How Collingwood can revive their season amid off-field turmoil

Collingwood's couple of weeks from hell have been some catalogue of disaster coming from quarters you'd hardly anticipate dealing with during the course of an AFL season.

The first blow was routine enough, the potential loss for the season through injury to a key part of the machinery in defender Jeremy Howe. Then, however, a series of off-field events just as the Pies were attempting to rebound from their first loss of the season.

There was the ramping up of the fall-out between former premiership defender Heritier Lumumba and his old club. Steele Sidebottom's "bender" and subsequent four-week suspension. President Eddie McGuire's ham-fisted attempts to mitigate the damage. Then Jordan De Goey's sex abuse charge.

It would be a pretty remarkable football team which could withstand those ructions without some impact on its performance. But there's a bit of an issue emerging with Collingwood in an on-field sense, too, and it's independent of the weight of outside pressures.

Given the Pies are only half-a-game outside the eight, it's hardly yet a full-blown crisis. But the difference between Collingwood's best and worst has been an unusually fine line, the foundations of its game standing up in defeat.

Which raises an obvious question. Does the way the Magpies play their football offer enough bang for their buck (or, pardon the pun, 'Bucks')?

It's no secret Collingwood likes to play a high-possession brand of football. The Pies have been the No.1 team for disposals each of the last two seasons and are again so far in 2020. That's as much about its defence as it attack, and by and large it's proved very successful.

The Magpies are careful with the footy in hand. It means that when they lose possession, the opposition has greater difficulty converting those turnovers into scores, winning the ball back either in tough scoring positions, or with the Collingwood defence already well-set. The Pies were second only to Geelong for fewest points conceded in 2019, and are currently third.

It's the caution with the ball going in an offensive direction which can cause them grief. Particularly when Collingwood's key forward targets are either struggling, injured, or prone to bouts of inconsistency, as have Mason Cox, Ben Reid and Brodie Mihocek respectively.

The Pies' "go-tos" in terms of goalkicking are very much their medium-sized and small forwards. Last year, Collingwood's leading six goalkickers totalled 161. Only Mihocek could in any way be classed a tall target. This season, the top six currently have 31 between them. Again, Mihocek, with eight goals, is the only tall.

For the likes of De Goey, Jaidyn Stephenson, Jamie Elliott and Will Hoskin-Elliott to have scoreboard impact, they need to be found in space on a lead. That requires quick, clean delivery inside 50.

But too often, the Pies are laborious going forward, eventually forced to either bomb speculatively to marking targets who can't get the job done, or to the "in-betweeners" who, given that slow delivery, too often have no space in which to lead.

Move the ball quickly, as Collingwood was able to do in round one against the Western Bulldogs and again in the round three victory over St Kilda, and the scores come. When slowed, as the Pies were again last Friday night against Essendon after scoring the first three goals, and it's death by a thousand kicks.

Over the course of 2019 and so far this season, the Magpies, despite their No.1 ranking for both disposals and uncontested marks, ranked only eighth for points scored. What's just as, if not more significant, is the teams which score most heavily and move the football quickest. In almost every case, they're the same teams.

Champion Data statistics show that Collingwood ranks only ninth for offensive efficiency (points scored per 50 minutes the ball is in the forward half) over 2019 and this season. Last year, fellow finalists Richmond, GWS, Geelong and West Coast were all ranked top four.

A good measure of ball movement speed in the lead-up to goal is disposals in the midfield and defensive zones per score. Last season, the teams with the lowest disposals per score were, in order: Brisbane, Geelong, Richmond, West Coast, Hawthorn and GWS. Where did they rank for points scored? First, second, sixth, fifth, 11th and fourth respectively. Collingwood ranked 13th for disposals per score in midfield and D50, and eighth for points scored.

In 2020, the teams with the lowest disposals per score are Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Geelong, Carlton and GWS. And their points scored rankings? Third, second, first, seventh and fourth. Collingwood is a lowly 15th for disposals per score and 10th for points scored.

They're pretty obvious discrepancies to the other "top" teams in the AFL. And look even worse given the amount of football the Pies routinely win, even in defeat, and the presence of names like Scott Pendlebury, (until last week) Steele Sidebottom, Taylor Adams, Adam Treloar, not to mention a large support cast going through midfield.

Last week against Essendon, from its first three goals in 12 minutes until the final term, only four of 19 Collingwood chains of possession from the back 50 ended up in the forward 50.

In the last quarter, when the Pies, the best part of five goals down, had no choice but to throw caution to the wind, that figure was a far healthier three from eight. Surely, there's a clear message there.

You can't stop Collingwood winning the football, it seems. But if you can slow them down, the impact is just as pronounced.

As coach, Nathan Buckley can't necessarily control how well teams defend against his. But he can do something to control how his own team attacks. And right now, more dare and less of a defensive mindset would help fix at least the on-field component of Collingwood's current issues.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at footyology.com.au