How a hot start will anchor Dockers’ September hopes

Imagine the Fremantle Dockers sitting in the top four come their round 14 bye.

For years, the Purple Army’s big hopes have come from their impressive AFLW squad but 2022 is shaping up to be the year the men make it up.

There has been reason to be optimistic about Fremantle over the past two seasons. The roster is built smartly and Justin Longmuir’s ability to keep a cool head and his systematic approach to tactical setup really gave the Dockers a fresh start in their eventual quest for greatness.

Despite significant injuries since taking over, Longmuir’s desire for stability remained intact and set the standard for his club.

A true modern-day coach, the 41-year-old’s approach in his first two years in charge has been refreshing and educational and intentionally different with each season.

(Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

In 2020, the Dockers conceded fifth in points and Brennan Cox was discovered as a genuinely strong and still underrated key defender.

Luke Ryan played a much bigger role than he is and Longmuir clearly decided to use average defenders to fill in parts of the defensive structure he wanted to keep in place.

The way Fremantle implemented tactics first, rather than trying to respond directly to available personnel, was eerily reminiscent of the formative years of the Richmond era, and even the Demons last season.

2021 turned things around, when the focus was on getting efficiency in ball movement and transition, speeding things up and becoming a faster team overall.

The numbers at box level only indicate that the Dockers fell from 16th to 15th in runs scored, but in reality it was the team’s inefficiency in front of goal that was most limiting, rather than the change of tactical orientation.

Fremantle actually went from lowest shots scored per game to tenth and from 17th to 9th in the 50s. In 2020, they have scored from 36.36% of their 50s inside. In 2021, this figure has increased to 43.24%.

As Sean Darcy, Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw progressed through midfield to join the oft-unavailable David Mundy and Nat Fyfe, Fremantle fell from 14th to 7th in clearances.

Sean Darcy

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The significant increase in undisputed marks coincided with their desire to use both the back and front flanks to find space in the middle and create better opportunities for their forwards by leaving pockets open behind them.

Defensively, they fell to concede the seventh-most points.

Even a league-average goal kick would have won the Dockers in their Round 9 and 16 clashes against Essendon and Carlton to qualify for the finals, but the reality of the situation is that the he team was never ready.

If you think Justin Longmuir is a really good young coach, you’d also believe in the deliberate structuring of these two seasons for educational purposes for the Dockers, culminating in the two being combined ahead of his third season in charge.

Historically, this team has been the most enigmatic in the competition.

Inconsistent and unreliable tags are unfortunate tags that need to be shaken off.

Still, things look a lot rosier to kick off 2022 for Dockers, which only adds fuel to the hot start argument.

The injured list looks a lot friendlier this year than either of the last two years Longmuir has been in charge of.

Managing the injury-prone bodies of Nat Fyfe, Alex Pearce and Matt Taberner was the priority and protecting the team’s pivots only served to improve the depth and confidence of the players on the periphery.

Fremantle defender Alex Pearce

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Pre-season training games aren’t everything, but against the utterly chaotic Eagles, who don’t seem to understand anything this season, Fremantle played football faster than ever, was more strong in clinches and had a defensive unit that had good coverage, despite the team being undermanned.

It was the first time we could see a combination of the 2020 and 2021 playstyles and it looked incredibly dangerous.

Again, it felt like Longmuir was filling his tactical model with the players at his disposal rather than trying to get too cute like recent Prime Ministers.

All things being equal, the Dockers have their fair share of home fixtures before the bye.

They play four of their first six games at Optus Stadium, stretching to eight games until their break. They finished last season with a record of seven wins and four losses on this ground.

Of their eight ‘home’ opponents during this period, only Brisbane and GWS were runners-up last season and they will face Adelaide and Gold Coast in their road matches.

The toughest games will clearly be Geelong in Geelong, the Demons in Melbourne and the hosting of the Lions, but all other games look winnable.

The potential of Fremantle’s identity is what is most alluring. And ahead of the season, that rated them better than even the odds in games against Essendon, GWS, St Kilda and Carlton.

Nine wins have been the mark over the past four seasons to be in the top four after 13 games. The ripple effect is that these teams finished the season in the top eight.

Which ultimately begs the very basic question, can the Dockers qualify for the final in 2022?

If they have a season with a normal number of injuries to key personnel, there is no doubt that the Dockers can cause serious damage.

Dockers' Andrew Brayshaw celebrates win over final siren

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The main defensive actions are good and the rebound line has quickly become one of the strongest in the league.

Justin Longmuir has previously discussed the difficulties of trying to whittle down 11 players to seven defensive spots, but any combination will see a combination of strength, above-average interception and elite ball usage out of the defensive half.

Hayden Young, in particular, is the player most worth following as the main intermediary between defensive recovery of the ball and sharing the opposition on foot.

Midfield depth is not an issue at Fremantle with the number of comfortable inside midfielders and outside cover provided by hard-working flankers and skilled users who can play forward roles.

Many scoffed at Champion Data’s labeling of Sam Switkowski as elite, but when he played full games the 25-year-old was Fremantle’s undisputed leader in scoring involvement, was the best tackle among the half forwards and covered the ground maniacally, often pushing around the contest.

Overreliance on injury-prone Matt Taberner is the biggest sticking point for the Dockers if no one provides adequate support and he can’t complete a full season.

Michael Walters has already been tipped for a role much closer to goal, which comes in handy given he’s won the club’s spot-kick award five times, and Nat Fyfe will be spending a lot of time in attack, while faster ball movement inevitably creates more chaos, lending to more goal-scoring opportunities for those who demand fewer defenders.

Nat Fyfe of the Dockers

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

And finally, the biggest indicator of a team ready to take the next step is their depth and whether they have 28-30 players who can adequately fill the described roles at all times.

If you consider Heath Chapman, Michael Frederick, Will Brodie, James Aish, Nathan Wilson, Joel Hamling and the prodigiously talented Sam Sturt as players battling for spots in the top 22 to name a few, then you’ll soon realize that a full-strength Fremantle team is deeper than most teams. There are at least five other players and recent signings Nathan O’Driscoll and Neil Erasmus who fall into the same category.

Naturally, some will remain skeptical of the enigmatic Dockers and want more proof before buying.

Even a 4-0 start may not appease some, and that would have included wins over St Kilda and GWS.

But if this team is playing as fast and as dangerously as they did with the 2020 defensive structures in place, then we’re not just looking at a finals team.

The Fremantle Dockers would be watching their competitors from above after leaving Round 14 firmly entrenched in the top four, and on their way to greener pastures in September.

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