Is Isaac Smith The AFL's Recruit Of The Season?
Geelong's rise back into genuine premiership contention is largely credited to the club’s dynamic and potentially dominant forward line, yet it’s a veteran addition that's made the world of difference.
Jeremy Cameron was the headline recruit for the club in the off-season and, along with Sydney’s Tom Hickey and Port Adelaide’s Aliir Aliir, is seen as one of the best off-season pickups in the competition.
Others such as Joe Daniher, Nick Hind and Jaidyn Stephenson are in the discussion too.
It’s Isaac Smith, however, who's proven to be Geelong’s most consistent, hard-working recruit and has fitted in seamlessly, adding greatly to an established team.
At 32 years of age, Smith is still one of the competition’s fittest players and has been able to add the linking play on the outside that Geelong's perhaps most most missed in their failed flag chases.
Into his 11th season, the former Hawk is averaging a career-high 7 marks, 18.7 uncontested possessions and 3.3 rebound 50s per game, lining up on a genuine wing and simply outworking the opposition.
For years, the Cats have had elite wingmen in Mitch Duncan and Sam Menegola, often combining with the excellent rebound work of Zach Tuohy and Tom Stewart to post impressive numbers on the outside.
Yet despite these players averaging over 25 disposals and 5 marks a game at a minimum in their prime, the Cats have always played a slow style based around defensive stability. Enter Isaac Smith who has added so much to Geelong's elite transitional play,
While the Cats have maintained their chipping style in 2021, once again leading the competition in both disposal and mark differential, the 221-game veteran has offered such deep exit options that the team has been able to (and are much more willing) to turn to their transition game more frequently than we’ve seen in recent history.
Only in 2018 when Duncan himself averaged 3.3 rebounds and 3.8 inside 50s has the club had an outside midfielder average the numbers Smith has produced this season at both ends, which is a testament to the veteran’s work rate.
Statistically from 2020 to 2021, Geelong has gone from being third in the competition for uncontested possessions to first, from seventh to second in disposal efficiency, secondto an untouchable first in score involvements and while it mightn’t seem that important, they’ve gone from being ranked 16th in running bounces to 13th, signalling a change in transitional approach.
Smith is ranked third at the club for uncontested possessions and first for running bounces.
In 12 games, he's finished with at least 20 disposals and two rebounds on 10 occasions, as well as having 10+ marks in four games.
What all these numbers indicate is that with the triple premiership player’s addition, Geelong have been able to find the aforementioned easier outlet kicks within the defensive confines of the game plan, and with an extra elite wingman, there's more clear definition in the expectation of the roles.
Considering the defensive issues that are now emerging at the club, particularly regarding the impressive Jake Kolodjashnij now needing to take a lot more responsibility despite being slightly undersized, the Cats have greater offensive prowess that is more than just relying on a superstar.
Duncan started his season off behind the ball, but thanks to Smith, he's been able to move higher up the ground alongside Menegola and enjoy a greater impact on the scoreboard.
For the new recruit, Smith is averaging 442.5 metres gained per match sitting only behind Tom Stewart, who covers plenty of ground with kick-ins, and Patrick Dangerfield, who has only played three games so far.
Geelong has had much better field position this season, as indicated by the fact they’ve conceded the second-fewest inside-50s in the competition, an improvement on previous seasons.
As a result, the Cats have had a decrease in overall metres gained, only further highlighting how important the left-footer’s style of play in getting the ball forward has been.
Interestingly, over the last seven years, Smith’s numbers in this statistic are higher than any other outside midfielder at the club, highlighting the consistent point of difference the left-footer has added.
Due to the way in which his addition to the team has allowed the rotation of the three wing veterans to function, Smith tends to use his powerful running to offer more options and dummy leads on the exit, which allows his teammates to heavily involve themselves in scoring chains – Duncan is averaging 7.9 score involvements a game, while Smith and Menegola are at 5.2 themselves.
It passes the eye test too – no player has as much run and finds himself on opposite flanks in the same passage of play in crucial, late moments than Isaac Smith in 2021.
Of course, Aliir’s been the key for Port Adelaide’s relevance due to his contribution to the Power's defence. Hind has taken the game on impressively at Essendon, Hickey is finally performing at a high level, while Jeremy Cameron is kicking goals at the right moment.
Yet without Smith, Geelong wouldn’t be as adaptable in transition, without someone working so hard at both ends.
According to Stats Insider's future model, the Cats are an 18.1% chance of hauling that tenth premiership cup down the Geelong highway, with their blueprint to success very much fuelled on a high work ethic and team-first approach.
While he's never been the flashiest player, and his positioning has often been overlooked from external parties, Isaac Smith could well be the free agent acquisition that finally solves Geelong's premiership puzzle.
If we’re handing out the award for best recruit of 2021, a discussion simply can’t be had without giving Smith all the credit he deserves.
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