Carlton players celebrate a Tom De Koning goal against Richmond in round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

WHEN Carlton was in trouble in Opening Round and needed a late goal to get past Brisbane at the Gabba, it was the Blues' newfound turnover game that saved them, offering an early indication of how the preliminary finalists would change this season.

On that occasion, Mitch McGovern took an intercept mark after Lions midfielder Josh Dunkley cleared his back 50 with a long kick to the wing, with the resulting turnover ending with Harry McKay kicking the match-winning goal.


So it was again deep in last Saturday's win against Fremantle as the Blues forced a turnover from defender Alex Pearce's long clearing kick and got the ball into Charlie Curnow's hands for a crucial late goal that kept them afloat.

The Blues' turnover game has come under the spotlight this week amid a drastic drop in their clearance numbers, posing the question: how are they undefeated when they rank ahead of only Geelong for clearance differential?

Perhaps more importantly, how are they scoring when they have slid from first in 2023 for points from clearance differential (+11.8) to 15th (-10.3)?

Matt Cottrell celebrates a goal during Carlton's clash against Richmond in round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

The answer is the turnover game that Champion Data stats show have been crucial to nine of the past 10 premiers, who have all ranked top six in scores from turnover differential. The exception was the Western Bulldogs in 2016.

While the Blues reached a preliminary final in 2023 on the back of an exceptional midfield that was better than any team at preventing scores from stoppages, the team's new model would appear a more sustainable one based on the recent history of premiership teams.  

Points From Turnover 42.9 14th 62.0 2nd
Points Against From Turnover 44.8 7th 35.0 2nd
Points From Turnover Differential -1.9 11th +27 1st

It is also a case of where Carlton is forcing opposition turnovers, with the team building an ability to repeatedly regain the ball in its front half. This was again on show against Fremantle, particularly during a flurry at the end of the second quarter that resulted in scoring shots that weren't capitalised on.


They forced a total of 26 forward half turnovers (above their season average of 24) against the Dockers for a return of 5.5 (their lowest total points and conversion rate for the season).

Their defenders, including Jordan Boyd, have been brilliant through a 4-0 start at forcing turnovers and winning their own intercept possessions in damaging positions.

Points From Forward Half Turnover 23.0 14th 40.8 1st

How much Carlton's style changes with the return of star midfielder Sam Walsh is still to be seen, but maintaining their turnover game while gaining a lift in stoppage ascendency can only be a good thing for the fourth-placed team, highlighting the significant upside they still have.

Walsh, who is yet to play this season because of a back injury, was a member of the Blues' most common centre bounce combination last year and has effectively been replaced by George Hewett in the most used rotation while he is unavailable.

George Hewett is tackled by Luke Davies-Uniacke during the match between North Melbourne and Carlton at Marvel Stadium in round three, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Without Walsh, the centre bounce numbers have taken a significant hit.

Points From CB Clearance 12.2 4th 7.0 14th
Points Against From CB Clearance 9.5 6th 11.8 10th
Points From CB Clearance Differential +2.7 6th -4.8 15th


Points From Clearance 36.9 3rd 27.5 12th
Points Against From Clearance 25.1 1st 37.8 14th
Points From Clearance Differential +11.8 1st -10.3 15th

The situation at an undefeated Geelong is different, despite the Cats now sitting 18th for clearance differential (-8.8) this season, given it wasn't a strength in 2023 either, ranking 15th (-2.3).

Where the Blues have built a brilliant turnover game, the Cats have lifted in that area while also making a big jump in centre bounce scoring to now lead the AFL for points scored (22.0) from that source.

Their preferred combination appears to be Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Atkins and Tanner Bruhn, with the trio attending 11 centre bounces together in their only match alongside each other in round one against St Kilda.

Tanner Bruhn celebrates a goal with Tom Atkins during the R15 match between Geelong and Melbourne at GMHBA Stadium on June 22, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos
Points From CB Clearance 10.1 11th 22.0 1st
Points Against From CB Clearance 11.7 13th 13.0 14th
Points From CB Clearance Differential -1.6 13th 9.0 2nd

The other big improvement at Geelong has been the team's ability to defend turnovers, leading the League and conceding only 33.0 points from that source, ahead of Carlton with 35.0. It's been a significant rise from 10th in 2023.

Points From Turnover 52.9 5th 47.5 9th
Points Against From Turnover 45.8 10th 33.0 1st
Points From Turnover Differential +7.1 7th +14.5 4th

The slight increase in time up the ground for superstar forward Jeremy Cameron could be playing a role in the Cats' adjustments, with Cameron's midfield time lifting from one per cent in 2023 up to nine per cent this year.

Jeremy Cameron marks in front of Liam Jones during the match between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong at Adelaide Oval in round four, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

It was on show as the Cats kicked a crucial fourth-quarter goal against the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night in Gather Round, with Cameron streaming through the centre square to set up Oliver Henry's second goal after defending a run of five inside 50s.

For both the Cats and Blues, sitting bottom two for clearance differential has proved no hurdle to an undefeated start. They have gone about it in slightly different ways, but it's garnered the same result where it matters.