On the longest flight across Australia, I pondered what I’d see in the western derby. Of special interest was how Fremantle would respond against West Coast, coming off a dose of its own “defensive” medicine at the hands of Geelong – admittedly a road trip as imposing as any visit to Subiaco.
It turned out to be an exciting contest, for three-and-a-bit quarters, before the superior Dockers accelerated to a good win. I was captivated to watch the extreme workrate and defensive pressure of the Fremantle small-to-medium half-forwards, led and marshalled by the supremely fit Chris Mayne. Mayne’s supporting cast includes Mathew De Boer, Michael Walters and the effervescent Hayden Ballantyne.
Mayne has transformed to become the “Simon-Peter” of Ross Lyon’s band of “purple disciples” – he embodies the follower who has bought in and plays to the total creed of Lyon’s defensive system. He has both the physical capability and, more importantly, the mental strength to stay focused on his role within that system. That role is to play an integral part of the “pincer” movement that traps opposition players and causes the midfield to commit front-half turnovers that invariably lead to Fremantle kicking winning scores.
The first quarter was a battle between the two ways of scoring – goals from stoppages versus goals from turnovers. West Coast showed glimpses of its ability, with Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui rucking to the irrepressible Matt Priddis, who had dodged the Ryan Crowley “clamp” (Crowley was sent to Chris Masten). At the first change, the Eagles led the stoppage count 13-9.
Fremantle, on the other hand, had scored goals from turnovers with its “press” defence, and although it was behind on the tackle count (18-28) it was where those tackles had been effected and by whom that had allowed it a two-goal quarter-time lead.
Time and time again it was the Fremantle small and medium forwards who were making the tackles on the West Coast ball-carrier. In the first quarter, Mayne had three tackles, De Boer four and Ballantyne one – that is almost 50 per cent of the Freo tackle count coming from defensive-minded forwards.
The Richmond midfielders and rebounding half-backs had better beware on Sunday – if they check their “rearview mirrors” they will see Mayne and his manic men coming at them from behind at a great speed, looking to pick them off as part of the Lyon defensive system.
It works like this. As the ball is turned over through an opposition intercept or a skill error, most midfields dutifully push “back” to help out their defenders and try to win the ball back again. With a lot of teams, there is a time “lag” before the forwards start to work up the ground to join in that part of the game. With the Fremantle “press” system, the midfielders do push back, but to a limit, before coming forward and “at” the opposition ball-carriers.
As well as the midfielders, often you will see the Fremantle forwards getting well up the ground, even into their own defensive 50, before turning to “press” forward again, or releasing hard back towards the forward line. Mayne demonstrated this early in the third quarter, when he ran forward off his man to “press” the West Coast ball-carrier, before the resultant Fremantle tackle caused the turnover and led to a Stephen Hill goal.
The secondary part of the system relies on the Freo forwards pushing high up the ground, following the ball as it leaves their forward 50 area – ready to “sweat” on any opposition ball-carrier who freezes when faced by the Freo midfielders pressing forward at them. Then the pincer snaps shut, and often it is the Freo forwards who snap it shut, making their tackles from behind on unsuspecting opponents.
It is a clever system, one that works spectacularly well, especially when executed by fit and committed players such as Mayne and De Boer.
Make no mistake though, Mayne and his fellow forwards are still out there to hit the scoreboard. Mayne shares the goalkicking lead at Fremantle with Walters, both with 27, with Ballantyne trailing with just 19 as Fremantle looks to share the load around.
Of the AFL’s top 20 goalkickers, Mayne has the second most tackles with 59, only slightly behind Luke Breust from Hawthorn. Tigers midfielders, you have been warned.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.