Port Adelaide sat perched atop the AFL ladder all year, finishing the home and away season with a 14-3 record. In a COVID-interrupted season, they will now receive the significant boost of playing two finals at Adelaide Oval in front of home fans.
Yet, you'll be hard pressed to find an expert who is willing to pick the minor premiers to win their first flag since 2004.
A large reason for the lingering scepticism is the 60-point beatdown at the hands of Week 1 finals opponent Geelong on August 14 at Metricon Stadium.
The Power would recover to win their final five games, although those victories came against non-finalists Hawthorn, North Melbourne, Sydney, Essendon and finally eighth-placed Collingwood - hardly scalps worth gloating about.
Port Adelaide's chances of reversing the result against the Cats on Thursday night will likely hinge on Charlie Dixon's ability to have an impact on the contest. Dixon was a complete non-factor in the loss, registering just three disposals while failing to hit the scoreboard.
Compounding his struggles was the dominance of Coleman Medal winner Tom Hawkins, who bagged a season-best six goals from his 17 disposals as the Geelong midfield consistently found him isolated inside 50.
Ahead of the monster qualifying final, let's take a look at where the Power went wrong, and more importantly, how they can put their star big man in a position to succeed against the dour Geelong defence:
VENTURING FAR FROM HOME
Having turned 30 last week, Dixon is in the best shape of his career, with his ability to cover the length of the ground unquestioned.
While Geelong certainly deserve credit for their defensive performance on Dixon, it's reasonable to suggest the Power did themselves no favours by playing their key target up the ground.
Struggling to get their hands on the ball early in the game, Dixon was regularly used as a marking target out of defensive 50. Rather than attempting to move the ball around the back half until they found a crack in the Cats' zone, Port defenders routinely bombed long to a contest.
1) 82% of Dixon's disposals have come in the forward half this season. Struggling to gain control of the game, Dixon was often used as a target exiting defensive 50. Geelong will be THRILLED if Dixon spends his time in contests around half back. pic.twitter.com/eDxb2lU1Qw— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) September 29, 2020
The strategy was a curious one considering the prowess of the Geelong tall defenders in marking contests, while also removing Dixon from the most dangerous part of the ground.
This season, 134 of Dixon's 164 disposals have come in the forward half of the ground and Chris Scott would have been ecstatic seeing the opposition's primary scoring threat drifting so far up the field.
THE BENEFITS OF ISOLATION
Giving up just 53 points per game on average, the Geelong backline ranked fourth in the league for points against in 2020. The secret to their success is working in numbers, sending multiple defenders in aerial contests, while relying on their wingers and midfielders to hit the foot of the contest at ground level.
As miserly as they have been, the Cats can become vulnerable when they are asked to defend in one-on-one situations.
Dixon may see a rotation of Lachie Henderson, Harry Taylor or Mark Blicavs as his direct opponent on Thursday night, but the key will be ensuring it's not two or three of those players at the same time.
While he wasn't able to have the impact on the game he would have liked, there are plenty of reasons for optimism when looking back at the tape.
2) Like most backlines, the Cats can be vulnerable to quick ball movement that prevents help arriving at the contest. Keeping Dixon inside 50 and pushing the other forwards up the ground creates this. On this occasion, Ladhams simply drags his man to Dixon...don't do this. pic.twitter.com/lj7VU1Uptf— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) September 29, 2020
Similar to the way Geelong use Hawkins, Port threatened when Dixon stayed at home and the other forwards dragged their opponents out of his area. The above clip highlights how team discipline can create a one-on-one opportunity inside 50. The critical error in the play above was Peter Ladhams getting sucked into Dixon's space and dragging his opponent with him.
3) On this occasion the Power forwards stay disciplined and the quick ball movement prevents Henderson and Bews from leaving their man to prevent the one-on-one. pic.twitter.com/XpfRfMFxD7— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) September 29, 2020
In this example, you get a perfect illustration of the Power forwards clearing space and forcing accountability of the opposition back six. It's no secret where Port are going when Dixon is isolated and Henderson and Jed Bews are well aware, but the slight hesitation to leave their man results in a genuine one-on-one for Dixon.
4) Same again on this occasion. Behind the ground vision shows at least 30m between Dixon and the nearest Power forward. Rather than Dixon being the contest target in midfield, Port bring the ball to ground and keep their man isolated inside 50 and should have got a goal. pic.twitter.com/p4XCvNDgNQ— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) September 29, 2020
Again, the Power structure is perfectly in place here, with the behind-the-ground vision showing at least 30 meters of space between Dixon and his closest teammate.
The Cats defence rarely looks shaky but separate them from their mates and you are in the box seat to succeed. If the other Port forwards are prepared to play decoy, Dixon will be able to thrive in one-on-one situations
MAKE THE CATS' BACKLINE SWEAT
It's quite idealistic to assume Dixon will find space inside 50 all night long but reality is, it's finals footy and the Power are going to have to find a way to create scoring opportunities in traffic.
While Geelong like to methodically move the ball around until they find a lead-up option, Port rarely show hesitation with a long ball to the top of the square, ranking third for entries per game with 46.
Dixon ranks No. 1 in the league with 43 contested marks and the Cats know it. Any long ball in his direction will attract a major crowd and provide an opportunity at ground level.
5) Expecting one-on-ones all night long is unrealistic, but look at the crowd Dixon attracts in the air. He's the best contested mark in the league and Port can create opportunities at ground level as the Cats defenders all get sucked to the contest. pic.twitter.com/ym67SZLkRM— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) September 29, 2020
On this occasion, Ladhams wheels on to his left and hits the hot spot, with Dixon drawing his direct opponent in Taylor, while Mark O'Connor and Patrick Dangerfield leave their men to help out, with the resulting scramble ending in a high percentage shot at goal to Kane Farrell.
6) Once again the Power forwards press up to the stoppage and leave the hole in front of Dixon. Woodcock actually gets in Dixon's way here and the hurried kick lacks a little depth but it creates chaos inside 50 and that's where Port can thrive. pic.twitter.com/e4jQByDLWD— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) September 29, 2020
While you won't find the same open expanses discussed earlier, the structure should stay the same. The behind-the-goal vision on this half forward stoppage highlights the Power forwards pressing to the contest and leaving the hot spot open for Dixon to charge into.
The hurried entry lacks a little bit of depth, but you once again see O'Conner and Jack Henry rushing to the contest to help Taylor on Dixon. On this occasion, Boyd Woodcock drifts into the space and restricts Dixon's ability to fly for the ball but once again Port find themselves with a ground ball opportunity close to goal.
Ultimately, the fortunes of Port Adelaide in September likely ride or die with Dixon's performance. The quiet night against the Cats stands out, but his impact was eerily similar in the team's other two losses to Brisbane (six disposals, zero goals) and St. Kilda (eight disposals, one goal).
Geelong thrive on control, suffocating their opposition into submission. If the Power can get their structure right, they will fill the Cats with anxiety on the finals stage that holds significant demons for Chris Scott's men.
Over to you, Ken Hinkley.