The Race for the Eight is tightening up, and the Dogs are on a surge

Over the last 7 weeks HPN has been tracking the fortunes of teams using our Team Ratings, and some early trends appear to be emerging. But before we get to them, lets look at how the ratings sit after 9 weeks of footy:

Round 9 ratings

For the second week in a row, Port Adelaide hold the top spot on the HPN Ratings, just a sliver ahead of cross-town rivals Adelaide. GWS sit on their own between the surging top two, and the cluster of 11 teams below. After their bad loss to Essendon, West Coast have lost a lot of ground, with their midfield rating a particular concern at this point of the season. While their much vaunted attack has largely lived up to expectations from the opportunities obtained, and their defence is performing above league average against the amount of ball they’ve had to defend, their midfield threatens to sink their hopes of playing in late September.

(Bear in mind of course that these are average measures, meaning both home and away games, and therefore can’t account for the weird space-time inversion that apparently befalls West Coast when they play in Melbourne.)

The Eagles currently sit in the bottom third of the league in their ratio of clearances to opponent clearances, and inside-50s to opponent inside-50s. Most of their companions in the lower range for these measures don’t look like finalists at this stage:

WCClearrd9

The addition of Sam Mitchell doesn’t seem to have helped in at least these measures of midfield ability. The West Coast will be hoping that the easy answer for their issues is that they are an away thing, but their average midfield output over the year (regardless of venue) hasn’t looked that good. There’s still plenty of time to go in the season, but the signs aren’t so good at this stage.

St Kilda also took a big step back last week after threatening to cement a spot in the top 8 of the HPN Ratings. Without Josh Bruce (who kicked 6 goals in the last 3 weeks prior to being dropped), St Kilda’s forward line seemed to lack in targets inside-50, and the Swans were able to reel in 18 marks inside 50 to the Saints’ 6 in perfect conditions.

Much has been made of Paddy McCartin’s development, or lack thereof, but McCartin is only barely 21 years old and is an undersized key forward. He was always unlikely to dominate in a game where Riewoldt and Membrey also had limited influence. Most KPFs take a little bit of time to get up to speed, and his form in the VFL has been very encouraging. Bruce is perhaps still the Saints’  better third option up forward right now, but McCartin’s time will very likely come.

On the flip side of the coin, Fremantle were the biggest movers up last week, beating a weakish Carlton after a slow start this week. The HPN Ratings are much more pessimistic on Fremantle than the AFL ladder, and intuitively we probably all understand that three wins by less than a goal leaves a club’s win-loss record flattering them a little. However, it is clear that they are on the way back up after a very poor 2016.

Form Guide rd9

Over the last seven weeks the Dockers are the biggest movers up our ratings, a touch ahead of the Bulldogs. It’s taken some time for the Fremantle’s new additions to fit into Ross Lyon’s system, but it appears they are loosely in the mix for the bottom end of the eight.

The other team mentioned above, the Bulldogs, are seemingly starting to hit some form. Last year the Bulldogs turned an okay season into a surprising premiership, and there was then much conjecture around which Bulldogs side would show up in 2017. For the first month the answer was neither, as the Dogs side out on the park looked like it would struggle to make the finals. However, over the last month or so the Dogs have settled as players have re-integrated into their best 22, and finals footy seems to be their destiny if the progress continues. And if the Bulldogs make the finals anything can happen, as last year shows.

Movement Graph.JPG

The two sides that have dropped the most are the Tigers and the Lions – and both are somewhat expected.

Richmond got off to the hottest of starts, with their defence a force of nature early on. Since then the Tigers have been merely good around the ground – still firmly in the mix for finals, but probably not the top two or perhaps even four. As per our earlier table, the Tigers struggle to win clearances – not a debilitating issue, but potentially a problem. The Richmond forward line has also shown that it hasn’t quite learned how to get their large amount of inside fifty entries to count on the scoreboard, with the forward line perhaps looking the most deadly when Martin (13 goals, 12 behinds, 10 assists, 53 inside-50s) floats up.

The Lions, by contrast, are pretty good with respect to winning clearances and pretty terrible at turning them into inside 50 entries. When they do get the ball up forward, Brisbane are less efficient that the average team in converting into points. The Lions are also terrible at stopping opponents from scoring from inside-50 opportunities, conceding at the highest rate per inside-50 entry of any team in the league. The Lions are young, and it might get better for them as the season progresses, but it doesn’t look good right now. It looks bad. Real bad.

The 2017 AFL season is really, really good, so why are we being distracted from it?

It may be a bold opening statement, but we will use it anyway: this early AFL season is the most compelling one that HPN can remember in our footy watching days. No side is invincible, no side utterly hopeless (Brisbane aren’t utterly hopeless).

The early season favourites in Adelaide were just convincingly beaten two weeks in a row by sides with gameplans to counter them but who may not make the finals. The presumptive pre-season premiership favourites (or PPPFs), GWS, have an injury list that stretches for days and are being exposed by other strong midfields.

Geelong are extraordinarily top-heavy with Dangerfield, Selwood and Duncan leading the way; Melbourne without Gawn are perhaps lacking in star power, with Cam Pedersen (?!?) currently one of their most important players. Sydney forgot how to play Australian Football for the first six weeks of the year and have maybe remembered too late. And who knows if the Bulldogs are any good? We sure don’t.

On an individual basis, we are seeing the rare resurgence of an injured star over 30 (Ablett), and the emergence from the clouds of a young player as perhaps the best in the league through two months (Sloane). The spread and depth of talent across the league is impressive right now, and with much of that talent being young it will only keep moving this way.

This season has shown that any team can beat any other, and the race for the finals is truly up in the air.

The HPN Ratings for the week reflect this.

Round 8 ratings

Port Adelaide have leapfrogged their local rival into first in the rankings, driven by their stellar midfield and inexplicably stingy defence. Port’s midfield is particularly well rounded, with the inside grunt provided by Wines, Ebert and Powell-Pepper tempered by the run and creativity of Wingard, Wines, Gray and Polec. Ryder and Trengove have proven to be a ruck combination that provides more value around the ground than any potential losses in raw hitouts, and they never fail to provide a solid contest under the ball.

Melbourne’s impressive win over Adelaide vaulted them up the standings, with the Demons looking remarkably well balanced through the eight weeks to date. The issue for the Dees remains consistency of effort from week to week, and the ability to cover for significant outs, such as Hogan and Gawn.

At the other end of the scale, North Melbourne looked very ordinary last week in backing up from their own win over the Crows. North is a relatively unknown quantity in 2017, with their best performances (such as in the GWS and Adelaide games) worlds away from their worst. They aren’t totally out of finals contention yet, but a loss this week to Melbourne will severely dent their hopes.

However, none of these things have been the major AFL media topics this week.


 

Distraction is a critical part of any PR armoury – using a thought provoking issue or proposal to distract away from any bad news. The NRL has State Of Origin for built into their schedule pretty much for this reason.

The AFL has been conditioned to handling near-permanent bad news stories since 2013, with the Essendon/ASADA scandal sucking up a massive amount of oxygen from the media and general footballing public. It’s easy to see how distraction, at least on a temporary basis, has formed a critical part of the AFL’s thinking.

The move to a 7-day-a-week, 50-ish-weeks-a-year media cycle hasn’t helped, with the easy distraction of “footy on the weekend” only covering a bit over half of that timeframe. As such, the AFL have become adept at tossing out hypothetical ideas for the public to discuss, helping to retain interest and to distract from negative off-field events. They’re also good at dropping bad news at the end of a given cycle, after newspaper and TV news deadlines. This isn’t uniquely mischievous – just smart media gatekeeping by a huge and powerful organisation.

And in an extremely critical reading of the week’s events, that’s what the AFL has attempted here. Last weekend former number 2 draft pick and injured but currently listed Fremantle player Harley Bennell wandered onto a field of his reserves team to talk to his cousin, and was promptly removed by club staff. This event came about a month after his refusal by airline staff to board a flight due to perceived drunkenness.

This, by most standards, is a “negative issue” and could therefore benefit from a reset of the media narrative, along with the racist “banter” on “The Bounce“. What the AFL appears to have done is to reset the narrative using their “off-season” playbook by floating thought bubbles, and not using their “mid-season” one which generally involves returning to focus on footy. These really should be two separate ways of handling PR issues.

The floating of stupid fixturing ideas – and to repeat, they are stupid ideas, and we will discuss in more depth in coming weeks why they are so very stupid – has almost completely removed any focus on Bennell or Danny Frawley, but also almost any other football issue including the week of footy ahead.

(Incidentally, you’re never going to make the fixture fair until there’s four more teams or a shorter season, but more on that another day.)

According to Matt Cowgill at ESPN (and The Arc) eleven sides have at least a one-in-four shot at finals footy, with only one sitting in a near-hopeless position. Even Carlton, should they upend Fremantle and North, will have about a 15% chance of September action. No team should feel secure right now, and no fan really has an excuse to not watch the weekend ahead.

The AFL should focus on getting that message out instead.

Shanghai isn’t an AFL expansion attempt – it’s much more interesting than that

When Port Adelaide announced last year that it had struck a three year “partnership” with Chinese business, the dominant reaction was probably confusion or derision. With a game now having been played for premiership points in Shanghai, now is a good time to try to get to grips with what exactly is going on.

While expansionism is often at the forefront of the minds of many ambitious footy fans who are keen to prove that the Australian game is the best game in the world, a much simpler answer is likely afoot: soft political power and raw cash.

A brief history of the AFL in China

The AFL-China linkage hasn’t come out of thin air. The idea of connecting foreign sports with Chinese money and audiences has been around for a while. Those with a long memory may recall that in 2010, China-linked Russian company Kaspersky paid Melbourne $300k to play a preseason game in Shanghai. Woodside, a then-Fremantle sponsor who export gas to China, also came on board as a sponsor of the game.

China’s history with the game before then was minimal, with the first local amateur championship played in Beijing in 2009 – just a year before the Melbourne-Brisbane preseason game. Since the mid 1990s, local leagues and Auskick programs (with some limited AFL support) have been springing up across the country – but on a relatively small scale to other international sporting programs in China. China had the 15th strongest national team at the 2014 International Cup, a standing that has not changed much since their first entry in 2008.

The AFL has long nurtured dreams of substantive international expansion, but they’re not naïve enough to think it starts with spending a lot of money to play games in China. As best as our research shows, the AFL isn’t footing much of the bill in China, and even groups like Tourism Australia have kicked in. The South Australian Government has even contributed $250,000 for a 25-part TV show on AFL for the Chinese market. For Port Adelaide, six staff members are listed as currently working in their “China and Government Relations” division – a substantial investment commensurate with the financial gain they are obtaining from the project.

Broadly it could be said AFL ventures overseas have three interests – financial gain, intergovernmental relations, and actual expansion of the sport. Initiatives like playing games in New Zealand and drafting from the United States seem to be far more serious ventures for expanding the reach of the sport. Those things are really what international expansion means to the AFL right now, not so much Port Adelaide playing in Shanghai.

Who is Shanghai CRED?

This deal certainly isn’t an isolated or random measure for the Chinese partner, Shanghai CRED. They are a real estate company with about $3 billion AUD in assets, led by a billionaire named Gui Goujie who is described in at least one article we’ve read as “affable”. Shanghai CRED seems to be a private company that used to be a state agency. Like many business elites Gui is embedded in the government establishment. He sits on the Shanghai committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and “has been assigned by the Chinese government a major role in linking state and private companies, and in building Chinese investments overseas.”

Make no mistake that this sort of philanthropic engagement by expansionist Chinese business interests has official blessing. Many private businesses are of course closely linked with the state in China, and the Premier of China himself attended a game with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this year, during an extended Australian visit.

The company has a lot of other interests in Australia and elsewhere in the western world such as New Zealand and China. Last year Shanghai CRED was a minority partner with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting in a joint venture bid to take over large swathes of S. Kidman and Co. cattle group land across Australia, a move approved by the Treasurer Scott Morrison in December 2016, after earlier bids by other foreign interests were rejected. Rinehart, naturally, attended the match at Jiangwan Stadium yesterday.

The key thing to note here is that the Shanghai game happened because of sponsorship of Port Adelaide by Shanghai CRED, and other firms to a much lesser degree. The money is substantial in AFL terms – reportedly worth $6 million in new revenue so far with more expected – but a rounding error compared to a major agricultural property deal or CRED’s $3bn asset portfolio.

The AFL as subject, not object

There’s been a lot of pretty funny press around the match, rather justifiably making the AFL and its teams look like absolute rubes in over their heads. From Port’s captain Travis Boak being roundly mocked for claiming to be the first western pro sport to play for points in China…

…to the truly weird spectacle of the Age’s photographer chucking a murky yellow filter over their photos, making them look smoggy…

…to antiquated racist jokes on Fox Footy, and the reporting of the Suns bravely surviving minor flight delays, it’s all been a bit of a cringe-fest as a resolutely local sport discovers the joys of long haul international play.

The amateurishness, the ill-preparedness, the earnestness, the boorishness, all make a lot more sense when you realise that the push isn’t really being led by the AFL or its clubs, regardless of how they like to spin things. The AFL are very much the acted-upon party here, offered a bunch of free money in exchange for the chance to showcase their product and, most importantly, to build local links and a better image for Chinese businesses. We’re not used to thinking of the AFL – locally imperious and powerful – as a passive subject going along with other people’s plans, but that’s what’s happening here.

So Sunday’s game is probably not a hubristic attempt by a major sporting body in Australia to expand its game into foreign markets, and they’re not about to be smacked down by the cold hard reality of world indifference. The adventure is easy to mock, but there’s not much AFL investment and there’s little risk here. Port have made millions off this deal. They don’t really need to suddenly develop Shanghai into a Canberra or Launceston-style second home. Their financial rewards are upfront and concrete.

The game was a success when it was played without significant incident, and when the cheques cleared the bank.

Sport diplomacy to support the ‘Peaceful Rise’

This event is best read within the context of Chinese policy of smoothing a “peaceful rise” towards superpower status and everything that entails. The AFL and Port are the lucky recipient of a downpayment of goodwill and trust-building by the business interests of a huge and rising foreign power.

It is a small component of a much broader policy. The foremost example of Chinese soft power through sport is of course in the Global Game, where the state has plans for China to become very good at soccer and invest in other countries’ leagues  in order to improve its image and create a conduit for connecting with other countries’ cultures. But a parallel logic applies here, too.

China is a rising superpower, keenly aware of the potential conflicts its expansion could cause. It is interested in deepening its foreign ties to guarantee its economic interests. Part of the way to manage this rise is by establishing networks of linkages with other countries’ business, government and cultural elites in order to increase understanding, trust and reciprocal obligations. Gui and his company are an example of this; he is a business elite with political connections running a former state asset. Gui is tasked with engaging overseas in order to expand and facilitate his business and country’s investments.

This push makes perfect sense – American soft power is no doubt what China would like to emulate. Think about it. American culture is enmeshed everywhere in Australia and elsewhere around the world, and that enmeshment tends to make American business and policy interests very intelligible and more acceptable to others. We all know roughly what Americans think, what their government is like, what their culture is like. Chinese diplomats and businesses would love to achieve that sort of normalisation in the minds of others.

Initiatives like the Port Adelaide one make sense in this context. Connecting Chinese commercial interests with local sporting competitions – the logic runs – will surely increase Australian familiarity with China and make us more inclined to view Chinese economic power benignly. They hope it can make Australian governments more familiar and friendly with China, and reduce the political cost of policy concessions to Chinese interests. Ultimately, the hope is more cultural linkage would make Australian governments less likely to block future asset sales out of fear of bad publicity.

At the end of the day, we’re a football blog, not a foreign policy or business blog. All we’re really suggesting here is that we should view the Shanghai experiment through the correct lens. That is: the AFL and Port Adelaide are a slightly bewildered and certainly eager vessel for diplomatic exchange. Meanwhile, Shanghai CRED (and perhaps the wider Chinese political machine) wants Australian trust and goodwill because they hope that will make their own interests easier to pursue. At least one major Chinese business with political links sees our most-attended sport as a tool to help with this goal.

Who are the Kings of Style of the 2017 AFL season?

This week’s post features a contribution from the excellent Figuring Footy, aka Rob Younger. If you don’t already follow him/read his work, get around it ASAP!

After a weekend of big upsets, HPN thought we’d take a step back and reassess the league as it sits after seven weeks. With Adelaide finally registering their first loss, immediately after we talked them up, we currently sit at the spot that is (practically) inevitable each year; no team is invincible, and no side utterly hopeless.

Indeed, on the HPN Ratings even the outlying Crows have come back to the pack a little, with the previously mentioned long tail seeming even more pronounced.

Round 7 ratings

However, while we feel the ratings above are accurate reflections of the strengths and weaknesses of each side, they miss some of the colour of the play of teams. As such, we thought it appropriate that we look at the differing styles of each side in the season to date.

Richmond Are The Anti-Arsenal (they won’t let you walk it in)

Perhaps the most surprising side of the 2017 season has been Richmond, which joyously means that we won’t hear any shitty “9th again” jokes. Good riddance.

The catalyst for the Tigers’ resurgence hasn’t necessarily come in the front half of the ground, but instead in the back 50. Compared to last year’s Richmond outfit, the Tigers have turned into a defensive wall, especially close to goal.

We asked Friend Of The Program and all-around top stats guy Rob Younger from Figuring Footy for a way to show this.

Compared with 2016, the Tigers have conceded nearly 200 fewer points in the first seven rounds, and 141 fewer ExpScore points as well. Where the goal square and close corridor was a mess of shots in 2016 (27 across the first seven games), the Tigers have nailed that door shut this year, only conceding 12 shots with 10m of goal.

THEY. WON’T. LET. YOU. WALK. IT. IN.

Richmond also had an alright defence in 2015, albeit with a slightly different focus:

The Tigers have kept a slightly right-leaning focus of their defence. This could perhaps be a product of where the opposition feels comfortable leading, a conscious effort to push right-footers to their non-preferred side or maybe just teams avoiding where Alex Rance stands. Whatever the reason for the lopsidedness, the Tigers have pushed the opposition opportunities out significantly, and denied almost anything near goals. Adelaide was able to work out a solution when the two sides met, but no other side has found a real counter to date. If they can somehow keep this type of defence up, they will be in premiership contention later this year.

Queensland’s Matador Defence

During summer the Queensland Bulls often run riot over the short grass of the Gabba, but this season (and for the last three as well) their co-tenant the Lions have been playing the other half of the bullfighting equation.

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The Lions are currently last defensively as measured both by opposition scoring shots per inside-50 and by marks inside-50 per entry – both by a substantial margin. Their only real competition with respect to the former is the side that concedes the most goals per opposition inside 50 entry; their state-mates the Suns.

Both the Lions and the Suns have shown the ability to score in bunches this year, but when their midfield is beaten their respective back groups have been simply unable to keep the opposition at bay. Aggressive run and gun might be both sides’ only hope of victory, but it really hasn’t worked so far for the Lions in particular.

Kick First, Ask Questions Later

The kick v handball question is an old and nuanced issue. About a decade ago the pervasive thinking amongst football clubs moved from kicking where no other better option exists to looking for an extra handball to find a better target by foot.

As The Arc pointed out earlier this week, Carlton in 2017 is going a different way. The Blues are turning the clock back to a slightly happier time on Lygon Street.

CarlKick.JPG

Carlton have played like a team that doesn’t know how to spell the word handpass, let alone execute one (citation required). There’s often benefit to “zigging” when almost every other side “zags”, even if the move is one back to an older age of footy. The weather that Carlton has faced may have something to do with the figures so far (Carlton have been to the MCG five times and Etihad once), but as our dads might say “THAT’S HOW FOOTY USED TO BE PLAYED.”

For GWS, Everything Is A Clearance Sale

We don’t think every team puts equal stock in winning clearances. A won clearance can still easily result in a turnover from the subsequent possession, and lead to the ball being rebounded back the other way. Clearances aren’t a great midfield strength measure in isolation, as they don’t correlate terribly well across the competition with inside-50 ratios or even with, you know, winning.

Rd7I50Cl

Adelaide and Port Adelaide, for instance, are doing pretty well on the scoreboard and in generating a predominance of inside-50 opportunities despite being indifferent break-even clearance sides. Port in particular have a very high ratio of inside-50s to opponent inside-50s despite not winning clearances, suggesting an outside midfield game that is working well.

However, a very high clearance ratio in a good team probably suggests they regard it as a strength and a tactical tool. Such may be the case with GWS, whose clearance ratio is a league high 122% and whose dominant wins in 2017 all match with games where they destroyed their opponents in the clearance stakes. A lot of analysis of GWS focuses on the wave running they do with their powerful and skilled runners, and they seem able to achieve this out of stoppages at will if teams aren’t sufficiently careful.

The games where GWS didn’t win a disproportionate share of clearances were those where they looked mortal. They lost the clearance counts to Adelaide (by 1) and St Kilda (by 11) and only just topped the Bulldogs (by 2) in their close win. Elsewhere, they did what they pleased and won accordingly.

We don’t have access to score sources, but we’re willing to bet the Giants do very well scoring from stoppages. We’d also speculate that sides who can win clearances can trouble the Giants. That could include Collingwood this weekend (who incidentally have never lost to the Giants)

What Fremantle’s ruck dominance means

FreoHitouts

How do teams generate clearances? One obvious answer is by having a good ruckman. Fremantle, the side with the best ruckman, are also a good clearance-winning team. The top five sides for clearance ratios all also have positive hitout ratios (but not the other way around) which suggests rucks do still matter if you care about winning clearances.

Fremantle’s 115% clearance ratio is almost certainly partly a product of the towering presence of Aaron Sandilands. Gold Coast, GWS, Collingwood and Brisbane all also have pretty good primary ruckmen securing hitouts, and this may be part of what is translating into their relative clearance success. The Demons are a strange case which should probably be ignored for the moment – they’ve gone from having a really good ruckman to not really having one at all, so their season totals reflect both those situations.

This doesn’t mean that hitout domination necessarily translates linearly into midfield success, however. North Melbourne, for instance, are sixth in hitout differential, but lose the clearance counts on average. Fremantle are the key case study to what ruck dominance means. The Dockers themselves are generating more than two hitouts for every opponent hitout, which is an insane degree of dominance. But they’re also not translating those hitouts as efficiently into clearances as that might suggest.

The brute force effect of utterly dominating hitouts is only giving Freo a modest advantage in terms of winning the ball away from the area around a stoppage. This may suggest there is a saturation point of ruck dominance beyond which ruck contests get too predictable, and midfielders too evenly matched, to gain further advantage.

Is this an AFL season without terrible teams?

Last week we focused on the possibility that a lead group of between three and five teams was already separating itself from the pack. This week we want to look at the rest of the competition. There’s an evenness becoming evident this year, with a lot of ordinary sides, some of whom will make finals. Even the bottom teams don’t look as bad as the worst teams from many previous years. At this stage, there’s nobody who stands out as being abjectly terrible. There’s nobody currently rating as relatively lowly as the Bombers last year, the early years of GWS, or the hapless Melbourne sides of a few years ago. Subjectively, every bottom side has certainly shown patches of decent footy.

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This isn’t to say that nobody will implode or start truly tanking. The season is long, and there’s always the possibility that one or more of the current battlers go backwards from here. Alternatively, it could tighten up – but it’s worth noting that Essendon (the worst team last year) finished up at a rating of 86% after hovering around the 83%-86% mark all year. That 86% mark was good enough to be among the ten worst team-seasons since 1997.

The middle pack

With Melbourne still looking above-average, the six teams below them continue to jostle and perhaps to separate a touch from the lower group. Collingwood (up 4 places) and North Melbourne (down 4) were the biggest movers, but really, the spread between West Coast (99.9%) and Fremantle (97%) is very small.

None of these teams look brilliant and we can point to flaws in all of them just with a glance at the red and orange cells representing their Midfield, Offensive or Defensive strengths. However, this group logically has to produce finalists, and we have no idea if anyone is going to step up. If not, two of them will stumble into September regardless. This could potentially be a season with a finalist with 11 or less wins, if results break the right (or wrong) way.

Looking further back, we see Essendon, Gold Coast and Sydney slipping back a touch. This maybe suggests that Essendon are about as good as they were in 2015, before their players weer banned. The Swans, amusingly, rise a spot in the ratings despite probably watching their hopes of a quick recovery go up in flames over the weekend, and in spite of their actual figure itself moving backwards. The Swans benefited from Gold Coast slumping a touch more, the swap is largely reflective of changes to the grading of their past opponents. Gold Coast have played Hawthorn and Brisbane who had bad weeks, whilst Sydney have Collingwood, West Coast and the Bulldogs in their history.

But about the Crows…

We do need to look at the top as well, because the Crows can’t be ignored. This time last year, this rating system had the eventual preliminary finalists as a top 4. This includes the Bulldogs, though they did drop off later in the regular season for us, replaced by Adelaide. A word of caution – Geelong briefly looked nearly as good as Adelaide does now in ratings terms after Round 8 last year, but that slumped back to the pack pretty quickly. Samples are still somewhat small at this stage.

Richmond’s previously league-best adjusted defensive strength rating took a relative battering under bombardment from Adelaide’s historic offence and midfield. Hilariously, though, Richmond weren’t disgraced in their twelve goal loss to Adelaide, and only suffered a modest downgrade with no loss of relative position to the competition, still sitting 5th overall and presenting as a probable finalist. The story here is not Richmond, but rather that Adelaide’s performance continues to be stratospheric.

The challenge for the Crows will be maintaining it, but the season they’ve produced so far is a truly rare vein of form, including against good opposition. The Crows have played our current 2nd, 3rd, 5th best teams as well as 13th, 15th and 18th – a slightly above average set of opponents overall, especially considering that they couldn’t play themselves. We want to stress that this isn’t like North Melbourne’s false run at the top of the ladder last year, our system never really rated North. When they were 9-0 last year, North looked about 5th best on raw strength ratings and 8th best with scaling for opposition strength. If the back end of the ladder looks happier than recent seasons, the Crows are currently out on their own at the top.

Have the top five started to pull away from the competition already?

Currently the 2017 season of the AFL looks like a small number of really good teams and then an unusually long tail of ordinary but not terrible teams. Only six clubs currently sit above the competition average on our combined rating covering midfield, offensive and defensive strength. By contrast, the bottom ranked side (Carlton) is closer to the pack than any team has finished in our ratings for any season since 2009 (Melbourne).

Round 5 ratings

Adelaide, GWS and to a lesser extent Port Adelaide currently look well ahead of every other team in terms of their strength, with Geelong and Richmond also looking pretty solid on the back of great output in one part of the ground. The gap from Richmond (5th) to Melbourne (6th) is currently larger than the gap from Melbourne back to Sydney (15th). Likewise, the gap from Adelaide in first to Richmond in fifth is greater than the gap between Melbourne in sixth and Carlton in last.

We should note that it is early days and big movements can happen across a season as opponent strengths become more reliable and we get a larger sample of games. However, the question may simply be whether the lead group contains three, four, or five members and whether anyone can break out of the peloton composed of at least half the competition.

Last year HPN drew a line at 105% as the lowest a side could be and still be a viable premiership chance, which was based on the previous 20 years of ratings. The Bulldogs, a historical outlier, only just scraped by this barrier on an unadjusted basis in 2016, and were just under it on an opposition adjusted basis. On this basis all of the top five teams still remain viable premiership chances – but we note (yet again) that the season is very young, and a lot will change between now and September.

Some teams pop out of this as not really getting results commensurate with their apparent strength. The Demons sit 6th here but only have won two games, having let three close games slip, and been unlucky with structure-wrecking midgame injuries. The Bulldogs, now at 4-1, continue to be unimpressive.

By contrast, perhaps Richmond and Fremantle, popularly seen as over-performing or lucky so far, roughly deserve their respective 5-0 and 3-2 records.

This season shape as it stands right now is an intriguing one, as we can see comparing to past completed seasons. The dense cluster around 95% is pronounced:

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It would be relatively unusual for the season to finish with no team below 90% of the competition average. We should expect some stragglers to fall further behind to where strugglers end up most years.

Similarly, Adelaide are currently tracking as strongly as Geelong of 2007 and nearly approaching Essendon of 2000. They do look very good right now, but if they can sustain these offensive, defensive and midfield efficiencies across a season, it would make them one of the all-time great teams and be a massive story in its own right, especially if the Giants don’t manage to stay with them.

In terms of specific line strengths, right now as we look at our team ratings, only the top three sides are rated above average in all three areas. Adelaide are continuing 2016’s historic performance in offensive efficiency but have added a greater dominance of inside-50 opportunities, meaning if they don’t have dominant midfielders then at least they are still dominating in the midfield area. Port Adelaide and Geelong both look like they’re strongest through the midfield as well. Richmond and Geelong also both have one line (Defence and Offense, respectively) sitting at least 10% above average.

Currently it looks as though Essendon have the worst midfield, Collingwood the worst forward line and Gold Coast the worst defence, but none of those sides shape as the worst team overall. Those three teams are counterbalanced by other lines – Essendon have defended well, Collingwood’s midfield looks strong, and the Suns have been strong between the arcs if not within them.

Only Sydney, Hawthorn, Carlton and Fremantle are below average across the board so far this year and of those, Sydney’s defence, Hawthorn’s defence and Fremantle’s midfield are above 99%, so pretty much on average.

Some sides with pretty uneven strength include North Melbourne, West Coast and Brisbane. North have exhibited a pretty good defence, meaning they haven’t conceded scores from inside-50s too often in spite of their strong opponents. Rather it’s the sheer quantity of inside-50 opportunities allowed (identified in the midfield strength rating) which have brought them undone. The Eagles’ offensive efficiency has been their saving grace, while Brisbane’s offence has been league average but undone by the sheer lack of opportunities delivered by their midfield.

Are North and Hawthorn bad, or have they just faced a tough draw?

Almost every credible (and non-credible) football journalist in the country has waxed lyrical about the decline of the Mighty Hawks, and the Considerably Less Mighty Roos. Both sides were finalists in 2016, but have gotten off to tough starts in 2017, a combined 0-8 through a month of footy.

Each rating is an inside-50 based efficiency measure, and we adjust each team based on their opponents. The following is our rating of the strength of the four opponents each team has so far played:Round 4 opposition ratings.JPG

North Melbourne and Hawthorn have played relatively tough draw sets so far. At this stage, this should be treated with some caution, because every game is a quarter of the sample for each club.

It just so happens that most teams have faced a spread of sides so a couple of tough or soft opponents can stand out.

Hawthorn for instance is rated as having had a difficult draw due mostly to playing a highly rated Adelaide and a pretty well rated Geelong. Those two alone push the average up because at this stage few other teams have faced two teams rated in the top third. The Gold Coast midfield and Essendon defence also push up the averages Hawthorn have faced, although it must be borne in mind that the Hawthorn games themselves contribute 25% of the weight to those teams’ ratings.

We deliberately factor in no historical data in these ratings, so the strength of each team can take a while to settle down. It also means the best 2016 sides get zero credit as tough opponents if their forward, midfield and defensive data in 2017 does not warrant it. This approach makes the early season jumpy, and it means we’ll have a better picture as the season progresses. Just like what happens in reality.

As we are now into our second week of tracking the HPN rating we can start to track the sides that are on the improve as shown above. We can see the week to week movements by teams, which is basically jet fuel for HOT TAKES.

Round 4 ratings

North’s draw of Geelong, GWS and West Coast is clearly the hardest set so far, which has a major impact on their standings in our ratings – their competitive performances against good sides mean they rate well. While Hawthorn do look abjectly terrible, we caution against pessimism regarding the Kangaroos until more form is exposed. They might be okay. Might.

While most would rate the Bulldogs as another tough opponent for North, we currently beg to differ as the above chart indicates. The reigning premiers (this still feels strange to type) have seemed pretty scratchy thus far. Nothing about them currently stands out as terrible, but their performances to date look below the league average in all three areas of the ground, once their soft opponent set is factored in. Sydney, Collingwood and Fremantle all sit bottom half, scaling the Dogs’ ratings down with them.

Fremantle bolt up the ratings this week after beating Melbourne, while Essendon continue to slump as the win over Hawthorn loses its shine and more results come in. GWS, the presumptive pre-season premiership favourite, have claimed top spot by virtue of a solid defeat of Port Adelaide. Whilst Adelaide beat GWS in round one, GWS’s performances since then have been enough to make up the deficit on the day. The two form teams of the competition don’t face off again during the season, so we will likely have to wait until finals for the (already) highly anticipated rematch.

Richmond have mostly beaten up on poor sides (Collingwood, Carlton, Brisbane) but have done it well, and their defeat of West Coast looks good. We’re still not sure they’re as good as third in the competition, but there’s no evidence to the contrary yet.

The Giants’ midfield is their strongest area relative to league averages, while Adelaide continue to reproduce their 2016 offensive prowess – they are simply an amazing side at converting inside-50s into scores. The best defence, currently, is somehow Port Adelaide, and we’ll be fascinated to see if this holds and to try to explain why if it does.