After their thumping at the hands of Gold Coast, the punditry par for the course was to spell the death of Hawthorn as a team. Everybody and their dog had to throw in their two cents about the end of a generation, Clarkson’s coaching, the decision trade out Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis and the recruitment of Tyrone Vickery and their failures at the contested ball.
Much of this analysis has lacked reason and consideration, which is what we pride ourselves on here at The Beitzel Review. Most staggering is the fact that Hawthorn have clearly pivoted and made changes to tactics and list management, and analysis of this has been conducted without wider recognition of previous successes in the same area.
Building a winning team
Alistair Clarkson was appointed coach in 2004, after Hawthorn just finished second-bottom and qualified for a priority pick.
He instantly developed a football department that became the most forward-thinking an analytical in how it approached the game.
Armed with picks 2 and 5 in the draft, he drafted Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin. Nowadays most observant football analysers understand the fact that virtually all the competition’s best key forwards were top-10 selections, with many of the best players in other positions being found later in the draft. However, back then, that sort of draft analysis, beyond drafting “best talent” quite revolutionary.
His tactical approach was also revolutionary.
Offensively, he developed the principle of placing importance of kicking skill in moving the ball out of defence. This was done so on the basis of one of, if not the earliest example, of coaching and list management on the back of analytical and statistical understanding of the game.1
Defensively, the seeds were sown for Clarko’s Cluster, the 18-man zone-press2, the minute that Clarkson arrived at the club, and the tactic was developed over the next few years that proved to be an effective defensive structure.
Clarkson clearly demonstrated the ability to be innovative and successfully implement effective list management tactics that were ahead of its time.
He had the lee-way of multiple years of not playing finals in order to educate the players onto this list to play this brand of footy, and to iron out any kinks. He knew he was onto a winning formula, and he had the time to effectively develop, tweak and implement it. .
Playing the trade market
Hawthorn took advantage in inequalities in the trade market and did this by bringing in mature talent once they had a base of talented youngsters.
They traded out draft picks. Draftees rarely make an instant impact3 and they would have had to wait some years to get value out of these players to help them win flags.
They brought in mature talent that provided them more value relative to other teams, as other teams out of a “premiership” window wanted to improve their draft position for the future. This led to recruiting players like Shaun Burgoyne, Brian Lake and David Hale.
Nowadays, the league as a whole understands the relative value of picks thanks to the Academy/Father-Son points system introduced in recent years. However, before that, some clubs were unscientific in their approach. This led to an over-rating of late first round picks on the perception that as first-round picks they were “valuable”, when late in the first round they had value more similar to late second-round picks then they did early-mid first round picks. The Hakws took advantage of this, and it allowed them to acquire players like Ben McEvoy and Jack Gunston.
These trade wins were a factor in winning multiple premierships.
Understanding this in the context of their most recent decisions
Recruiting free agents is now the most effective way to improve a team’s list. You’re not paying anything except salary cap room. In recruiting free agents, the opportunity cost is only cap room.
This isn’t American sports where salaries are public and all contending clubs are pushed to the brim in terms of the salary cap.
Players who are drafted and developed by a team often play for below their market value, in part because of the enjoyment of that team environment and in part due to the gratitude of that team recruiting them, which often happens with mature aged talent.
Which means that salary cap room is often created through players being retained on your list below market value, but it means to pry players, you need to overpay.
Which is where we get to Ty Vickery. So he’s overpaid. But the thing is, he probably wanted to stay at Richmond and try to vindicate his high draft pick, to pry him, Hawthorn had to overpay.
It kind of doesn’t really matter if Vickery plays poorly, in a weird abstract way. It’s still the right list management move. Vickery was the only accessible free agent ruck-forward. Vickery is playing better than the absence of a key forward/ruck. Jonathan Ceglar is still recovering from an ACL. 500k in cap room is less valuable than not having the absence of a structural key forward/2nd ruck, if you can get your head around the double negative, it makes sense.
The other factor is that given he was a free agent with the opportunity cost of cap room, to go from an economic term to an accounting one, there needs to be analysis of the realisable value of such cap room. If it wasn’t for Vickery, who else were they going to recruit? They didn’t have draft picks to trade after going for their midfielders. They tried to trade players in-contract but none wanted to leave. They had to go after a free agent to use their cap room.
They didn’t need to overpay Chris Mayne, they already had Cyril Rioli and Paul Puopolo for pressure-forward-who-also-take-marks. Mayne was of less value to Hawthorn than he was to Collingwood. You can do the same thing list-by-list across the free agency pool and realise a forward-ruck was the most effectively to recruit for given salary cap room and given they’re not paying anything in terms of a trade.
How about the whole contested possession thing? Well, I wrote about it last year. Give it a read. Hawthorn were never an elite contested possession team when they were winning flags. Without any philosophical changes to the importance of contested possessions upon their list management and tactics, of course they were going to get worse at it as the team played lower quality football and won less games – that’s why the margin and contested possessions are so strongly correlated. If they start winning games, their contested possession numbers will increase and it won’t be due to any wide-ranging philosophical reasons beyond minor tweaks. It’ll just be that their players are playing better football generally, like their chemistry and understanding of new structures improves so will the fact that their players will get to, and win, contested ball more often.
In their Semi-Final loss last year, Hawthorn clearly realised they needed to change how they approach the game, to win premierships, structurally. They had an aging team that in its current state wasn’t going to win them another flag. Lewis had had plenty of games where his disposal count was in the teens against finals teams last year. It’s not to say that Lewis still isn’t an effective player, or can provide value to other teams in different midfield tactics and structures. It’s just that Hawthorn realise that they can’t rely on Lewis, in the Hawthorn system, to consistently play well against the good teams any more as he aged, given the 2016 evidence on hand.
They needed to find a new formula to try to win flags and they could have done one of two things.
One of them is to double-down in recruiting talented youngsters and hope you can mould them within a successful tactical system to win a flag en masse. This can be done through one or multiple coaches, as shown by the Western Bulldogs last year, but in the end, a combination of high draft picks and confidence in nailing those picks
In the process of winning flags, Hawthorn didn’t have high draft picks. Ha. You can’t fault them for that. Over the last 9 drafts, on average, their first pick in the draft came at pick 32. If you asked any Hawthorn fan at the end of 2009, that they had the option of that draft scenario for the following 9 years, or to make top 4 for every year between 2011 and 2016, every single one would have picked the latter. As much as it’s fun for clubs to sell hope and market high draft picks, in the end, football departments try to win premierships, and fans would rather premierships than high draft picks. It’s ridiculous to fault a strategy that won flags, and by saying that they “should have” tried to maintain earlier pics in that period of time, that leaves open the possibility that they don’t win one of those flags.
If you expect Hawthorn to be crap for a year or two then rise up the ladder again on the back of the draft picks they receive of being crap for a year or two, that’s kind of ridiculous, because those new high draft picks aren’t joining any young top-15 draft picks because there aren’t any on Hawthorn’s list. They’re not getting high draft picks in bunches, so what’s the point? This isn’t a Melbourne situation where they can game the system and receive multiple top-10 picks by losing Scully and Frawley. It inherently makes it harder to use that strategy, and there’s a smaller collective amount of high draft picks which allows for more-screw ups.
In any case, without drafting top players in the last few years, who knows if Hawthorn have confidence in their ability to do so? They screwed up the last time with Mitch Thorp. Their draft team has only developed in drafting later picks, they’re inexperienced, and therefore likely to be less effective than the competition average, at nailing early picks. There’s a greater risk they’ll screw up if they went down this route.
Free Agency and greater player movement is the other dynamic. Given that Hawthorn still have excellent finals performers in their squad, ranging from Grant Birchall to Cyril Rioli to Isaac Smith, why not try to build around that core with quality Free Agents? If Hawthorn have cap room and are chasing success, why not go after Dustin Martin or Nat Fyfe and be a premiership contender next year? Those players, also, are less likely to want to go to Hawthorn if they don’t believe they can challenge for the flag this year.
Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara are the meat and potatoes of a new midfield structure that, potentially with the addition of an even better free agent midfield recruit, will lead them to their next flag. They need to adjust to a new team and a new style of coaching, heck, in O’Meara’s case having missed two years to injury, he need to adjust to playing AFL football full stop. Whilst the losses are obviously disheartening, Hawthorn were not clearly aiming to win the first three games of the season, but willing to wait for these players to improve with adjustment to the Hawthorn style.
And finally, Clarkson is clearly tinkering with tactics, the tactical mastermind he is.
There’s going to be an adjustment period given changes have been made in response to the decreasing effectiveness of their existing tactics last year. Not everything will work, and Clarkson is adjusting as he learns more about the tactics he’s implementing. He’s demonstrated before that he can be successful in this area. Even after three games and a rather bad loss, why not give him the continue benefit of the doubt that he can do it again? What’s the alternative? Interpret the situation to mean that Clarkson isn’t a good coach?
Hawthorn have been one of the most fascinating and successful teams of this modern era, and their wider football department decisions have been the most successful. The fact that this gives no credibility to the longer-term strategy of Clarkson and co is an indictment of the current analysis of Hawthorn. We are only three games into the season. Changes are being made, and changes had to be made. I’d like to think that past evidence indicates that the changes the Hawks are making are the right ones, or they’ll quickly learn and adjust if they’ve made poor changes, tactically.
So, can we please not overreact?
1See The Stats Revolution, by Ted Hopkins. Hopkins, a Carlton Premiership player was the founder of Champion Data. The data gathered in early years allowed him to conduct the first research about the “theory” of football as a whole, once you look at league averages accounting for how previous stats collection were teams collecting stats for just their own team and just themselves, and the idiosyncrasies of individual teams that occur from that without being able to look at league-wide trends. What Hopkins found was that most scores were caused by defensive-half turnovers. Given the (relative) lack of forward pressure in those days, many of the skill errors were pretty inexcusable, and that simply ensuring the quality of kicking, moving the ball out of defence was the simplest way to win more games of football. Whilst Hopkins’ research was relatively basic, it was revolutionary in the fact it was the first “understanding” of the theory of football as a whole, and began the league-wide trend of not-tall defenders generally having to be relatively skilled even if they played a /4
lockdown role. Also, given that it occurred 20 years ago it’s easy to question the relevance now, but remember Clarkson was appointed in 2004, only 6-7 years after Hopkins undertook this research, or in other words, half the length of Clarkson’s current tenure – that research was relatively modern back then.
2What exactly was “Clarko’s Culster” and what do I mean by zone-press? This should really be a post on its own, and it’ll make the footnote really long, but what the hell. By the 1990’s, the concept of the “lines” (half-forward line) were blurred, and players moved forward and back for “Pagan’s Paddock” etc. In terms of being completely revolutionised, however, especially for defensive purposes that wasn’t yet the case. For example, the tactics behind Terry Wallace’s “superflood” with the Bulldogs wad quite rudimentary – 6 defenders matched up with their forwards, and 6 midfielders flooded back into the defensive 50 covering six zones of that defensive 50. In the 2000’s what was the changing point was the introduction of sports science, rotations and greater running load expectations on players. This shift meant that whilst the ball moved at the same speed, players could run harder defensively and could cover more territory for longer periods of time. So this meant, say, that if the ball was in the back pocket, a player on the opposite flank or wing could push closer to the ball, with increased running power and rotations meaning they could run back to that wing or flank more easily in the past should the ball travel to that side of field – simply put, more players could push closer to the ball, because with increased running power, the relative speed of ball movement vs human movement was decreased. Clarkson and his brains trust were among the first clubs to realise this and created the “cluster” of players. When the opposition had the ball deep in their defence (like in a kick-in), he’d zone all 18 players, and press them up the ground closer to the ball, and then when the ball went wide, to the side that the ball was, with the knowledge that the entire 18 players had the running power to shift side to side “with” the ball. In the end, he had effectively all 18 players in one “wing” half of the ground, and 12-15 players in the “attacking” half of the field, so 12-15 players would be in the quarter of the field closest to the ball, which in old footy you’d have central/flank of the forward/half-forward/midfield lines plus 3 followers for 9 players total in that quarter of the field, following their men in a man-to-man system. In football terms it was a “zone”, but in Gridiron/Basketball terms, it’s more of a “man/zone” – it’s not to say that players didn’t pick up opponents, but they picked up opponents who ran into their zone, and followed them until the player left their zone, as to which they’d communicate that fact to their teammate. It was revolutionary, and whilst teams sliced it in the following couple of years with long kicking and run and carry, the principle became the norm for modern teams today. The league, as a whole, finds it more difficult to move the ball out of defensive 50 (territory is now more important than possession than it was 10 years ago), and that’s on the back of Clarkson, and why “congestion” is an issue and the AFL wanted to reduce congestion because of this running power. Go watch a game from 2006-7 that wasn’t Hawthorn. Whilst there’s still pressure around the ground, and forwards still try to pressure unlike when they didn’t in the 1990’s, it’s amazing how little “structural” and “positional” pressure there is in attempting to lock the ball inside 50 once possession was lost. Eventually, the axe will swing another way, and teams will find ways to punish it – though it’ll be hard, because over the last 15 years it was a lot easier for teams to improve defensive athletic skills like running power (using rotations), than things like distance on kicks or speed in run and carry to beat as an attacking response to improvements in defensive tactics, and it’s the very reason why scores have been on the decline. It is changing, though, just like watching Shannon Hurn’s kicking-in skills and how he hits 55m targets to slice through these modern zone-presses. And the fact that some teams barrel straight up the middle from kick-ins, getting in “behind” the press where if clean position is won it more often than not directly leads to a goal. Plus rule changes, like stricter interpretation of the deliberate out of bounds, has an impact as well.
3Draftees and young players often get overstated in their significance in how they can influence games, and how they contribute to wins. For example, very rarely does a Rising-Star eligible player gain a Champion Data Ranking Points average above the league average of 75, with no player doing so in 2015 or 2016. This means that very rarely is a single rising star eligible player in the competition’s best 200 or so players. This is before you factor in that statistically speaking these measure simply the collection of key statistics, these youngsters are even less effective as players in non-measurable aspects of the game like communication, leadership and adhering to structures through concentration, positioning and simply being afl-educated to understand structures, ie not running around like a headless chook even if you are winning the ball or using the ball wellIt’s why difference in game experience is by and large a good predictor of who wins games, even if accounting for absolutely nothing else in determining who to tip to win a game. Young players by and large get games because you simply need to pump games into them so they can be good at some point in the future, there’s no way around it – you can’t “fast track” the first 50 games a player plays (though it’s slowly changing with teams with their own reserves teams playing the same structures and tactics, but obviously, the quality is lower)