At 8:08pm last Friday night, Jacob Weitering stood alone in a field of grass.
Well, not completely alone. There were 22 of his closest allies nearby, and 23 of his fiercest rivals not much further away. That’s ignoring the 92,026 in the stands and the million or so watching at home.
“Alone” is somewhat relative.
Jacob Weitering (circled in red) “alone” on the field.(Supplied: Fox Footy)
But there’s no player by his side or even in close surroundings. For a defender in the days of yore that would be the biggest sin imaginable, a dereliction of duty that would signal a spray from the coach or worse.
Yet in a modern footballing context his positioning was centimetre perfect.
In the face of a furious Sydney counterattack, Weitering was able to close off the contest and the path to goal.
It’s something he’s done countless times for the Blues this year, or helped his teammates do.
As a result, Weitering is somewhat used to standing alone.
In 2015 he stood alone as the clear best draft prospect in the country, dominant at junior levels.
Each year has a top draft prospect — but Weitering is a bit different from the usual number one pick.
He is the only key position defender to be selected at pick one this century.
The Mornington Peninsula product is one of a precious few tall defenders selected at the top end of the draft in the modern era.
Since 1993 Carlton has held the number one pick five times — more than any other club.
With those picks, they have selected three midfielders (Bryce Gibbs, Marc Murphy and Sam Walsh) and a ruck (Matthew Kruezer).
All four brought promise of being the great hope for leading the club to a premiership.
Weitering, despite his clear status as number one, didn’t carry that same level of hope.
Forwards, midfielders and sometimes rucks are seen as the game-breakers of modern footy, the players who help you win regularly and often.
But in 2023 it has been Weitering and the rest of the Carlton defence that has kept their premiership charge alive.
Weitering’s game was a masterpiece for a tall defender, leading his defence against a feisty Sydney forward line.
In a season closer than almost ever before, Carlton’s defence — and their ringleader — might hold the key for their September hopes.
Building Carlton’s defensive wall
Working out what makes a good defender is extremely difficult. Often their best work and impact happens far off screen and out of focus.
There are ball-centric numbers which suggest effectiveness, like intercepts, spoils and contests, but heavy involvement can also mean a defender has been targeted. Individual statistics must be backed by team performance.
That’s the ultimate goal of defence — working as a team to deny scoring against a side as a whole. On this measure, Carlton has been one of the best sides this year.
To fill in some of the gaps, punters must rely on the eye test to break down what is happening.
A closer look at his game against Sydney not only shows why Weitering has been so important to Carlton this year, but also speaks to his (and Carlton’s) evolution over his time at the club.
Weitering is asked by Carlton to fill a variety of roles in the Carlton back line. These roles were on show against Sydney.
The first role is the most recognisable — that of lockdown defender. He sometimes is trusted to take the best opposition forward for stints.
Against the Swans, Weitering was involved in seven one-on-one battles, losing just one.
Weitering spent significant spells near various Swans, including Hayden McLean, Joel Amartey and Logan McDonald, switching between their different styles. It’s a strength for Weitering, who considerably improved his ability to win individual battles since he came into the league.
Former Carlton coach David Teague ran a defence heavily reliant on one-on-one battles. Somewhat of a throwback, it was also a baptism of fire which took Weitering from good to great in such contests. Sydney felt this improvement first hand last Friday.
At other times he is asked to play a freer role off a more secondary target to peel off to get intercepts, impact packs and influence other contests.
Peeling off early can create what ordinarily looks like an easy mark. This requires him to rely on his footy smarts to judge how the play is unfolding. A misread situation can lead to easy opposition scoring opportunities.
It’s not a mistake that Weitering makes often.
Weitering often must make the hard call between flying to mark the ball and flying to spoil. Quite simply he excels at both. Against Sydney he led all players for spoils, foiling countless Sydney attacks.
Weitering’s instincts in chasing the high ball were potentially aided by former coach Brendan Bolton’s decision to move him to the forward line.
As a forward he was exposed to some of the best modern defenders, from Alex Rance to Jeremy McGovern, and how they read the play and close off space. It’s one thing watching film on how this is done, but getting a real life lesson is on another level.
When he wins the ball Weitering is usually a safe set of hands, with a solid kicking game for a tall defender. He doesn’t usually turn the ball over on short passes.
New coach Michael Voss has instituted the most important part of the Blues’ defensive improvement — an adroit defensive game plan.
Like most modern AFL defences, Carlton runs a structure based defence, focused on defending not only opposition players but also space where opposition sides can attack.
Weitering isn’t the only loose defender used by the Blues — sometimes it’s ex-Swan Nic Newman or ex-Sun Adam Saad for example.
Regardless of who is filling the role, a sense of spacing and when to give to support is critical to shutting down opposition attacks.
They also often deploy a spare defender in defence — a plus-one in modern parlance.
Plus-ones often sit in the “hole” to prevent leads and induce kicks to packs, or at the back of pack mark situations.
At other times they sit super deep playing as a sweeper to protect the hotspot, prevent fast attacks and prepare for counterattacks.
Often the sweeper stands in a direct line between the ball and the goal.
This year Weitering has been deployed relatively deeper than in years past with an average disposal location further down the ground than any other Blue.
Being the last line of defence comes with increased pressure because any mistakes often lead directly to scores. It’s something that Weitering has been able to step up to this year.
There’s also the little things that Weitering has picked up over the years.
He’s sometimes deployed as the “goalkeeper” in defensive 50 stoppages and is responsible for corralling his fellow defenders.
He often calls out coverage from the back and ensures loose players are covered. Coming into the AFL, Weitering was praised for his leadership qualities, which have evolved into becoming the de facto leader for one of the best defensive units in the league.
Weitering’s masterclass against the Swans wasn’t without fault.
He got caught in the wrong position in the aerial contest before Amartey beat him on a hook lead. Defence is hard and getting it right all the time is even harder.
The Blues in general focus on running back to the hotspot and deeper locations as a priority, which afforded the Swans some shallower options inside 50. Given Carlton’s general success this year it’s probably the right move.
The work for the defence isn’t over.
There’s still three more weeks for the wall to hold up, against increasingly difficult challenges ahead. If the Blues are to make the grand final, or even win the premiership, Weitering will surely play a huge role.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC