Building a great team isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be good.
Over the past decade, Geelong have seemingly cracked the code.
The Cats have finished inside the top four eight times and missed the finals just once in the 11 years since they won their last flag.
Inside the Swans’ grand final chances
Cody Atkinson and Sean Lawson run the ruler over the Swans ahead of the AFL grand final — and explain why their revamped midfield rotation holds the key against the Cats.
Winning a premiership is hard. Injuries and form can derail any side, as can the bounce of a footy. Sometimes lightning can strike at the right time, like it did with the Bulldogs in 2016.
The Cats have walked into the past three seasons with arguably the most talented side in the competition on paper. But, for reasons of fate, they have fallen just short of holding the premiership cup.
As each year passes the bonds that tie them to that 2011 team — and the 2007 and 2009 flags — disappear. Just three players remain from that 2011 side, in addition to their coach Chris Scott.
Despite having one of the oldest sides in VFL/AFL history, most of the Cats haven’t tasted premiership glory while wearing the blue and white hoops.
The Cats walk into the decider on a 15-match winning streak, their second longest in the VFL/AFL.
Standing in their way is a Sydney Swans side that is hot at the right time. The Cats enter the grand final with talent and a style that can beat any side.
This is how the Cats can win the 2022 AFL premiership.
Hold the line
For all the advancements to defensive positioning, spacing and movement over the history of football, the contest still remains at the heart of the game.
Contests from stoppages to scraps for balls after spilled marks can be the difference in a tight game or the reason for dominance.
Working out the balance, cohesion and approach in contests is an art form. It’s choreographed but heavily improvisational, with rules guiding the natural instincts of players to get the ball for their side.
Sometimes it’s not about the sheer talent, but how it meshes with everyone else. Scott has talked regularly through the finals about the depth of the side, and how impressive it is.
“I’ve said it before, it’s worth saying again: it’s not a ranking of your best players,” Scott said.
“It’s the roles and the mix of your team that’s so important. A couple of those guys [missing] I’d have on the top 10 or 15 on our list.”
A great example is the Cats centre bounce set-up. That initial grouping often shapes the positioning and structures for the passages of play to follow.
At the start of the year the core centre bounce combination contained more attacking players — Patrick Dangerfield, Brandan Parfitt, Joel Selwood and Cam Guthrie.
Despite the star power, the results didn’t necessarily follow.
Halfway through the season Tom Atkins — notionally a defender — was thrown into the mix. Atkins thrived through the middle, blending a physical presence to prevent opposition midfielders exiting the ball from the middle with the ability to win the ball.
The final evolution came in round 17, where utility Mark Blicavs was introduced into the group, not only as a relief ruck but also as a inside midfielder.
It has shifted the Cats to a more defensive focus on the inside of stoppages, limiting any damage going the other way.
Blicavs has the strength to box his opponent out from the play and deny them the ability to hit the contest at pace.
It turns the contest into a near one-on-one battle for Dangerfield, Guthrie or Selwood, with Atkins and Blicavs working together to remove their opponents from consideration.
In the age of the supersized midfielder, Blicavs dwarfs them all.
Combining high level athleticism, innate defensive understanding and sheer size, Blicavs presents a problem for any opposition side to work through.
Geelong has been the best centre-bounce team in the league since his introduction into the mix.
This use of Blicavs also helps them set up for their biggest strength — their intercept game. Blicavs often takes ruck contests around the ground, freeing up an extra tall to go back into defence.
Geelong has been the most potent side at attacking from turnovers this year and one of the best sides at stopping opposition counter attacks from anywhere on the ground.
A big part of this success is how the Cats like to set up without the ball. They tend to have a keen regard to spacing and the spread of the opposition.
Like most teams they’ll try to block off the corridor in the middle of the ground, but also try to drop two spare defenders back to guard the most valuable real estate on the ground.
That’s why you’ll often see a Cats player such as Tom Stewart clean up kicks to open space. This positioning drives opposition sides crazy, and forces them to play either ultra conservatively or try almost impossible kicks to move the ball forward.
They also don’t strictly stick to assignments. Jack Henry touched on this flexibility when he spoke to the media this week.
“I usually don’t take the biggest but I will play on a handful of guys and try to get it done.” Henry said.
“Whether it’s (Isaac) Heeney or those dangerous forwards, whoever stays deep. You try to stick to what you know.”
When they do get loose ball, they pick apart sides and make them pay for their mistakes. The Swans have a good sense of balance when moving the ball, something they will have to retain to have a chance on Saturday.
Given their ability further up the ground, the Geelong forwards are often overlooked when thinking about their strengths.
That’s despite boasting three All-Australians this year and perhaps the best two key position forwards in the game.
Not only do the Cats have talent up forward, but also the ability to work together effectively.
The forwards know how to work together without cramping their spacing. Cameron knows how to provide space for Hawkins, and vice versa. Tyson Stengle, Brad Close, Gary Rohan and others provide critical support on the ground without drawing extra defenders towards either of their linchpins.
The result is a nearly unstoppable aerial attack inside 50.
That’s compounded by the sheer amount of times Geelong gets the ball up forward. The Cats generate the biggest inside-50 differential of any side this year. When it comes to getting the ball inside 50, Geelong does it 25 per cent more than their opposition.
The Swans are one of the few sides with the defensive weapons to counter the Geelong forward line, and the ability to genuinely hurt them on the counterattack. The ability for the Cats to get marks up forward might be the deciding factor in the game.
Do it better — again
Geelong have been here before. They know the stakes, and what it means to be playing this deep in the year.
Their captain has played in more finals than any other player and their coach has won three flags as a player and one as a coach.
After their win over Brisbane, players in the rooms talked about treating it like any other game. Close was gearing up for a round of golf at Barwon Heads on Thursday, just like any other week. The rules of the game don’t change for just one week.
Despite this, doubts always creep in.
“There is always a level of anxiety when the stakes are so high, and the execution from our team over the last three or four months has been really good, but you have to keep doing it in the moment.” said Scott after the Cats’ preliminary-final win.
One match stands between Geelong and the crowning achievement of the Scott era. A match like any other, but with an importance greater than all of them combined.
The 2022 Cats may be close to cementing their place in Geelong’s rich footballing history, if everything goes like it normally does.