Contenders or Pretenders: What To Make Of Sydney’s First Half?
After jumping out of the gates and starting the season 4-0, Sydney’s rebuild appeared to be complete before it even got started.
Chad Warner, Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell all received rising star nominations in the first 3 rounds, while the likes of Sam Wicks, Logan McDonald and Hayden McLean also impressed.
Sydney’s balloon eventually popped courtesy of an agonising 2-point loss to the Giants having led all match, with the result ushering in a difficult month which also doubled as something of a reality check.
While they did beat Geelong in this period, despite being statistically mauled, the Swans were beaten by Gold Coast while losing to Melbourne and Fremantle by a combined 11-points.
Now that the dust has settled after a pulsating first half of the season, we’ve got a lot more clarity about where these Swans are positioned, and whether we are indeed dealing with genuine contenders or pretenders where this year’s premiership is concerned.
Let’s take a look.
Individuals working as a team, rather than a team of individuals
When you look at Sydney and analyse how they play, it's clear that this club is much more of a system-based outfit, rather than a team relying on bouts of individual brilliance.
Through the Swan’s first 11 games they have few players that appear in the upper echelon in the competition. In fact, while every other legitimate premiership contender is dripping with Brownlow prospects and being moved around imaginary All-Australian teams, the Swans have quietly assumed their place among the elite without too much individual fanfare.
Sure, Lance Franklin’s 3.1 goals per match is his best return in 7 years, and Callum Mills is having a breakout season, yet the bulk of Sydney’s 2021 progression has been achieved with the majority of their squad simply doing their jobs very damn well.
Luke Parker, Josh Kennedy and Jake Lloyd continue to amass plenty of football, Tom Papley keeps kicking goals, while Isaac Heeney keeps doing a fair bit of both.
Tom Hickey’s first season in the Harbour City has clearly been his best at AFL level, while the likes of Oliver Florent and Harry Cunningham have played every game and quietly produced career-best numbers as well.
Sydney’s exceptional squad balance is being reflected in a PPG attack and defence which both rank 6th in the league, with 5 of the 11 players that have played every game all under 24-years of age.
A well-coached side, playing well-drilled footy
With a coaching staff of Dean Cox, Ben Matthews, Don Pyke, Jarryd McVeigh and headed by John Longmire, it’s little wonder the players are performing well beyond their expectations, as that’s what all five of these coaches did throughout their illustrious, unfashionable careers.
This coaching group is laden with premiership experience, yet it's their blue collar ethos and ability to not be pegged down that's rubbed off so well on the playing group.
Despite the Swan's youth and inexperience, they're performing with a pronounced maturity, already winning a couple of games having trailed at 3-quarter time, while their total of 7 last quarters won is the equal-best mark in the league.
And they are producing these numbers and running out games so well while being consistent all over the park.
While we indicated their excellent balance in attack and defence earlier, the Swans have also demonstrated a strong ability to produce excellent football from both an outside and inside perspective.
This season, the Swans rank 4th and 2nd in uncontested possession and mark differential, for the most part opting for a measured, build-up attacking philosophy not dissimilar to Geelong.
With that said, the Swans still possess an ability to roll up their sleeves and work hard defensively. Their +5.7 tackles differential is the 4th best number in the league, while they are fighting heroically in defensive-50 as well, allowing the opposition a mark on just 18.2% of entries (only Melbourne’s 14.4% is better) while opponents are kicking a goal once inside-50 on just 20.5% of forays, which is the competition’s 5th best number.
In this realm, serious props are in order for Tom McCartin who's produced a team-high 5.2 contested one-on-ones per game, while their ever-reliable co-captain Dane Rampe remains ridiculously hard to beat, losing just 16.7% of the the one-on-one duels he’s found himself in.
This consistency across the ground is illustrative of a well-coached, brilliantly-balanced side whom is ready for whatever the opposition wants to thrown at it. It’s a big reason why they’ve maintained a top-6 position all season, and with the league’s 3rd-easiest draw from here on in according to Stats Insider’s schedule difficulty analysis, the club appears well positioned to maintain its hard-earned spot.
Contenders or Pretenders?
At the half way point of the season, and according to the Stats Insider futures model, the Swans are a 73.7% chance of returning to September for the first time since 2018, and a 27% chance of finishing top-4 for the first time in 5 years.
Those positive numbers reflect a team that's made a massive statement over the first half of year, and one that’s been delivered via a club-wide, team-focused ethos that should hold them in good stead for the remainder of 2021, and throughout future campaigns.
The Swans are back, and appears they're here to stay.
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