FREMANTLE'S end to the season has Justin Longmuir in 'Coach of the Year' conversations.

The Dockers will miss finals for a fifth consecutive season, but their consistency and dependable game plan under their new boss has gained fans the longer 2020 has progressed.

In a year COVID-19 has forced team meetings online and removed the opportunity to teach full-ground drills, the Dockers' new style has them ranked No.5 in the competition for defence.

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Adelaide coach Matthew Nicks has spoken about the difficulty in teaching a fresh gameplan under the restrictions, while Essendon has also had trouble two years into implementing the Ben Rutten system.

By comparison, both the Crows and Bombers are ranked in the bottom-four for defence this season.

Ahead of Fremantle's final clash of the year against the Western Bulldogs on Sunday, AFL.com.au looks at how Longmuir and the Dockers have embedded their new structure. 

Pre-COVID shutdown

After Longmuir was officially appointed on September 29 last year, one of his first objectives was to enhance the teaching methods of his fellow coaches.

"When he first arrived at the club, we had a lot of sessions with the coaches as to how we want to play," Dockers head of football, and Longmuir's former Dockers teammate, Peter Bell told AFL.com.au this week. 

"In essence, we wanted to educate the coaches with their input as well because at that stage they knew more about our players than perhaps what Justin did.

"The framework was definitely Justin's, but it was so they (assistants), in turn, were really clear and consistent with the players."

The Dockers turned to experts to upskill their coaching panel as to the best way to communicate the messages.

Justin Longmuir at Fremantle training in January. Picture: AFL Photos

"We spend a lot of time talking about individual players and how they best like to learn to maximise that because everyone's profiles are different," Bell said.  

"We've done some things with some teaching experts with our coaches to help them to learn about different teaching styles and learning profiles. It's something Justin was really keen to pursue and continues to be keen on.

"Some players won't learn as well if you're in a lecture theatre and you're seated like an old-school university class.

"I dare say schools these days, there's been a reconfiguration of how classrooms are set-up, for example smaller groups, circular groups and certainly not the old teacher up the front and students up the back.

"That (working with experts) was challenging once COVID came, you couldn't have access to people from outside your football bubble and there's some things that are best done face-to-face.

"If we are able to, and if resources permit, that's something we'll (continue to) explore heavily."

Like most clubs, the Dockers trained two main sessions a week over summer with a weekly 'craft' session included to allow more individualised training to focus on specific skills for certain positions.

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The introduction of the new defensive structure was a priority.

Longmuir also implored the players to own much of the execution, not only in meetings, but in countless 'walk through' drills on their Cockburn training ground.

"He'll ask a lot of questions, he'll expect the players to tell the rest of the playing group, him and the coaches what their understanding of how they want to play is," Bell said.

"It's not a coach up the front talking all the time and 'telling'.

"He expects all the leaders and all the players to educate themselves and each other with how they want to play. In a lot of the meetings, the players are speaking more than the coaches.

"Whether that's helped embed it, I tend to think that is has to (have). That's what he's trying to foster as well."

Captain Nat Fyfe and veteran David Mundy have been crucial in driving the connection between the coaches and players. 

During the shutdown

With players heading to all corners of the country after the narrow round one loss to Essendon, Longmuir didn't want to waste a second of what had been taught over summer. 

"Because he was so eager to educate and embed the way we want to play, the playing group were really engaged during that period," Bell said.

"Through the use of technology and various software programs, Justin would send out gameplan installation stuff and talk to the players individually, in small groups or ask them to go away in small groups and come back to him on certain aspects of our game."

In what turned out to be eight weeks away from the club, the Dockers sense the lessons consumed during the shutdown period are having a big say on the club's end to the season.

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The use of software coding program Hudl – used by multiple AFL clubs – allowed the players to observe different scenarios.

"We had a lot of Zoom calls over the break, but all his meetings have been pretty consistent and slowly chipping away at what we want to do," new Dockers midfielder Blake Acres told AFL.com.au.

"He doesn't expect us to wake up tomorrow and be Superman. All he expects from us is to be a little bit better each day."

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By comparison, Melbourne opted to do little strategy work during the break.

"We haven't once talked about football strategy or anything like that," forward Tom McDonald told News Corp in May.

"I know a few of the teams have spent a bit of time on that, but our meetings have been all about staying in touch with each other, talking about other things." 

Executing after the shutdown

There's been little doubt Longmuir has been able to coach defensive structures.

In Longmuir's first year at Collingwood as defensive coach in 2018, after crossing from his role at West Coast, the Pies conceded 13 fewer points per game than the previous year.  

Now coaching the Dockers, no team has gone slower with ball in hand in the competition this year. Essentially, the Dockers are starting to defend while transitioning the ball. 

Fremantle's defence with ball in hand 

 

2020

Rank

2019

Rank

Disposal Diff.

+1.7

#3

-12.6

#13

Uncontested Poss. Diff.

+4.6

#6

-16.0

#16

Marks

72.0

#7

85.5

#17

Mark Play On %

19.0%

#18

23.6%

#14

Boundary from D50%

57.4%

#5

52.3%

#8

 

They have possessed the ball through marks at a far higher rate than last season and looked to the boundary more when exiting their defensive 50.

Even in Longmuir's words, they have played too "safe" at times this season while focusing so much on defence. They have recorded the second fewest inside 50s this season. 

That stat improved against Melbourne in round 16 as they were able to generate 17 scoring shots in the Cairns wet and exploded with 15 goals against North Melbourne in round 17. 

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"When you have bad losses or a bad win he stays really grounded. He just comes back to the point that we've got to learn from each game," Acres said.

"For example the Richmond game (round 15) I think we learnt a lot out of that game, and he's able to clearly show us what we need to do and then we do it for two weeks in a row and we end up scoring nearly 100 points (against the Roos).

"Then from the North game we still won by 60-something and he still wants us to take out learnings from that game and see how we can get better and not let ourselves down at any stage of the game."

The reliance on Nat Fyfe in the midfield has dropped, with the superstar playing 32 per cent of his time forward this year – his highest time in attack since his debut 2010 season.

The consistency has extended into specific positions with Fyfe, Connor Blakely, Rory Lobb and Brett Bewley the only players with less than 90 per cent of game time in one role over the last five weeks.

But without key pillars Alex Pearce and Joel Hamling for the entire 2020 season and with rising defender Griffin Logue absent for all but five games, the Dockers' defensive numbers have been extraordinary.

 

2020

Rank

2019

Rank

Oppo Scores per I50%

36.9%

#1

43.0%

#9

Oppo Goal per I50%

17.7%

#1

21.4%

#9

Points Against

53.1

#5

78.1

#9

 

No team has allowed fewer scoring shots from opposition entries this season, with defender Luke Ryan playing above his size (189cm) and catapulting into Virgin Australia AFL All Australian contention and best mate Brennan Cox being an able lieutenant. 

When the Dockers headed to the Gold Coast hub for the season restart, AFL rules forced the players to train in smaller groups than in pre-season. 

Some believe it may have been a blessing in disguise for such a young group to spend time on the road together and learn the structure in more cohesive units.

The Dockers parted ways with defensive coach Michael Prior and stoppages coach Anthony Rock ahead of the final four games and will appoint at least one new coach at season's end.

But with Longmuir taking on more of the defensive responsibilities following Prior's departure, his communication hasn't wavered.

"There's no magic ingredient, it's just constant reinforcement of the same messages," Bell said.

"Whether that's coaches' meetings, line meetings, one-on-one conversations out on the oval or in the lift, there'll always be the same messages.

"It's not sexy but that's the best way to do it."