Patrick Cripps and Lachie Fogarty celebrate Carlton's semi-final win over Melbourne on September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

THE MESSAGE within Carlton was simple. Be better.

After enduring six consecutive defeats spanning a period that encompassed some dour and lethargic football midway through the season, the Blues were camped inside the AFL's bottom four and on the cusp of another campaign falling by the wayside.

But inside Ikon Park, there would be few tweaks. When senior coach Michael Voss met with his assistants Aaron Hamill, Tim Clarke and Ash Hansen, there was never any thought given to a complete overhaul. The faith in the grand plan never diminished.

Instead, with confidence looking shot and criticism arising, the communication passed down from the coaches to the players stayed basic and a simple message was continually reiterated. Be better.

"It was led by Vossy," Hamill said this week.

"Clearly, it was not the first time he's been through adversity or any challenges. Any coach goes through it, any coaching group goes through it, and probably every club goes through it.

Michael Voss celebrates Carlton's semi-final win over Melbourne on September 15, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

"But he was really consistent and methodical in his approach. He didn't waiver and he didn't bend at all on what we needed to get after because it was really obvious what we needed to get after.

"It wasn't like we were chasing every phase of the game in offence, defence and contest. We knew that our pressure wasn't at the level and our defence wasn't at the level. We went hard at that.

"Our message was really consistent, keep creating the environment for the players to flourish. Credit to them, they bought into it and they were well led by our leaders of the footy club."

Carlton's remarkable rise may beggar belief externally. After all, having fallen into the bottom four at round 15, the Blues then won nine consecutive games – and 11 of their last 12 – to rocket into their first preliminary final since 2000.

Nic Newman (right) celebrates Carlton's win over Melbourne in the semi-final at the MCG on September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

As documented on earlier this week, Voss' side has broken records spanning nearly eight decades to achieve such a feat. But, internally at least, the confidence in what the side could accomplish didn't taper even when the results weren't coming.

"It's not easy when you're in the bottom four and there's a lot of pressure," Clarke said.

"But we were always really strong in our belief and the brand of footy we could play. There was still a lot of confidence internally around what we were doing. We just needed to play better footy.

"We needed players to get in better form and we needed to execute better. We always had that belief, but it's not easy when you're just losing games and there's a lot of pressure on you."

Carlton wasn't winning and it wasn't scoring as it dropped into the doldrums of the bottom four, but at the club's lowest point the coaching group remained adamant that its core problems were within the defensive side of their game.

Patrick Cripps and Jacob Weitering look dejected after Carlton's loss to Essendon in round 13, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

The team's one-wood throughout Voss' first season at Ikon Park had been its stoppage and clearance dominance, born from its pressure around the football. But, to round 13, that hadn't been at the forefront of their performances.

According to Champion Data, the Blues ranked poorly for points from stoppage differential (ranked No.13 in the AFL), clearance differential (No.12) and pressure rating (No.14) throughout the first 13 matches.

But while few adjustments were made structurally mid-season, key personnel decisions were executed as Carlton officials sought to spread the workload. It led to a complete turnaround in the side's fortunes from a midfield perspective in the back end of the year.


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An important part of their recent success has revolved around getting more bodies through the midfield. Up to round 13, only six Blues had attended 40-plus centre bounces with the bulk of that responsibility unsurprisingly falling upon captain Patrick Cripps.

Carlton has since sought to ease Cripps' workload. In its last 12 matches, eight players have now attended 40-plus centre bounces with David Cuningham and Lachie Fogarty entrusted with more responsibility.

"For us, it's been about sharing the load," Clarke said.

"We've got a lot of players in our team that can play through the midfield. Giving the opportunities for guys to come in and play some minutes through the midfield really supports their game.

Lachie Fogarty kicks the ball during Carlton's clash against Collingwood in round 20, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"Whether it's a player that spends more time forward, to come and play more minutes through the midfield is really good for his game and they add something different for our midfield group.

"We've managed to be able to do that for most of this season. It allows for other players to potentially play less game time, or to play stints forward. We feel that mix has been working well for us."

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The result of Carlton's increased territorial dominance through stoppage work, in addition to an improved ability to retain that territory through its forward-half pressure, has unsurprisingly led to the Blues' scoring rising rapidly.

Carlton went from ranking third-last for points scored at the midway point of the campaign, as well as being dead-last for goals per inside 50 percentage and shot at goal accuracy, to finishing the year being top three in all of those key metrics.

The Blues also significantly improved their inside 50 differentials throughout the second half of the season, while retaining their standing as one of the competition's hardest outfits to score against.

"I think our shot quality improved," Hansen said.

Charlie Curnow celebrates a goal in Carlton's match against Melbourne in round 22, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"We went to work, not necessarily on getting more shots, but on improving the quality of our shots when we went forward. Certainly, the offensive finish starts at the beginning. Where that chain starts is really important.

"The dynamic nature of our play changed. Our front-half had more space to work into and then there were more one-on-ones. We started to maximise turnover and winning a bit more footy from stoppage, putting us in good positions in one-on-one contests.

"It's an accumulation of a number of things, but I think that's what started to transpire. We started to turn the ball over in really great spaces, off the back of great defence. When the opposition is displaced, you can get some easy shots on goal."


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But the club's improved form, and the continuity it has been able to achieve from a fitness perspective, has recently allowed Carlton officials to hammer home more than just the fundamentals.

As the pointy end of the season has arrived, with it bringing more pivotal moments within the context of the Blues' campaign, scenario-based training has proved instrumental in the team's series of key victories.

In a four-point win over Gold Coast in round 23, it was key forward Charlie Curnow who acted as the side's extra man in the backline to mark bravely on the last line of defence and save the game. In a six-point victory over Sydney in the elimination final, it was half-forward Jack Martin doing the exact same job.

Then, in last week's thrilling two-point win over Melbourne in the semi-final, although it was Blake Acres who kicked the match-winning major, it was defenders Mitch McGovern and Brodie Kemp who were closest to the goal alongside him.

"It's all rehearsal," Hamill said.


"It's what we've been after and chasing for a while now. It started almost two seasons ago when Vossy first walked into the place. You've got so much to chase, so where is the priority there?

"Adam Simpson was on record this year saying that scenario-based training is difficult to get to if you haven't got a full and healthy list and if you're not doing it under intense pressure and scoreboard pressure. We were no different.

"We started that a couple of years ago and we've had some different scenarios to go through in those games. Collingwood is renowned for that and their training around it. We've been on board with that from two years ago.

"It's just a matter of priorities and most sessions now, we do scenario-based training. The boys, in front of 96,000 people and a fair bit of noise, were able to execute. That's a pleasing part for the coaches, to do it under pressure."

Carlton fans celebrate a semi-final win over Melbourne on September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Carlton, and Voss in particular, know a thing or two about pressure by now. Despite all that the Blues and their coach have been through this season, they have come out the other end and are now just two wins away from the sport's pinnacle.

"One of Vossy's greatest strengths is his resilience, there's no doubt about that," Hamill said.

"He's got a really clear plan of where he wants to get to. Our job is to support that and support the gameplan and implement it. The more than we can do that, the more we can take the pressure off him because it's a tough gig. There's only 18 of them.

"We've got quite an experienced assistant coaching group. We've all coached our own teams in our own right at VFL level. It's just a matter of jumping in and helping out and alleviating that pressure.

"The conversations we had were around that. But he's been very good in terms of delegating. He's brought a good understanding of what he needs to delegate and when to step in. That's his greatest strength."