One thing the HPN Team ratings tends to do by the end of a season is to break teams into different levels by the end of the season, diplomatically sorting the haves from the have-nots in a somewhat graphically pleasing manner.
Using the magic of “the Snipping tool”, we can clearly demonstrate that this has likely already happened in 2017.
This doesn’t indicate that a team from a lower tier can’t beat a team from a tier above – far from it. It instead indicates the average quality of the teams through a thoroughly chaotic season, whose ending is less clear than any in recent memory.
For this week’s column, let’s run through the tiers, with some help from other footy stats people on the web for clarity. FMI’s great CoSPYES is as good a place for footy stat nerds and newbies alike to dive in.
Tier 4: Not Making Finals This Year, But Not Hopeless
The five teams here are likely welded to the bottom of the ladder this season, but all (on their day) have shown glimpses of light.
Brisbane’s forward line has been a revelation this year, with the emergence of Eric Hipwood and the late career improvement of Dayne Zorko providing focal points that the Lions have been seeking since the days of Brown. The Lions remind us somewhat of those early Giants teams, with young focal points offset by a smattering of resourceful and wily older players. Most of Brisbane’s attacks are of a high risk, high reward nature – if they fall over before getting inside 50, they often concede a goal the other way. The problem moving forward for Brisbane is the near constant string of injuries to key players – Dayne Beams hasn’t been fit since wearing black and white, Christensen and Rockliff have also struggled to play full seasons – and the aging of their best players. Zorko turns 29 next year, Martin 31 and the Beams-Rockliff-Rich combo will be 28. None of these guys will likely be in the next Brisbane premiership side, or even finals team. Ryan Buckland wrote about the Lions in great depth earlier this week – have a read if you are keen for good takes.
Fremantle were predicted by one of HPN’s pre-season prediction methods to finish with the spoon, so their first two months of the season was a mild surprise built off close wins. Their next two months were less surprising. The Dockers have several players who can nearly single-handedly win games own their own (Fyfe, Mundy, Neale, Walters), but lack for depth.
HPN wrote about how Gold Coast’s draw opened up for a potential finals run, then in a throwback to previous seasons, several of their key players got hurt. Tom Lynch has a relatively quiet year (merely one of the best young key forwards in the comp, instead of the best), and Ablett remains a make-or-break character for the Suns.
The Blues’s GWS asset recycling program has had its ups and downs, but HPN favourite Caleb Marchbank nearly justifies its existence. For all the talk about the resurgence of Liam Jones, Marchbank is perhaps a more important cog down back, one for which they sorely missed in the loss last week to Brisbane. Carlton’s defence is alright, and Matty Kruezer is having a career year, but they look a couple of years from being a couple of years away from contention.
HPN generally tends to avoid citing the same writer twice in a column, but Ryan Buckland’s piece on North’s impending tank job merits linking. That is where North is at in a nutshell. They rate closer to the next tier than the other sides in this list, but they’re in fullscale “transition” mode for the moment.
By “transition”, we mean “tank”.
Tier 3 – There’s A Chance, Just Not Much Of One
The five teams here have at least a shot of making the finals, but in some cases the chances are very small. In brackets are the top 8% likelihood according to The Arc’s Elo modelling.
Hawthorn (6%) sold the boat down the river, and now sit on the outer banks of the finals. They paid a lot for O’Meara and a bit for Mitchell. This quality over quantity move may end up looking problematic if it turns out the Hawks need to find eight or ten new players for upcoming seasons, rather than just two, because they won’t have new draft resources for a while without culling their list further. The 2017 Hawks are barely familiar to those golden era teams, as even the players who remain sort of play different roles. The use of Hodge as a super versatile full back/half back flank hybrid is similar to what the Demons are doing with Nev Jetta, but more effective due to Hodge’s talent. Tim O’Brien has also quietly been turning into a tall target down the line (but 20cm smaller than, say, Rory Lobb), something the Hawks desperately needed. Jack Gunston is a halfback now. Finals are probably a step too far this year, but there’s a path there.
In Buckley’s do-or-die year, Collingwood (0.6%) has shown some fight. Their midfield is probably not “the best in the league” but we’ve got them second on inside-50 differential and the midfield is holding them together. Unfortunately Collingwood has significantly struggled at either ends of the ground, with Melbourne offcuts Jeremy Howe and Lynden Dunn playing critical roles down back (which is generally not a good sign). Up forward, Darcy Moore has continued his development, but lacks consistent support and a second tall forward to deflect attention.
St Kilda (18.4%) are as flaky as anyone this year. Over the year they’ve been modestly below average in all three areas of the HPN Team Ratings. This probably fairly reflects this year’s developing squad, and may simply suggest general across the park improvement and reducing the gap between their best and worst is the order of the day. Their top 8 destiny is in their own hands, because they mostly play teams immediately near them on the ladder.
The Bulldogs (34.8%) have played bursts of good footy this year, but mostly have been a disappointment to most punter’s expectations. This actually isn’t much of a change from last year where they also finished the year rating a fairly modest 7th (but just barely in the frame as a premiership-quality side) before an improbable finals run. Preseason, we had them finishing about 7th or 5th on our two projection methods and that may still end up around the mark, with the Arc giving them a 1 in 3 chance at finals.
It’s probably unfair to judge the Dogs for not living up to a crazy month last year where everything went as perfectly as it could. The biggest problem down at Whitten Oval is that the Dogs have an impotent attack, largely driven by a lack of continuity up forward. It has declined from being average last year to flat-out terrible this year – they are the second worst at converting inside-50s into points on the scoreboard.
West Coast (40.3%) have been dissected at length and it’s getting harder to reject the thesis that they just cannot work out how to travel well. The main evidence against that currently is some weaker 2017 efforts at home. West Coast’s vaunted forward line from previous years has suffered from the prolonged absence of Kennedy, and the decline of LeCras, whilst their midfield has seemed a little one-paced when both Priddis and Mitchell run through at the same time. One paced midfields can work; but usually when that pace is fast.
Mitchell and Priddis are not fast. And it doesn’t work being that slow, as potentially evidenced by Priddis’ shock retirement just a month after seemingly extending his career by a year.
Tier 2 – Can Make A Grand Final Run, If Everything Falls Into Place
Richmond (85.8%), simply put, have defended the best and scored the worst in the 2017 AFL season. It’s an amazing variance that’s quite a lot greater than most other historic contenders with defence-first approaches and ratings. Richmond’s defence of opponent inside-50s is better than all but about a dozen defences since 1998, but no other team in that bracket was so poor at converting their own inside-50s. The 2005 model Neil Craig Crows had both a better offence and very strong midfield. Peak 2011 St Kilda had a worse midfield but better offence and defence. Sydney in 20005 were more well-rounded, with a weaker defence but stronger forwards. The team the Tigers actually currently most resemble is the 2007 Adelaide Crows who narrowly lost an elimination final to a young Hawthorn.
As Rob from Figuring Footy pointed out earlier this year, Richmond’s defence has denied shots near the square extremely well – even if they have slipped a bit in recent weeks.
Melbourne (81%) have had a chaotic year personnel-wise and like GWS we probably haven’t seen their best 22 on the park all at once. More than nearly any other side, their best (wins over Adelaide and Port Adelaide) has been a long way from their worst (losses to Fremantle and North Melbourne), and to predict how they’ll perform in September is folly from here. Melbourne’s finals chances will largely depend on who they can put on the park and how well they have gelled. It is also worth noting here that they are one of only two sides to beat the top two, along with Geelong.
Essendon (56.8%) are outperforming a lot of expectations this year and should make finals if they can capitalise on a soft draw. That’s a big if for a side who smashed Port Adelaide then lost to Brisbane. Essendon have fantastic bookends and a weak but gradually improving midfield that doesn’t protect the defensive 50 particularly well or create a large volume of inside 50s. Their efficiency inside 50 is second only to the Crows, and their defence has been quite reasonable – both ends led by likely All Australians (Hurley and Daniher). Of the sides currently in the finals, they are the most likely to drop out.
Sydney (89.9%) are for many the form side right now, and a 10-1 record is very good, but after some bad luck early in the year they have benefited from the same since then. The Swans have racked up a couple of close wins against similar sides, and were able to encounter Melbourne and GWS while they were well and truly understrength. They are yet to play Adelaide and Geelong at their home bases, which will likely indicate if their recent run has been more luck or skill. The return of Dane Rampe has been incredibly important for the Swans – the rare Swiss Army knife of a defender that can play at an elite level as both a small and a tall. Matt Cowgill at ESPN took a good at Sydney’s post round 6 resurgence this week – well worth a read.
Like Melbourne, GWS (95.3%) have fielded a 2/3rds strength side for much of this year. As promising as Harry Perryman looks, he shouldn’t be playing for a top four side at this point of his career. Like Melbourne, it is impossible to assess how good the Giants are right now. There’s a fair chance that the Giants won’t get to field their best 22 before the finals this year – with Griffen still around a month away, and Deledio making slow but sure progress in the reserves. With a full-ish squad to pick from, the Giants might have a few selection issues, but the good kind instead of the bad. On paper, a full strength Giants side doesn’t have a weakness – which should scare all the sides above them on the ladder.
Tier 1: The Premiership Favourites (if they can get everything together)
Port Adelaide (92.5%) get a lot of stick for not beating top sides, but according to the HPN Team Ratings they continue to be competition front runners. They’ve often been frustrating in 2017, but have been competitive in most of their losses to other top sides. They’ve also beaten up horribly on bottom sides, which may skew their ratings a little higher than what would truly be expected.
We still have them as the second strongest team based mostly on their dominant performance through the midfield. Much of that has been led by fringe candidate for “best ruckman in the league” Patrick Ryder, and the physically imposing Ollie Wines. Port dominate inside-50 entries, controlling the middle of the ground for lengthy periods, but are hampered by pretty average scoring power despite the strong performances of Robbie Gray and Charlie Dixon this year. Like several teams in lower tiers, the issue for Port appears to be one of depth and whether the marginal best 22 players can step up for finals. HPN understands the doubts about them, but we think the fundamentals are fine and they’re as likely as anyone to make a run in September in this chaotic season.
Adelaide (100%) are the likely minor premiers and the current premiership favourites. There is very good reason for this, as they look like the most complete side so far this year. They seem to have rediscovered some of their best form, and perhaps worked out some responses to the Sloane tag and the defensive strategies that caused them issues against Melbourne and Hawthorn.
The Crows’ loss to the Hawks was driven by the numbers Hawthorn placed behind the ball, with the weight of numbers making up for the haphazardness of the defensive setup. Melbourne did that as well, with the exploitation of the ‘plus two’ set-up at centre contests creating a forward thrust that the Crows found hard to counter. Both sides employed manic defensive pressure, and exploited their small foward lines to beat the Crows for forward-50 ground balls.
Midfield depth may be the issue in combating these approaches. Their midfield strength is reasonable but as it’s a measure of inside-50 differential, a lot of the work in ball movement and defence is probably falling on their half back and half forward lines. The other question is whether their multi-dimensional and rapid attacking style can hold up to the defensive powerhouses of the league in September, as it failed to do so last year. On the other hand, if the only problems we can identify are to do with possible counter tactics, that tends to suggest you’re in pretty good nick.
In short, this has been a great season of footy, and it only shapes to get better.