The games within a game: How the grand final could be decided

The tactical battle of the grand final starts where the game starts – in the ruck.

Melbourne’s Max Gawn is the best ruckman in the competition, Luke Jackson his athletic deputy. Stef Martin was a profoundly important inclusion for the Dogs in the preliminary final and will be critical on Saturday.

Bulldog Stefan Martin will have a key role to play against Max Gawn.Credit:AFL Photos

Martin’s role is to physically work Gawn over. According to one senior AFL assistant coach, it would be unsurprising if Martin were to be told before the game to expect to only play limited minutes and so to go as hard as possible for as long as possible against Gawn, and then they’ll pull him out.

“They need Martin to go that hard for a half of footy,” the coach said.

“Martin has to go into the game thinking that he is only going to be playing a half and just go that hard at Gawn and get at him. Tim English can then move up and ruck most of the last half a bit fresher.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Martin ‘hurts’ himself and comes off 10 minutes into the third quarter.

“He only just got through the Port game and I think he will throw everything into it. They will say at half-time just give us 10 more minutes, just go at Gawn again for the first 10 minutes of the third – just jump into him, block him, bump him, belt into him and wear him out – and then 10 or 14 minutes in, grab your leg and come off (and the running player comes on as a sub).

“If something happens later to another player and you don’t have a sub it doesn’t matter, we will take that punt. If it is 40 minutes we can play with three on the bench.”

ALL IN WORKING ORDER

The question for Melbourne is how hard are their midfielders prepared to work?

As critical to the success of the Dogs’ plan for how their tall forwards played Port Adelaide’s intercept-marking defenders was how much harder their midfield worked than Port’s to get forward to help.

Forwards Josh Schache and Tim English were effective against Port in spoiling and blocking Allir Allir and taking away his intercept marking, and in blocking Tom Jonas to allow Aaron Naughton to run hard at packs and mark.

According to assistant coaches, this was only half the plan. Just as critically, they wanted the ball at ground level.

Countering Jake Lever will be vital for the Bulldogs.Credit:Getty Images

“If Lever and May can’t intercept with a mark, and like the Doggies did last week against Port, if their forwards don’t mark the ball they have to, as a minimum, bring it to ground so screen and crash those bodies to bring it to ground and then fight hard and long enough so the Doggies’ mids can get there and outnumber,” one club midfield coach said.

“The [Jake] Lever and [Steven] May one is irrelevant if you can bring it to ground. Last game [we saw] Mitch Hannan flying for the ball and just hitting packs – and he took a nice mark there too – but he was competing in the air that’s why he was important to just jump and hit bodies. [Josh] Schache too.

“My whole aim is to make body contact that aggressively with Lever that you rattle him enough that he can’t get balance when he is in the air to take the mark. That’s my role. Whether I am [Cody] Weightman, whether I am Schache, it doesn’t matter.

“I think [Bailey] Smith at ground level, [Adam] Treloar at ground level, Weightman at ground level and then the mids coming down to support, I think that is a big advantage to the Doggies.

Bailey Smith in full cry for the Bulldogs.Credit:AFL Photos

“Their mids get forward to support really quickly and Port didn’t come in as quick. [Christian] Petracca won’t defend that way – he slides forward like Dusty [Martin] did – and [Alex] Neal-Bullen comes up as an extra number through the middle of the ground like [Kane] Lambert did in Richmond’s better years to support.

“Sometimes that means Neal-Bullen won’t be able to get there [up to the Dogs’ forward line in time] and they may well be outnumbered. But if Melbourne win that ball [in the Dogs’ forward line] quickly and cleanly – and that is hard to do because the Doggies’ pressure is excellent – then they may be able to use Petracca on the way back.

“What Melbourne do well in transition is their forwards get up very, very high to help support. They are one of the best teams once they win the ball to lengthen into open space and give options, or at least even up numbers forward of the ball very quickly.

“Melbourne don’t care if they play slow, if they get held up at half-back or defensive 50.

Alex Neal-Bullen will patrol the corridor for Melbourne.Credit:AFL Photos

“On quick transition they are very good but on that slow play when are held up they can still quickly explode from that kick long down the line to a contest because their tall forwards hit that pack so hard they cause a ground ball and they look dangerous with [Kysaiah] Pickett and [Charlie] Spargo. And Neal-Bullen will patrol the corridor once again and be in there as an option.”

Melbourne’s use of Neal-Bullen is structurally so important because he runs up and down the corridor from high half-forward and gives them defensive protection from the ball being switched across the ground, but also covers defensively in handing over with Petracca when the star midfielder pushes forward.

THE TALL AND THE SHORT OF IT

May and Lever as key defenders at one end versus Alex Keath and Zaine Cordy at the other is an advantage to Melbourne, but then what of the small defenders v the small defenders?

“The interesting battle for me will be when Melbourne go forward and have it in their forward 50 you have got Bailey Dale and Caleb Daniel, who are outstanding kicks. If you give them a little bit of time and space they will pull a kick and all of a sudden they are out and from nowhere can get real momentum on the footy,” another coach said.

Kysaiah Pickett’s ability to close down opponents is crucial.Credit:Getty Images

“But it will be interesting with a Pickett, his pressure and ability to close down space, not his kicking goals, will be important.

“Spargo’s ankle will be interesting because if it is a bit sore he could lack just a little bit of agility and speed. It might not be a heap, but it might be enough that he might reach for the tackle rather than [move] your shoulder into the oppo player with the tackling.”

THE MIDFIELD BATTLE

These are unquestionably the two best midfields. What do you do about Petracca and Marcus Bontempelli?

Will the Demons be prepared to take on Marcus Bontempelli?Credit:AFL Photos

“Bont, I am just taking him on,” one club assistant said. “I don’t think Petracca cares who he is on, I don’t think [Clayton] Oliver cares who he is on. You need Petracca and Oliver playing, you don’t want them worrying about that stuff.

“Do they go with [James] Harmes at the start? I don’t know how often Melbourne has done it. But because Bont is so good they might just get [Tom] Sparrow and Harmes to rotate on him.”

TOO CLOSE TO CALL

Two assistants felt Melbourne would decide the Dogs were a damaging offensive team and try to squeeze them, to use Neal-Bullen and others to hold the corridor and to hurt on the counter-attack – being such a good team in either fast or slow transition.

But no one is prepared to call a result with any great conviction. These teams are just so evenly matched.

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