Analysis

analysis: Inside the AFL grand final: Working together, owning the middle, not banking on Buddy — how Sydney Swans can win

Flags and grand final victories are not a thing given lightly.

For much of the history of the league, the Swans of South Melbourne had propped up the bottom rungs of the ladder. Despite greats like Bob Skilton filtering through the club, the Swans spent the five decades after their loss in the 1945 “Bloodbath” grand final without so much as a finals win to their name.

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To fans under the age of 35, that’s a little hard to comprehend. Since their appearance in the 1996 grand final, the Swans have missed the finals just five times. They have become a constant in September, just like the rising temperatures.

Two short years ago, the modern Swans found themselves going back in time, and down the ladder. The 2019 and 2020 seasons saw Sydney glued to the bottom four.

Coach John Longmire declared in 2019 that they were looking to the long-term.

“We’ll try and fast-track it (the rebuild) as quick as we can. But we’ll keep coaching as well,” Longmire plainly stated.

“We want to get our process right so we can be a really good competitive team as soon as we can.”

For the Swans, it was just two short years between finishing the bottom four and featuring in the biggest match of the football year.

Now just the Geelong Cats — the side they beat by 30 in round 2 — stand between them and the 2022 premiership.

This is how the Swans can win the 2022 AFL flag.

Which way to go

Much like nature’s swans work together in flight, the footballing Swans support each other on field. Working cohesively, and in balance, is critical to the teams’ success.

“We will have some plans that we go in with, as per every week, but at the end of the day, it’s about your collective and making sure your players work for and with each other,” Longmire discussed earlier this month.

“There will be individual roles but every player has a role at certain points of the game.”

Nowhere is this more evident than their midfield grouping. The Swans have undertaken a near-complete evolution of their inside rotation since their 2016 grand final, with captain Luke Parker the sole holdover in the current team. It’s full of young talent, underpinning their team of the future.

There’s also an intense focus on the balance between defence and attack in the midfield.

“No matter who we play, we like to play two-way footy and that’s all of our midfielders,” Longmire said.

The Swans aren’t great at scoring from stoppages, ranking just 15th in the competition in points scored per stoppage possession chain. But stoppages do play a critical role in their around-the-ground defence and potent counterattack on turnovers.

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Sydney generates a far higher rate of ground-ball turnovers than the league average. When opposition sides have the ball, the Swans effectively balance pressuring the ball carrier and preventing clear handballs and short kicks. This build-up of pressure can quickly get the ball going the other way.

Owning the middle of the ground is critical to the Swans’ style and approach to winning games of football.

The Swans score the most points of any team from intercepts in the midfield zone. And when they give up the ball in that part of the ground, only Fremantle are better at stopping other sides from scoring.

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If Sydney can dominate the flow of play in the middle of the ground, the Cats will have a hard time making up ground elsewhere.

Wrapped up

A Sydney Swans defender launches his fist at the ball to punch it clear of Collingwood forwards during a game.
Unlike other teams, the Swans — through Dane Rampe and others — are happy to kill the contest with spoils.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

One thing that hasn’t changed about Longmire’s Swans is their ability to beat sides into submission by stopping them from scoring. The names may have changed along the way — aside from Dane Rampe — but the results are deceptively similar.

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Sydney conceded the third fewest points per inside 50 of any side this year. The Swans’ defence works in near-unison, communicating effectively and able to generate spares in defence to prevent opposition forays forward.

While some sides try to create intercept marks, the Swans are content to kill contests via the spoil. Sydney has a tall defence, with four of their backs (the brothers Tom and Paddy McCartin, Rampe and Nick Blakey) able to credibly cover key-position forwards.

All are also mobile enough to compete as the third man up, limiting the number of one-on-one contests their defence sees.

Sydney makes it hard for opposition sides to find easy avenues to goal. The Cats are one of the best sides in the game at generating space for their forwards, and repeat inside 50 entries. The Sydney defence will need to be at the top of their game to hold the Geelong forwards off.

Directions to goal

A Sydney Swans forward bends down to scoop up the ball on the run in an AFL final.
If the Swans can get small forwards like Tom Papley free out the back, they could cause Geelong trouble at the MCG.(Getty Images: AFL Photos / Michael Willson)

The two-way focus isn’t just limited to their stellar defensive work. The Swans have also improved year-on-year in their attacking focus, ending the year as one of the best attacking sides.

Much of this work is done off the counter-attack, with the Swans excelling at turning intercepts into scoring opportunities. Sydney can flick the switch between slow and quick play as the opportunities present themselves.

This helps the side generate attacking one-on-one opportunities, worth their weight in gold. The Swans capitalise on them as well as any side in the competition.

The Swans also have a number of pathways to goal. Despite the intense media focus on Lance Franklin, the Swans can hit the scoreboard through several different targets. Longmire toys with dropping smalls deep to disrupt opposition defences, and rotating his talls through the hotspot.

Against a Geelong defence that is vice-like, finding non-Franklin targets up forward will be key to getting a big-enough score on the board.

Future forecast

Few can forget the magic moment when the two sides met earlier this year and Franklin kicked his 1,000th league goal.

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Lost in some minds, however, was the result that day — a 30-point Sydney victory. A lot has changed in the time since then, almost an entire season ago.

The Swans dominated through winning possession in the middle of the ground — generating 62 of their 107 points from 24 midfield turnovers. The margin may have flattered the Swans a little bit, with the Swans kicking unerringly accurately towards goal.

Longmire’s message through the finals has been simple and direct.

“I just keep telling them to focus on what works and understanding their role in the team, that any particular moment is important and putting pressure on the opposition is important.”

Speaking after last week’s preliminary final victory, Longmire’s assessment for the grand final was simple.

“We’ll have to play at our best. We’ll give it a go.”

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