This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of SEN Inside Football.
You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that the way the game is played has changed.
Now more than ever we are seeing games of football where quantity of possession outweighs quality.
Once upon a time gaining 30 possessions in a game was considered a great feat, with a player collecting 40 as rare as hen’s teeth.
Now such stats are a dime-a-dozen. Eight players are currently averaging more than 30 possessions a game, with Hawthorn ball magnet Tom Mitchell recording nearly 36 a week.
When coaching Melbourne in the early 1980s, Ron Barassi famously told star rover Gerard Healy, “You give me possessions and I’ll shut up!” Barassi was clearly a visionary as to how the game would eventually be played!
Over the past 17 years we have seen a statistical explosion. The way teams now defend has resulted in over use of the ball as the attacking team looks to unlock its opponent’s defensive structure.
In 2000, teams combined to average 620 possessions and 110 inside-50s a game – or an inside - 50 every 5.6 possessions. Teams kicked a goal for every 20.5 disposals.
Through the early to mid 2000s, clubs aimed to have this number below 20 and, when they did, they invariably won.
Fast forward another decade and those numbers look vastly different. In 2017 we are seeing an extra 150 possessions a game, but six fewer inside-50s.
Teams are having an extra 10 possessions for each goal.
On top of that, conversion percentages have dropped from 60.2 a cent in 2000 to an abysmal 48.8 a cent this season.
It is a lot of work for little reward, both on the scoreboard and for the viewing public.
So the number of meaningless possessions in the game has never been greater and as congestion remains a dirty word, attention continues to turn to ways to open things up.
This year we have seen the tightening of rule interpretations, such as deliberate out of bounds, and prior opportunity in order to ease repeat stoppages and free up scoring.
While the intention was admirable, the execution hasn’t quite worked.
The idea of starting zones — like those applied in the TAC Cup and Under 18 national championships under the “anti-density rule” (at any stoppage or kick-in, teams are required to ensure that a least five players remain inside their forward half with two of those five players required to be inside the 50-metre arc) — has been floated, but not well-received by fans.
Another option — just as unpopular — is reducing the number of players in each team from 18 to 16.
However, a glance at the history books reveals that this idea deserves more investigation.
While many supporters will resort to the now regular cry of “just leave the game alone”, the idea is gaining momentum at AFL HQ and within football departments in club land.
Prior to departing the AFL for the Gold Coast Suns, former operations manager Mark Evans confirmed that the AFL had considered trialling a reduced format in pre-season competitions.
“Sixteen a side or 15 a side has been thrown up, among other things,” Evans told SEN late last year.
“There are some coaches who think that would seriously help the game, and there are others, traditionalists, who would say just leave it as it is.
“I’m quite keen that somehow or some way that we ought look at it.
“Whether that’s just through intra-club practice matches or training sessions or in something like the NAB Challenge (now JLT Series), I’m open to that discussion.”
Geelong coach Chris Scott has been an advocate for having fewer players on the ground, although he concedes it wouldn’t be popular with many fans.
“Outrage is a popular thing these days, but I suspect there (are) a few big changes we could make to the game where if you didn’t tell any of the supporters, they wouldn’t notice,” Scott said on SEN in late July.
“If we played with 16 versus 16 and didn’t tell anyone, I don’t think anyone would notice, for a long time anyway. I think it would make the game better.
“We’ve had 18 players since the game was invented on grounds that are exactly the same size with athletes that are fundamentally different. The logical extension is that the game is going to be more congested.”
It isn’t the first time that the 2011 premiership coach has raised the issue, revealing in September last year that it was something the Cats have trialled internally.
“We play 16 versus 16 a lot (at training) and it changes the game,” Scott said.
“So if the primary concern is reducing congestion, this is the simplest and probably the most effective method.
“If we didn’t tell the supporters, all they’d see is that the game flows a bit better.”
Former Port Adelaide premiership coach Mark Williams is another in favour of trialling the switch after it was used in the inaugural AFLW season.
“I would just get rid of the wings and play 16 a side,” Williams said. “For me that’s the easiest thing.
“As soon as—at any training night—you don’t have as many players training, it is so much more open.
“If you take two off, it’s a lot easier to find full teams for juniors and at the same time it takes the game back to what we like. Flowing, goal-scoring and you can’t flood back.
“You could play 22 (with six on the bench). People are getting no less pay, they are just not playing as long on the field.”
The VFL/AFL has always fielded 18 players a team. But in the old VFA (Victorian Football Association) it wasn’t always that way.
During a 33-year stretch from 1959 to 1991 the VFA fielded 16 players a team. Only once during that period—in 1969—was the average VFL score higher with its 18-a-team format.
The VFA outscored the VFL by nearly 20 points a game during that period, and when it returned to the 18-man format in 1992 it dropped back to minus three points.
In fact, in the three years leading up to the change from 18 to 16 and the two years after returning to 18, the VFA was outscored on average by the VFL/AFL in four of the five seasons.
On those stats alone, it is hard to argue that a reduction to 16 in the AFL wouldn’t have some effect on scoring.
In the 16-a-team game, the VFA simply removed the wingmen allowing more space for players to run into.
But the game has changed a lot since those free-flowing days.
Would coaches be prepared to sacrifice a running player who would typically play through a wing, or would they look to remove a tall forward or defender — or even a second ruckman — in order to better use the space with an extra midfielder? Maybe.
While everyone may have theories on what may happen, until it happens we will not know for sure.
Coaching games record holder Mick Malthouse and former Richmond legend Kevin Bartlett remain staunch opponents of any proposed numerical change.
“I am a traditionalist, I believe it should remain as it is,” Malthouse said.
“We’ve got 18 sides, (so) that’s 36 players that would not be getting a game on the weekend. You could imagine what the Players Association would say about that.
“If they are worrying about the game ... because it looks like a rugby scrum, there are certain methods that could be implemented without having to go to that extreme. I would be disappointed to see it go to 16.”
Bartlett added: “Let’s not talk about an aspect of the game that goes against the AFL Charter that has been shaped against the ongoing 150-year evolution of the game.
“The AFL Commission told us ... Australian football has unique characteristics to be maintained and encouraged. The first three characteristics are the code is played with an oval-shaped ball, on an oval-shaped ground and has 18 players on the field per team.
“End of story. Let’s not bring up 16 a side ever again.”
While change is never popular, and you cannot please everyone, at the very least it is worth a look.
What is there to lose?
16 a side vs 18 a side scoring
|1959 (VFA changes to 16 a side)||86.5||81.2||5.3|
|1992 (VFA changes to 18 a side)||102.1||103.6||-1.5|