Sunday, July 28, 2019

AFL Power Rankings: Round 19 2019

The Brisbane Lions have been near the top of the ladder for most of the season, but it is their recent form that has made them a premiership contender.

From ‘cellar dweller’ to top four

If you are reading this, you probably already know that the Brisbane Lions have jumped up the ladder in 2019. In 2018 the Lions had only five wins and finished fifteenth. In 2019, as of the end of Round 19, they have twelve wins and are in third. No team has moved up nearly as much as the Lions have this season.

If you look a bit closer at the Lions’ results in 2018, they were actually better than their five wins would suggest. Their percentage was 89.1, a fair bit better than five of the teams in 2018. Their average net margin, adjusted for estimated home ground advantage and opponent strength, was ‑11 (see chart above); certainly below average, but not horrible. The Lions’ poor win-loss record in 2018 in part came from them winning only one out of their six games decided by less than seven points. A team with their performances would normally be expected to win between eight and nine games.

The Brisbane Lions were therefore expected by many analysts to improve. Few expected them to improve by quite this much though. Outside of their ‘purple patch’ in Rounds 15 to 17 last year, they still were one of the weaker teams. But just a few rounds out from the end of the home-and-away season this year, the Lions are suddenly a premiership contender.

Bolstered by the fixture, boosted by a burst of form

A few weeks ago, this blog – like many others – did not yet consider Brisbane as one of the main premiership contenders, despite the Lions sitting in the top four at the time. These rankings had them as the ninth-best side, even though they had been outside the top eight after only one round all season.

Over the first half of the season, however, Brisbane had arguably only been slightly above average. From Rounds 1 to 12, their average adjusted net margin was only +3 (see chart below). The Lions’ record up to then has been somewhat bolstered by a ‘friendly’ fixture. They have yet to play Geelong or Richmond, and they didn’t play GWS until Round 16. They played West Coast and Collingwood at home – impressively beating the former, and getting well-beaten by the latter. They were well-beaten by Essendon. They lost to Carlton in Round 12. Brisbane had certainly improved, but they had been helped a bit by beating the ‘lesser’ teams.

In their past six matches though, the Lions have hit the stratosphere. Their average adjusted net margin in that time has shot up to +33 (see chart above). They easily beat St. Kilda and Melbourne in Rounds 14 and 15. They beat GWS away in Round 16. They smashed Port Adelaide away in Round 17. They had a close win against North Melbourne in Round 18, but registered 12 more scoring shots. Then on the weekend they comfortably beat Hawthorn in Tasmania.

Brisbane is now fifth on the rankings, with two goals worth of ranking points, and they are less than a goal from top spot. In a year without a strong team, the Lions are now a genuine ‘premiership contender’.

Bolstered by the midfield recruits

After the 2018 season, Brisbane lost former captain Dayne Beams to Collingwood. They did however manage to get star midfielder Lachie Neale from Fremantle. They also recruited Jarryd Lyons, who was amazingly delisted by the Gold Coast Suns despite being arguably their most productive player.

The Lions have significantly improved this year in terms of contested possessions, clearances, and inside 50s (see table below). Their midfield recruits have led to some of this improvement. Despite being far less heralded than Beams, Lyons has basically replaced his production. Meanwhile, Lachie Neale – who is fourth in the league in contested possessions per game, and second in clearances – is a massive upgrade on the Lions’ next best midfielder, Tom Cutler. Neale and Cutler play different roles, but Neale’s arrival has led to some reshuffling of roles for other players like Mitch Robinson, who offers more than Cutler did. Some of Cutler’s production on the outside has also been made up by the major improvement of Hugh McCluggage, who has been one of the best wingmen in the league this year.

Again, one might have expected some improvement in Brisbane’s midfield this year, but probably not to this extent. We will see if it can hold up through the months of August and September.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

AFL Power Rankings: Round 18 2019

Carlton has become the second team this season to significantly improve after a change of coach.

A few weeks ago, this blog showed how much North Melbourne had improved after its coach Brad Scott left, and was replaced by Rhyce Shaw. Another team replaced its coach this year when, after its Round 11 loss, Carlton sacked its fourth-year coach Brendon Bolton. Carlton had been awful in 2018 and in the first 11 rounds of 2019, winning just three matches in that span. Like the Kangaroos, Carlton named a ‘caretaker’ coach – David Teague – for the rest of the season.

Carlton’s transformation in its six matches since has been about as dramatic as that of the Shaw-led Roos. The Blues have won four out of those six matches, and lost the other two matches by less than a goal. While Brisbane is the only team they have played in that stretch that is in the top eight, being able to beat the lower sides is still a major improvement compared to where they were at. Even after adjusting for the strength of their opponents, Carlton has performed more like a side that is about average (see chart below).

Teams scored on average over 100 points a game against Carlton last season. In the Blues’ two most recent losses, the other team has also scored over 100 points. In their four wins however their opponents have scored no more than 75 points. Also, except for against Gold Coast, Carlton has had more inside 50s than their opponents in all of those wins.

The improvement in form could be attributed to the development of a young side. Actually though, it is probably more that the ‘older’ players have performed better. Ed Curnow (29 years old) and Marc Murphy (31 years old) have upped their contested possession count in recent weeks. Matthew Kreuzer (30), Kade Simpson (35), Levi Casboult (29), Liam Jones (28), and Nic Newman (26) have also been important to the turnaround. By using this mature core well, Teague now has the makings of a half-decent side.

An article on the ABC News site last week showed that being an AFL coach is actually a relatively secure professional coaching job. Does the improvement in North Melbourne and Carlton this season suggest that clubs should look at changing coaches more often? Should St. Kilda – also winners on the weekend – expect some improvement now that it has parted ways with its coach Alan Richardson? The cost of an expensive pay out aside, it is not clear that, on average, changing a coach or manager leads to any more improvement than if the incumbent had stayed on.

Carlton though was in the position where things could not have been much worse. David Teague has at least given the Blues some definite improvement in the short-term; whether this translates to improvement in the long-term remains to be seen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

AFL Power Rankings: Round 16 2019

Of the main premiership contenders West Coast is in good form, Collingwood has fallen out of form, Geelong and GWS may be stuttering slightly, and we are still getting a handle on a ‘full-strength’ Richmond.

A premiership race in five, that became three, is five again

About nine or ten rounds into the 2019 AFL season there seemed to be five main premiership contenders: reigning premiers West Coast, 2017 premiers Richmond, and ladder leaders Geelong, Collingwood, and Greater Western Sydney.

Then in Round 12 it seemed more like a ‘race in three’. An injury-depleted Tigers got destroyed by Geelong, West Coast were well beaten (by Sydney), and Collingwood had a strong win in the Queen’s Birthday match.

Move forward to Round 16, and West Coast and Richmond are considered among the leading flag contenders again. Both won by over 90 points on the weekend. With TAB, the Eagles and Tigers – along with Geelong, GWS, and Collingwood – are shorter than $10 to win the premiership, and no other team is shorter than $20.

West Coast is rising, Collingwood is falling, and we are not clear about the Tigers

Of the five main premiership contenders, West Coast seems to currently be in the best form. Its average net margin over its past five matches, adjusted for estimated home ground advantage and opponent strength, is +26 (see chart below), even better than Geelong’s +18. The Eagles did get somewhat lucky by the Dockers scoring only two goals from 21 scoring shots on the weekend. On the other hand, the Eagles scored only 14 goals from 36 scoring shots against Essendon two weeks before.

Collingwood has been a below average team over its past five matches. The Magpies have lost to North Melbourne, Hawthorn, and Fremantle, and had a narrow win against the Bulldogs. It may be just a temporary slump, or it may be that their ‘peak’ ends up having been the 2018 finals, and the first few rounds of 2019.

Richmond has been a below average team over its past five matches as well. The Tigers had three fairly horrid losses in that stretch against North Melbourne, Geelong, and Adelaide. After their bye though they had several of their best players return, and have performed more like the strong side we saw in late-2017 and 2018. Richmond’s average net margin over its past three matches – even adjusted for the weakness of its past two opponents – is +24 (see chart below).

Meanwhile Geelong has lost two of its past three matches, and has a three-round average adjusted net margin of just +1. GWS has also lost two of its past three, and its three-round average is +3.

Before its recent drop in form though the Cats did clobber Richmond, and are still easily the highest-ranked team. They may be stuttering a little, but if I had to name the team I thought was most likely to win the 2019 premiership, Geelong would be it.

Monday, July 1, 2019

AFL Power Rankings: Round 15 2019

North Melbourne has improved its performances considerably in the four matches since Rhyce Shaw became coach, but it is not quite the season’s most ‘out of the box’ month-long stretch.

From Brad Scott to Rhyce Shaw and upwards

Around the time of North Melbourne’s Round 10 match against the Western Bulldogs, coach Brad Scott – the team’s coach for almost a decade – decided to leave the club mid-season. Despite their win against the Dogs, the Kangaroos at the time had only three wins from ten matches. Following Scott’s departure assistant coach Rhyce Shaw was named as the ‘caretaker’ for the rest of the season.

Since Shaw’s appointment, North Melbourne has gone from a below average team to one of the league’s better sides. It has beaten two of last year’s top four teams – Richmond and Collingwood – by around 40 points each. It also comfortably beat the Gold Coast Suns, with its only loss coming to GWS. The Kangaroos have surged on the rankings, gaining two goals worth of ranking points, and jumping from fourteenth to seventh.

This turnaround must be due to Rhyce Shaw, right? Give him the permanent coaching gig! Well, it could be the case that Shaw’s coaching is largely responsible for turning the Kangaroos’ performances around. But four-week stretches such as these, where a team performs significantly better than it has done for the rest of the season, are not unheard of.

The Kangaroos’ hot form is unusual, but not overly so

North Melbourne’s recent jump in form, compared to its overall performances for the season, is arguably not even the ‘hottest’ four-round stretch this season. Based on my adjusted net margins, that could be St. Kilda during Rounds 2 to 5 (see table below).

The Saints were not as good as North have been, but compared to their overall season form (not great) it was a pretty good stretch. They beat Melbourne easily, beat Essendon and Hawthorn, and came within a goal of beating Fremantle playing away. Since that stretch though, sixth-year coach Alan Richardson has come under ever-increasing media scrutiny about his job security.

Essendon also had a similarly improved stretch during Rounds 3 to 6, when they thrashed North Melbourne and Brisbane, beat Melbourne, and almost beat Collingwood. Their coach, John Worsfold, is in his fourth year at the club. And the other team I rate as having a big jump in form is Sydney during their recent climb up the ladder, with a coach – rumoured Kangaroos coaching target John Longmire – that has been in charge for almost a decade.

In the end though, it’s not the improvement for North Melbourne that matters most, but the level that it is playing at. The Kangaroos’ average adjusted net margin over their past four matches is over four goals. If a Rhyce Shaw-led side can consistently play at that level, then North Melbourne should be more than happy with where they are at.