North Melbourne entered Saturday’s crunch clash with the Western Bulldogs on the back of a breakthrough victory against Fremantle. While the Dockers remain one of the more perplexing top sides in recent memory, the match said a lot about the Roos and where they sit in the premiership race.

As for the Dogs, this match loomed as another chance to stamp their authority on fifth or sixth spot. Beveridge’s side has been without doubt the story of the season so in the context of their remarkable year, their clash with North Melbourne was just another challenge to overcome. Could Lachie Hunter continue his recent good form? Could Todd Goldstein put in another performance that has him well in the frame for Brownlow contention? There was a lot to play out at Etihad Stadium on Saturday twilight football.

Robbie Tarrant’s opening quarter surge

North Melbourne started the game the poorer of the two sides but it was Robbie Tarrant who kept them in the game early. He had a whopping five intercept marks in the opening term and landed up with a perfect disposal rate at quarter time. Tarrant was also able to expose the Bulldogs weakness, albeit momentarily. He peeled off the Dogs forwards and rebounded, allowing North Melbourne to move the ball quickly.

As his heat map from the game highlights, he was a presence across half back in the first quarter and was one of the main reasons why North were able to stem the Dogs flow going forward in the opening stages. The first forward entry of the game ended up in a Tarrant intercept mark (above) and that ultimately was how the opening term was punctuated. He ended the game with 24 touches and remarkably, went at 100% disposal efficiency for the entire game. It was another stellar performance from the key back this year.

Lachie Hunter’s mid-season resurgence continues

It was another stellar game for Hunter, whose role in the team as link man may just be Luke Beveridge’s trump card in September. He landed up as the leading possession winner on the ground with 33, including eight marks, three tackles and a clearance. Hunter has been superb for the Dogs over the past few months, playing every game since round 15. While he had a career-high 36 touches against the hapless Bombers, his instrumental role in this Bulldogs win was telling.

His movements across the wide areas of Etihad Stadium on Saturday depicts his importance to the Western Bulldogs. He was the player charged with breaking the lines off half back or half forward and while not operating in the corridor mainly, he was a key player in the Bulldogs transition between the arcs. On numerous occasions, he broke the lines and dished it off to a running player through the middle of the ground who hit up a target going forward. Hunter ended up gaining 497 metres for the game, the fourth best of any player on the field. It also represents a 30% increase on his season average and while he’s had better games purely on possessions, Saturday’s clash could land up being his most complete game at senior level to date. He remains one of the Western Bulldogs’ x-factors and his role primarily on the wing should continue.

Hunter’s role in the side was summed up no better than in the opening stages of the final term. After a Robert Murphy was pinged for holding the ball in the middle, he sprinted back to the opposite arc (above) in order to provide a quick out for a Dogs defender. Little things like that allow the Bulldogs to implant their fast style, rather than get caught up in static defence when rebounding.

Beveridge’s preference to play his young midfield bridge on the wing was also apparent in Marcus Bontempelli’s outstanding performance on Saturday. Despite being tagged by Ben Jacobs, one of the best negating players in the game this year, he was one of the Bulldogs best.

His heat map from Saturday’s game highlights his vital role on the wing but while Hunter has primarily been there for the majority of the season, Bontempelli’s heat map for the season delineates a player used mostly in the centre. Beveridge observed that North were happy to possess the footy and changed Bontempelli’s role from a more central one to a wider role that allowed him to break past North’s possessive approach. The fact that he was still able to have 10 clearances despite a slight shift in midfield is a testament to a player mature beyond his years. Second season blues? Not for the Bont.

Bulldogs pressure acts

Ask anyone in the football world to describe the 2015 Dogs and they are most likely going to start with the calculated gameplan that is brutal on sides kicking out from defence. It has been a trademark of their season and that was no different against North on Saturday.

In the above example, the tone was set early. Jamie Macmillan only had one realistic target to hit and that was a short kick wide. The Dogs sensed that and blocked the near wing, outnumbering North players four to one. By stopping North’s run out of defence, they were forced to retreat and try and fine space on the opposing wing. Even Bontempelli, who is tracking Macmillan is telepathically in tune with the rigid game plan and motioned towards his teammates to block off the near wing.

Most sides in the league have tried to implement an attacking press similar to this one but for those that are unsuccessful, it usually because of two reasons.

1) Players are caught ball watching and follow the defensive players to the boundary, freeing up an easy switch and midfield corridor entry.
2) The opposite can sometimes happen, as players block the corridor almost too strictly, allowing a player to get free on the wing. What usually happens then is the press breaks down, the attacking player waits for space to open up in midfield and the side gets an easy forward entry.

You could pick out 50 examples of this over the course of the Dogs season but with just four minutes gone in the opening term, the tone of the game was set. The Bulldogs press was going to reign supreme by the game’s conclusion.

The manic pressure that has been the trademark of the 2015 Bulldogs was evident once again as the Roos turned over the ball. As Dalhaus takes possession in the above bit of play, their defensive swarm immediately turns to manic attack. North has four players ready to attack the contest but due to sheer weight of numbers, the ball landed up with a Dogs player. Dalhaus had four free targets and his side were easily able to repel that particular attack from North. The scoreboard didn’t reflect it early on but all the signs of a Dogs win were evident in the opening term.

Third man up and Goldstein being stifled around the ground

The role of the third man in the ruck has been a constant talking point this year but while some complain about what it brings to the game, the Bulldogs used it to great effect. A big reason why Todd Goldstein is considered a decent chance to win the Brownlow is not just his ruckwork but rather the way he covers the ground. On both fronts, the Bulldogs succeeded in quelling his influence.

With Tom Campbell out this week, Beveridge opted for Jordan Roughead as the main ruckman. As highlighted above, both Roughead with Redpath and Bontemeplli acted as a potent antidote for Goldstein. While North expectedly dominated the ruck, only 22 of their 58 hitouts were effective. Goldstein also had a relatively quiet game around the game for his lofty standards. He went at 67% efficiency from his 15 touches and only took three marks. Put the ruck battle down as another coaching win for the Bulldogs.

Why didn’t North win?

The few times North Melbourne was able to break quickly and get the ball to the likes of Petrie and Brown inside 50 one out, they exposed the Dogs lack of key defenders. Petrie kicked three goals from five marks inside 50 but Brown went largely unsighted, taking no marks inside 50 and registered just a behind for the game. To the Dogs credit, their major weakness hasn’t been an issue for most of the year but regardless of what transpires in the finals series, there is scope for improvement in the defensive half going forward.

Despite their dominance on paper in the ruck, they failed to capitalise on scoring from stoppages. The Roos scored just three of their 10 goals from them compared to the Bulldogs, who scored a staggering nine of their 14 goals from stoppages.

The key for North was always going to be stopping the Bulldogs fast ball movement inside 50. The above example is a carbon copy of what Brad Scott and his coaching staff would have wanted for to implement more often than it occurred. The Roos have a player loose to plug the defensive corridor hole and this method was tried multiple times across the match. For large parts of the second quarter, North were the better side but they couldn’t stop the quick, repeated Dogs entries across the duration of the game.

North Melbourne managed to take 29 more marks than the Dogs and looked their best when they were able to slow the game down and possess the ball. Richmond successfully deployed this tactic against Hawthorn in their round 18 win but the major difference being they were able to get enough of the footy in the forward half to make the Hawks pay. Brad Scott tried multiple things aimed at stifling the running Bulldogs and while working for periods of the game, North couldn’t sustain it for four quarters.

From the moment Bontempelli broke three tackles, gave off to Stringer in a play that ultimately resulted in a Picken goal, the game essentially was won. The Bulldogs could have folded after an early Higgins goal in the final term but as they have shown countless times throughout the year, they showed poise and footy smarts beyond their young years to see the game out. North came once more before the end but rather retreat; they took the game on through the corridor to give them no chance of a comeback.

3 – Lachie Hunter (Western Bulldogs)
2 – Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs)
1 – Robbie Tarrant (North Melbourne)