still that’s not great either. They are two wins and four losses in finals over that time, but three of those four losses came in matches that they would have been considered about a 50-50 chance in: Melbourne last year, Richmond in the 2017 Qualifying Final, and Sydney in the 2016 Preliminary Final.

I don’t think that means too much though. Teams that have been criticized for multiple finals failures have ‘suddenly’ turned their fortunes around, with perhaps the most notable examples in recent years being Richmond in 2017 and Port Adelaide in 2004.

The main concern is to keep getting up there and have a chance in the first place. The Cats are looking in good shape to do that once again this year.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

AFL Power Rankings: Round 1 2019

Richmond may be brought back to the pack by Alex Rance’s season-ending injury, but they may have been heading there anyway.

Richmond was the best team for most of 2018. More of their best performances though were in the first half of the year, following hot on the heels of their breakthrough 2017 premiership. Towards the end of the season they cooled down a bit, culminating in their preliminary final loss to Collingwood. The rankings aren’t overly impressed by their first-up win against Carlton either. The Tigers won comfortably by 33 points, but after adjusting for the Blues’ estimated strength, the result makes a negative contribution to their ranking points (see chart below).

The Tigers aren’t quite defying the basic statistics anymore
Unlike many other good teams, Richmond’s strengths are not well shown by the basic statistics. This leads to less fantasy football points and less Brownlow votes than a side of their standing usually has, and general puzzlement that an effective, but not a high-disposal midfielder-forward like Shane Edwards can make the All-Australian team.
In 2018 Richmond ranked #14 for disposals per game, but way ahead of every team except Melbourne for inside 50s. They ranked second-last for clearances per game, but were in a league of their own for intercepts.
Richmond’s basic game plan is relatively well-known. They don’t worry too much about the clearances. Then post-clearance, if they don’t get the ball: they put the pressure on, get the ball back, and get it forward quickly and effectively. There’s not much moving sideways or backwards. It’s as if the game plan was devised by the Tiger fans that had been shouting in frustration from the outer for the past thirty years.
Winning the intercepts, or forcing opposition turnovers, is generally more important in AFL than winning the clearances. First, there are just a lot more turnovers than stoppages in an AFL game. But further, as I showed in a post in the off-season a team’s scoring shot differential compared with their opponents can be mostly thought of as the sum of: their clearance differential, the inverse of their behind differential, and two times their intercept differential – along with possessions that are stopped. A stoppage can arise from the end of either team’s ‘possession chain’, so about half the time winning the clearance means effectively picking up where you left off. An intercept however definitely puts an end to your opponent’s possession chain and starts off your own.
Richmond’s strategy was hugely effective in the 2017 finals series and the first part of 2018. The peak extremity was probably against Fremantle in Round 7 when Nat Fyfe and Lachie Neale smashed them in the clearances, and the Tigers smashed the Dockers everywhere else on the ground (see table below). They had a huge intercept differential and 22 more scoring shots. The thumping of Essendon in the Dreamtime match in Round 11 was another good example, but that may have been the last gasp of Richmond’s peak period.

Over the back half of 2018 they were still fantastic at intercepts. It has dropped away over their past five matches though (see table below), bringing their poor clearance differential more into play, most notably in the Preliminary Final (PF). Whether this continues remains to be seen, but lately this drop-off has been restricting the Tigers’ opportunities relative to their opponents.

On the subject of restricting opportunities, Richmond has won the disposal count only once in its past ten games. As mentioned above the Tigers were never a high-disposal team even at their peak, but the deficits have become larger and more frequent in their recent matches (see chart below). They are still regularly getting more metres per disposal than their opponents – even in the Preliminary Final last year – and doing well in terms of their inside 50 differential. It does become harder to gain more overall territory though if you’re getting the ball less often in the first place.

Richmond has lost their greatest interceptor
Sadly five-time All-Australian defender Alex Rance suffered a season-ending injury in the first match for the season this past week. Rance has many more detractors than he should, but along with West Coast’s Jeremy McGovern he has been one of the great intercept defenders of the past few years. He averaged almost 10 intercepts a match last year, once again leading the league.
Rance didn’t have a great end to 2018 by his high standards. His performances in one-on-one contests actually did start to become more like what his critics have claimed. Up to Round 12 in 2018 he took 19 contested marks, but only four after that. His intercepting though remained among the best in the league, and may be sorely missed.
As you’d expect from a team that was so good at intercepting and defending last year there are others who can keep the backline strong. Nick Vlastuin ranked ninth for intercepts per game last year. Rance’s replacement, once fully fit, may well be Ryan Garthwaite. Champion Data’s AFL Prospectus says that he was a much improved interceptor in the VFL last year, though he was still well below Rance’s numbers and he has only played two games so far at AFL level.
The Tigers are probably still a good team, and may well be still among the best teams (particularly with so many of the presumed top sides faltering in the opening round). After being clearly ahead of every other team for the majority of last year however, they have started to have their bad weeks as well.
Note that the rankings give Richmond about a 50-50 chance against Collingwood next week (see below). That seems about right – but you wouldn’t have got those odds just two matches ago!

(And in the AFLW Grand Final between Adelaide and Carlton next Sunday, the rankings obviously pick Adelaide.)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

AFL WOMEN’S Power Rankings: Round 7 2019

For a good team the Fremantle Dockers have had relatively few disposals this season. Helped by the long-awaited debut of Kiara Bowers though, they have still won the ‘battle of the midfield’ – by kicking long and putting the pressure on.

In AFLW the good teams generally tend to have more disposals. One exception is this season’s second-best performed team the Fremantle Dockers, who rank eighth for disposals. The Dockers have been very effective with the disposals they’ve had. They lead the league in both points per disposal (0.27), and inside 50s per disposal (0.18), at rates that are even better than league powerhouse Adelaide (see chart below).

Conversely, the Dockers have conceded 0.18 points per disposals, and 0.12 inside 50s per disposal. While that in itself is not remarkable, their own effectiveness when in possession means they have a very good inside 50 differential, despite getting a lower number of disposals than their opponents. In effect, they are winning the ‘battle of the midfield’ by more often getting the ball into their attack, even if they are not getting a high disposal count.

One thing that has helped them to contain opposition movement, including through the midfield, is their tackling. Fremantle leads the league in tackles, and this year they added one massive weapon in terms of pressuring their opponents.

Kiara Bowers – Best and Fairest?

Kiara Bowers was selected as a ‘marquee player’ by Fremantle for its inaugural AFLW season, but unfortunately missed the first two seasons with a knee injury. This year she finally made her debut and played a full season, and she has been a major reason why the Dockers have climbed up the ladder in 2019. According to Champion Data’s player rankings, Bowers had been the best-performed player this year as of Round 6, and she has to been given strong consideration (alongside Adelaide’s Erin Phillips) for the AFLW best and fairest award.

Bowers’ statistics mirror, and help explain, her team’s statistics, in that she is very good at gaining territory when she has the ball. This year the league leaders in metres gained are two of the leading disposals getters – Phillips, and Melbourne’s Karen Paxman – and defender Ash Brazill. Bowers ranks ‘only’ eleventh in disposals, but sixth in metres gained.

Although Bowers is one of the league’s leading contested possession winners, her metres per disposal and especially her kick-to-handball ratio resemble those of an ‘outside’ midfielder or rebounding defender (see table below). Phillips and Paxman rank highly in terms of metres per disposal for ‘inside’ midfielders as well, though they handball more often than Bowers does. Being able to win the ball and gain ground is a fantastic combination to have, as shown by Patrick Dangerfield and Dustin Martin in the men’s league.

Another part of what makes Bowers so important to Fremantle is her tackling. She has averaged an astounding 12 tackles per match in 2019, easily the league leader. Adelaide’s Ebony Marinoff – once considered the ‘gold standard’ for applying pressure – has averaged just over 8 tackles per match. With Bowers in the middle the Dockers have been sweeping the ball forward when they win it, and putting the clamps on their opponents going the other way.

I suspect that Erin Phillips will end up winning the AFLW best and fairest this year. Phillips’ ‘extra feature’, which is her goal-kicking, is probably more noticeable than Bowers’ defensive pressure. I can’t really quibble if the votes go to Phillips, but Bowers would also be a highly deserving winner.

Predictions for the finals: can anyone stop Adelaide?

Fremantle have had a very impressive season. They are still going to have a tough time beating Adelaide, who look even more like ‘the strongest AFLW team ever’ (note: in three seasons) than they did two weeks ago. The Crows smashed a good team in Melbourne by ten goals on the weekend, and one shudders to think what they may do to lowly-ranked Geelong at home in the finals this week.

I think the Dockers easily account for Carlton next week to make it into the Grand Final. It will be an upset of mammoth proportions if they can stop Phillips, Marinoff, and the Crows from claiming their second AFLW premiership. At least in Bowers and Dana Hooker they have two players that are as good a chance as anyone of matching Adelaide ‘in the coalface’.

And here’s the predictions for AFL (Men’s): Round 1…

Sunday, March 10, 2019

AFL WOMEN’S Power Rankings: Round 6 2019

The AFLW’s much-maligned conference system at least makes for an interesting final round to the season.

Usually I end each week’s discussion of the rankings with its predictions for the next round. This week I’m going to start with them.

It has been well noted by critics of the AFLW’s conference system that this year the two conferences are very uneven. The four best teams – Adelaide, Fremantle, Melbourne, and North Melbourne – are all in Conference A. As only the top two teams from each conference qualify for the finals, two of those teams will miss out.

It does however mean we have a more interesting set-up for the final round of the home and away season. Without the conference system the final four would almost be set in stone. Instead seven of the ten teams still have some chance of making it through.

Conference A

Top team Adelaide are very likely to go through. The Crows definitely qualify for the finals and finish top of Conference A with a win against Melbourne next week, which the rankings give them a 70 per cent chance of doing. Even if they lose, their percentage advantage over Melbourne gives them about an additional 20 per cent of making the finals. Conversely, Melbourne’s season is very likely to be over next week.

More interest lies in the Fremantle v North Melbourne match. With their big win on the weekend the Dockers have leapfrogged the Kangaroos in the rankings, and at home they are now considered a 67 per cent chance of beating the former premiership favourites. (In the case of a draw the Roos go through.) If the Crows lose the winner of this match will finish on top of Conference A.

Conference B

Last year’s bottom-placed team Carlton is almost certainly going to make the finals now, even if they do not win half their matches. The rankings give them about a 60 per cent chance of beating the Bulldogs next week. A loss is very unlikely to see them out though, as both Geelong has to win and Brisbane has to overcome a fairly significant percentage gap to overtake them. The Blues would still want to win next week though, in order to get a home final rather than a daunting away final against the top team from Conference A.

Geelong only has to win to beat out Brisbane for the other Conference B finals spot. The rankings give them a 65 per cent chance of doing so against the bottom-ranked GWS, even playing away. 

The Cats can still well make the finals with a loss. Brisbane are given only a 35 per cent chance of beating Collingwood at Victoria Park, keeping in mind the Magpies are yet to win a match this season. The Cats are also slightly ahead of the Lions on percentage.
Predicted finish
Conference A: Adelaide, Fremantle, North Melbourne, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs.
Conference B: Carlton, Geelong, Brisbane, Collingwood, GWS.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

AFL WOMEN’S Power Rankings: Round 5 2019

The 2017 premiers the Adelaide Crows are B.I.T. (Back. In. Town.)

In 2017, the Adelaide Crows – led by their star trio of Erin Phillips, Chelsea Randall, and Ebony Marinoff – won the first-ever AFLW premiership. In 2018 however the Crows slumped to fifth. Erin Phillips, who was the 2017 AFLW best and fairest, was hampered by injury, missing two matches and spending more time forward when she was on the ground. More generally, Adelaide got less of the ball and got it forward to score less often, falling from second to seventh in average disposals, and from first to fifth in both average points and inside 50s (see table below).

The Crows are back to what they were good at, and much more besides

After a narrow first-up loss to the Bulldogs, where the Crows’ inaccuracy in front of goal cost them, Adelaide has powered through the league. In particular, in their past two weeks they have thrashed fellow finals contenders Fremantle by 42 points and North Melbourne by 35 points.

As they did in 2017, the Crows again rank first for average points, inside 50s, kicks, contested possessions, and marks inside 50 (see table above). The more remarkable aspect of their return to form however is their embrace of the art of handball. Adelaide have more than doubled their average number of handballs from last year, skyrocketing into first place on average handballs and disposals. They also now lead the league in uncontested possessions, after ranking only seventh in the previous two years.

Furthermore, the Crows are winning out in the clearances, and particularly the centre clearances. In general good teams are better at gaining possession through intercepts than through forcing and winning stoppages (think Richmond in the men’s league last year), but Adelaide is turning that guideline on its head. They have been fairly average at intercepts this year, and North Melbourne got nine more intercepts in their game on the weekend. It didn’t matter; the Crows forced the Roos into many more stoppages and blew them apart there instead.

Re-defining roles: The ex-basketballers, and Stevie-Lee

When a team improves this much across several statistical categories, it’s less likely to be down to the improvement of a few individuals. Nevertheless there are some players whose changed contributions are worth highlighting.

Last year Anne Hatchard played just four matches, and averaged the least minutes per game of any Adelaide player. This year she leads the entire league in handballs. By a lot. Hatchard is averaging over 13 handballs, four more per game than the next best player. (Marinoff is fourth, and has more than doubled her handballs per game.)

Another former basketballer Erin Phillips went last year from the best player in the league to merely the best midfielder-forward. This year, fully fit, she has been thrown back into the middle, where she has been a 5-foot-9 battering ram at the centre bounces. Fremantle’s Dana Hooker aside, Phillips has 70 per cent more centre clearances than anyone else. She’s also once again averaging over 20 disposals per game – after averaging just 12 in 2018 – while being among the leading goalkickers.

Speaking of goals, the unlikely leading goalkicker at this stage of the season is Stevie-Lee Thompson, with nine goals. Thompson played as a defender during her first two years, but the switch forward for her has worked wonders, as she has kicked two or more goals in three out of the five games. With her average disposal and mark count it’s not clear she’ll been able to sustain it, but so far it’s helped to make Adelaide’s attack effective again.

What has caused this massive turnaround? Is it the work of new coach Matthew Clarke, himself a proponent of height and handballs? Whatever it is, the Crows are ‘back in town’ and looking like perhaps the strongest team in the competition’s history.

(Just so you know, the rankings aren’t actually saying below that Adelaide is 100 per cent certain to beat GWS next week. Their estimated winning probability is actually 99.6 per cent.)