Are the Brisbane Lions the AFL's Barcelona FC?
The Hawthorn Football Club of this decade has been the closest thing an AFL club has ever come to Barcelona FC.
Did you just say Barcelona FC?!
The same Barcelona FC that’s known as one of the most iconic sporting clubs on the planet, winners of 25 - soon to be 26 - Spanish La Liga titles, along with five European Championship crowns? That Barcelona?
Yeah, that one. The one with Leo Messi.
I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the somewhat constant claim that Barcelona changed the game of football forever, elevating it to a level that shall never be replicated again. Not only does that charge pre-suppose the sport needed change, but it takes credit away from so many other glorious clubs before them.
Instead, what Barcelona’s enduring legacy will be is it’s possible to create a club-wide philosophy, understood, implemented and executed at every level of an organisation, which if done right, can deliver a sustained period of relevance and occasional excellence.
FC BARCELONA PASSING EFFICIENCY IN LA LIGA (# RANK)
2009-10: 87.0% (1st)
2010-11: 89.6% (1st)
2011-12: 88.4% (1st)
2012-13: 89.3% (1st)
2013-14: 88.1% (1st)
2014-15: 88.2% (1st)
2015-16: 86.8% (1st)
2016-17: 86.7% (1st)
2017-18: 87.3% (2nd)
2018-19: 88.4% (1st)
But Barcelona didn’t just press a button on a vending machine to pop out ‘beautiful football.’
Their path to becoming their sports' greatest, has its origins firmly entrenched in its famed youth academy ‘La Maisa’. An academy which promotes a ‘total football’ approach to its pupils while preaching positional fluidity with an unwavering focus of technical prowess.
Like Barcelona, the AFL's Hawks understood that there are no express lanes where winning Premierships are concerned.
Hawthorn built their list organically, and, like their Spanish counterparts, were equally as obsessed with monopolising possession of the football as their surest route to success.
However, in order to do so, both had to make sure their players had the skills to keep it.
Following Barcelona’s lead, Hawthorn committed to a youth approach that placed a premium on drafting players with elite kicking skills while replicating this same approach when at the trade table.
When we think of many of the stars of those peak Hawthorn years, be it Mitchell, Hodge, Lewis, Rioli, Burgoyne, Gunston, Birchall etc, all possessed extraordinary skills by both hand and foot.
In the last two of Hawthorn’s hat trick of premierships, their disposal efficiency on Grand Final day was 78.3% and 78.7%, numbers which - considering the occasion - are simply astronomical and not likely to be threatened any time soon.
For context, when the Western Bulldogs won the Premiership in 2016, their disposal efficiency on Grand Final day sat at 68.1%. A year later when Richmond was crowned, their number was 67.9%.
It’s one thing to be smart and clean by hand and foot, it's another to excel at it on football’s biggest stage.
HAWTHORN DISPOSAL EFFICIENCY (# RANK)
2011: 74.7% (1st)
2012: 74.8% (1st)
2013: 73.4% (2nd)
2014: 74.3% (1st)
2015: 76.1% (1st)
2016: 75.0% (2nd)
2017: 76.4% (1st)
2018: 73.6% (3rd)
A key football administration member during that glorious Hawthorn reign was Chris Fagan, now, of course, the head coach of the Brisbane Lions.
When Brisbane hired Fagan at the end of 2016 they had made one AFL Finals appearance over the previous 13 seasons. Gone were the days when Brisbane were the toast of the AFL world with a swag of Premierships, Brownlow medallists and Hall of Fame players in their midst, coached by perhaps the game's greatest footballing identity in Leigh Matthews.
That early 2000's Brisbane Lions team was a juggernaut. The Lions team that followed?
Not so much.
The team that Fagan inherited had come off a season where it won just three games, posting a percentage of 61.6%, numbers that harkened back to the last couple of seasons of Fitzroy.
At the height of Brisbane’s excellence ten years prior, they boasted home crowds in excess of 33,000. By the end of 2016, their average attendance was down to just 17,000.
To say that the Lions were an on-field mess would be an understatement punctuated by the fact that seemingly every decent player drafted in that period, wanted to return to their home states after a few years. In most cases, Brisbane had no choice but to cave in to those demands.
What Chris Fagan saw at the Lions in 2016 was a blank canvas.
Rather than think himself a genius capable of inventing something profoundly new, Fagan reasoned Brisbane's most logical path to contention could be achieved through replicating many of the elements that fueled the Hawks dynasty.
Pablo Picasso once remarked that good artists borrow, while great artists steal.
Fagan is the Lions’ Picasso.
Brisbane has started this young season with three straight wins, and find themselves second on the ladder. No team in the competition has won more quarters of football than the Lions, and no team is running out games better than them.
Yet it’s the similarity to the Hawks in so many of the Lions’ key statistical metrics that bare such a striking resemblance to the Hawthorn era of success.
BRISBANE LIONS DISPOSAL EFFICIENCY (# RANK)
2015: 72% (15th)
2016: 72% (16th)
2017: 73% (13th)
2018: 74.2% (1st)
2019: 75% (4th)
The likes of Berry, Witherdern and the extreme talent of second-year phenom, Cam Rayner, already possess disposal efficiency numbers above 70% in their early careers. It should come as no surprise the Lion clubhouse leader in the efficiency stat is none other than former Hawthorn Premiership captain, Luke Hodge, who even at almost 35 years of age is posting a career-high 96.2% disposal efficiency.
BRISBANE LIONS METRES GAINED DIFFERENTIAL (# RANK)
2015: -607 (17th)
2016: -757 (18th)
2017: -612 (18th)
2018: -118 (13th)
2019: +577 (1st)
The ingredients are unquestionably in place at the Lions to build on this undefeated start and set the foundation for a protracted run of excellence while bringing back the kind of energy to their Gabba fortress not seen in nearly 15 years.
The Hawks of the modern era were the AFL’s Barcelona FC.
And now that torch is being passed to the brash, young Brisbane Lions.
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