Systems and smarts have Ross Lyon defying stats to put his winning stamp on St Kilda

St Kilda’s reborn coach has managed to loosen up his side of unheralded players while tightening the screws to make them winners

At half time yesterday, the stats sheet suggested a Carlton bloodbath. They had 27 more contested possessions than St Kilda. They had 23 more marks. Four of their players had racked up more than 20 touches. They even had the best of the umpiring.

And yet they were only a few points up. Maybe stats are increasingly irrelevant. Maybe they would have got better bang-for-buck if they hadn’t spent the second quarter hoiking and dinking nine irons into the forward 50. Maybe system trumps statistics, and there’s nothing surer than St Kilda’s system right now.

“It’s about our system against theirs”, Ross Lyon said in the lead up. The two sides are so different in how they play. St Kilda is all about leg speed, hard running, end-to-end football and an almost messianic adherence to team defence. Carlton’s system is comparatively and worryingly straightforward – win it at the coalface and get it in quickly to the twin towers.

It’s easy to say Carlton kicked themselves out of the game. They slaughtered St Kilda at the contest. But their set shot kicking and their forward half entries were atrocious. Their theme in 2022 was ‘next man in’. It may as well have been ‘lower your eyes.’ Their tendency to bomb and blaze away cost them dearly in those final terms against Melbourne and Collingwood last year, and it was the same story again yesterday.

Ross Lyon doesn’t present as the self-doubting type. “I felt sick, I felt anxious,” he said heading into the game. “AFL football makes you feel all your senses – good and bad.” He coached well yesterday. He has an excellent record against Michael Voss, and he made some crucial moves at the main break. He sent Jack Sinclair into the middle, with immediate effect. He sent Jack Steele, fresh from a busted collarbone, to the reigning Brownlow medallist. “Consider it part of your rebab” he told him.

But all credit must go to his players. Last year, after an especially meek performance, Brett Ratten sat his players down and questioned their work effort, and their willingness to play unselfish, two-way football. When he was sacked a few months later, it seemed like a savage decision, the last roll of the dice of a desperate and inept club.

But who now would say it wasn’t the right call? Ross Lyon has somehow managed to loosen up and tighten the screws at the same time. The work rate and discipline of his players is unconditional. Under Ratten, they would pick and choose. Under Lyon, players like Brad Hill are sprinting a hundred metres to execute a smother. He certainly wasn’t doing that last year.

Lyon uses the phrase “cold and clinical” when talking about how they’re actually playing. And there’s none of the hoopla we see with a team like Adelaide, with the Rocky Balboa routines and the high fives in the tenth row. I can’t imagine Ross Lyon being OK with that sort of carry on. Instead, it’s very much an even spread. David King talks about “four and fill” - essentially the way the best teams have a handful of champions and then support them with role players. That was how Lyon’s St Kilda and early Fremantle teams were set up.

This side isn’t like that at all. There’s no superstars in there, They’re the hardest side to settle upon votes and best players each week. So many of them are unlikely types. Mitch Owens has played just over a dozen games of league football and seems at various times to be playing in every position on the ground. They got Mason Wood for peanuts. He’s just turned 29. He’s finally being used in his right role, which consists of running up and back, from back pocket to forward pocket, plugging holes, linking up, and running his opponent into the ground. Likewise, Callum Wilkie fell into senior footy with little fanfare and not a lot of expectation. He was working as an accountant when he was rookie listed. But he’s so clean, such a good organiser and so adept at reading high balls.

They’re hybrid footballers. They’re unprepossessing types. The Blues had the six-leading possession winners on the ground. But the Saints had the system, the smarts, and the Ross Lyon stamp.


Jonathan Horn

The GuardianTramp

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