Footy Fix: Brisbane’s midfield is even better than you thought

Stats can often flatter to deceive when it comes to AFL games, but sometimes, like in Brisbane’s utter dismantling of Richmond at the Gabba, they are too compelling to overlook.

The Lions finished Thursday night with more than double the clearances – 46 to 22, to be specific – and a staggering, and I mean STAGGERING, 22 to 5 centre clearance differential.

Even West Coast, the year’s worst clearance team by a country mile, only lost them 47-37 and 22-11 respectively when getting annihilated by Sydney last week. That’s how comprehensively the Tigers were outhunted, outmuscled and outplayed at the source all evening long.

To do it to a team that had convincingly beaten two midfields, one a very good Fremantle outfit, in their last two victories in the Tigers was something to be hold.

The Lions essentially looked at what was becoming a Richmond strength, laughed, and steamrolled them. No wonder they won by 81 points.

This is what Chris Fagan must have hoped the Lions would become after losing their lustre at stoppages in 2022, when they fell to basically an even-money bet with a 13-2-10 record in winning clearances per game. And unsurprisingly, it is two players added to that rotation in 2023 that are making the most substantial difference.

Of course, with another 10 clearances, 15 contested possessions, 34 touches and a couple of cheeky snags, Lachie Neale tore the Tigers a new one just like he did last year and was clearly the best man afield. But it’s bigger than just him.

This is the most organised, well-drilled and perfectly humming midfield in the competition. And it’s getting better with every passing week.

The Lions’ strategy is simple: wherever possible, get the ball in Neale’s hands at stoppages. His mind is so quick, his handpasses so sharp and clean, that for him to get the footy means instantly the most dangerous possible clearance. His impact is why Hugh McCluggage was so unstoppable on the outside; fed a buffet from the inside by the co-captain, he’d have 34 touches of his own and generate five inside 50s, four of them to set up the match in the first half.

Neale is the number one total clearance, and comfortable number one centre clearance, player in the league – but his fellow midfielders deserve plenty of credit in how they enable not just him to so regularly dominate, but keep the opposition’s best clearance player under wraps.

Tim Taranto has been incredible for the Tigers this year, averaging seven clearances and 32 disposals a game. At the Gabba, he’d have 21 disposals and one single clearance for the evening. One.

Taranto also sits equal-fifth for centre clearances, averaging near enough to three per game – often, they’re little scrubbed soccer kicks forward to kick-start the Tigers’ chaos game plan, allowing speedy, tough smalls forward of the ball like Liam Baker and Shai Bolton to hit the footy at bull-at-a-gate pace.

He’d have one centre clearance against the Lions – and Josh Dunkley is why.

For the entire season, but with greater success the longer it has gone on, Dunkley has essentially served as a tagger at stoppages, using his big frame to jostle with the opposition’s best midfielder and his footy intelligence to know exactly what direction to push them to keep them away from the contest.

Dunkley made a beeline for Taranto at the first bounce on Thursday night, and this is pretty much how they spent much of their evenings.

This has a double effect – Dunkley knows Oscar McInerney will, if he wins the hitout, hit towards Neale, who has an uninterrupted run at the ball and ample space to work with. Even if Toby Nankervis wins it, though, his best bet to get to Taranto is to hit right at his feet, and Dunkley will back Neale to read that as well and get in the way every time.

As it turns out, Nankervis, an excellent tap ruckman, gets his hands to it first, forcing Dunkley to shark while jostling with Taranto – his other benefit is that he’s a formidable ball-winner in his own right. The ball bobbles for a while until McInerney activates their last resort plan – he gets the ball and whacks it on his foot out of trouble.

(As it happens, apparently Chris Fagan hates it when the big O does this instead of give it to Neale.)

This isn’t a one-off, either: here’s Dunkley doing it last week to St Kilda’s premier midfielder in Jack Steele…

Here’s him versus Rory Laird a month ago…

And here’s Dunkley trying to do it to his old Western Bulldogs teammate in Jake Stringer…

You’ll notice in two of the three situations, Neale is left free – only the Crows’ Jordan Dawson gives him the requisite respect of a token arm across him. He wins that clearance anyway.

Some teams cotton onto this, like Sydney’s Luke Parker, who chose to position himself next to the supposed weaker mid in Will Ashcroft.

Here, though the Lions showed their versatility: Dunkley, opposed to the smaller and quicker Tom Papley, moves to block up space on defensive side, knowing Papley’s first instinct will be to try and bolt forward into that space: it falls to Ashcroft, top of the centre circle, to do the blocking on Parker to try and give Neale an unimpeded run.

This is the unflashy, team-first stuff that Fagan raves about; it’s why Dunkley’s game against Carlton earlier this year he rated as one of the greatest games he’d ever coached. The former Bulldog isn’t just about winning stacks of the ball anymore – though he’s still good enough to sit equal 17th and equal 18th respectively for total clearances and centre clearances this season.

He’s the best defensive midfielder in the game by a street, and in the modern game, is practically what the tagger role has morphed into.

Dunkley, as it happens, was subbed out at three quarter time with some hamstring tightness, though he should be right again for next week’s date with *shudders* West Coast. That’s why it’s handy to have Ashcroft’s services there as well.

Partly because greatness was expected of him the moment he walked in the door, partly because he’s off-Broadway at Brisbane, and partly because he’s yet to have an outrageous, eye-catching best-afield display, Ashcroft’s debut year has flown under the radar.

But for me, he’s not just the clear Rising Star winner, having almost instantly made himself a crucial cog in a premiership contender playing a role usually occupied by hardened stars of the game, but is having one of the best debut seasons by a drafted midfielder since Rhys Palmer in 2008 (yes, I know, but trust me).

The commentators didn’t make much of this goal assist for Charlie Cameron during the second term, but it sums up the teenager to a tee.

Getting the ball at full stride heading forward, but on a slight angle so adjusting to head straight for goals would take time, normal first-year players would either get the ball straight onto their boot, or give straight back to Cameron for the give-and-go.

What Ashcroft does instead is go wider, assessing his options all the while, then jink back around, foxing the chasing Nathan Broad. As he turns, he dishes a perfect handball to Cameron, having opened up a path towards goal by taking Broad out of the play.

The handball, too, on his non-preferred side, back over his shoulder, lets Cameron gather without even breaking stride. He’s something remarkable.

Another handy boost for the Lions is having a reliable ruckman to rove to; McInerney is in no one’s list of the game’s elite rucks, but he’s a born competitor who suits this team to a tee.

His spindly frame lets him stretch his Inspector Gadget arms above just about everyone else in the game to reel in marks – as he did last week to the totally outgunned Mitch Owens. But at ground level, his follow-up work is the equal of any number of more big-bodied ruckmen in the league, his opponent on Thursday night in Nankervis included.

Only Reilly O’Brien and Tim English have attended more ruck contests in 2023 than the Big O, and you can tell from where the Lions set up at centre bounces, and specifically what side Dunkley goes to block, that they’ve pre-planned where he’s going to hit it to the minute details. And ranking eighth in the league for hitout win rate (44.9 per cent) and fourth for hitouts to advantage is more than good enough when you’ve got a midfield as good as this one to be hitting to.

Dunkley. Neale. Ashcroft. Occasionally McCluggage. Zac Bailey for a burst every now and again. And McInerney feeding them all. You can win premierships with that kind of set-up.

Lachie Neale celebrates a goal.

Lachie Neale celebrates a goal. (Photo by Chris Hyde/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

It’s at the source where the Lions’ whole gameplan is set up. It leads to territory dominance, giving the most dangerous forward line in the business ample scoring opportunities – you’re not going to beat the Lions if they get 68 inside 50s.

By three-quarter time, just four of the Lions’ goals came directly from clearances, but that isn’t the point. If you can trap Richmond in their own defence, and possess the speed and intercepting abilities to prevent them from breaking out, then all you need to do is get it in there and then set up to block it. Child’s play for a team as talented as Brisbane.

This lets their defenders, particularly Harris Andrews, set up to attack – watch Keidean Coleman or Darcy Wilmot come up off the back of the centre square at bounces, or push right up to stoppages around the ground, to win handballs out the back and set up forward forays either by switching the play or, failing all else, bang it long.

You’re not going to beat the Lions if you only win 38 inside 50s yourself, either.

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The Tigers were lambs to the slaughter on Thursday night. Say what you will about the impact of the bye, or Brisbane’s loss of their superpowers the minute they hit the road, or where they sit among the biggest contenders.

With a midfield this good – and, it seems, built for finals with Dunkley’s big-bodied presence added – the Lions have the power to best anyone in the competition, especially at the Gabba.

If they can do it to Richmond, you’d better believe they can dismantle your team, too.

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