(L-R): Liam Henry, Nick Daicos and Charlie Cameron. Pictures: AFL Photos

NORTH Melbourne has introduced 'Northball', a quicker style of play that starts with its half-back guns creating out of defence. St Kilda targeted pace, pace and more pace in last year's trade and draft window. Damien Hardwick wants more dare from Gold Coast in his first season in charge.

Port Adelaide focused on being more rapid last season and felt the benefits. Adam Kingsley brought the Richmond method of fast-at-all-costs to Greater Western Sydney last year and got within a point of the Grand Final.

If pace was available at the AFL supermarket, it would be sold out and off the shelves. But is it the answer to beating Collingwood? Is the copycat model effective? And what about Brisbane? A kick off a premiership themselves last year, do teams instead follow the Lions' differing style to the Magpies and create the new trend?

With the home and away season just over a week away, AFL.com.au looks at how clubs are preparing tactically for 2024.


"ASK me after round four," one senior coach said. "It's hard to get a feel for it until then. The cat and mouse stuff will happen early days. There's clubs who are going to go really quick but there's clubs who will have good shape behind the ball, draw them out and go slower which is maybe a counter to that. There's always a counter."

Champion Data's numbers showed little change between the 2022 and 2023 game styles of sides. The modern wrestle endured: teams getting better with their ball movement to score more pitted against defensive systems so good, so tested and so sturdy that it became harder to slice through.

Collingwood set itself apart through transition. The Magpies ranked first in the AFL at generating inside-50s and scores from back-half chains and were particularly destructive from intercepts. A quarter of their scores came from defensive midfield chains, which was the highest of any side.


But Brisbane, as runners-up, were built on winning the ball and territory. They were top four in differentials of contested possessions, clearances, inside-50s, time in forward half and points from forward half chains. The Grand Final was tactically less cat and mouse than (big) cat and bird – contrasting styles of Collingwood generating scores from the back half and Lions at the front, but both dominant in the turnover game.

Where the Pies pushed for transition and line-breaking play, the Lions just got the ball forward and locked it in. It worked for both. Amongst clubs, there are a range of different views on how things look this season.

"I think we'll see it trend towards being even faster. Everyone wants to go faster," said a senior coach. "Clubs know that to break down defences, which are so good these days, you need to move fast. Otherwise defences are so organised they'll be able to stop you. We're all looking for moments to disrupt that."

"There might be a bit more of attacking the last line and not keeping the ball, possessing the ball as we've seen before," another head coach said. "But there's always a new trend. The flood, the forward press, the keepings off. That's why I think you don't need to change the rules because the coaches will. If it's working for someone then it's not working for others and they'll have to be different."



COACHES differed on what the Collingwood copycat effect would be this year.

One said it has "kind of" happened already. "It's been more of a Richmond copycat from playing the game aggressively, assertively and attacking it through the middle," he said. "Collingwood is a high scoring team, Brisbane has been a high scoring team for a period of time. Port Adelaide has been high scoring, Adelaide scored well last year. You could see the game chasing offence a bit more and being a bit bolder."

Others said it was dangerous to "mimic" the best sides of the previous year, noting they were already the top of their game in that system. "You don't take the whole game style but you might borrow certain elements and what actually works for your group," he said.

Collingwood's fleet of superstars – prodigy Nick Daicos, veteran Scott Pendlebury, captain Darcy Moore and gamebreaker Jordan De Goey – were pivotal in the Pies' premiership success and rivals see some of coach Craig McRae's brilliance in adapting a style to suit them.

Their more attacking McRae way in his two seasons as coach coincided with Daicos arriving at the Magpies. Very swiftly, rivals noted, the Magpies made it a big part of their plans to give the ball to Daicos as often as they could.


"It's a good strategy because attacking things tend to happen after that," a coach said. Another pointed out the Daicos direction. "They have a list of players who win one-on-ones, players who keep their feet and then they have Nick Daicos. He's not necessarily the biggest and best athlete but he has so much balance, " another said. "He just doesn't lose."

Another described having Moore gave the Pies an extra defender, rating him at least "one and a half" players in Collingwood's backline which afforded others extra flexibility.

"Their experienced players were so effective in the Grand Final and so many big moments last year," a senior coach said.

That leads to two critical Collingwood spinoffs for rival thinking over summer: how to best maximise a squad's respective strengths and also trying to mirror the Pies' expertise in finishing tight games. Under McRae, the Pies have had 28 of his 51 games decided by 14 points of less. They've won 22 of those games, including their three finals last year by a combined 12 points.

Clubs are expected to have trained up more for situational plays over pre-season.

"Having the ability to know what the scenario is and what levers to pull in each space is important," a coach said. "I look at the Grand Final and they had a bit of luck at the end, but it has more to do with belief in those moments, so others will chase that and train that even more."


A MAJOR Collingwood lesson is in its list management calls, one rival list boss said. "They've recruited for them," he said.

At the end of 2021, they brought in Bulldog Patrick Lipinski, confident his long running would suit the MCG. At the end of 2022, Bobby Hill's speed was attractive and Tom Mitchell's inside work was preferred over other midfielders as a source player. The Pies knew Mitchell would feed it to Daicos and built around the son(s) of Peter.

And last year, the Pies leapfrogged other clubs and landed Lachie Schultz, whose power running, speed and goalkicking will add further class to their running game.

"Personnel is still the main factor in how you play," said a head coach. "And then it's availability. Your plan can change for different blocks dependant on injuries but you have to come up with it."

St Kilda's additions of wingman/forward Liam Henry, midfielder Paddy Dow, draftees Darcy Wilson, Hugo Garcia and Angus Hastie all brought genuine zip. Brisbane last year replaced Daniel Rich at half-back with the speed of Conor McKenna and Darcy Wilmot. North brought in Dylan Stephens and Zac Fisher as ball-users and have settled Colby McKercher next to Harry Sheezel off half-back as their dash brothers.

Essendon and Port Adelaide targeted positional requirements more than style pieces, as did Sydney with its haul, although the addition of a front-line ruckman has the potential to change the Swans' midfield formula.

Hawthorn has played an attacking brand but struggled for scores last year, with the Hawks possessing more firepower this season but an injury-hit defence. Richmond has identified playing faster, Fremantle has focused on its sprint loads to add more power and strength to its burst and tackle-breaking, while Adelaide, a buzz team ahead of the season, already has shown its offensive traits.

Positional shifts signal change, too: the Bombers use of Nic Martin as a Daicos and Sheezel type across half-back shows their intent, the same for Hardwick's switch of kicker Alex Sexton to half-back.


Some coaches can see clubs pushing for the goal square play more and then trying to lock it in. Melbourne's avalanche of finals inside-50 entries, without success, was perhaps an example of this and drew criticism. However, as one coach noted, it may have been different if Max King was there marking it. Or a fit Harrison Petty.

Carlton, having been able to score, learned the value of defence in the second half of last year and will tighten the screws on that this year.

The Blues' focus on that while in premiership mode is instructive, as clubs know the main ingredients to success are not going to change. Defence is the pizza base, but every topping is a little bit different. "I don't think there's been a bad defensive team go really well for a long time," a senior coach said.

The Magpies' masterclass was in super efficiency: they were No.1 in the AFL for goals per inside-50 last year and fourth for goals conceded per inside-50. Adelaide, Geelong and Brisbane were the others best for forward efficiency, while St Kilda, Carlton, Melbourne then the Pies were the top-four for the best rate of goals conceded per inside-50.

Pressure has been a regular benchmark of premiership contenders, with Collingwood, the Giants, Swans and Crows ranked the best four last year. The Giants were No.1 in the game for the statistic in their seven-game winning streak from round 13-20.

"There's always an extra respect shown to the team that wins it. But Brisbane also played a very exciting brand of football too, Geelong changed how they played when Jeremy Cameron got there and tasted that success in 2022, they went quicker and had to," a senior coach said. "Everyone's looking for the next thing."