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Peter Sagan is attempting to become the first 7 time winner of the Points Classification (Green Jersey) at the Tour de France. A remarkable achievement considering this will only be his 8th Tour start since debuting as a 22 year old in 2012. His one failure was due to being disqualified from the race following a tangle with Mark Cavendish in a sprint finish in 2017 that left Cavendish with a fractured shoulder blade.

Given his record of winning the Green Jersey in every Tour that he has finished, the consensus is that Peter Sagan only needs to make it to Paris in order to secure the Points Classification title. It is hard to dispute this argument when you consider Sagan has won the Points Classification by an average margin of 154 points across his 6 victories. The closest anyone has come to toppling him was André Greipel in 2015, with Sagan winning by 66 points. Sagan failed to win a stage that year and the big German’s 4 Stages wins were still not enough to overcome him.

Such has been Sagan’s overall superiority in the Points Classification that Tour organisers have already tweaked the points system once during Sagan’s era of dominance in order to make the competition more competitive. Since 2015 there has been an increase in reward for winning a Flat (Sprint) Stage, with the theory being that the most dominant sprinter of a given Tour should be a competitive chance of winning the Green Jersey.

Although an accomplished sprinter in his own right, Sagan does not win the Green Jersey each year due to his raw top speed, but rather due to his versatility. He manages not only to be at the pointy end of flat stages, but he can also mix it with the best puncheurs on more hilly terrain, fighting out stage finishes in places where his principle sprint rivals have been left behind. Sagan is also not afraid to get into breakaways on rolling or mountainous terrain to secure points at intermediate sprints under no competition.

So will Sagan win it again in 2019? Does the 2019 parcours offer any hope to his rivals? And who are those principle rivals? All of this will be discussed in this Points Classification preview, but first lets explain how the competition works.

Rules

For the purpose of applying various rules (in particular relating to elimination time limits and the Points Classification), the official Tour de France rules and regulations [1] classify every stage of the Tour de France according to the following coefficients of difficulty:

  • Coefficient 1: Stages with no particular difficulty.

  • Coefficient 2: Stages with rolling terrain.

  • Coefficient 3: Stage with very rolling terrain.

  • Coefficient 4: Very difficult stages.

  • Coefficient 5: Very difficult short stages.

  • Coefficient 6: Individual time trial stage.

  • Coefficient 7: Team time trial stage.

For the purposes of the Points Classification the coefficients can be grouped and interpreted as follows:

  • Flat Sprint Stages: Coefficient 1

  • Rolling Terrain Stages: Coefficients 2 & 3

  • Mountain Stages: Coefficients 4 & 5

  • Individual Time Trial Stage: Coefficient 6

  • Team Trial Stage: Coefficient 7

The winner of the Points Classification is awarded to the rider that accumulates the most points across the 21 Stages of the Tour de France and also finishes the race. The leader of the Points Classification after each stage has the honour of wearing a Green Jersey on the following stage.

Points are awarded at an intermediate sprint and at the stage finish on all road stages.

Points are awarded for the first 15 riders across the finish line according to the point scale presented below. The winner of a Flat Sprint Stage (50 Points) is awarded proportionally more points than the winner on stages with Rolling Terrain (30 Points) and Mountain Stages (20 Points). Points are awarded based on the finishing position in Individual Time Trials (winner receives 20 points), but no points are awarded for Team Time Trials. The intermediate sprints are also worth 20 points to the winner.

The location of the intermediate sprint on a given stage can vary, sometimes it can be very early in the stage and at other times it can be very late in the stage. Often riders within breakaways will accumulate the majority of points available at the intermediate sprints, but there are often sufficient points available for the sprinters remaining in the peleton that a small sprint to the line is held.

As can be seen by the point allocation by stage type, winning Flat (Sprint) stages are handsomely rewarded. As discussed earlier, this allocation is intentional in order to enable the dominant sprinter of a given Tour to remain competitive against more rounded sprinters (i.e. Peter Sagan) that accumulate points on both flat and more difficult terrain. Given his dominance over the competition since 2012, this point system doesn’t appear to have been effective in creating a viable rival for Sagan. However, the 2019 Tour route and in particular the positioning of the intermediate sprints may make it a little more interesting this year.

2019 PREVIEW

Using the stage classifications in the official Tour de France rules, the Figure below presents the breakdown of stage types for every Tour since 2012 (Sagan’s debut year at the Tour). The 2019 edition has potentially the most balanced parcours over that period, with 7 flat sprint stages, 6 rolling terrain stages, 6 mountain stages, 1 Individual TT and 1 Team TT. Interestingly, the closest Tour by comparison is the 2015 edition, which was the year Greipel came closest to taking the Green Jersey away from Sagan.

The glimmer of hope for Sagan’s rivals in 2019 potentially lies in the intermediate sprints. An estimated 12 of the 19 road stages (discounting the time trials) could provide points opportunities for pure sprinters at the intermediate sprints (stages highlighted green below). This is either due to anticipated small breakaways on the flat stages or the positioning of the intermediate sprints very early (before the high mountain passes) on the more difficult stages. There are an estimated 5 stages (highlighted orange below) where the intermediate sprints would be available for sprinters (typically Sagan) that are willing to get into breakaways on hilly terrain for the sole purpose of collecting intermediate sprint points. But some of these stages could also end in a sprint finish, which may dissuade a Sagan type from getting into the breakaway. There are likely only 2 stages (highlighted red below) where the intermediate sprint is located after difficult climbs and where all the points are expected to be collected by specialist climbers within a large breakaway.

Contenders

So who are the expected challengers for the Points Classification title?

The most obvious form reference would appear to be the Tour de Suisse that was held in mid-June, where Peter Sagan (Bora – hansgrohe) appeared to be back to his imperious best after perhaps only moderate success by his standards in the Tour of California and throughout the Spring Classics season. He finished second on Stage 2 of the Tour de Suisse on challenging terrain, winning the sprint to the line but finishing behind the stage winning solo attack from Luis León Sanchez. Sagan then won Stage 3 on a cobbled inclined finish, using his race smarts and good positioning to make the most of an inadvertent perfect lead-out by Jasper Stuyven from Trek-Segafredo, who must have thought he had his teammate John Degenkolb on his wheel. Sagan then demonstrated his consistency by finishing 3rd and 2nd on the remaining sprint stages (Stages 4 & 5) and securing the Points Classification in the process.

Only 5 points behind Sagan on the Points Classification at the Tour de Suisse was Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), the rider Sagan lost out too on Stages 4 & 5. Could this be a foreteller of things to come at the Tour in July for Viviani? To be competitive in the Points Classification at the Tour, Viviani will certainly need to avoid the inconsistency he showed at the Giro d’Italia in May. However, one thing Viviani does have in his favour come the tour is his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates and in particular the inclusion of Michael Mørkøv and Max Richeze as his preferred lead out men. Although Deceuninck-QuickStep have named a very strong squad for the Tour with the intention to fight for stage wins and jerseys on multiple fronts, there is the potential for Viviani to be supported in a quest for the Green Jersey. 

The biggest rivals to Sagan and Viviani in the sprint finishes will likely be Dylan Groenewegan (Team Jumbo-Visma) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), both of whom have warmed up for the Tour de France by taking part in the ZLM Tour (a stage race with a prologue and 4 stages held in mid-June). On the 3 sprint stages, Groenewegan finished 1st, 1st and 3rd, and Ewan 3rd, 2nd and 1st. Both are therefore coming into the Tour in good form and will be keen to secure stage wins. The question that remains is whether either rider will be interested in being caught in a battle for the green jersey and using up their energy to fight out the intermediate sprints. At the 2018 Tour de France, Groenewegan won 2 stages but did not earn a single point at an intermediate sprint. He is also part of a team with multiple ambitions at the Tour, in particular Steven Kruijwijk in the General Classification (GC) and whatever they plan for Wout Van Aert (more on him in a moment). Ewan has exhibited an ability to be competitive on some difficult inclined finishes, so there is the potential for him to be competitive in a fight for a Green Jersey. But in his first Tour de France and relative inexperience at 3-week Grand Tours (he is yet to finish any of the 4 Grand Tours he has started), there is a strong likelihood he will focus on stage wins only. And with Tour starting in Brussels, there will be a strong motivation for his Belgium team to win Stage 1 and secure the first Yellow Jersey of the Tour.

The other traditional lead-up race to the Tour is the Critérium du Dauphiné. However, the 2019 edition was heavily slanted to attract the climbers and GC contenders. The two sprint stages were dominated by Wout Van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma) and Sam Bennett (Bora – hansgrohe), with a win and second place apiece. Van Aert was the revelation of the race (which also included a time trial victory), but a closer examination shows that many of the sprinters he beat (including Bennett) will not be at the Tour. Hence, for sprinting form, the Dauphiné is unlikely to be a significant reference. Van Aert has also been open to the media that his role in the team at the Tour would be primarily to support Groenewegan and Kruijwijk, with the Team and Individual Time Trials also of particular focus for him.

Of the rest of the contenders, consistent top 6 finishes at the Tour de Suisse from Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) indicates that both riders will likely be consistent performers at the Tour (particularly on rolling terrain). But they are unlikely to be a genuine chance of winning the Points Classification unless something unfortunate were to befall Sagan.

Other sprinters expected to feature prominently in sprint finishes depending on the terrain include Jens Debusshere (Team Katusha Alpecin), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Dimension Data), Giacomo Nizzolo (Team Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) and possibly even the veteran André Greipel (Team Arkéa-Samsic). But on recent form they are likely to be a level below the aforementioned riders.

Viviani’s teammate Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) may also accumulate points in the Points Classification as a by-product of his quest to win the Best Climber Classification. But his points total will likely be well below a competitive total to win the classification.

Prediction

If all riders stay fit and healthy and reach Paris in good shape, the most likely challenger for Sagan in the Points Classification is Viviani. The following is my prediction on how I would expect it to play out. 

Intermediate Sprints

In 2018, the average number of riders in breakaways on flat sprint stages was 3.5 riders. So typically on these stages the sprinters will likely be fighting for about 12 points on average at the intermediate sprint.

There should be plenty of opportunities on more difficult stages also. In particular on stages 6, 8 and 20 the intermediate sprints are very early in the stage and it could be quite possible that the sprinters are fighting for the maximum 20 points.

There are probably only 1 or 2 realistic opportunities for Sagan to get into a breakaway and collect the maximum intermediate sprint points available with none of his rivals present, with perhaps Stage 9 the most likely place for such a venture.

All in all, if a rider such as Viviani takes the Points Classification seriously he could break even in points from intermediate sprints with Sagan.

Rolling Terrain

Sagan’s biggest superiority to his rivals is his ability to feature in stage..

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Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal

27th January 2019 at Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park

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After a pair of lacklustre semi-finals, we have the blockbuster we all craved in the Men’s Australian Open Final tonight between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But given their individual dominance throughout the tournament, which player has the edge? Or are we to expect a showdown of 2012 proportions?

Overall Performance:

In terms of overall performance there is little to seperate the two players. Both have been winning points at an exceptional rate (Djokovic 58.1%, Nadal 58.9%) and have spent a similar amount of time on court. By comparison, the 2018 finalists had lower point winning percentages of 56.2% (Roger Federer) and 54.9% (Marin Cilic), underlining the dominance of Djokovic and Nadal in 2019.

Table 1: Overall Performance

Serving:

Both players have had near identical First Serve statistics. They are serving their first serve into play and winning the points on their first serve at above average rates (see Figures 1-4). The Aces strike rate is quite low for both players, but this is perhaps not surprising for players that are so dominant once a rally starts.

Table 2: First Serve

Figure 1: First Serve In Percentage - Djokovic

Figure 2: First Serve In Percentage - Nadal

Figure 3: First Serve Winning Percentage - Djokovic

Figure 4: First Serve Winning Percentage - Nadal

It is in the Second Serve statistics that Djokovic has demonstrated the bigger edge, winning 69.4% of his second serve points to Nadal’s 58.0%. This is perhaps supported by Djokovic’s heavier second serve, measured at an average of 6.7 km/h faster than Nadal.

Table 3: Second Serve

Figure 5: Second Serve Winning Percentage - Djokovic

Figure 6: Second Serve Winning Percentage - Nadal

Returning Serve:

Once again, both players have had near identical returning serve statistics. Both players have been exceptional, winning points on return of serve significantly above average rates (see Figures 7-10).

Table 4: Returning Serve

Figure 7: First Serve Return Winning Percentage - Djokovic

Figure 8: First Serve Return Winning Percentage - Nadal

Figure 9: Second Serve Return Winning Percentage - Djokovic

Figure 10: Second Serve Return Winning Percentage - Nadal

The Big Points:

The performance of both players on big points has been interesting. Both players have converted break points at a similar rate, however Djokovic has had the greater trouble in saving break points on his own serve. Djokovic has certainly had the more difficult opposition and that would undoubtably effect these statistics, but it will be intriguing to see how Djokovic handles the inevitable break points that will come on his serve against Nadal.

Table 5: Break Points

Ground Strokes:

Both players have been extraordinary on their forehand this tournament, with the number of winners significantly surpassing the number of unforced errors. Significantly, the left-handed Nadal forehand matching up to the right-handed Djokovic backhand may just be where this match is won and lost. As exceptional as Djokovic can be on the defence, if Nadal’s forehand is once again ON tonight, I can’t see Djokovic withstanding it.

Table 6: Ground Strokes

Figure 11: Ground Stroke Totals - Djokovic

Figure 12: Ground Stroke Totals - Nadal

Summary:

Pre-tournament there was a concern on the fitness of Nadal. There has been no evidence to support this concern throughout the tournament, but he has yet to have been tested. If this match becomes a war of attrition, then I would expect Djokovic to have the edge physically. But if Nadal’s forehand can continually attack that Djokovic backhand, Nadal may be able to settle this match earlier.

Prediction: Nadal to win in 4 Sets

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Saturday Afternoon, 11th August 2018 at the MCG 

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There was a sign at Eastern Ranges which read: ‘If you’re good enough, you’re quick enough. If you’re good enough, you’re big enough.’ I subscribed to that theory, even if the recruiting managers at the 16 AFL clubs at the time didn’t share my enthusiasm for it. I had done everything possible to warrant being drafted. I had won back-to-back best and fairest awards with Eastern; I had averaged more than 35 disposals in that 2000 season in the TAC Cup; and I had worked on some of the deficiencies of my game in the quest to get better.

Despite all this, the interest coming back the other way wasn’t lukewarm, it was downright freezing. I knew long before the 2000 national draft that I was in trouble. I had been overlooked for the draft camp, and was bemused when some of those invitations went out to players who couldn’t even get a regular game in the TAC Cup under-18s competition. How did that make any sense? The AFL clubs had pigeonholed me as the player they thought I was, rather than the player I could become. I was ‘too short and too slow’.

Sam Mitchell [1]

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From the stocky little midfielder that nobody wanted to a Rising Star, Premiership Captain & Brownlow Medalist, the story of Sam Mitchell’s perseverance to make it to the very top of the game is now a well-worn tale. But as we now shake our heads in disbelief as to how Mitchell could have ever been overlooked in his draft year, has the AFL industry actually learnt its lesson?

As Sam Mitchell found out the hard way, being a prolific ball winner as a junior was not enough, he was too short and too slow. Being short alone is not necessarily frowned upon as long as you have pace or a strong aerobic running ability. In fact, some of Mitchell’s year 2000 alumni that were drafted included Daniel Kerr, Andrew Krakouer and Graham Johncock, all of who were shorter than Mitchell but had the running ability to compensate. Aerobic capacity Mitchell could work on, but he was never going to have explosive speed.

In his recently released autobiography, Relentless, Mitchell provides further insight into his frustration in not getting drafted and even imparts blame on Carlton superstar Anthony Koutoufides. In a dominant 2000 season, Anthony Koutoufides was identified as the prototype footballer – tall, fast, athletic and with the football ability to match. The notion of turning an athlete into a footballer was a temptation that AFL clubs couldn't resist as they searched for the next Kouta. Of course ultimately Mitchell did force his way onto an AFL list, as he demonstrated that football nous, skill level (his ability to play equally well on both his left and right side is under appreciated) and a relentless will to succeed are qualities that cannot be overlooked.

But almost 2 decades on from that 2000 draft, surely the AFL has become smarter in their recruitment philosophy. Although we embrace the qualities of the miniature Caleb Daniel, he is very much the exception as players such as the strong-bodied 195 cm Patrick Cripps appear to be the inside midfielder of the future. And the quest to convert tall athletic code-hoppers such as Mason Cox into footballers appears as alluring as ever for AFL clubs. The opportunities for the averaged sized junior footballer making it at AFL level are looking increasingly slim. In fact, Sam Mitchell (179 cm) is above average for height based on the general population. According to an Australian Health Survey from 2011-12 [2], the average height of an adult Australian male aged between 18-24 years is approximately 178 cm.

Figure-1: Australian Adult Male Height 18-24 years

But in the context of the AFL, Sam Mitchell is certainly on the short side. Figure-2 presents all the players on AFL lists (primary and rookie) for the 2018 season. The average height of an AFL player is 188.3 cm (median of 187 cm), which is over 10 cm higher than the general population. An interesting quirk of the presented figure is the spike in the number of players at exactly 200 cm. It would appear that a 2 m height represents a threshold which recruiters find difficult to ignore.

Figure-2: 2018 AFL Player Height Distribution

It is when we compare side-by-side (see Figure-3) the distribution of AFL Player height in comparison to the general population that we can truly recognise how the average AFL footballer differentiates himself for the average man on the street. And this trend is not new, if you look at the last 10 National Drafts the distribution in height of the selected players is almost identical year-on-year. Of course, all of this is in some way understandable, taller kids may be more drawn to sport and within a sport such as AFL there are definitive benefits of being tall and athletic. And when fielding an AFL side a balance is always required across the field between height, speed and ball-winning ability.

Hence it is unfortunate that although 50% of the adult male population (aged 18-24 years) are of height 178 cm or less, only 9% of AFL footballers in 2018 fall into this category. This is consistent year-on-year in the National draft as approximately only 10% of players are drafted that are of height 178 cm or less. Of this 10%, how many are selected for their pace? Unfortunately speed metrics for drafted players are not readily available in the public domain to conclusively answer this question. But it is highly likely that a large number of players with game intelligence and skill are lost to the AFL system because they are deemed too short and too slow. It makes you wonder how many Sam Mitchell’s we have missed? Sam Mitchell along with others before him such as Greg “Diesel” Williams may ultimately prove to be just the outliers. If this is the case, all it does is highlight the truly exceptional careers that they had and that perhaps collectively we haven’t fully appreciated their remarkable achievements.

Figure-3: AFL Player Height Comparison

Match Prediction:

Three of the last four matches between the Hawks and Cats have been decided by 3 points or less. And if we look back at the 22 contests since that fateful 2008 Grand Final, 13 have been decided by 2 goals or less. The recent form of both sides suggests that this week may be little different. Consider some typical metrics over the last 3 rounds:

  • Geelong average (vs. Richmond, Brisbane & Melbourne):
    • +14 contested possessions differential
    • 30% goals scored per forward 50 entry
    • 22% goals conceded per defensive 50 entry
  • Hawthorn average (vs. Essendon, Fremantle & Carlton):
    • +17 contested possessions differential
    • 29% goals scored per forward 50 entry
    • 23% goals conceded per defensive 50 entry

Based on these metrics, there appears to be little separating the form of both sides, although Geelong has probably had the tougher opposition. So although another tight contest is perhaps inevitable, the Cats probably just have the edge.

Geelong to win by 3 points

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References and Recommended Reading:

[1] Mitchell, S. & McFarlane, G. (2018).“Relentless: The Autobiography”. Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd.

[2] The 2011-12 Australian Health Survey results (Height & Weight) can be found via the following link: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4338.0main+features212011-13

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Post Round 20 All-Australian Team:

Figure-4 below presents The Weekend Preview's 2018 All-Australian Team after Round 20. The premise of determining the team is to assess each position based on an easily identifiable collection of variables. Each week the rankings for each position are updated and the All-Australian team is auto-populated. The metrics and rankings for each position are presented on a stand-alone page.

Figure-4: Round 20 All-Australian Team

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Saturday Night, 4th August 2018 at the SCG

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He’s the best player in the draft, or one of the best two or three, and it’s frustrating to watch him. Philosophically everyone would be in favour of the academies because they’re adding to the talent pool, growing the game and getting kids into footy, but the bidding system is flawed when Sydney might make a grand final then get a kid who could be rated No. 1 on talent. It’s not right.

Anonymous Recruiter [1]

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Midway through the 2014 AFL season, seeds of discontent were surfacing within the AFL community (primarily from Victoria) due to the unfair advantage that the Northern State clubs (Sydney, GWS, Brisbane and the Gold Coast) were receiving as a result of their player academies. The AFL introduced the academy concept as a means of attracting talent from other codes and increasing the available talent pool. This in itself wasn’t a problem until one of the academies produced a genuine superstar talent. And in 2014, this became a reality when Isaac Heeney became the envy of AFL recruiters.

Not only was Isaac Heeney one of the best talents of his draft year, most pertinently he was produced out of the Sydney Swans Academy. Sydney had only just secured superstar Lance Franklin as a Free Agent at the end of 2013 and the Swans were still perceived by other clubs to be enjoying the benefits of a 10% cost-of-living allowance to their salary cap. Off the back of this, any potential additional draft benefits for the Swans was simply unpalatable to the rest of the competition.

Under the rules at the time, the Swans only had to give up their first selection in the draft to secure Isaac Heeney. But by midway through the 2014 season, when it was clear that Sydney was a premiership contender (they would ultimately lose the Grand Final to Hawthorn), it was evident the Swans were going to get Heeney for a bargain price (ultimately it was pick 18). Sydney were effectively beating the draft system by grooming footballers from a young age and getting easy access to them through the draft. What made matters worse, Callum Mills, another player regarded in the top handful of his draft year, would be available to the Swans in the following year. Opposition clubs were outraged, with Collingwood President Eddie McGuire leading the revolt:

I am red hot on this. This is going to impact on every Victorian and South Australian and West Australian club. We have given New South Wales and Queensland four academies where they can go and get players and hide them away and train them from twelve years of age. We have to get back to giving the game back to the supporter base and back to Victorian football, which has been drained through the last period of time. [1]

The idea of course was that that the Academies would start producing so many good players that the host clubs could not take them all, thereby increasing the pool of players available to the whole competition. This was the theory at least. And it was the central theme behind Sydney Chairman Andrew Pridham’s rebuttal:

The academy system is designed to promote AFL in non-traditional football states and to develop a higher standard of player both for local leagues and at the elite level. As can be seen from the facts, we are a long way off this objective being met in terms of the development of elite talent.

The facts are that the introduction of two expansion clubs has diluted the national talent pool. Therefore, it is vital to have a robust system to develop the game and talent outside of Victoria such that the game can become truly national. The academy system is doing a fantastic job, but there is a long way to go. If the AFL competition becomes flooded with talent from New South Wales and Queensland, it will be the best problem we have ever had. [1]

The drama became a tit-for-tat between the figureheads of Collingwood and Sydney, with others joining in for good measure. The new AFL chief executive officer Gillon McLachlan tried to play peacemaker, all the while developing a new and fairer bidding system in the background.

In 2014, the way the bidding system worked was that the clubs first had to decide whether they wanted to nominate any of their eligible academy players. Then, at a meeting held on the first day of the trade period, other clubs had the opportunity to bid a draft selection for any of the nominated players. If they did, the nominating club needed to use its next pick in the draft order to match it, or let the player go.

As it eventuated, the Melbourne Football Club bid the number 2 selection in the draft for Isaac Heeney. Sydney was able to match the bid with selection 18. The bid by Melbourne was perhaps not completely unsurprising, as their coach at the time was Paul Roos, whose previous role was coaching Heeney as head of the Sydney Academy.

Sydney’s seeming ability to cherry pick elite players out of the draft for minimal spend was untenable. And the AFL introduced a new bidding system the following year to make the system fairer. This bidding system has remained in-place since 2015 and was discussed in more detail in The Weekend Preview’s Round 7 article, presenting what Sydney will likely need to give up for their next potential Academy star draftee Nick Blakey.

The bidding system has certainly improved the overall fairness of the academy system, but has it achieved its intended aims? First of all, are more players being brought into the AFL from NSW and Queensland? The answer to that is a resounding yes. Figure-1 and Figure-2 present the number of AFL players on AFL lists that originated from NSW or Queensland. Year on year there appears to be a steady rise in numbers. So far so good then.

Figure-1: Players in the AFL of NSW Origin – All 18 Clubs

Figure-2: Players in the AFL of Queensland Origin – All 18 Clubs

[Note: Data sourced from the AFL prospectus (2013-2018). The state origin of rookie listed players pre-2015 requires further data gathering]

But how are these players distributed across the AFL? If we take out the players playing in their home state, the number of players from NSW or Queensland playing in other teams across the AFL has only been steady, with perhaps a small rise in numbers from NSW in the past year or two. So although the overall talent pool is rising with an increased number of AFL-level players from NSW and Queensland, this localised talent does not appear to be spreading entirely across the country.

Figure-3: Players in the AFL of NSW Origin – Excluding Sydney & GWS

Figure-4: Players in the AFL of QLD Origin – Excluding Brisbane and Gold Coast

If we therefore take a closer inspection of the 4 Northern State clubs, we can confirm that the drive in AFL player numbers from NSW and Queensland has come from these clubs alone. Brisbane and GWS have had a steady climb in numbers over the past 5 years. Sydney actually peaked in 2016 and has had a small drop since then. Whilst the Gold Coast bottomed out completely in 2016 but have had a renewed focus in recruiting home grown talent over the past 2 years. The go-home factor has been a big issue for the Queensland clubs in particular and they perhaps have belatedly recognised the benefits of in investing in Queensland players. It could also explain why Gold Coast overspent in getting Queenslander Lachie Weller to the club in last year’s trade period in exchange for selection 2 in the National Draft.

Figure-5: Primary Listed Players from Home State

Figure-6: Combined (Primary & Rookie) Listed Players from Home State

However, these graphs only tell part of the story. Specifically, how has the 4 Northern State Academies contributed to the AFL talent pool. The academies took a while to get going, but in recent years, the number of players being drafted from the academies has taken off, with GWS and Brisbane in particular contributing the most. In fact Sydney, the team most attacked for having access to an AFL academy has produced the fewest players.

In total there have been 31 players selected at the National Draft that have come directly from the academy system. The 2016 AFL National Draft has been the high point with 12 players selected from the academies, including 5 players ending up at other clubs. In total there has been 6 academy players selected by opposition clubs:

  • Declan Watson – Brisbane Academy (North Melbourne, Pick 34, 2016)
  • Josh Williams – Gold Coast Academy (North Melbourne, Pick 36, 2016)
  • Kobe Mutch – GWS Academy (Essendon, Pick 42, 2016)
  • Harrison Macreadie – GWS Academy (Carlton, Pick 47, 2016)
  • Ryan Garthwaite – GWS Academy (Richmond, Pick 72, 2016)
  • Corey Wagner – Brisbane Academy (North Melbourne, Pick 43, 2016)

Figure-7: Academy Selections at the National Draft

Figure-8: Academy Selections at the both the National & Rookie Drafts

[Note: Data sourced from the AFL Record Season 2018]

So the Academy System appears to be working. More players from NSW and Queensland are being introduced into the AFL system, thereby increasing the talent pool, and in recent years that talent is starting to get spread to other AFL clubs. The new bidding system is much fairer than the original system, meaning the Northern States need to give up more to secure their talent, yet they are still being rewarded for doing the legwork in developing the players. And to appease the rest of the clubs, the AFL has introduced the Next Generation Academy program, whereby each AFL club has been allocated a zone to run their own academy targeting players from Indigenous and Multicultural backgrounds. This overall expansion in talent can only be good for the competition.

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Match Prediction:

It has been a while since Eddie has aired his misgivings of the Academy System. But if Collingwood can poach home-sick Free Agents from the Northern State clubs such as Tom Lynch from the Gold Coast, he probably doesn’t mind too much anymore. Little of this impacts the game this weekend of course, which is an intriguing battle that will help shape the finals ambitions of both clubs. 6 weeks ago Sydney was looking very strong and sitting comfortably inside the Top-4. But after a poor run of form, their finals ambitions are in the balance and there has even been talk (perhaps prematurely) of their terminal decline. Collingwood on the other hand have gone from strength to strength this year despite their growing injury list. Jeremy Howe and Matthew Scharenberg are the latest casualties that will surely hurt the cohesion of their defence. With Lance Franklin in the Sydney forward line that normally would mean bad news for the Magpies, but Franklin’s form has dropped off significantly from the first half of the season, as he clearly is suffering from lingering injuries. However, the Swans have brought back into the side this week experienced players in Kieran Jack and Jarrad McVeigh, as well as the feel good story of the year in Alex Johnson - playing his first game since the 2012 Grand Final and after 5 knee reconstructions. All in all, I’m not willing to write off Sydney just yet.

Sydney to win by 6 points

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References and Recommended Reading:

[1] Quayle, E. (2015).“The Draftees”. Penguin Random House Australia.

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Post Round 19 All-Australian Team:

Figure-9 below presents The Weekend Preview's 2018 All-Australian Team after Round 19. The premise of determining the team is to assess each position based on an easily identifiable collection of variables. Each week the rankings for each position are updated and the All-Australian team is auto-populated. The metrics and rankings for each position are presented on a stand-alone page.

Figure-9: Round 19 All-Australian Team

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Saturday Afternoon, 28th July 2018 at the MCG

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The single most important ingredient after you get the talent is internal leadership. It’s not the coaches as much as one single person or people on the team who set higher standards than that team would normally set for itself.

Mike Krzyzewski [1] [2]

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This Saturday afternoon, the Collingwood and Richmond Football Clubs will take part in a blockbuster encounter in front of a full house at the MCG. It represents the biggest contest between the traditional rivals since the 1980 Grand Final (which ended in a 81-point victory for the Tigers). However, we have to look back 90 years to find the peak of their rivalry.

In a 3-year period between 1927 and 1929, Collingwood and Richmond contested in 3 consecutive Grand Finals – all won by the Magpies. The rivalry reached its crescendo in the 1929 season with the Magpies on a quest to achieve a 3-peat. The Magpies remarkably remained undefeated for the entire 1929 home & away season, winning all 18 of their matches. [The number 18 is certainly the magic number of the week as Richmond is on its own quest to win 18 matches in a row at the MCG]. But in their 1929 Semi-Final clash, the Tigers remarkably defeated the Magpies by 62 points. It was described as “the greatest upset in finals history” [3]. The shock was only temporary however, as two weeks later in the Grand Final the Magpies achieved redemption to win their third successive premiership, defeating the Tigers by 29 points.

In all, the Magpies won 4 successive premierships between 1927-1930 and became known as The Machine Team. As the only team to have achieved a 4-peat, the Machine Team has some justification to be considered the Greatest AFL Team of all time. At the helm of the team was the legendary coach Jack McHale, a 7-time premiership coach of Collingwood. Whilst at full forward they had the star player of the competition, Gordon Coventry, who in his time at the club broke all the goal scoring records. He was the first player to kick 100 goals in a single season (achieving the feat 4 times) and won the league goal kicking on 6 occasions. He was also the leading goal kicker at Collingwood for a remarkable 16 consecutive seasons between 1922 and 1937.

Figure-1: The Machine Team 1927-1930

But what was the most important contributor to the success of The Machine Team? Prior to 1927, McHale had won only the one premiership (1919) in 15 seasons at the club. A great disciplinarian, motivator and tactician that he was, the 15 years he had in the job prior to the Machine Team formation would indicate that he alone was not the reason for the success. Gordon Coventry’s rise to super-stardom did seem to coincide with the rise of the Machine Team, however his goal kicking exploits over his 18-year career did not always correlate directly with team success. More than anything, this Collingwood side was about the team, not its individuals. They were ruthless as a collective for the good of the team. But paradoxically it took the rise of an individual to galvanise the club and embolden this team ethos. That individual was Syd Coventry (Gordon’s brother). Syd Coventry’s sensational ascension to Captaincy in 1927 was the trigger point that would take a previously underachieving football side into the phenomena it became:

Without warning or explanation, the Collingwood committee dumped its captain Charlie Tyson on the eve of the 1927 season. The timing of the decision fuelled speculation that the skipper had ‘played dead’ in the 1926 Grand Final. The allegations were never proven, and Tyson would vehemently deny them to his dying day. 

For its part in the affair, Collingwood offered no comment. It had a new captain that it wanted. It had cast off the captain it did not. The club knew a premiership would end the controversy. Incredibly, Collingwood would rattle off four flags in a row. [3]

It did not take long for Syd to settle into his role and his intervention midway through the 1927 season was considered instrumental to the future success:

Critical to the Club’s success in 1927 was a late season hiatus in Western Australia during a break in the home-and-away season. It was a welcome boost to the morale of the team. Years later members of the team still spoke in glowing terms about the trip to Perth. They argued it was an experience that bonded the team, and helped them become the minor premiers of 1927. Some went further, claiming it was the ‘fire’ that forged the four flags. [3]

Syd Coventry was also no slouch on the field, he won the Brownlow Medal in 1927 and was amongst the best on ground in 3 of the 4 Grand Finals he played as skipper (1927-1929) and in the fourth (1930) he was effectively a player-coach as Jock McHale was absent due to illness. However, his sphere of influence on the playing group extended well beyond the football field. With the Machine Team era coinciding with the Great Depression, the Collingwood Football Club cut the player wages midway through the 1928 season. With a player strike appearing unavoidable, it took the intervention and negotiation of Syd Coventry to avoid the player strike (the players agreed to the pay cut) whilst maintaining the spirit of the club on their quest for further premiership glory. The Machine Team only existed because of the presence of Syd Coventry.

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Sam Walker discusses the concept of a captain being the most important element of a successful sporting team in his excellent and highly recommended book, The Captain Class. In the book, Walker first collates a list of the greatest sporting teams in history; from which based on a set of stringent criteria he narrows the list to the greatest 16 sporting teams of all time. The Machine Team was among them.

From a review of the 16 teams, some had a GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) player, some had an enviable depth of talent, some had an abundance of money, some were exceptionally managed, and some possessed a perceived genius coach. However, Walker identified that not one of these variables were consistent among ALL 16 teams. But what Walker did identify, was that the ONE common thread between all 16 teams was the characteristics he saw in the player that led them.

These captains were not necessarily clean-cut individuals that spoke well in front of the camera and never put a foot wrong on or off the field, nor were they necessarily exceptionally talented. In many ways they were the complete opposite, with a win first mentality that always put the team first and they were also not afraid to push the boundaries of fair play. In fact, Walker identified the following common traits of the captains that led the 16 greatest teams of all time [1] :

  • Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
  • Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
  • A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
  • A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
  • Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
  • Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
  • Ironclad emotional control.

The concept of the Captain being the critical element of the freak teams in elite sport is an interesting concept. Considering the more recent history of the AFL, both the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn have achieved 3-peats. Both teams were laden with talent and had figurehead coaches – Hawthorn with the tactical and motivational genius of Alistair Clarkson, whilst Brisbane the authoritative figure and legend of the game Leigh Matthews. But is it possible that the most important individual in both teams was the captain? Without Michael Voss (Brisbane) and Luke Hodge (Hawthorn), would the 3-peat for either team have been possible? Both were tremendous talents, but they also had a hard edge, leading from the front through physicality when they needed to and not scared of pushing close to the limits of the rules. Unsociable Hawks anyone?

To confirm this hypothesis, perhaps we need to look no further than the 2017 Tigers. Dustin Martin had one of the great individual seasons, the mosquito fleet forwards took forward half pressure to a new level and Alex Rance became the ultimate defender and All-Australian Captain. They all played a part in the rise of the Tigers, as did the MCG effect, the well-publicised team bonding sessions and a re-invigorated Damien Hardwick and support coaching staff. But potentially the most important transformation of all was the change in mind-set of the Captain – Trent Cotchin.

In Konrad Marshall’s fascinating insight into the story behind Richmond’s 2017 premiership success, Yellow & Black: A season with Richmond, there is a passage in the epilogue of the book that provides some further insight to the transformation and mind-set of Trent Cotchin. In his end-of-season exit interview, only days after the premiership glory, Cotchin sat in front of Damien Hardwick and the rest of the coaching panel: [4]

“How did you go, Trent, talk us through,” says Hardwick. “How has your season gone?”

Cotchin laughs, and they all do, too.

“Individually? Relatively consistent. I remember speaking to Mini [Andrew McQualter] and Cara [Blake Caracella] earlier in the year, and I just found a new value in our group not being about possessions. I think I led that.”

McQualter agrees: “At the start of this year, you said ‘All I want to do is make my teammates better’. And I think that’s how you played, all year. And I think it made you a better player as well.”

Hardwick says Cotchin’s finals series epitomized his entire year. “you were just a battering ram,” he says. “ I look in my mind and wonder what I meant our captain to look like, and that was you. It was unbelievable watching that. There was a contest on the wing… Who was it?”

[Tim] Livingstone remembers: “Sloane. By rights it was Sloane’s ball.” 

“And you just came in and smashed the footy,” says Hardwick. “As soon as I see you playing like that, I know we’re going to win. That’s the best form of leadership. It inspires. It’s not only inspired our players – it inspired our whole fan base. I think you’ve found your niche. You don’t have to get 25 or 30. You won a Brownlow, but this was by far your best season.” 

Blair Hartley nods: “One hundred percent. One hundred percent.”

Cotchin says it feels funny, because while he felt like he played well during the year, finals were a revelation to him. “I feel like in the finals I really understood what works for me. I just grew in confidence. I know I can impact the game with 17 possessions, by throwing myself at everything.”

Hardwick says the captain has also done wonders for the coaching group. “You've been a great conduit between us and the players. It was a pretty tough year last year, and that's an understatement. But you've led the club.”

[Craig] Macrae says he saw how the season would unfold for Cotchin the moment he stood up in the early Triple H sessions, and spoke with such rawness and honesty. “You were authentic, and it just opened the door. Everyone else had their chance, but when you showed who you were and where you'd been, it was like they all could, too.”

There was certainly a change in attitude by Cotchin on the field in 2017. His attack at the football was far beyond anything we had previously seen at anytime during his career, and he wasn’t afraid to push his aggression to the limits (think of the bump on Dylan Shiel in the preliminary final). As presented in Figure-2, this team first mindset indeed did result in a drop in possession count for Cotchin in 2017, a trend that has continued into 2018. However, this drop in possessions has coincided with a surge in Cotchin’s pressure acts per game, symbolic of his new approach to football.

Figure-2: Trent Cotchin – Career Comparison

[Notes: Data sourced from AFL.com.au and the Official AFL App. Pressure Acts only available since 2012]

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Led by Cotchin, Richmond appears to have gone to an even higher level in 2018. A Top-2 finish appears a certainty, which would mean the Tigers may not need to leave their beloved MCG at all during the finals series on their way to another premiership. However, just as the Tigers provided a speed hump to the Magpies unbeaten run in 1929, the Magpies have the form and class to cause an upset this weekend and halt the Tigers record run of 17 consecutive wins at the MCG. Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury himself has shown a selfless attitude towards his football in 2018. Pendlebury remains one of their best midfielders, yet he has been more than willing to play a negating role on the opposition gun midfielder when the need requires. However, for this week at least, the absence of key players, most notably Jordan de Goey and Adam Treloar, makes the challenge of toppling the Tigers that little bit harder. A competitive game it may be, the Tigers still have the edge.

Richmond to win by 17 points

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Notes, References and Recommended Reading:

[1] Walker, S. (2017).“The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams”. Penguin Random House UK, London.

[2] Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University has won more games than any basketball coach in the history of the NCAA’s Division I.

[3] Roberts, M. & McFarlane, G. (2004).“The Official Collingwood Illustrated Encyclopedia”. Geoff Slattery Publishing Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria.

[4] Marshall, K. (2017).“Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond”. The Slattery Media Group, Melbourne.

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Tuesday Afternoon, 26th June 2018 at Fisht Stadium, Sochi

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After 2 games played, Argentina are in crisis, Brazil have narrowly avoided disaster, Peru are scoreless, Uruguay have been lacklustre and Colombia have just recovered from a calamitous opening game. What's going wrong for the South American teams? Or, after Colombia's impressive 3-0 win against Poland, is the tide finally going to turn in favour of the South Americans?

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The 10 teams that make up the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) take part in the most hotly contested World Cup qualifying tournament. Home and Away over 18 games, the top 4 make it directly through to the World Cup finals, whilst the 5th placed team takes part in an inter-confederation play-off. The collective strength of the confederation has time and again been proven on the World Stage. In the last 3 World Cups (2006, 2010 & 2014), 13 of the 15 qualified South American teams have progressed from the Group stage. No other confederation can compete with that strike rate.

Furthermore, more than any other confederation, the form from the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers holds strong at the World Cup proper. In fact the group stage of the World Cup finals could be considered easier than the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers. Collectively, the qualified South American teams average about 1.5 goals per game during qualifying whilst conceding about 1.0 goals per game. Typically they maintain this scoring average at the World Cup whilst tightening up their defence, as shown in Figure-1 and Figure-2. So far at the 2018 World Cup, the South American teams are still keeping their opposition on average to less than a goal per game, but there has been a noticeable drop in their scoring output. It is this drop in scoring that has been holding the South Americans back in Russia.

Figure-1: South American Qualifying/World Cup Form Comparison - Goals Scored

Figure-2: South American Qualifying/World Cup Form Comparison - Goals Conceded

So what is going on? Quite simply, the South American teams have been inefficient in converting their attempts on goal into actual goals. Brazil have had 43 attempts for only 3 goals (7% conversion rate), whilst Argentina have had 36 attempts for only a single goal (3% conversion rate). Peru have tried hard, but they have been unable to convert any of their 28 attempts into a goal. Only Colombia can claim to have been efficient in their opening 2 games (19% conversion rate).

Across all 32 teams after the completion of their first 2 matches, the average goals from attempts conversion is 11%. Russia is leading the way scoring 8 goals from only 24 attempts at a remarkable conversion rate of 33%. This rate of conversion by Russia is unsustainable, but similarly it could be argued that the poor conversion of Brazil, Argentina and even Germany (5% conversion rate) is equally unsustainable.

Obviously the total number of attempts does not necessarily reflect the quality of the opportunities created, but it is difficult to imagine that the likes of Brazil and Argentina lack the creative quality to make more of their opportunities. If they manage to make it out of their respective groups, Brazil and Argentina are certainly teams that any country would want to avoid.

Figure-3: Goal Scoring Performance of all 32 teams with South American teams (and Australia) highlighted

But what about Australia? In the Figure above, Australia is shown to have been quite efficient in converting their 18 attempts into 2 goals (11% conversion rate). However, both these goals have come from the penalty spot and Australia's inability to create opportunities in open play remains concerning.

One of Australia's problems is adapting their play from Asian World Cup qualifying to the World Cup. Asian form from World Cup qualifying holds up very poorly at the World Cup, as shown in Figure-4 and Figure-5. Goals scored per game are halved, whilst goals conceded typically quadruple. Playing stacked defences and dominating possession in qualifying to playing the exact opposite at the World Cup is clearly something the Asian teams have struggled to adapt to. Although, after 2 games at the 2018 World Cup there does appear to be at least a slight improvement in the goals conceded column.

Figure-4: Asian Qualifying/World Cup Form Comparison - Goals Scored

Figure-5: Asian Qualifying/World Cup Form Comparison - Goals Conceded

Australia have not kept a clean sheet at the World Cup since a 0-0 draw with Chile in 1974. The Socceroos defence may hold up well against Asian opposition, but at the World Cup finals, the classier opposition take their opportunities. Peru may have been kept scoreless in their opening 2 games, but given they have had 28 attempts it hasn't been for lack of trying. With their elimination already confirmed, the pressure is now off for Peru, and up against an Australian team that has it all to play for it is difficult to imagine that Peru don't get at least a goal out of this game.

But how many goals can Australia score? Australia have struggled to score in open play, and may need to be reliant on set pieces. Further opportunities from the penalty spot not withstanding, this will mean they will need to make the most of their height/aerial advantage over the Peruvians. But true to their South American pedigree, Peru have managed to keep it tight defensively and limit their opposition to only the solitary goal in both their games so far. Australia are yet to beat a South American team at a World Cup (1 draw, 2 losses) and yet again they may struggle to find the goals they need to force a result.

Prediction: DRAW, 1-1

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Thursday Afternoon, 21st June 2018 at Samara Arena, Samara

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Figure-1: List of World Cup Winners

Figure-2: The number of European Teams entered at each World Cup Finals

The title of World Champion has been monopolised by European and South American teams since the inception of the World Cup. However, there have only been 8 different nations that have been crowned World Champions in the 20 editions of the tournament. And from a European perspective, there has only been 5 winners - Germany, Italy, Spain, France and England. Considering their overall participation numbers, has the rest of Europe underachieved?

Europe have numerically dominated every World Cup (with the exception of the inaugural event in Uruguay, where for various reasons only 4 European teams made the journey to South America). At every World Cup since 1930, Europe has contributed at least 40% of the competing teams, with a peak of 75% during the 1950s. Given the historical context and the development of football (and FIFA) during the 20th Century, this is perhaps not surprising or even unwarranted. But with the rise of the sport globally over the past few decades and the introduction of the 32 team format for the World Cup finals, is it still justified that Europe provide over 40% of the competing teams? And are the top European teams masking over a level of mediocrity in the confederation's underbelly.

The top end of teams in Europe are obviously still amongst the best in the world, but is the 13th best team in Europe more worthy of a place at the World Cup than say the 6th best South American or African team? Would the World Cup benefit from more diversity? Consider the 2014 World Cup. Of the 8 seeded teams, 4 were South American (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay) and 4 were European (Spain, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland). Nominally, these 8 teams would be expected to pass through to the second round with one of the unseeded teams in each group. So of all these unseeded teams, which continent provided the greatest contribution at Brazil 2014? Of the 9 unseeded European teams only 3 made it through to the second round, which was proportionally less than South America, North America and Africa.

A similar story occurred in 2010, whereby only 2 of the 8 unseeded Europeans teams made it out of the group phase of the tournament. And this is not even as a result of playing off against each other, as the 8 unseeded European teams were separated into 8 different groups. In both 2010 and 2014, both South America and North America provided proportionally more unseeded teams into the second round of the tournament. Hence, based on merit from the last 2 World Cups there is justification that both the South and North American confederations deserve another spot at the World Cup at the expense of Europe. It is true that another entry for South America would mean that more than half the confederation would be able to qualify for the World Cup, whilst for North America (which includes Central America and Caribbean nations) there is a noticeable drop in quality after the top few teams. But even Africa (a large confederation with an even spread of quality) could have grounds to demand an extra spot at the expense of Europe. Although they have never quite threatened to go all the way at the World Cup, the African teams at the very least do provide a greater diversity of playing styles to the competition.

Figure-3: Performance of Unseeded Teams - 2014 World Cup

Figure-4: Performance of Unseeded Teams - 2010 World Cup

But fear not Europe, the timely return of the World Cup to their home continent for 2018 should ensure a return to European superiority and ward off the claims of the other confederations for one of their allocated world cup spots (either that or the hasty expansion to a 48-team World Cup format will make the claim irrelevant). In the first round of group matches at Russia 2018, only 2 of the 14 European teams lost (Germany and Poland) and one of those two (take a guess which) is still expected to make it out of their Group. This level of performance would be consistent with the last time the tournament was held in Europe, Germany 2006, whereby 56% (5 of 9) of the unseeded European teams made it out of their group. As the host confederation, Europe were proportionally the best performing confederation in 2006. Well except for Oceania, which was 1 from 1 in getting to the Second Round of the tournament. Which team was that again?

Figure-5: Performance of Unseeded Teams - 2006 World Cup

Germany 2006 will bring back happy memories for Australia, even if Tim Cahill is the only surviving member of the squad. Regardless, Australia have arguably saved their best performances at the past 3 World Cups against the unseeded European team in their group.

In 2014, Australia threatened the Netherlands, even taking a 2-1 lead midway through the second half before succumbing to the talent laden Dutch side. The Netherlands were certainly an above average unseeded team, proven by their ultimate progression to the Semi Finals. In 2010, whilst chasing a result, the Socceroos managed a 2-1 victory over Serbia, even though ultimately it was not enough to progress further. In 2006, Australia only managed a draw against Croatia, but that was exactly the result they required to ensure progression to the Second Round.

Figure-6: 2014 FIFA World Cup - Australia vs. Netherlands

AUSTRALIA v NETHERLANDS (2:3) - 2014 FIFA World Cup™ - YouTube

Video-1: 2014 FIFA World Cup - Australia vs. Netherlands

Figure-7: 2014 FIFA World Cup - Australia vs. Serbia

Aussie double a sheer delight - YouTube

Video-2: 2014 FIFA World Cup - Australia vs. Serbia

Figure-8: 2014 FIFA World Cup - Croatia vs. Australia

CROATIA 2:2 Australia - YouTube

Video-3: 2014 FIFA World Cup - Croatia vs. Australia

So can Australia do it again? Have they saved their best performance for the unseeded European team again? Well they will need to improve from the France game. Although they were defensively solid and prevented France from playing a fluid game style, they still conceded 2 goals, threatened little going forward and most critically lost the opening game, putting them in a difficult situation to escape the group.

Australia made only 4 attempts on goal against France. A statistic that will obviously have to change as they take a more positive approach in their remaining games. Although Denmark kept a clean sheet against Peru, they did concede 18 attempts on goal to Peru, which would suggest Australia will get opportunities. But Denmark are also adept at scoring, managing over 2 goals per game during their qualifying campaign.

However, it is the game dynamics that presents the most intrigue. A draw would nominally favour Denmark, but with their last game against France they would prefer a win against Australia to confirm progression to the Second Round. Australia could still progress with a draw, but their fate would then not be entirely in their own hands, even if they beat Peru in the last game. So this should ensure there is controlled aggression from both teams as they try to establish an advantage in the match. But as a loss is not an acceptable option for either team, as soon as one team concedes there should be an immediate aggressive response from the other team in search of an equaliser. This should ensure goals, just that I fear from an Australian perspective that the Danes are the better team.

Prediction: Denmark WIN, 2-1

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Saturday Afternoon, 16th June 2018 at Kazan Arena, Kazan 

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2002 FIFA World Cup

91 mins The whistles are ringing out around the stadium. The ball falls to Henry in the Senegal box and he wins a corner. Petit takes, the ball comes to Leboeuf who fails to atone for his sins. He shoots an excellent chance straight at Sylva again.

92 mins Full-time.

In their World Cup debut, Senegal have stunned the world champions in one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. Needless to say, the players are thrilled. They rode their luck at times, but fully deserved their win.

The Guardian [1]

Figure-1: 2002 FIFA World Cup, France vs. Senegal

World Cup 2002 France Vs Senegal - YouTube

Video-1: 2002 FIFA World Cup, France vs. Senegal

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2010 FIFA World Cup

That's it. Their ordeal – our ordeal – is over. No longer must we support this team whose whims drained us all. Les Bleus are eliminated and got what they deserved: they were ridiculous till the end. At no point did this team show the slightest trace of a soul.

L’equipe [2]

France are out … the World Cup has lost its jesters. For the first time in French history, the public and the players greet an exit with relief. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that "in football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent" but this French team showed you don't necessarily need an opponent – they were able to sabotage themselves.

Le Monde [2]

Easily beaten by a very modest South African team, Les Bleus left the tournament by the same way they came in: by the back door. After spending the weekend playing at being trade unionists and special agents, they forgot to play football. Physically and psychologically unprepared, they simply couldn't put one foot in front of the other.

France football [2]

Figure-2: 2010 FIFA World Cup, France vs. South Africa

World Cup 2010 Most Shocking Moments 44-French Team Crisis Part 1 - YouTube

Video-2: 2010 FIFA World Cup, France vs. South Africa (Part 1)

World Cup 2010 Most Shocking Moments 36-French Team Crisis Part 2 - YouTube

Video-3: 2010 FIFA World Cup, France vs. South Africa (Part 2)

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2018 FIFA World Cup

France enters the 2018 FIFA World Cup as one of the 8 top seeded teams (the top 7 ranked countries plus the host nation). If all things go to plan, this would mean these 8 teams would not need to face each other until the Quarterfinals. And with the talent at their disposal, France is favoured to make it to the Quarterfinals at the very least. But intriguingly, despite their pedigree and often favourable draw, France has made a habit of turning every second world cup campaign into a disaster:

  • 1994: Failed to qualify
  • 1998: Champions
  • 2002: Exit Group Stage as tournament favourites
  • 2006: Finalist
  • 2010: Exit Group Stage after team self implodes on and off the pitch
  • 2014: Quarter-Finalist (losing to eventual champions Germany)
  • 2018: ?????

So can Australia capitalise on this ticking time bomb? Well unfortunately, Australia’s record in the last 3 World Cups against the top seeded team from their group is not great – 3 losses, 9 goals conceded, 0 goals scored. With this kind of record, it is with trepidation that Australian football supporters look ahead to Australia's opening fixture with Les Bleus. But when is the best time to play them? In their first match before France have found their groove? Or perhaps in the third match in the hope they have already qualified and are resting some of their star players? In actual fact, historically (since the world cup was expanded to the current 32 team format) the seeded team of a group is most vulnerable in their second game, where they have a win rate of only 55%. The record for the seeded team’s first and third matches are nearly identical, with the seeded team winning about 70% of the time. So, unfortunately for Australia there appears to be no great advantage of playing France first.

Figure-3: Performance of Seeded Teams in Group Stage – 1998-2014

Figure-4:  2006 FIFA World Cup, Brazil vs. Australia

Figure-5:  2010 FIFA World Cup, Germany vs. Australia

Figure-5:  2014 FIFA World Cup, Spain vs. Australia

Stuck with the scenario of playing France first, what does that mean for the prospects of Australia progressing from the group? Well, first of all, if Australia do manage to get a draw or even a win against France, the prospects are good. Of the 12 teams to earn a draw or win against the seeded team in the first match, 10 have progressed to the Second Round. The exceptions were Switzerland in 2010 (upsetting eventual champions Spain 1-0) and Belgium in 1998 (drawing 0-0 with the Netherlands).

But as has already been discussed, Australia’s record against the best team in a group is poor and they are heavy underdogs to even get a draw against France. So what does a loss mean? It means that Australia will need to play catch-up and forces their second match against Denmark into a must-win encounter. And if Denmark win their first match, they will also have the strategic upper hand knowing that Australia need the 3-points and have to come at them. And in the last 5 World Cups (32-team format), only 5 of 28 teams (18%) have progressed to the Second Round after losing to the top seeded team in their group.

There is also the goal difference concern. The last time Australia played the top seeded team in their first game was against Germany in 2010. On that occasion, Australia was on the wrong end of a 4-0 thumping. The score line in the end proved to be crucial, as Australia missed out on progressing from the group on goal difference only.

So aside from them finding a new way to self implode, France's star-studded line-up across each line of the team will likely be too much for Australia to handle. But for Australia’s sake, let’s just hope it is not another 4-0 score line.

Figure-7:  Match Odds, 2018 FIFA World Cup, France vs. Australia

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[1] Glendenning, B. (2002). “France 0 – 1 Senegal”, The Guardian Minute-by-Minute, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2002/may/31/minutebyminute.worldcupfootball2002

[2] The Guardian (2010).“World Cup 2010: French press rages after first round exit”. The Guardian, 23 June 2010. Link:
https://www.theguardian.com/football/2010/jun/23/french-press-world-cup-2010

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Recommended Reading:

For a tactical preview of the game, checkout the following blog: http://timpalmerfootball.com/blog/2018/06/15/world-cup-2018-france-opposition-scouting-report/

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