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How wingless Hawks strangled the Dees

Hawthorn went without wings at the MCG to stifle Melbourne's movement - AFL,Hawthorn Hawks,Melbourne Demons
Hawthorn went without wings at the MCG to stifle Melbourne's movement

MELBOURNE had the game on its terms against Hawthorn at the MCG on Sunday. It held a 21-point lead at the 14-minute mark of the first term, and things were going swimmingly.

Fast-forward three-and-a-half quarters, and the Hawks had careered to a 67-point victory, Melbourne going more than two quarters without a goal.

Midfielder Christian Salem's set-shot goal at the 29-minute mark of the first quarter would be the Demons' last until Alex Neal-Bullen broke the shackles at the seven-minute mark of the final term. Over the final three terms, Hawthorn kicked 15 goals to Melbourne's one.

So what happened?

The Dees' scoring drought came about because of a structural failure forward of the ball and in defence and, as a result, they played into Hawthorn's hands.

"We lost our way structurally, but we tried some things. They didn't work, and to Hawthorn's credit I thought they were outstanding," Demons coach Simon Goodwin said.

Melbourne's troubles began at centre bounces, with Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson preventing the Demons' wingmen and half-forwards from playing the role they are accustomed to.

Melbourne often likes to start with two extra players – usually the wingmen or a wingman and a half-forward – coming off the back of the square at centre bounces. They then charge into the square as the ball is bounced.

 

The benefit of that set-up can be two-fold: that player or players can be used on their way through the centre square as an attacking option, or can provide defensive coverage to prevent the opposition from exiting the stoppage.

An added bonus for Melbourne happens if the opposition forward follows their 'extra' into the square at the bounce. That frees up Bernie Vince or Michael Hibberd to play unchecked behind the ball.

Against the Hawks, Melbourne started centre bounces without players lining up in the traditional wing position. Angus Brayshaw and Jordan Lewis lined up off the back of the square, with James Harmes or Neal-Bullen regularly charged with playing as Melbourne's seventh forward.

Hawthorn's Isaac Smith and Harry Morrison originally started in traditional wing positions in the first term, before the Hawks made the call to man up Lewis/Brayshaw and Harmes/Neal-Bullen.

It can be seen in the behind the goals vision below that Smith becomes aware of Harmes playing as a seventh forward and gestures to teammates that it is his responsibility to man up on the Melbourne player.

 

What that left was a stage in the game between the second and third quarters where neither team played a traditional wingman at centre-square bounces, with Hawthorn choosing to run with eight defenders.

 

Reverting to that eight-man defence was a crucial element of Hawthorn's win and a key factor in keeping Melbourne to just 1.7 in the last three quarters in greasy conditions at the MCG.

Of course, the Hawks' advantage in clearances (56-38) and the pressure they were able to apply around the ball (they laid 113 tackles to Melbourne's 74) also played a big part in the result.

Melbourne constantly bombed the ball to Hawthorn's defence which outnumbered the Demons' forward line, allowing the Hawks' disciplined backline to repel with conviction.

Puzzlingly, Melbourne did not attempt to even up the disparity in its forward half and largely kept the same structure until the Demons moved Sam Frost into attack in the final term. That left Jesse Hogan to battle against two or three Hawks defenders.

Coaching in his 27th match (his 26th at Melbourne, after a single game at Essendon in 2013), Goodwin would have learned plenty from Hawthorn and master coach Clarkson about picking the right time to make a tactical move from the box.

Clarkson, in his 309th match in charge of the Hawks, is a great example of how a coach can influence a match from the coaches' box, with his experience and nous coming to the fore.

Melbourne will undertake a comprehensive review of Sunday's game against Hawthorn on Wednesday, with experienced defender Vince summing up what will be taking place ahead of the Anzac Day Eve clash against Richmond next Tuesday.

"We'll get some good learnings out of the review — it's going to be very thorough from what I hear. It will be one we just need to learn from," he said on Fox Footy on Tuesday night.