Australian football tactics and skills
While Australian football has often been described as a game without rules, this is in fact far from the case and tactics have played an important role from its early days.
Modern football played at professional Australian Football League level has evolved into a game that is vastly different from amateur football. It requires levels of superior fitness and skill to execute tactics and can result in much less physical style of play. Player height may also affect the strategies used.
- 1 Individual Skills & Tactics
- 2 Styles of play
- 3 Set Plays
- 4 Defensive Tactics
- 5 Attacking Tactics
- 6 Intimidation and attrition tactics
- 7 References
Individual Skills & Tactics
The following skills are typically noted on a player stats sheet.
- stiff arm (fend off)
- blind turn
- dummy - pretending to dispose of the ball, to confuse an opponent
- side step
- goose step
- drawing a free kick
- intercept marks
Styles of play
Direct football, often referred to as playing up the guts, contested footy or corridor footy is played with minimal short kicks and often using the height of strong key position players. These days it is also referred to as old fashioned style of play.
Direct football can result in frequent physical contests, and forwards are not always able to mark the ball. As a result, crumbers (small players at the fall of the ball) become more important are often instructed to run "front and square" to contests to pick up the loose ball and push the ball quickly towards goal.
In direct football, the role of Ruckmen and midfield centre clearances become critical.
Modern professional football has seen the advent of possession football, making the game similar to Association football. In Australian football it is often referred to as playing keepings off. The aim of possession football is to avoid contests at all costs, denying the opposition of opportunities to take possession.
There are generally two ways that teams execute possession football in the modern game, marking and by handball.
The rules governing the mark actually allow for possession football. Teams will sometimes kick backwards to avoid kicking to a contest. The AFL has experimented with rules in the NAB Cup to prevent this anti-competitive play.
Although the rules allowed for the handball most Australian rules leagues handball was largely a secondary skill to the kick (i.e. only used as a last resort). Strategically Australian football was viewed as a territorial sport - where the prime aim was not so much possession, but to cover as much distance through the air as possible. As the holding hand could not move, this was best achieved by means of kicking the ball as far as possible.
The term Tempo football was coined by commentators to describe the tactic of controlling the tempo of the game. Australian rules is a game in which teams can score very quickly and gain psychological advantage to overwhelm their opponents. When a team looks like getting a run-on, opposition sides sometimes use tempo football tactics to deliberately slow down the game. This may include forcing a bounce (either through scrimmages or forcing the ball out of bounds, flooding or through playing possession football and timewasting). Once in possession, they may then speed up the game with often scrambly direct or running football. Tempo football is not pretty and commentators labelled the Sydney Swans 2005 premiership team masters at tempo football and they were also widely criticized for it.
After a behind has been scored, a designated kicker must return the ball to play from the goal square. Kick-ins are one of the most strategic set plays in the game of Australian football.
7 point play
The term "7 point play" was coined by commentators to describe the situation where a team has been able to convert a missed goal (behind) into 7 points by stealing the ball directly from a kick-in and scoring a goal.
The main methods were used to penetrate the zone:
- Long kicking (such as the torpedo punt), typically with the target being a ruckman or other tall player
- Short kicking (typically to a fast running back pocket player), although this can be risky as it is closer to goal
- Fullback play-on - this requires the fullback to perform a solo move to leave the goalsquare and run on, gaining enough distance to break the zone
The cluster involves players from the team kicking the ball in congregating at the top of the 50 metre arc and breaking in different directions. The player kicking in will typically have a designated spot or target player to kick to. The opposition team will often resort to a zone defence to successfully counter this tactic, and hence it is rarely used.
Bounces and Throw-ins
Bounces and throw-ins are critical set plays in Australian football and the ruckmen and midfielders will often use these opportunities to execute specific set play strategies.
A strategy for defenders was to deliberately concede a point (behind) to regain possession of the ball. Some spectacular examples of this include Mal Michael's controversial "own goal" from 30 metres. Under coach Alastair Clarkson, Hawthorn used this tactic in the 2008 AFL Grand Final, conceding 11 rushed behinds. It caused the AFL to review the laws and award a free kick for deliberate rushed behinds.
Flooding exploits the freedom of movement of players around the ground. It involves the coach releasing players in the forward line from their set positions and directing them to the opposition forward area, congesting the area and making it more difficult for the opposition to score. It is commonly deployed to protect a lead, or prevent a rout. This is possible due to the lack of an offside rule or similar restrictions on players field movements.
The rolling zone or cluster, poineered by Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson executes the zone defence, but across the entire field. Such a tactic requires extreme fitness and co-ordination of the entire team.
Teams can break the rolling zone by playing direct football, or kicking long to a contest.
Before the 1980s, teams would often simply kick high to a full forward whose role was to kick goals.
Allan Jeans used Jason Dunstall as a lead up full forward and established a new breed of lead up full forward who would lead up the ground in a straight line, providing midfielders with a large, fast and strong running target to kick. This made it very difficult for opposition sides and lead up full forwards would provide game winning firepower. Such players included Tony Lockett, Gary Ablett and Tony Modra.
In response to the lead up full forward, opposition teams will often double team a full forward and stand "in the hole" (often tall ruckmen) to prevent them from leading into open space.
In response, coaches began recruiting specialist decoy forward or secondary target who were able to run in a different direction to the primary target and were accurate at set shots.
More recently, regular flooding has denied opportunities for using both the primary and secondary target tactics.
North Melbourne coach Denis Pagan pioneered a technique called Pagans Paddock which involves ordering all attacking players to clear the attacking 50 metres of players and bombing the ball into the open space. This would give key forwards (in his case specifically Wayne Carey) room to run into, often running with the flight of the ball toward goal. In recent times, a similar tactic for Hawthorn's Lance Franklin has been described as Buddy's box.
Rotating forwards is a tactic where coaches move and change forward players to exploit different match ups create space to lead diagonally when the ball is inside the 50 metre arc.
Historically forwards were "stay at home" players, lacked endurance and would not run and chase. This allowed defenders to run out and set up long attacking players.
This has changed significantly and modern forwards are expected to chase down and tackle defenders and in fact steal goals. Leigh Matthews triple premiership winning Brisbane Lions with players like Jason Akermanis excelled at applying forward pressure on opposition teams. Now shorter faster forwards, such as Aaron Davey are becoming increasingly popular for applying forward pressure and are credited with revolutionising the attacking game.
Running in waves
Hawthorn's dominant 1980s team used the tactic of running in waves using multiple handballs to draw the man, move the ball down the field and open holes in the attack in a similar way to rugby. In recent years, the tactic has been revitalised by the Geelong Football Club.
Intimidation and attrition tactics
An often overlooked tactic in Australian football is using attrition, violence and intimidation in an attempt to win matches.
While these tactic are popular with some spectators there are continual efforts by administrators to stifle them, which sometimes prompts the popular expression "Bring Back the Biff". Nevertheless throughout the game's history physically larger teams sometimes resort to brawling in an attempt to win matches and physically intimidate the opposition to gain a psychological advantage.
Similar to Attrition warfare, the aim is often to physically wear down the opposition or to deliberately "take out" a key player. Historically this tactic is called "playing the man" (as opposed to playing the ball) and some coaches have made it their primary tactic. The attrition tactic was frequently used to reduce to less than 18 fit players on the field, resulting in the offending side having the advantage of extra players.
Historically there have been some significant examples of attrition in Australian football. Some teams also have designated hitmen, hardmen or "snipers" who are selected in the team for this reason and are sometimes less skilled in other areas. These players are often considered expendable and coaches do not worry if they are suspended for their digressions. Tactics outside of the rules used include king hits, elbows, knee-capping or other "cheap shots". However sometimes players try to execute aggression within the rules (or stretching them) by "lining up " and opposition player and using a hard shirtfront or bump (although the act of charging is currently illegal).
The 1945 VFL Grand Final was dubbed the "The Bloodbath" Grand Final due to the violence resulting in sixteen reportable offences.
During the 1980s, attrition tactics became a popular tactic.
The 1987 Fosters International Cup Qualifying Final between North Melbourne and Carlton at The Oval in London was dubbed the "Battle of Britain", due to its attrition of players. North Melbourne won the game but was involved in several sniping incidents.
The 1989 VFL Grand Final (informally dubbed "The Battle of '89") is probably the most famous of all matches of attrition football, with when two physically dominant and aggressive teams lined up against each other. At the start of the match an attack occurred on Dermott Brereton (a player who has also been involved in intimidation tactics) with the intention of taking him out of the game which set the tone for a match in which several key players were hospitalised including Brownlow medalists John Platten and Robert Dipierdomenico (in an incident involving Geelong's Gary Ablett). Hawthorn triumphed despite Geelong's intent to play the man.
While the rules are more strict in the modern game (in the AFL there are now strict fines for melees for example), some teams still engage in "unsociable football". Targeting the bodies of other players, "professional free kicks" would often be conceded and sometimes even suspension.
In a match during the 2005 AFL season, an incident of unsociable football was accused of bringing the game into disrepute when an injured Nick Riewoldt was targeted by two Brisbane Lions players. Riewoldt had broken his collar bone and whilst he grimaced in pain, he was subsequently aggressively bumped by the Brisbane's Chris Scott and Mal Michael before he left the ground.
In recent years, "unsociable football" has proven to be successful amongst some clubs. During the 2005 and 2006 AFL seasons, the Sydney Swans were branded unsociable for their physical wearing down opposition using rugby like tactics by continually forcing stoppages and scrimmages. Hawthorn won a premiership in 2008 using an unsociable style.
Sledging is also used as an intimidation tactic by some teams. Although racial sledging has been largely stamped out with racial vilification codes, there have been a number of incidents of sledging that have influenced the outcome of matches.
- Stevens, Mark (26 March 2009). "Hawthorn in a flap about rushed". Herald Sun. Archived from the original on 28 March 2009.
- Collins, Ben (25 August 2006). "Super Swans, Pagan's Paddock and the big flood". Archived from the original on 21 April 2007.
- Ralph, Jon (4 April 2008). "Kangas use heat maps to stop Franklin". Archived from the original on 7 April 2008.
- Buckley, Nathan (31 May 2008). "Success and the unsociable". The Age. Archived from the original on 2 June 2008.
- Stevens, Mark (24 April 2007). "Behaviour code in the pipeline". Archived from the original on 1 July 2007.
- Hinds, Richard (28 March 2005). "Something has to give when the past and present square up". The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Noakes, Cameron (26 September 2008). "Attractive versus unsociable". Archived from the original on 6 November 2008.