Three AFL players wearing red and blue, celebrate a goal, while an opposition play looks downcast

How Collingwood uses space better than anyone in the AFL

As obsessed as Melbourne is with footy, it might be more obsessed with its public transport network.

The Melbourne tram is both practical and iconic, dotting the landscape with overhead lines and steel tracks.

The core principles of public transport are pretty simple: coverage, frequency and directness. The right spacing between stops and lines for speedy journeys and maximum usage.

Much of modern footy is dense, often with little regard for pace and coverage.

However, Collingwood is seemingly dedicated to ensuring wide spacing forward of the ball, similar to the tram network running through Melbourne.

The Pies go into September as the minor premiers and flag favourites, with the hopes of their massive fanbase on their shoulders.

They are the team responsible for some of the most exciting and engaging play of the last two years, bursting towards goal with abandon.

More than just by raw speed, the excitement is generated by their positioning and strategy in the contests.

The Magpies are chasing their first AFL premiership since 2010.(AAP: James Ross)

The Pies always run on time

Collingwood put the cherry on their stellar season with a dominant win over Essendon two weeks ago.

For parts of the game they also exhibited some of the purest distillation of their brand.

Interested onlookers could see the waves of Collingwood attackers rushing forward ahead of the ball, scoring at will.

Few were as interested as Alex Coughlin. Not just as a diehard Essendon fan, but also for his role with Williamstown’s VFL side – who were a chance of facing Collingwood’s reserve side in the VFL finals.

Coughlin watched the game patiently and discussed what was happening with ABC Sport.

“Collingwood attack and win the ball in the corridor. The Essendon midfield collapse in — note Sam Durham inside the contest with his man Daicos hanging out the back to be the distributor,” Coughlin explained.

The Collingwood brand of pressure is about commitment of numbers towards the contest. The frequency at which their players attack the ball is relentless.

“The Pies get numbers from the back line here. That means the mids and high half-forwards can run forwards towards goal. Off the screen, the deepest three forwards will be ripping back towards goal. This creates space in the centre of the ground,” Coughlin said.

“They run and carry with a series of handballs. The spacing and pace throws Essendon off balance. This is a system goal.”

These waves of Collingwood players and how they can impact play are critical to their success. Collingwood frequently looks backwards and to the side to hit runners with handballs so they can attack with pace.

Collingwood also applies pressure to keep the ball moving forward, even without clear possession. This also closes down opposition alleys forward.

The Magpies lead the league for tackle differential, an indication of their playing style — attacking towards the ball. The high forwards and mids always run on time, and always to the right destination.

However, it often leaves Collingwood outnumbered towards the opposition goal, with options open on the counterattack if they fully lose possession.

But as opposition sides are often on their heels given the Pies’ pace at the contest, opposition sides are often out of structure, leaving these spare forwards useless.

‘They always outnumber at every stage of play’

A little further in the game against Essendon, the role of those high Collingwood forwards becomes a bit clearer.

“Right at the start there are seven Essendon players on screen to three Magpies. That means the extras need to be somewhere. They are heading forward after they’ve won the ball,” Coughlin explained.

“The Pies’ half forwards are in a line, and they bolt at the same time, running on tramlines across the [ground]. It’s all in sync. They try to stay spaced and in a line to stretch the next layer of defence.

“This is a great passage because, despite a series of bad kicks, Collingwood can still control play. The power running and cue-reading running from Collingwood mean they always outnumber at every stage of play.”

The Pies lead the league for marks on lead differential, a hallmark of their game style.

The downside is that it hurts the ability to crumb, but for a side light on true contested pack marking options, it’s a trade worth making.

The other key part is the timeliness. While the trams don’t always run on time, the Pies seemingly do. Collingwood commits to going forward early — much earlier than other sides. With a team full of hard gut runners, the Pies often beat sides on the break.

Again, there’s risk if they lose clear possession of the ball, but the wave of runners heading to the contest helps apply pressure.

The Pies are also able to generate speed from set play from an unlikely source.

Instead of going at the speed of light, the Pies utilise a sometimes slow chip-mark game to shift the defence and create gaps to attack. The Pies prioritise finding the centre of the corridor when in the middle of the ground.

“The middle of the ground is the easiest place to score from. Protecting the corridor is important against all teams, but especially so against Collingwood,” Coughlin said.

The chip-mark game is usually signified by low-risk kicks subtly moving down the ground, preventing teams from generating quick intercepts.

The Pies mainly do it to bide time for an attack into the corridor. When the Pies go, they attack hard, flowing into the corridor.

The differential in speed often catches sides off-guard. They shift into the space that was once empty, and attack from the most advantageous spot on the ground.

That’s where they’ll generate a similar outnumber to what they can achieve at the contest — with plenty of free receivers.

Often this comes as a result of a runner coming from defence to receive a handball going towards goal – artificial immediacy to shift the focus of the opposition.

Collingwood’s strength can be exploited

While it’s an impressive strategy with plenty of moving parts, it’s not infallible.

The secrets to beating Collingwood are also at the heart of the Pies’ success – retaining space and being disciplined.

Teams can easily get suckered into beating the Pies to the contest, or to maintain their numerical advantage ahead of the ball.

Failing to follow the Pies gut runners is often a critical blow to a side’s chances of beating Collingwood. Matching numbers through the middle of the ground, and staying back shoulder, is key.

Three AFL players wearing red and blue, celebrate a goal, while an opposition play looks downcast

Melbourne beat the Magpies by four points in round 13.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

Earlier this year, Melbourne were able to bump runners off their tramlines and protect the corridor at all costs, blunting Collingwood’s ability to attack via handball chains.

The Demons tried to make the ground more narrow, setting up to the outside and behind Pies players to prevent them from chipping into the corridor.

The Demons tried to lull the Pies into kicking long down the line to pack contests — an area where Melbourne thrives. It’s a blueprint other teams have now followed to combat some of the Magpies’ tricks.

Collingwood have won just two of their past five games heading into finals.

This inability to generate attack has also had the effect of making their defence look worse.

“We need to get to work on those little things we can control that will save us goals,” Collingwood coach Craig McRae said before the round 24 match against Essendon.

“Most of the things we know we need to work on are right in front of us.”

But finals are a different beast, and Collingwood are a smart side. They know that the big battle is still ahead.

“In two weeks’ time, it’s a different game,” McRae articulated after their round 23 loss to Brisbane.

“The whole competition starts again. It doesn’t really matter where you qualify, it all starts again.”

The most exciting part of finals is seeing what tweaks, changes and counters sides pull out when games matter the most.

As the side to beat in this year’s finals, Collingwood will be watched more than anyone else.




Author: Russell White