Here are ten things I’d like to see from Collingwood in 2021. 10. A new captainCollingwood’s list rejuvenation is a proclamation they’re moving into a new era. And, with that being the case, they should look at a new group to spearhead that journey. Scott Pendlebury has been captain since 2014, is now Collingwood’s record games’ holder, holds the most games as captain, and is the team’s oldest player. While many pose he could play another couple of years, at that age things can finish quickly – and unexpectedly. Taylor Adams won Collingwood’s Best and Fairest last year, but impressed most with his leadership. Outside of his ferocity in the contest, witness the little things he does, like signalling for his teammates to come in for celebrations when Mason Cox kicked a goal in his return game. He also doesn’t fear the big occasion. I would suggest he was Collingwood’s best in the 2018 grand final loss, and one of the few shining lights when Geelong smashed Collingwood in the 2020 Qualifying Final. Players such as Darcy Moore, Brodie Grundy, Jack Crisp, and Brayden Maynard should be anointed vice-captains. Pendlebury doesn’t need the title to be a leader, while Collingwood could benefit from giving the middle tier the added responsibility. 9. InjuriesInjuries have become so commonplace at Collingwood that they’re now the default condition. I know so many fellow fans who are unsurprised when somebody goes down (either in a game, or mid-week), or fails to return in the projected date. The club has repeatedly been queried on their injuries. The training surface has been questioned. Eddie McGuire has defended it stoutly. The club claims there’s nothing amiss. Are we just that unlucky? I find that hard to believe given the body of evidence is nine years. It may be a combination of things – as an example, it might be the training surface, combined with the training regimen, combined with the game plan, combined with the recovery. Something is happening. Numbers don’t lie. It’d be nice to have one year under Buckley that isn’t compromised by a spate of injuries, or another young brigade of potential stars undermined by recurring soft tissue problems. 8. The Midfield EvolutionBack in their 2002–03 grand final assaults, Collingwood’s midfield comprised Nathan Buckley, Scott Burns, Paul Licuria, and Shane O’Bree. As they entered their final years in 2006–08, the concern was who would replace them. Dane Swan was a lucky find low in the draft. The likes of Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas were high picks. Throw in Luke Ball, and then a support crew that complemented them. The transition from one quality midfield to the next was seamless – arguably, this midfield was actually better. Pendlebury is the real find there – a genuinely elite mid who replaced Buckley, lead the group, has had a long career, and had talent around him. Going into 2021, the transition to next generation’s midfield isn’t as seamless. Taylor Adams is the primary driver. Jordan de Goey, who’ll be 25 in March, remains a tease. We all know he has the potential. Will he develop the consistency? Josh Daicos matured last year, but at this formative stage of his career, consistency might remain a concern. The departures of Adam Treloar, Tom Phillips, and Jaidyn Stephen deprive the midfield of depth. As there’s no Pendlebury or Thomas coming through, and no Luke Ball who’s been acquired, hopefully Collingwood begin looking laterally at their options. Two players who I believe have midfield potential are Brayden Maynard and Isaac Quaynor – both dashing defenders with raking kicks. It’d be nice to see such players dashing through the middle and driving the ball long into F50. While Collingwood has, at time, experimented with Jack Crisp as a run-with player, I would rather see Maynard and/or Quaynor get the nod to add a new dimension to a midfield that currently looks shallow, one-paced, inexperienced, and under-skilled. 7. On-field consistencyThe 2018 season aside, you never know what you’re going to get with Collingwood. Go back to 2014–17, and they would beat a Top-4 team one week, and lose to a Bottom-4 team the following week.I’m a big critic of the 2019 season, despite Collingwood getting within a kick of making the grand final. The preliminary final is endemic of the way Collingwood played throughout most of the year: scrappy, purposeless, error-laden football for the bulk of the game, punctuated by a burst of exhilarating cohesiveness. That was the methodology for much of the home and away season – as demonstrated by unconvincing victories over the Bulldogs (twice), Melbourne (twice), St Kilda (once), and Carlton (once). They couldn’t even manage that in their Round 11 clash against Fremantle. Collingwood were 2nd on the ladder, Fremantle 8th. Given it was at the MCG, it’s a game you’d pencil Collingwood in to win. Nope. Collingwood never got out of neutral. The four-point margin flattered them. Even though some of the lacklustre performances in 2020 can be attributed to the congested fixture, they still had a number of these spasmodic performances: e.g. kicking four goals to zero against Richmond in the first quarter, and then kicking only one more goal for the game; smashing St Kilda and kicking ten goals in a half, then only two in the second half; five goals in the first quarter against Hawthorn and then only three more goals – well, the examples are there. This is about more than the game itself changing, e.g. the opposition adjusting, strategies adapting, players tiring, etc., to make it more of an even contest, or to limit Collingwood’s scoring. Collingwood has a genuine problem with their on-field identity. Ten years into Buckley’s tenure, it shouldn’t remain the rule, rather than the exception. The Magpies need to be as consistent as Nathan Buckley’s jawline. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images) 6. Don’t sacrifice Will Kelly / Darcy Moore up forwardWill Kelly’s one game – comprising three quarters – was in Collingwood’s 2020 Round 6 32-point win over Hawthorn, playing as a tall forward. He suffered an injury late in the game and missed the rest of the season. His name has been bandied about as being an important cog in Collingwood’s future. I’d be concerned about expecting a 20-year-old to hold down a key-forward slot at Collingwood – especially the way Collingwood deliver the ball. Also, much of Kelly’s two seasons so far have been lost to injury, so he hasn’t had the ideal development. Hopefully, Collingwood can pump games into him without burdening him – or breaking him by asking him to shoulder CHF and become one of their key targets. It would make more sense to put that burden on the supremely talented 25-year-old Darcy Moore. Moore’s played 89 games, has two full seasons behind him (after an injury-ridden 2018), and was an All Australian last season. He is ripe to take on more responsibility, and we know he has the talent. Kelly, at just 20, with three quarters behind him and only two years in the system, could slot into CHB, where he could gain an apprenticeship playing on opposition young guns. He would also have the likes of Jordan Roughead and Jeremy Howe there to help out. We’ve seen young guns hold down key defensive slot and excel. Look at Adelaide’s Tom Doedee in 2018. It’s the nature of the role – being led to the ball by their opponent, usually punching rather than marking, and being part of a defensive zone that can cover inexperience. But up forward, younger players tend to be sporadic, and the responsibilities (particularly standing under a ball, being expected to mark as two or three opponents converge) demand a heavier toll. 5. Some adventurousness in selectionWhile 2020 wasn’t ideal with the hub restrictions, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Collingwood supporter bemused by the club’s continuing faith in underperformers. Callum Brown looked a likely prospect in 2018, showing sure hands and composure in traffic. But his form devolved through 2019, and was outright scratchy in 2020. He could’ve benefited from being given a spell, rather than persevering with him at the highest level where the pressure exacerbated his issues. Josh Thomas and Will Hoskin-Elliott had quiet seasons. While Thomas was dropped, he soon found his way back into the seniors, but showed little improvement. From his 14 games, Thomas averaged five kicks, 5.6 handballs, 2.1 tackles, and kicked 4.4. Hoskin-Elliott played 18 games, and averaged 6.8 kicks, four handballs, .9 tackles, and kicked 11.8. Comparatively, Jaidyn Stephenson played 14 games, averaged 6.1 kicks, 3.4 handballs, 1.8 tackles, and kicked 14.10, yet he was condemned as having a bad year and was traded out. But this is why football clubs have lists. If there are injuries, or players are out of form, you drop them for alternatives. They fight to earn their spots back. The alternatives get exposure, gain experience, and (hopefully) develop. The player dropped gets space to try rediscover touch (although, admittedly, that was hard in 2020). Collingwood has often seemed stodgy with their selections, sticking with underperformers, whereas surely everybody concerned – the out-of-form players, the replacements, and the team – would benefit from the change. And, simply, it’s good to have selection pressure to keep incumbents striving for their best. 4. Mason Cox as a forwardAs a layman, I would’ve thought the best use of the 211cm Mason Cox is to anchor him to the goal-square, and plant two crumbers at his feet. Then – as Collingwood did in the first quarter of the 2020 Elimination Final against West Coast – get the ball in quickly as possible to give him the best chance for a one-on-one. If he doesn’t mark, then hopefully the crumbers can capitalise on the spillage. Nope. Cox either seems to play higher up in the F50, or he’s dragged up there, where his lack of pace and mobility is exposed. He doesn’t have the endurance of somebody like Travis Cloke, who was at his best sweeping up to the wings, and out-running and out-lasting his opponent. Also, Collingwood’s strategy seems to be to move the ball slowly, wait until the opposition have flooded back, and then boot the ball in haphazardly. If they can manage it (and they usually do, with startling regularity) they kick it to disadvantage, e.g. they’ll wrong-side their teammate and kick it directly to the defender. Cox is then expected to out-mark opponents, even when they outnumber him two-to-one, or even three-to-one. Sometimes, opponents impinge his run at the contest, taking him out of it before he can get to the ball. This isn’t unique to Cox, either. Collingwood let this happen to Travis Cloke, too, and vastly dampened his efficacy. If Collingwood intend to persevere with Cox as a forward, then they need to develop a strategy to maximise his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. The way Collingwood play him, they depreciate his strengths and exploit his weaknesses. Could a basketball solution help the AFL? (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images) 3.The ruck–midfield synergyGo back to the 2018 grand final loss: the hit-out count was (Collingwood) 57 to (West Coast) 29. Brodie Grundy amassed 49 taps against Scott Lycett’s 15, and Nathan Vardy’s 14. And yet the Eagles dominated the midfield. It was a recurring issue through 2019 to the extent that Grundy seemed to grow frustrated and either tapped it to himself, or grabbed it out of the ruck and played-on. But it wasn’t highlighted as an issue until the 2019 preliminary final, where the hit-out count was (Collingwood) 78 to 16 (GWS), with Grundy scoring 73 of those hit-outs. And yet GWS smashed Collingwood in the midfield. Is there even the remotest risk of this being addressed as an issue? It’s a cop-out to suggest that Collingwood’s midfield is outplayed. I’ll buy that once or twice. But not regularly. Letting it happen this often is negligence. Also, this is the point of having a good ruck – so you can work out tactics that he taps to the advantage of his teammates. But that doesn’t happen at Collingwood. We get the taps. We just don’t get the “to advantage” (at least not in terms t`o the breakdown of how often Grundy gets taps). I’m unsure who’s responsible – Grundy, the midfield, the combination, the midfield coach, the senior coach, the football, or all of them, but this has gone on long enough that it’s grown farcical. How can they all have developed no strategy to maximise Grundy’s dominance or, lacking that, neutralise the opposition’s influence? It’s also costing them regularly and, as we’ve seen, in big games. As with the use of Cox, Collingwood have polarised the outcome, instead maximising the opposition’s strengths and disadvantaging their own midfield. Surely, if nothing else, Collingwood could just get Grundy to punch the ball 20–25 metres clear (a tactic the 2001 – 04 Brisbane powerhouse employed) to break up the opposition zones every now and then and thus introduce an element of unpredictability. But, please, just do something, because if we see more of the same this is an indictment on the club’s inability to conjure effective strategies and address issues. 2. Renovate the gameplanMy brother calls Collingwood’s game-plan 2014–17, and 2019–20 “Control Freak Football”. It’s always looking for the handball out, or trying to pick the way through congestion by foot, over and over and over ad infinitum until the perfect position is gained from which to launch an attack. Unfortunately, most of the time that position is never secured. How many times have we witnessed countless retreating handballs, each player falling under more and more pressure until either a turnover is forced, or somebody boots it and hopes for the best? Or players trying to chip their way through traffic, until they stagnate and the opposition lock them in, or a skill error results in a turnover? This would be a great gameplan if you had a team full of Nathan Buckleys. The problem is that there hasn’t been many players who can kick as well as Buckley. In my forty years of following football, he would rate in my top three field kicks. If he’s expecting his charges to do what he could, then he’s judging them by the wrong standard. If this isn’t the way Buckley wants them to play, then there’s an issue of communication, and/or execution. Neither is acceptable – not after all these years. Collingwood looked at their best under Buckley in 2018 when they played audacious, running football – that chaos brand of football that has helped Richmond win three flags. 1. Entering F50Collingwood’s premium method of entry is to move the ball as slowly as possible around the ground, allow the opposition to flood back into the Forward-50, and then to boot haphazardly (and often to disadvantage) and hope one of their outnumbered forwards takes a freakish mark. I don’t know if the gameplan is breaking down at another level – if this mad bombing is simply to get it down there with the expectation the smaller players will apply pressure to force a turnover. This is something Collingwood did throughout 2010–11 with The Press. Sometimes, it wasn’t about precision, but just getting the ball into a position that it could be won back or an opportunity created through defensive pressure. However, they didn’t let it get this damned crowded in F50. There will always be a place for the quick kick in – but take note of the adjective: “quick”. Which means before the opposition have congested the area, or defenders can congregate to double or triple team one of the key forwards. Then we go back to the point about Cox: set him up in a way that you give him the best chance of marking and, if he doesn’t, you have small forwards who can either crumb the spillage, or apply defensive pressure. Otherwise, is there a risk that players will consistently lower their eyes and look for a teammate on the lead? Offensively, football isn’t that hard of a game – you give the ball to a player wearing the same jumper as you. Not just in regard to this point, but many of the points in this list, it feels as if Collingwood have overly complicated their methodology to the detriment of performance. The issues have now become so ingrained, that the fear is they’re now habitual.
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