How to win a final
By Oliver Fitzpatrick
Or at least convince your mates you know what you are talking about...
It’s getting to that time of the year again, when the air of anticipation brushes through the streets of Melbourne. When, once again, your team’s miserable season has suffered a quiet death, and you can act like an impartial expert on all finals matches, whilst secretly hoping everyone loses. It’s the time of the year that suddenly, your annoying ‘friend’ from NSW who doesn’t really understand the rules talks to you again about the Swans for the first time since last September. Yes, it’s time for the AFL Finals.
After 23 long weeks of ‘the most unpredictable season in years’ we have finally reached the month that matters. All players and coaches, rightly or wrongly, are judged on their performances in September — it’s the time of the year when all fans are watching, when every moment is crucial. It’s when heroes and villains are born. Every year has at least one iconic moment, and more often than not, they are born in the finals series or Grand Final itself. Think of Leo Barry’s mark, Scarlett’s toe-poke, Jesaulenko’s hanger, Heath Shaw’s smother and Wayne Harmes’ slide– all Grand Final moments that live on like no other football memories. Players are immortalised — if someone is a premiership player their status is automatically elevated within the game. Likewise, if a player or coach fails to win a premiership then it is hard to put them in the uppermost echelon of superstars. Port Adelaide finished top of the ladder in three consecutive years — 2002–04, and yet nobody would say they were a better side than the Brisbane Lions, who didn’t once finish top of the ladder. The finals mean more than any other game, and players know that they might never get another opportunity to taste premiership success.
So, with finals meaning so much, you get the impression that everyone knows how finals are won and lost. Everyone has an opinion as to who will win and why, even if they haven’t watched a game since last September. Some say, “the team that wants it more will win”, others “you need to kick straight” whereas some suggest that “you just need to win the hard ball”. So, which is it?
I know we live in a post-truth world where BT’s ‘gut feel’ carries seemingly more weight than the numbers, but for argument’s sake, let’s have a look at the stats from the last 10 years of finals and see just what is needed to win a final.
Playing at Home
Firstly, let’s look at the home ground advantage — much is made of the advantage of finishing top 2 as it gives your side a home ground advantage, but in a final, how much is this worth?
It appears that a home ground is a big advantage — 73% of home teams have won in the last 10 years of finals. It is interesting to note that this advantage doesn’t change whether the opponent is from a different state or from the same state — so Hawthorn’s advantage at the MCG is the same against Sydney as it is against the Bulldogs. Also interesting is that during the home and away season, the home team wins just 57% of matches, meaning that a home ground advantage in a final appears to have a greater weighting than during the regular season — although this could be because in finals the home team is generally the team that finished higher on the ladder and so more likely to win anyway. Regardless, the team with the home ground advantage has won ¾ of finals in the last 10 years — so keep that in mind when talking finals footy at the water cooler.
Talking Like an Expert: KPIs
To really sound like an expert, you have to talk in jargon and know the importance of teams meeting their key performance indicators. A great way to sound like you know what you are talking about is to state that a team will win because they win a certain, specific stat. David King has made this skill his own in his infamous ‘war room’. There is definitely a growing number of football fans who enjoy expressing their opinion through the medium of statistics. This seems like a logical way to argue, and it certainly can be — of course if people did look at all the statistics they would be more educated to the result than simply basing their tips on the astrological alignments of each player each week. However, most people who do use stats in a football conversation are using a select stat that furthers their point, or are simply saying a statistic because it makes them seem more knowledgeable — something I can’t blame people for doing, but it doesn’t necessarily make them right.
The problem is that AFL is a highly analysed game — there are hundreds of stats that are measured and choosing just one to prove who will win is like choosing your girlfriend based on whether she has a cool dog or not. Sure, its great if she has a cool dog, but there are probably some other factors you need to consider before committing — for example, whether she is a nice person that is compatible with you, or if she is a murderous psychopath who has a soft spot for dogs.
Anyway, the point is that it is meaningless to look at any fact in isolation — they need to have context and their importance needs to be assessed. Let’s have a look at which stats have been important over the last 10 years of finals.
This graph compares commonly recorded statistics and charts how often the team won when they won each stat. The data doesn’t look at the raw number of a team’s kicks, for example, but says that they won the stat if they had more kicks than their opponent. All statistics are considered wins if the team has more of them, except for the clangers count, which is obviously better if lower than the opponent’s.
As can be seen, the statistic that leads to most wins is having more kicks than your opponent — with almost 80% of teams winning this count also winning the game. It is not surprising that the next three statistics all are linked — more kicks mean more disposals, and probably more marks and uncontested possessions. This is “Hawthorn football” — keep the ball so the other team can’t score. Interesting, however, is the handball count being on the other end of the spectrum — teams were marginally more likely to lose if they had more handballs than their opponent, meaning that the number of handballs is basically a redundant statistic. Some teams that love to handball may have had success, but having more handballs may also mean you were under more pressure and less able to find uncontested possessions and kicks. The flipside to these stats is that if you stop the opposition from getting uncontested possessions, make them kick to contests and turn the ball over, you are more likely to win.
Don’t Butcher the Ball
The four next highest stats (scoring accuracy, inside 50 efficiency, inside 50s and marks inside 50) all refer to a team’s ability to score and capitalise on getting the ball forward as well as stopping their opponent from doing the same. Probably the most well known stat is the inside 50 count — this is a callback to ‘good old-fashioned footy’ when teams would get the ball and kick it as far as they could, then win a contest, kick the ball as far as they could and repeat. This old gamestyle meant that basically the team with most inside 50s would win the game because both teams were entering the forward line the same way — under pressure, but to one on one contests. A more refined, modern style is to be patient and look for a target inside 50 — some teams refuse to enter the forward line until there is a clear target.
This new style of football has also led to a new type of footy nuffy — those who yell at their team to ‘just bloody kick it’ instead of waiting for a good option, providing good entertainment for other spectators.
It is still important to have more inside 50s than your opponent — almost 70% of teams who had more inside 50s won the game, but even more important is how constructive those entries were. Inside 50 efficiency is the percentage of inside 50s that lead to a scoring shot and 70% of teams that have won this stat also won the match. Obviously, the perfect situation for a team is to have more inside 50s and be more efficient, but this is not always possible. Scoring accuracy is also important — similarly to inside 50 efficiency, accuracy not only means you are making the most of your opportunities, but it also means you are making your opponent take more difficult shots or shots that are under pressure. A clear example is the 2008 Grand Final between Hawthorn and Geelong where Geelong had 19 more inside 50s and 9 more scoring shots but lost the game by 26 points. Marks inside 50 is also linked with these offensive potency stats — a mark inside 50 generally leads to an easier shot than a snap shot, and it can imply that if you have more marks inside 50 then you are going into your forward line with more purpose and potency than your opponent who might be blazing away and turning the ball over.
Another interesting point within this scoring efficiency is made by taking inside 50 efficiency on its own — not considering how well you defend the other team.
As this graph shows, if you score on 50% or more of your inside 50 entries then you are a much better chance of winning. This shows that forcing your opponent to waste forward entries by blazing away can be a key to victory — hence someone like Alex Rance could be vital in the finals series with his ability to negate inside 50s and lower the opposition’s efficiency. Conversely, a team that is more patient with the ball, or has a more dynamic forward line, will have greater success because they will not just look for territory inside 50 but will try and hit a target and increase their chances of scoring when they go forward.
Win a F#%@ing Hard Ball
Four of the next stats are all related to what most people think finals are built on, and I can testify that almost all amateur football coaches around Victoria spend 95% of their time spraying players for not winning these stats — for being sheepdogs and not showing enough guts and determination.
Contested possessions, one percenters, clearances and tackles are often seen as stats that are won by the grittiest, most determined players. Whilst important — over 60% of matches were won if any of these stats were won, they prove to be less important than keeping the ball, and making the most of the ball when forward. Hawthorn proved they didn’t mind losing the contested possession or clearance count, because they backed their defenders to win the ball back. Some teams with less reliance on their defence to take intercept marks can win games with their clearance and contested possession work — GWS are a good example of a team that will dominate the clearances and back their forwards to at least make a contest in the forward line, rather than letting the opposition rebound out of the backline with ease. These stats basically show that while it is useful to win the ball first, generally these disposals are made under pressure and unless you can then keep the ball, they are not that beneficial.
The importance of contested marks is also shown — Tom Boyd proved why this can win a final in last year’s Grand Final. A contested mark is another way to keep possession, or win it back from your opponent — it can save a chance at a goal (Leo Barry you star), create a shot at goal, or simply win possession from a 50–50 contest (Jesaulenko, you beauty). It is certainly not of vital importance, but having a player that you can kick to down the line is another way to keep control of the ball. And taking a contested mark is a surefire way to make people remember you played in a Grand Final.
Also, interesting to note, the free kick count coming in at exactly 50% shows that having more free kicks has zero influence on the result — not that I think any fans will pay heed to this fact.
Be Better in Every Way
So, we can see that there are 14 statistics (not frees for or handballs) that each increase a team’s chance of winning. Logically, it makes sense that if a team wins most of these stats, they should win most games, but how many do they need to win? To try and avoid some bias I have removed the disposals stat as it is too related to other positive indicators such as kicks, contested possessions and uncontested possessions.
As can be seen, as soon as a team wins more than half (7) of the key stats, they are much more likely to win than lose. Only three teams have won finals whilst winning 4 or less of the key statistics and the difference between winning 6 and 7 of them is massive. Remember that stats can be drawn, in which case neither side wins the stat — which is why the drawn Grand Final doesn’t add up to 13 — there were 2 drawn statistics. Of the three teams that won whilst only winning 3 or 4 of the key stats, they were decided by minute margins. Geelong against Hawthorn last year — Geelong won by just 2 points (and a missed kick after the siren from Isaac Smith), and of the 4 stats they did win, they won contested possession by a massive 52 and contested marks by 12 — both of which are in the top 10% of margins for each stat for all finals in the last 10 years. The other two matches involved the two Adelaide teams — Port winning by just 3 points after winning 4 of the stats in 2007 against West Coast; and Adelaide remarkably winning despite winning only 3 stats against the Bulldogs in 2015 — this was also a very close game, won by just 7 points.
So yes, it is important to win each individual stat, but much more important is to win a number of them — no team has lost when winning 10 or more of them, and of the 90 teams that have won 7 of these KPIs or more, 76 have won the match — or 84%. This means that a team can lose a couple of the above stats — even the kick or uncontested possession count, just as long as they make it up by winning more of the other stats. It also means a team can’t focus on purely winning a couple of the stats — they need to beat their opposition in a number of categories. Finals football really is a simple game — win half of these stats and 6/7 times you will win the match.
“We Match Up Well Against Them”
Another theory on finals wins is that it depends on match-ups; this is the thought that some teams just play better against certain opponents and that can have an impact on the outcome of the game. To determine this effect, I had a look at how teams that played finals against each other had performed against each other in the home and away season of that year. Of the 90 finals matches in the last ten years, 20 had involved situations where the two teams had either beaten each other once each during the year, or had drawn their only game — as this showed that neither team had an advantage over the other these instances were discarded.
Of the remaining 70 matches, it was found that the team that had won during the season also won the final 43 times (61%), giving them a slight advantage. So, there does appear to be a benefit to playing a team you have beaten during the year, but only a marginal one.
The Mythical Premiership Quarter
Another comment you are guaranteed to hear just after half time of a final is the importance of the “premiership quarter” — the fabled third quarter. Let’s have a look at just how important winning each quarter is, and if winning the 3rd quarter does lead to winning the match.
As can be seen, 84% of teams that are ahead at 3 quarter time go on to win the match, but this is kind of obvious because if you are ahead with only a quarter to go, obviously you have the advantage. However, winning the 3rd quarter itself has proven to be exactly equal to winning the 2nd quarter, and virtually as important as winning the last quarter. With 71% of teams winning the 2nd or 3rd quarters also winning the match, and 69% who won the last quarter winning the match also. This is irrespective of the actual score or margin at the quarter break but is based purely on points scored in that quarter. Interestingly, the 1st quarter is noticeably less important than the other quarters — just 63% of teams who win the 1st quarter went on to win the match. This is still an advantage, and obviously a team would prefer to win the 1st quarter, but it proves that coming back from a quarter time deficit is certainly achievable and quite commonplace in the finals.
What Was the Point of This?
So, you have read this far and spent a good period of your day on this article, hoping to gleam some hard facts that mean you will know who’s going to win the finals this year. I’m sorry to say that it is still impossible to predict who will win— as shown by the recent win of Sydney over Adelaide in round 22: Adelaide have been a very efficient team in the forward line all season and Sydney have been quite wasteful in front of goal — but in this match Sydney kicked 13.5 from 42 Inside 50s to Adelaide’s 11.14 from 63 entries. This shows how fraught with danger tipping individual games can be — it is impossible to know who will win each statistic on a given day. So, I’m sorry to disappoint you with the knowledge that this will probably not help you to tip winners in this year’s finals series.
However, if you have gained nothing else from reading this lengthy, number-heavy piece, at least keep this in mind: you now know that when Lingy tells you that getting off to a good start is ‘just so important’ or the Duck tells you ‘whoever wins the contested ball count will win this game’ you know with exact precision just how wrong each comment is. Or when your annoying work colleague attempts to talk up Richmond’s chances, you can reply by explaining the intricacies of statistics in finals and why they will be knocked out in straight sets.
This should either bore them or fade their hopes of victory — both of which will have the desired effect of getting them to leave you alone and ponder why for once your team couldn’t be playing in September.