We’re stoked to have Pete Roberts from Behind The Footy sharing some of his great content with us for the 2021 AFL season. Pete spent fifteen years in AFL coaching boxes as an analyst. He now shares those insights with footy fans and you can read his 2021 AFL season preview below. We’ll also be publishings his weekly previews.
Footy is back. Back to “normal” quarter lengths, a full 22-game season, and with a rabid crowd watching on. Absolutely can’t wait.
We witnessed just how important the fans were last year. Footy as a product just isn’t the same without the atmosphere of at least a semi-full stadium. To have 50,000 (or hopefully more) watching on from the MCG on Thursday night will be epic.
A HUGE season preview below. Every team, a quick look at what has changed, and we go through the futile exercise of picking a final ladder.
AFL Season Preview: Rule changes
It’s important to cover what has changed in the off-season. What seems like a few minor tweaks could have a massive bearing on how the year plays out.
Back to a full-length season. The good teams will know the change in lengths means not every game is created equal – if you can bank enough wins early then the run home can be as much about player management as it is about winning.
On the flipside, it means a couple of early slip-ups or injury issues don’t necessarily mean season over (Richmond in 2019 the perfect example).
Full length quarters
Not all that interesting on the surface, but footy is back to being an absolute war of attrition – when combined with a few other rule changes we’ve covered below, the impact of quarter lengths on the game can’t be underestimated.
Will we see the return of the “comeback”?
In 2019, the team ahead at half time won just over 75% of the time. The team ahead at 3/4 time saluted in nearly 85% of matches.
When the 2020 season was shortened and the quarter lengths reduced, it actually seemed to prevent teams from being able to reel in a deficit. The leaders at half time won at just under 85%, and only 9% of matches were won by the team trailing at the last change.
A small sample size, sure. But it appeared that fatigue was less of a factor and time seemed to “run out” on any team needing to come from behind. You also can’t underestimate that teams failed to adjust and change their tactics, matchups or gameplan a lot earlier if they fell behind.
While the principle of reducing rotations is incredibly flawed, it is here regardless. So when combined with the return to full-length quarters, fatigue will be a massive factor this year.
This might increase the chances of some incredible swings in momentum – is a five goal lead at three-quarter time safe?
Man on the mark
What seemed like a minor tweak could be one of the biggest changes the game has seen in quite some time. Get ready for the coaches to quickly exploit the inability for the man on the mark to slide across in either direction.
The short 15-20m kick either side of the man on the mark is now well and truly on. Teams won’t have to practice the risky lob over the top anymore, rather the quick, flat dart of a kick will be the new standard.
And who is going to be the first player to just tumble a kick past the man on the mark for a goal when lining up from close range but a tight angle? Convinced it’s an option.
AFL Season Preview: Team Previews
Like most seasons, the sides can be broken down into those who look nearly certain to be in the finals once again, the big pack of chasers, and those who are well and truly in development mode and unlikely to feature in September. Let’s take a close look at all of them…
AFL Season Preview: The Contenders
This is probably as “chips in” we have seen a team in a long, long time. They fielded the oldest team in competition history last year, and have since brought in nearly as much experience as they lost in the off-season with Jeremy Cameron, Isaac Smith and Shaun Higgins joining the side.
Can the Dad’s Army endure the longer quarters, a 22-game season and reduced interchanges and win it? That’s easily the number one query for this team. The leading contender in our book (and should’ve won it last year).
A goal away from a Grand Final berth last year, and some valuable experience for their relatively young group. It’s easy to see how the likes Duursma, Rozee, Byrne-Jones, Butters, Burton and Houston take the next step and help Port Adelaide improve.
Defensively they are sound (#1 for Points Against in 2020), offensively they are potent as well as unpredictable (#2 Points For), and the midfield isn’t filled with big names, but they’ve shown they are up to matching it with the best in the most high-pressure contests.
Once these big interstate teams find themselves in contention, the home crowd becomes even more of a factor – with the chance of a full Adelaide Oval this season, they are easily going to bank enough wins to be right in top-four contention.
It was patently obvious that the Lions were missing a key target up forward last season. They spent the third most time in their forward half last year and the third highest points for, so in theory the addition of a fit Joe Daniher really puts them in the frame to take the next step.
They will have learned a lot from their loss to Geelong in the Preliminary Final. Can their bottom six players improve enough to help their stars? If they can, this might be their year.
The absence of Stefan Martin will be an interesting one – will they regret letting him leave at some point this season?
Arguably their worst season out of the last four years, yet they still won the flag. Incredible. Their game style is suited to wearing down teams over time, so the return to full length quarters helps their chances to win another one.
They know how to manage a season better than most, should bank enough wins to find themselves in the finals once again, and the Tiger Army back at the MCG will make a huge difference.
Is the hunger still there given all they’ve accomplished already? Obviously they would say yes, but it wouldn’t surprise to see them in a bit more of a battle this year to make the top four. Could come down to a close game or two, and we know how good they are in those situations…
AFL Season Preview: The Chasers
No idea what to do with West Coast this year – classic case of a team that wouldn’t surprise if they made the top four, but also wouldn’t surprise if they missed the finals altogether.
Not convinced their game style is conducive to finals football. If they can get the game on their terms (dry weather, kick-mark kind of game, high-possession, relatively uncontested) then they’re incredibly hard to stop, particularly at home. But they are definitely not suited to a scrap, or when the ball is on the deck more than in the air.
The Eagles might be the big beneficiaries of the man on the mark rule, along with Geelong. They had the third-most kicks last season, the second most uncontested marks and are easily the best contested mark side in the comp.
With a home ground advantage they can bank enough wins in Perth to be in contention again, and will just need to beat up on the poorer teams away from home to lift their percentage and make the finals once again.
Can a team full of midfielders go all the way? We are about to find out! You can package up the Dogs, Power and Lions as probably the three most exciting teams when they’re up and running, so this should be a fun year to see who comes out on top.
Last year was a strange one for the Bulldogs. Their only win against an eventual finalist last year was a 2-point victory against the Eagles in Round 16. Hardly the profile of a team that is going to jump up and challenge for a flag the following year.
But they will be unpredictable at the very least. If the likes of Aaron Naughton and Josh Bruce can capture the right kind of form their offence should be potent enough to post a competitive total. Defensively they might need their key defenders to hang on for dear life against the opposition forwards – it could be the deciding factor as to whether they can challenge for a top four spot or find themselves in a battle just to make it.
What do we do with Melbourne? Another example of a team that could do anything this year. Their ladder range might be 4th to 14th, so they are incredibly hard to trust.
In terms of their best 22, they have all the ingredients to be super competitive. Offensively they might have their challenges given the injuries to Brown and Wiedeman currently. Funnily enough, their fate might rest on their small forwards – can they combine for enough of a score to compete? Can they keep the ball down there? In many games last year the ball seemed to rapidly exit their forward fifty, which will put any defensive system under a fair bit of pressure.
With May, Lever and co down back and the likes of Salem off half back able to kick their way out of trouble, you’d back the Demons to be solid defensively once again (8th in points against last season). They also have a favourable draw, so a few wins early in the season could give this team the confidence they can feature in the finals series after two poor seasons.
Never thought a team’s fortunes could hinge on the success of a 32 year-old key defender, but James Frawley’s hamstring injury might have hurt the Saints more than some might think. Bottom four at conceding marks inside 50 last season, it could be the Saints achilles heel once again. Think about the top teams coming into this year – all of them have a monster forward (or two) who could terrorise a pretty shaky key defensive setup at St Kilda.
Clearly the Saints have some upside as well, of course. Usually a good indicator of a team on the improve is their ability to knock off strong teams a few times during a season. Last year, the Saints destroyed eventual Premiers Richmond in Round 4, and put in arguably their best performance against Port Adelaide in Round 8.
Just not convinced they’ve got the right ingredients to be a genuine top four threat. Could end up with egg on the face, but at least it will be exciting to see them do it if they can. Their numbers from last year suggest their ability to score from the back half was a bit of a challenge, and they were very much middle of the road for winning the ball back in their front half. What is their elite strength? Hard to tell.
Other teams will have done their homework on their new style under Brett Ratten. A lot might rest on the shoulders of the likes of Max King and Hunter Clark to improve. And with their early injury issues and a pretty tough first six weeks of the season, they might find themselves under the pump.
From a pure “ins and outs” perspective, Collingwood has an inferior list than last year. Whatever the reason, they’ve lost a lot of their depth which helped them make the finals and upset the Eagles away from home.
A lot of sharp analysts have the Pies sliding this season and it’s easy to see why. They had serious issues posting a competitive score (13th best points for despite the fourth best inside 50 differential), a pretty tough run with injury and more than their fair share of controversy.
Their defence alone helped them stay competitive last year, and it will ensure they remain the same in 2021. Jeremy Howe returns to a back six full of quality, so this is a great platform for this year… IF they can get the other end of the ground right.
Still convinced there’s a pretty good team in there somewhere. A home crowd at the MCG will help more than some might think as well. Not prepared to write off the Pies just yet. For once their annual off-field controversy has come before the season has even started, so there’s a plus at least…
If we think it’s hard to get a read on Melbourne, the Blues might be even harder. They picked a great year to invest in half-backs, adding Williams and Saad in a year which promises to be very favourable to kicking back flankers.
Their tendency to leak goals for long periods was their number one issue last year, along with trying to find some help for a clearly injured Patrick Cripps. Address both of those and they might just be the super exciting team on the rise who should be incredibly fun to watch this year.
Could they find themselves under pressure very early on in the season? With a first six weeks that includes the Tigers, Magpies, Power and Lions they would want to find an upset in there somewhere or face an uphill battle over winter.
The Blues are easily the most fascinating, unpredictable side this season. Impossible to know what they will do. Need a strong start or the pressure will build.
Speaking of impossible – how hard is it to figure out the Giants? They played like a team of individuals for basically the entire 2020 season. It was every man for himself. If there was a world championship for burning your teammates when they were open, the Giants would have been on top of the podium.
Does the departure of Jeremy Cameron force them into rolling up the sleeves and playing for each other now? Hopefully that’s the case because the list is obviously littered with quality. Are their bottom eight players good enough? Jury’s out.
Could Fremantle be the big improver this year? Usually there is one team that jumps up from well outside the top eight, and the Dockers are in contention for sure.
In a league that is actively encouraging the game to open up, lift scoring and play with speed, the Dockers could end up disadvantaged. Their inability to score combined with what looks like a lack of dare from the back half means the game would need to be on their terms a lot for them to win.
One indicator seemed to be the sole pre-season game they played against West Coast. If you’re behind on the scoreboard in a pre-season game and don’t at least attempt to get a little adventurous from the back half, are the players going to have the confidence to do it in the regular season? They were dead last at generating scores from their defensive 50 last year – has anything changed?
I really want to be with Fremantle given how well they are coached and their young midfielders that could turn into absolute guns. Just hard to see how they can score enough to compete with the high-scoring sides. And if they can keep it low-scoring with their discipline they might still lose their fair share of close games just due to natural variance.
I’m very interested to see how the Dockers fare this year. I feel like their list management team should set about finding trade and free agency targets to lift their potency up forward, because the rest of the ingredients are there.
AFL Season Preview: The Rest
Another team in contention for rapid improvement. The Suns are an intriguing mix of youth and… youth. The side they fielded in their last game against Hawthorn featured 11 players with less than 50 games experience, with an average games tally of 75. That’s still extremely low.
A finish between 9th and 12th is probably about right. Might be a year too early for them to realistically push for finals contention. But they won’t be an easybeat by any stretch.
A disastrous year for the Bombers last season. Defensively they couldn’t stop teams from scoring (4th last points against), struggled to find ways to score themselves (a bottom 5 offence), and spent only 30% of games in front on the scoreboard. Still won six games, but with an average winning margin of only 10 points. Wow.
Can they improve? Probably. But injuries to their forwards already, the loss of Adam Saad, Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia, and Michael Hurley a long way from a return should see them really struggle to compete with the good sides.
Very capable on their day, and often feed on the big crowds they (used to) attract. No side would want to take them lightly no matter how much it looks like they are struggling.
The Hawks are in full-blown rebuild mode now. But as soon as they are written off and underestimated, there is nothing surer than them winning as a huge underdog. It’s just that sort of team. A long year ahead for them regardless, it appears.
The Swans’ season was a fascinating one last year. Can you ever call a five-win season a success? Because that’s what Sydney achieved. An average losing margin of only 22 points, a clear direction in how they are trying to play and another year getting games into their young group.
It might end up being another 5-8 win season for Sydney given where they are at, but at least we can see what they are building. They won’t be an easy team to beat no matter which way you look at it. It always make it hard for sides with their brand of football. As honest a team as you’ll get.
No surprise, but looks like they are in for a long year. Excited to see what David Noble puts in place for his first year at the helm. What sort of brand of footy will they play?
Their lack of speed could become even more of a hindrance given the rule changes. Teams should easily be able to exploit their lack of running power and questionable forward setup and post some enormous scores this year. Is five wins achievable?
AFL Season Preview: Final Ladder & Season Predictions
If nothing else this should be a great exercise to look back on at the end of the season. How wrong will we be?
Brownlow Medal: Patrick Dangerfield / Marcus Bontempelli
Coleman Medal: Jeremy Cameron
Breakout Season: Luke Davies-Uniacke, Hunter Clark, Sam Draper
Best club switch: Orazio Fantasia
Rising Star: Matt Rowell, Tom Green, Luke Jackson, Tanner Bruhn
There you have it. Bring on season 2021!
Don't spend this season making donations to the bookies. AFL Tips is back for 2022: get on board now and start betting with an edge.
Don't spend this season making donations to the bookies. AFL Tips is back for 2022: get on board now and start betting with an edge.