FREMANTLE has emerged from the first half-a-dozen weeks of the new AFL season as the major surprise, sitting second with a 5-1 record and with Saturday's trip to Geelong looming as one of the games of the round.

"They're playing top-four football as far as we can see," Geelong coach Chris Scott said about the Dockers ahead of Saturday's game at GMHBA Stadium.

"They're a different team to the one they were last year, almost uniformly in a positive sense."

Fremantle has endured years of underachievement, having not made the finals since their minor premiership year of 2015. In the third year of Justin Longmuir's rein, suddenly the footy media is taking notice and fans on the south side of the Swan River are getting their hopes up.

Justin Longmuir addresses Fremantle players against Hawthorn in R17, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

But what's changed after finishing 11th in 2021 with a 10-12 record, to being 5-1 across six rounds?

Game Style

Over the past week, rival coaches Michael Voss and Scott have both lauded the Dockers’ pressure around the ball. The statistics back that up, with Fremantle going from the side with the worst scores from turnover differential (-13.8) to now being the best (+35.7).

"Credit to Freo, their pressure around the ball was quite good," Voss said after Carlton's 35-point loss to the Dockers on Saturday night.

"We transferred the pressure to the next person, rather than take the metres we needed. They were able to strip the ball back and get it going in their half."

The importance of scores from turnover is significant, given nine of the past 10 premiers have ranked in the top six that season, while last year's grand finalists – the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne – were the top two respectively in 2021.

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Brayshaw excites to give Dockers six in a row

Andrew Brayshaw completed this brilliant piece of team play with a goal which made it six unanswered goals from his side

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Fremantle has also risen from being ranked 16th (20.8) for scores from forward-half intercepts to first (36.3). That's also built off an improvement in generating forward-half intercepts, up from 10th in 2021 (21.9) to third in 2022 (26.0). The Dockers were last in the competition for tackles inside 50 in 2021 (6.8) but they've surged up to seventh (10.3) this year.

Put simply, they're re-gaining possession more and finding ways to score more once they win the ball, utilising the pace of Michael Frederick and Travis Colyer on transition, harassing opposition defenders into turnovers led by Lachie Schultz and Sam Switkowski, or hitting up forwards like Matt Taberner, who kicked seven against Essendon in round five when he had three marks inside 50.

Longmuir explained on AFL 360 earlier this week: "I think that's been the biggest difference in our game this year is the constant pressure we're bringing on the opposition. It's an area of the game we put a lot of work into over the pre-season and that's allowing us to create opportunities closer to goal and before the opposition is able to get set."

Fremantle Improvement

2021 Avg.

Rank

2022 Avg.

Rank

Inside 50 Diff.

+0.2

#11

+7.3

#4

Fwd Half Intercepts

21.9

#10

26.0

#3

Scores from Fwd Half Intercepts

20.8

#16

36.3

#1

Scores from Turnover Diff.

-13.8

#18

+35.7

#1

Scores per Inside 50 %

43.0%

#8

47.1%

#3

Scores Agst. Per Inside 50 %

44.7%

#16

38.8%

#2

Intercept Marks

13.8

#15

15.3

#7

 

Defensive Solidarity

It's been said that Longmuir's initial focus after taking over at Fremantle was to reinforce its backline, before expanding that to their offence. As the stats show, the Dockers have conceded the second fewest points in the AFL this season, behind only reigning premiers and league leaders Melbourne.

In 2021, Fremantle conceded the seventh most scores, averaging 82.95 points against per game. In 2022, that's down to 61.5 points against per game. That's a vastly better platform for victory.

The Dockers have conceded 10 or more goals in a game only once all season, back in their round one win over Adelaide (12.10.82) when they shipped six in the third term before surviving a late scare thanks to Heath Chapman's heroic last-ditch spoil.

The aforementioned pressure plays a big part in that as Fremantle ranks second for scores against per inside 50 (38.8%), as opposed to 16th last season (44.7%).

The Dockers have also risen from 15th in intercept marks (13.8) per game, up to seventh (15.3) in 2022, led by defenders Brennan Cox (3.2, ninth in the AFL) and Griffin Logue (2.5, 20th).

Brennan Cox takes an intercept mark for Fremantle against Carlton in R6, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Cox, who missed Fremantle's only loss in round two to St Kilda due to health and safety protocols, has been an under-rated star this season and hauled in four intercept marks among his 12 grabs in the round six win over Carlton.

Even Contribution

It's amazing to consider that Fremantle's rise has occurred without their star player, two-time Brownlow medal winner Nat Fyfe. Andy Brayshaw has been electric in his absence, but it's required a collective improvement from Fremantle.

Champion Data's AFL Player Ratings indicate this, with regulars Blake Acres (+5.4), Matt Taberner (+2.5) and Lachie Schultz (+2.5) along with emerging youngsters Hayden Young (+3.4) and Heath Chapman (+3.2) all their leading improvers via differential. 

Player

2021

2022

Diff.

B. Acres

6.6

12.0

+5.4

H. Young

6.8

10.0

+3.2

L. Meek

6.8

10.0

+3.2

H. Chapman

4.4

7.6

+3.2

M. Taberner

8.4

10.9

+2.5

L. Schultz

6.1

8.6

+2.5


The acquisition of Will Brodie from Gold Coast, basically as a set of steak knives in last year's trade period, has been shrewd too, shining in Fyfe's absence as a contested ball-winner.

00:38 Mins
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Brodie gets his first for Freo in style

Will Brodie kicks his first goal for the Dockers with a great snap and assisted by Andrew Brayshaw

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Brodie, who could only manage 25 games across five years at Gold Coast, is averaging 26.8 disposals, 6.5 clearances, 3.8 inside 50s and 4.3 tackles this season. The former Suns midfielder actually ranks as the best Fremantle player this season, with 14.0 AFL Player Rating points per game.

All this adds up to a winning formula, but whether they can keep it up until September remains to be seen. Bigger tests are to come, starting on Saturday against the Cats.