Home Australia How the Eagles dare to central rebound is a double-edged sword

How the Eagles dare to central rebound is a double-edged sword

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A television image from above looking down on the central square before a bounce between the west coast and Sydney.

It is the calm before the storm, or at least the eye of the storm.

For a brief second, the chaos that is modern football is forgotten and attention is focused on the person in lime green holding the pill.

It is perhaps the cleanest, clearest display of competitive football there is: even numbers on the field with the ball an equal distance from each goal.

As a result, the center bounce has increasingly taken on mythical status. It is the easiest part of football to analyze given the fixed form of the battle.

The game’s superstars past and present have asserted their dominance through the medium, cameras trained and ready to document it all. The AFL even attempted to re-emphasize the importance of rebounding with the introduction of the fixed starting position rule, or 6-6-6 for short.

While initial results in early 2019 were promising, the long-term trend appears to be less so.

The actual importance of the center bounce score to the final results might come with a larger grain of salt.

Over the past three years, one team has arguably been the best at turning center clear wins into actual points on the board.

That side is arguably the worst in that three-year period.

Last week, West Coast were able to convert their 16 cross clearances into 27 points. Their opponents Sydney could only score 12 points after 12 clearances.

Despite this, Sydney won the game 104 to 78, leaving the Eagles with just five wins in their last 50 games. That record is equal to the current North Melbourne team, the inaugural GWS team or the Fitzroy team just before they merged with Brisbane.

Here’s how the Eagles cause damage through clearances and how this in turn could hurt them.

How to get out of chaos

While the general mechanics of the center bounce setup are common to all teams (one ruck, three infield midfielders), the precise strategies tend to differ across the league.

A shot of a central bounce between the west coast and Sydney at Mt Barker in the Adelaide Hills on April 6, 2024.(Supplied: Fox Footy)

Some configurations are used for those three midfielders, almost always coinciding with the opposing side. The most common ruck configuration sees one player positioned in front of the center circle, one behind and one horizontally with respect to his side’s preferred ruck hand.

A television image from above looking down on the central square before a bounce between the west coast and Sydney.

West Coast operating without a sweeper directly behind the ball: 2024 Gather Round, West Coast v Sydney.(Supplied: Fox Footy)

Other setups see two players behind or in front of the ball, or even more radically one in front of or behind the ball and two in line with the ruck. A lot of this is dictated by the game situation and the work they’ve done together in the preseason.

A television image from above looking down on the central square before a bounce between Melbourne and Brisbane.

Melbourne sets up more conservatively on the defensive end: Melbourne vs. Brisbane, 2024.(Supplied: Fox Footy)

Even beyond basic positioning, players can sit inside or outside of their opponent and can attempt to block or push their opponents under or away from the ball.

Aggressively moving away from your opponent is not only rarely penalized, it can mean the difference between clear possession going downhill toward goal and a scoring opportunity of your own.

Most rucks have their preferred hitting zones, but some are comfortable directing the ball almost anywhere. Before the bounce, the central rebounding unit often talks about where the ruck will try to send it and how the halves will move after the bounce. Some parties make early “calls” in this regard, and others much later, sometimes using keywords.

Once the ball is in the air, much of this fades away when the ball comes into play.

Fortunately, there is a source of truth to put an end to some of this madness.

The ABC analyzes data since 2021 to categorize not only where the first spill occurs after extraction, but also where it goes and the final result of the dispatch.

Once the first player has the ball in his hands, he is faced with an immediate decision: kick the ball or pass it with his hands (usually) to a more open teammate.

Often this decision is dictated by the location and “cleanliness” of the possession. There are a few factors that come into play, from how the ball flies in the air after the bounce, the effectiveness of the ruck strike, any pre-possession bodywork and the speed at which the player in possession attacks the contest.

Players have to rely on their natural instincts as much (if not more) than any training or instruction in these situations.

Over the past three-odd seasons, the most success has come from disposals that start ahead of the center circle. That makes sense: it’s closer to the goal and usually has fewer opposing players in the way.

It’s not just the disposal method that matters and the original location, but also where you send it on that first use. Kicks are easier to execute as they tend to be directed predominantly forward.

More interesting are the handballs. Although they go in all directions, the first hand is usually thrown a few meters back.

Generally speaking, a player can play with his hand forward or backward, towards or away from the playing field. Using this simple rubric, some trends begin to appear.

The first hand on center bounces goes toward the player’s right back quadrant about 10 percent more often than the left, and those hands generate about 12 percent more successful scoring chains. This may suggest that the mostly right-footed midfielders and rucksacks are better at using the ball effectively in this direction.

On the weekend against Sydney, West Coast won first kills both forward and back of the circle, but their first kill was forward 12 out of 15 times.

This followed a long-term trend on the West Coast. The Eagles have delighted over the past three years in trying to attack forwards at almost any cost. They carry the ball forward from the center more than most teams and use it forward even more often.

The Eagles have also varied who does the damage when receiving the ball from the middle. Tim Kelly has been the centerpiece of their midfield, acting as the most common attacking target. With the spotlight on Kelly, it has been others around him who have had the opportunity to cause real damage.

Last year, Luke Shuey was the most damaging center rebounder in the league. Shuey only won 20 first possessions, but 10 of them ended in touchdowns, a very dangerous pace.

This year, Harley Reid has created three goals and one behind with his first center rebound kills, leading the league so far. He’s very early, but his ability to pick up the ball, receive a tackle and throw the ball has already been demonstrated.

This aggressiveness also carries some risks.

The defensive side

Soccer is not just a game of scoring goals, it is also about preventing the other team from accumulating points.

The Eagles’ aggressiveness on center rebounds appears to come at a cost. He has been among the most likely to give up goals on the other side of rebounds. It’s very much a shock or shock approach.

Overall, while the Eagles score at a good clip when winning those center rebound chains, they typically concede more the other way, resulting in a net negative in overall scoring.

It is in this particular area where the West Coast has struggled, showing the other side of the attack coin. West Coast often prepares aggressively regarding player positioning and runs downhill, leaving them exposed in the opposite direction.

The volume of center bounce wins also matters. While West Coast hurts teams when they can win the ball with central rebounds, they generally lose more than they win. When coupled with his defensive woes from the middle, this can cause real problems.

Despite their ability to score directly off central rebounds, the Eagles have consistently scored more of those types in the opposite direction.

How much does all this matter?

The central bounce, although full of symbolism, constitutes only a small fraction of this great game. Only about 10 percent of scores come from center rebounds in a game, falling far behind interceptions and field stops.

However, winning the first possession on center rebounds seems to have some real effect on the ability to score next. It helps dictate field position and set the stage for passages of the game to come.

Ultimately, there is a reason why teams tend to focus more on how to win the interception score and the territorial battle than on the stoppage. I mean, that’s where most punctuation chains come from. This is not to denigrate the rebound, but rather to put it in context.

All-around football tends to win the day, even if it is fun to watch a team score a quick goal from the middle.

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