It is an incredibly open race for the top eight, the double chance and the premiership.

The ability to scout and plan to counter the opposition may make the difference for the top teams

SPEAKING recently to a current AFL coach, he remarked how the game was changing so quickly, often on a weekly basis.

The big challenge was to remain ahead of the opposition because teams were so good at identifying and shutting down strengths.

All clubs have a forward scout who generally works three to four weeks in advance. Not only do they attend games to watch coming opponents, they also go to training sessions in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

One of the great challenges of shutting down your opponent’s strengths is to do it in a way that does not take away your own advantage.

Last night’s opponents Geelong and Collingwood are perhaps the league’s two best teams at adjusting to their opposition and generally coping with most tactics thrown at them.
If Geelong gets its contested possession count up, its players generally make correct decisions when they have the ball.

Collingwood is an interesting one.

In last year’s Grand Final, the Pies fell into the trap of worrying too much about Geelong, and by doing so they changed a game style that had worked so successfully for them for several seasons. The players simply failed to adjust.

Making sure that Matthew Scarlett was never free left Collingwood’s defenders exposed and struggling to cope with having to play one-on-one against their opponents.

There is no doubt we are already seeing some tactics used that will need to be overcome for teams to consistently win for the rest of the season.

The man who knew the Saints’ strengths better than anyone, former coach Ross Lyon, locked down Nick Dal Santo, Stephen Milne and their distributor from defence, Sam Fisher when Fremantle won at Etihad Stadium in Round 4.

Dal Santo is the team’s most creative midfielder, the one most likely to hurt opponents with his vision and incisive kicking. Although I suspect after Lenny Hayes’ (below) performance against Carlton, teams will start putting as much thought into him as they did before his knee injury.

In attack, you can expect Nick Riewoldt to bust a gut and keep presenting, but Milne is the forward line’s barometer and needs constant attention.

The Eagles have a great forward press, but Essendon did a superb job maintaining possession against them last week, making West Coast’s players defend and denying them possession at the same time.

The Bombers refused to panic when they had the ball and maintained possession by foot. This took away the Eagles’ best weapon – their ability to pressure the opposition.

At the final siren, the Eagles had 76 fewer disposals, the worst differential in any game this season.

Opposition sides traditionally spend considerable time working out how to counter ruckman Aaron Sandilands’ influence, and have done this very successfully over the years.

Considering his dominance, Freo’s clearance numbers have not been anywhere near what you would expect. Opposition midfielders generally rove to Sandilands and team structures are designed to cover his occasional thumping hitout to the outside.

The Blues must find a way to unlock their stoppages. On Monday night St Kilda pushed extra numbers up and tried to cover the outside areas, preventing Carlton’s running players from getting into space.

It will be interesting to see if other teams follow that lead by putting a natural ball winner on Chris Judd and run-with players on Marc Murphy and Kade Simpson.

The Hawks’ game is built around getting an extra number out of defence and using the ball by foot to slice through the opposition’s press or zone.

When Sydney played Hawthorn it had great success in the second half by predominantly playing a man-on-man game and not allowing easy possessions.

The other key is full-back Josh Gibson (above). He is vital to the Hawks defence.

Teams need to keep him engaged and not allow him to float as the extra defender and help his teammates.

The Swans rely on a fierce attack on the ball and quick, long ball movement into their forward line. Last Saturday Richmond seemed happy to drop defenders back closer to goal, and the Swans midfielders continually bombed the ball into a congested forward line.

Richmond also did a great job of isolating and separating Sydney’s two key defenders, Heath Grundy (below) and Ted Richards, who are extremely good at helping each other, and their teammates, when the ball is in the air.

The Crows, under Brenton Sanderson, initially flew under the radar. Now their game plan will have been dissected by every opponent.

It will be fascinating to see how they cope with tactics such as an extra defender dropping back, extra numbers at the stoppages, taggers on key players and whatever counter-measures other teams throw at them.

I rate the Crows as a very honest football team. They are tough, fit, disciplined, and clearly playing with passion and excitement. Their next three games are against Carlton, Collingwood and Fremantle. How will Sanderson and his charges cope?

Like Hawthorn, the Bombers are an extremely efficient kicking team. Last weekend against West Coast they had just nine clanger kicks, the fewest of any team in Round 7.
Teams will look to adopt more man-on-man tactics against them. The teams that do well against Essendon will be the ones that shut down outside runners Brent Stanton and David Zaharakis.

They also need to try to isolate their defenders and keep Dustin Fletcher as far away from the action as possible.

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