Thursday, May 18, 2017

Correlation, or, Causation

"We went into the game knowing what to expect and couldn’t execute… I’m really clear on why it happened, and we are as a coaching group.”

"There's clear things in our game that we need to improve… We’ve got ideas on what’s happening; why is much more complex and harder question to answer.”

“That’s what we’re asking ourselves… We’re really clear internally about what we need to do to fix it.”

The above quotes are from Chris Scott’s last three post-game press conferences, in which he’s essentially said the same thing three times after each loss: ‘it’s not my fault’.

If we take Scott’s quotes at face value, the Cats game plan is sound but the execution of it is not. That leaves us with two troubling options:

1) The players are choosing not to follow the game plan

2) The players are incapable of following the game plan

The first is a question of effort and motivation, the second of ability. Hold that thought.

Another Scott quote: “If we’d said, 'For the first eight games we’re not going to play at home once and we’ll go into our first (home) game 5-3 and fifth on the ladder,' I don’t think we’d be distraught.”

This is big- picture perspective, something rarely heard from coaches unless they’re spinning a basketball on their finger and outlining a 5-year plan. What it does is put the loss (or three losses) into the context of its value to the season, that is, 4 points and 4 points only. However, those weeks add up to ladder position, home field advantage, and eventually a coach’s livelihood. So despite us not hearing it very often, it is pretty clear why it would be on his, and any coach’s, mind.

One more Scott quote: “We can’t talk even what we were four or five weeks ago. We need to talk about what we are now."

This quote almost contradicts the previous one. It seeks to remove context, to sever the narrative connecting the round 4 Cats, who pumped arch-rival Hawthorn, with the round 9 Cats, who got their asses handed to them by Essendon. It reverts back to a more traditional “one week a time” type of thinking, where everything is process and method in the present tense.

So which line of thinking should we believe? Is Scott just covering all bases, telling us what we want to hear? Are all wins weighted equally, or do we need to account for opponent, for style, for circumstance? Is this Geelong team lacking concentration or basic skills? Are the Cats bad or just going through a bad patch? Would a rose by any other name slip out the back of Geelong’s defensive zone and waltz into an open goal?

A quick look around the league, and the perspective Scott alluded to, is helpful here – Adelaide, West Coast, Port Adelaide, Melbourne, Freo, and Collingwood have all done the Jekyll & Hyde routine this year. And I surely don’t need to mention Richmond, who appear to permanently exist in this state. Hawthorn and Sydney, the two powerhouses of the last few years, have seemingly hit the wall, and GWS are current flag favourites because the TAB can’t find anyone else.

So part of Geelong’s struggle for consistency is just part of a healthy, competitive AFL – there are always two teams out there, both professional, with similar levels of game planning and coaching and training and medical science behind them. Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you. It happens.

But the other, more worrying part of the equation, what Scott is referring to in the opening quotes I used, the part that would put the Cats squarely in the ‘incapable of executing the game plan’ category, is that they simply may not be good enough.

Who, in the current Geelong line-up, would have earned a place in the 2011 Cats team? Dangerfield is the only certainty. Motlop and Menzel, maybe. Bews, Stewart, Horlin-Smith, Lang, Murdoch, Blicavs, Cowan, Smith, Parsons – that’s nine players, half of the team, who have been regularly selected this year that wouldn’t have gotten near the playing field. Taylor, Lonergan and Mackie all played in the 2011 premiership, and are still key players almost 6 years later. Duncan has improved and Selwood is Selwood but the rest have stagnated, gone backwards, or can’t get on the park.

The Cats haven’t found a number 1 ruck since Ottens, haven’t found key forward support for Tom Hawkins since Podsy, have almost zero outside run and carry, and currently have a medical room made up exclusively of small forwards, i.e., the players that exude pressure on the opposition as they come out of defense; is it any surprise they’ve been caught out on the rebound the past few weeks?

It is worth noting that Geelong have been “up” since the fucking Brisbane 3-peat years. During that time several teams, including the Dogs and Saints, have gone through at least two rebuilds, the Hawks bottomed out, bounced up, and are bottoming out again, and two new teams joined the competition, taking with them seemingly half the top draft picks every year.

Meanwhile Geelong have missed the finals only twice since 2004, resulting in only two picks inside the top 15 in the past 13 years; Joel Selwood and Nakia Cockatoo. With limited access to top level talent The Cats have been forced to cast their recruiting net wider and wider; rolling the dice with re-treads such as Smith and Stanley, persisting with steeple-runner Blicavs, as well as debuting VFL recruit Stewart and Irish convert O’Connor. Perhaps it is finally catching up with them, a market correction after years of unsustainable success.

At the moment the Cats appear to lack confidence, composure with the ball, are making basic skill errors, and appear to be out of position far too often. Anyone who has played rec league basketball knows, if one player can’t grasp the team concept, or zone, or ‘structure’, you stop trusting them, which leads to indecision, players hedging, players trying to do too much, and a complete breakdown of the team concept – which can then manifest as lack of effort.

We don’t know what is being asked of these players, nor if what is being asked is beyond the talents of the current playing group, but marrying those two concepts, finding a strategy that suits the personnel you have, putting people in a position to be successful, is the key element of leadership: Ensuring the effort is there, giving young guys confidence, teaching recruits how to execute the game plan, improving the fundamental skills of inexperienced players; these are all functions of coaching.

Chris Scott has repeatedly told us he knows what the problem is; it’s time to show us he can fix it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Missing Tricks with Mr Blitz

I can’t help but think Geelong has missed a trick with Mark Blicavs. Or rather they saw the trick, learned the trick, and then pretended the trick didn’t happen. This is the same kind of thinking that leads to Hollywood making “Now You See it”, a movie about magicians, which removes all the stakes of magic to begin with – a movie is essentially magic – and then doubles down by producing a sequel that, impossibly, wasn’t called “Now You Don’t”. But I digress. Enough clunky metaphor. Facts: Geelong took a former Olympic level steeple-chaser and turned him into a best and fairest winning ruckman in 2 years. In the following two years they took a best and fairest winning ruckman and turned him into an average wing/defensive midfielder maybe…?

How highly should we value ruckmen? The Western Bulldogs just won a flag playing Jordan “not Jarryd” Roughead in the ruck, who was backed up by million dollar forward Tom Boyd. Their opponents on the day, Sydney, ran a similar set-up with Sam “who?” Naismith and million dollar forward Kurt Tippett. On the flip side, the 2000s Cats were clearly better once Brad Ottens was moved into the middle full-time; one could argue he was the key piece of the premiership line-ups. The cat has been skun several ways; Grant Thomas had a pretty successful run at St Kilda and refused to play any ruckmen at all. But he also ate nothing but walnuts and has 15 kids, so who knows.

With ruckmen, as with most things in life, there appears to be no hard and fast rule. Or, rather, the rule is this – “if you have a great ruckman, play him, but there aren’t many great ruckmen so maybe just make do with guys who are good in other areas and I think you’ll be fine”. Sure, it’s not catchy as the categorical imperative, but it’s accurate. To wit; the following is a list of 2016’s top ten ruckmen, according to Champion Data:

1. Nic Naitanui (West Coast)
2. Todd Goldstein (North Melbourne)
3. Max Gawn (Melbourne)
4. Aaron Sandilands (Fremantle)
5. Shane Mumford (GWS Giants)
6. Sam Jacobs (Adelaide)
7. Kurt Tippett (Sydney)
8. Patrick Ryder (Port Adelaide)
9. Ivan Maric (Richmond)
10. Tom Nicholls (Gold Coast)

I mean, look at that list. There are basically 5 good rucks in the entire league. Paddy Ryder came in eighth and he didn’t even fucking play in 2016. How far down that list do you go until you see Jordan Roughead? How far down for Zac Smith, or Rhys Stanley? How far down does it stop being relevant?

With Smith and Stanley in the 22, Blitz is being selected as a legitimate midfielder, a role that becomes hard to to justify when it's keeping Darcy Lang or Nakia Cockatoo or Brandan Parfitt out of the 22 - and becomes impossible to justify when he previously won the Geelong best and fairest playing as a ruckman. 

He's not a no. 1 ruck, he's not an A-grade midfielder, and he's not a key position player. But he is a perfect modern day utility who can fill gaps anywhere on the field and allow you to select another midfielder each week. With the way the sport is evolving, and with bench rotations being more heavily limited, Blitz’s versatility is a massive advantage The Geelong Football Club are failing to exploit. And it’s unclear why. I mean, they already know the trick works.