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.