The AFL’s best teams have qualified for the grand final, with the stage set for a thrilling finale.
The minor premiership Magpies have been the team to beat for most of the year, but they face the only team who have shown the ability to do so with any regularity.
Brisbane have won their last six games against Collingwood, including two this season.
But the big final day, in front of 100,000 mostly black and white fans, is a completely different prospect.
Here’s how both teams could win the flag on Sunday.
The walls are collapsing
There has been no greater focus in the league than on how to beat Collingwood’s system in the second half of the year. To win the flag you have to beat the best, and no team is better than the leader in the standings.
At its core, Collingwood’s system is quite simple: based on furious attacking from a dominant defensive base, incentivizing teams to make mistakes and profit from them.
Led by captain and All Australian Darcy Moore, the Pies defense allows the rest of the puzzle to work. They absorb opposition pressure thanks to well-drilled positioning and defensive fundamentals.
For much of the year, Collingwood fielded a quicker and more mobile defensive unit than most teams. This allows the back line to recover quickly to close down “fast break” opportunities, covering space that other defenses can only dream of.
This mobility in defense has a second advantage: increasing the ability to attack from the back third of the field. No team is as efficient or prolific at scoring defensive steals as the Pies.
The Pies often move the ball slowly out of the defensive 50, pushing into space, before turning towards the corridor to unleash their waves of aggressive handballs.
The Magpies are the most dangerous team to score from the channel and have one of the most efficient attacks at getting the ball inside the 50, aided by the speed and space they usually generate with their entries.
The Magpies are also not worried if they fail to gain possession. With many downhill runners attacking loose balls, forwards and ground kicks play to the Pies’ advantage.
These strengths allowed the Pies to keep the match close against almost every team, with the potential exception of their grand final opponent. (We’ll talk more about this later.)
“It’s going to be tough to get to 125 points in this competition,” Collingwood coach Craig McRae said after the 124-100 loss to the Lions in round 23.
“We are not satisfied with the way we are defending the pitch.”
If the Pies are to have any chance in the grand final, they will need their defense to fire against the dangerous Lions attack.
When the two teams met this year, the Lions were able to dominate thanks to Collingwood’s turnovers, particularly when the Pies struggled to get the ball out of their defensive half. What was normally a strength for Collingwood turned into its biggest weakness as the Lions attacked the short field.
After that Lions loss, McRae was confident they could fix their defensive weaknesses, committing to a “growth mindset” to continue working on their weaknesses.
Against their two finals opponents so far, Melbourne and GWS, Collingwood’s defense has shown dramatic signs of improvement.
They managed to limit the opposing teams’ ability to score on interceptions, thus locking up the game.
This came at the expense of their own offense, but it allowed them to access what they perceive as a strength: their endgame mode.
There is another potential advantage to the Collingwood brand of footy: its ability to win close games.
Due to Collingwood’s penchant for attacking battles and risky ball movements in the lane, the team knows well how to win close games through a boost to their normal effort.
“We know these situations well,” said former captain Scott Pendlebury ahead of the grand final.
“We know if it’s close, what we need to do if we’re up or down a few points, what we need to do if we need to get back into the game in that situation.”
Generally, each team has two game modes at the end of the match.
Last week against the Giants, holding a seven-point lead, the Pies went into “kill the game” mode, trying to cause repeated stops and move the ball around to open up their teammates.
Both elements of this game play into Collingwood’s hands, as they are elements of their ordinary setup. Against the Giants, they managed to eat up the clock by causing eight balls or touches in the final two minutes, far more than the usual average of about one stop per minute.
Most teams find the other mode a little more difficult to achieve.
“Winning the game” involves increased risk-taking with ball movement. You may notice that teams are more likely to exploit this to their advantage and move the ball down the lane. Teams often go deep and mid on kicks and prioritize distance and speed over takedown accuracy.
It’s kind of how Collingwood usually play.
Perhaps this is why the Pies have another advantage over their opponents late in the game. History suggests this is unsustainable over a long period, but the Pies only need this chance to last another week.
The elusive 16th
Collingwood are set to join Essendon and Carlton for 16 premierships, with only their current bogey team in the way.
The Pies will need to find a way to lock down Brisbane’s powerful attacking and turnover game in order to triumph. They’ll need to do this while maximizing space for their own dangerous forwards, like Jamie Elliott and Brody Mihocek.
One way they can hurt Brisbane is by limiting their ability to gain ground through stoppages. When they shoot, they have arguably the best defensive midfielder in the competition.
The minor premiers know they can play anyone on their day, but of course they’re playing the one team that hasn’t allowed them to have those days this year.
The Brisbane bogeymen
Over the past two years, Collingwood have confounded most of their opponents with their attacking, direct football, but Brisbane might have the clearest plan to beat the Pies of any team in the competition.
They currently hold a six-game winning streak against Collingwood, including two convincing victories this year.
The foundation of Brisbane’s game is attacking teams on the counterattack. No team scores more interceptions than the Lions and they start up front.
Brisbane finished in the top four for tackles inside the 50, paving the way for valuable forward-50 stops and repeated inside-50 entries.
Extremely skilled intercepting defenders – led by Harris Andrews with a support team of Jack Payne, Keidean Coleman, Brandon Starcevich and Darcy Wilmot – specialize in recovering any loose ball and putting it into the hands of their best ball users. ball.
This ability to attack from interceptions was at the heart of their two victories against the Pies this year. Brisbane accumulated 157 points from interceptions compared to just 63 for the Magpies. Of those 157 points, 89 came from steals in the first half.
This higher setup comes at a price, weakening Brisbane’s ability to stop scoring when the other team goes below 50. The Lions were only the 10th best team to defend scoring against entries below 50 , a weakness for an otherwise solid team. . If opposing teams are able to break through the defensive line or generate quick entries following stops, the Lions can sometimes find themselves in trouble.
But the risk is usually worth it.
The Lions are not afraid to use the width of the field to move opposing defenses around, thus changing the angles of attack. This puts opposing teams off guard when they advance, making it more difficult to defend forward-50 entries.
Brisbane also boasts one of the most dangerous and balanced attacks in the league.
The Lions have long been one of the most efficient teams under 50, finishing 4th in points under 50.
The Lions have a defined group of big and small forwards, and they share the load within their group.
Each week, the roles they play vary, between focal points and decoys. Fagan is less interested in the individual contributions of each of his attackers, and more in how they contribute to the bigger picture. This makes them difficult to plan and almost impossible to stop.
“When it comes to finals, it’s a little easier for teams to knock you out if you’re predictable under 50,” Fagan told ABC earlier this year.
“So the fact that we have a good combination of goals is important for us. We have to continue on this path, we don’t want to depend on just one player.”
Building in the middle
All Finals losses hurt, but blowouts sometimes show signs of bigger issues at play.
In the second half of last season, Brisbane’s talented midfielder struggled to find the right balance between attack and defense, ball winners and line breakers.
This year, their ability to gain punts and limit opposing damage has improved significantly.
The signing of one of the best two-way midfielders in the league, Josh Dunkley, has contributed to their flexibility.
Father-son recruits Jaspa Fletcher and Will Ashcroft contributed to their escape to the outside world. This allowed their other remaining parts, such as recent Brownlow medalist Lachie Neale and Hugh McCluggage, to settle into lighter roles, suited to their strengths.
The last challenge
Only minor premiers stand in the way of Brisbane’s fourth flag.
They already did it against this team. If the Lions can execute their game plan, they know they can beat Collingwood.
Some are questioning the Lions’ ability to win at the MCG, given their recent poor record on the field.
In reality, the MCG on grand final day is a completely different task than any other day of the year. The last time the Lions played in front of a crowd of more than 90,000 was in their 2002 Grand Final victory over the Pies.
A new football empire could once again emerge in the north, and perhaps it will be for good this time.