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Better ball use turns the Blues into winners

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Jon Pierik
Bryce Gibbs is one of three Carlton players who has improved his ball use. © Pat Scala Bryce Gibbs is one of three Carlton players who has improved his ball use.

There are many statistics and advanced metrics teams can turn to these days to justify just about anything on the football field. But the bottom line is if you have the ball, and can use it effectively, then winning matches is all the more easier. That was the case a century ago, and remains today.

If Carlton supporters are wondering how the Blues have managed to turn around their campaign, winning four of their past five, with the woeful Brisbane Lions and the likely return of Chris Judd to come on Saturday, there is one statistic that  stands out.

Through the opening five rounds, including four straight losses to start a season for the first time since 1989, the Blues ranked last in kicking and disposal efficiency with a differential of  minus 7.5 per cent. Since their scrambling win over the Western Bulldogs, the Blues have led the league in disposal efficiency, at plus 3.3 per cent.

Three players who have improved their ball use are Bryce Gibbs, with 78 per cent efficiency since round six, Andrew Walker (76 per cent) and Andrejs Everitt (85 per cent), who has emerged as a key recruit for his all-round game, not the least being his game-saving tackle on Adelaide’s Rory Sloane on Sunday.

Gibbs, set to sign a contract extension, is often maligned when the Blues lose, but the fact he was the leading Blue on the AFL Coaches Association votes table heading into last weekend indicates his performances are appreciated.

Ruckman Robbie Warnock said the Blues were increasingly mindful when rivals plonked a spare man in defence.

‘‘We have just hit the free target. At other times we might have blazed away. Teams these days get numbers behind the ball, so you have got to use that spare player pretty well and, if you don’t, you just play into their hands,’’ Warnock said on Monday. ‘‘Yeah, it’s a bit of composure.’’

Since round six, when the Blues stormed home against West Coast, they appear to be taking on the game more. Their contested possession rate has dipped from 41.5 per cent through the opening five rounds to 35.6, while their uncontested possession differential has gone from minus 33.4 to plus 23.3.

There’s obviously more to the Blues’ resurgence than ball use. Running defender Kade Simpson is enjoying a career high in disposals, averaging 26 a game, including 36 and 37 in the past two matches. Skipper Marc Murphy has also lifted.

Medium forward Troy Menzel and running defender Dylan Buckley are emerging as faces of the future, match-winner Chris Yarran is enjoying his football while Sam Rowe appears to have found a home in defence alongside the dependable Michael Jamison.

Then there is Dale Thomas, who, like several teammates, has had to build his fitness base during matches, rather than through the pre-season, because of his serious ankle injury. The Blues had an interrupted pre-season, with 19 players having post-season surgery (with a further three since) and their camp in Arizona not being as productive as had been hoped.

Coach Mick Malthouse’s comments have echoed the Blues’ topsy-turvy season. The shock loss to Melbourne, which prompted major agitation off the field, was of a team ‘‘without confidence’’ and which hadn’t ‘‘got enough contributors’’. The come-from-behind win over the Eagles a fortnight later was rated by Malthouse as one of the best of his career.

That mood changed considerably in the heavy loss to the Magpies a week later, when Malthouse spoke of ‘‘passengers’’ and warned of his team taking ‘‘heavy falls’’ with a ‘‘regenerating list’’.

While wins over the Bulldogs, Eagles, Saints and Crows have not been against league heavyweights, it seems the Blues have struck a happy balance in terms of implementing the game plan, although that will be tested in rounds 12 and 13, when Geelong and Hawthorn await.

‘‘Perhaps this time last year we may have made the mistake of being a bit extravagant or being less mindful where the boundary was or having less support perhaps around you. Just little things like that,’’ Malthouse said of his time-honoured game plan in the wake of the gripping finish against the Crows.

Judd began sprinting last week for the first time since tearing his hamstring against the Bulldogs. Despite the miles on his clock, his return will be enormous, especially if the Blues leave Brisbane suddenly outside of the top eight only on percentage.

Fans may be happy and the Blues now have hope but, whatever happens from here, they know this "regenerating" list will not secure the club’s increasingly elusive 17th flag. Indeed, with a strong national draft on offer this year, complete with promising key forwards, some may raise the question - is it such a good thing if the Blues do remain in the finals hunt?

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