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Gemma Bastiani

Why Melbourne Demons are one of the hardest teams to score against in AFLW history

Throughout AFLW season seven, Melbourne has boasted the stingiest defence across the competition, but it is not simply down to a strong back five.

While the Demons do have a reliable back line unit, it comes down to a full-team, full-ground defensive effort.

Melbourne is conceding just 19.18 points per game, 0.08 points on average more than the tightest defence in competition history — the Adelaide Crows in season six earlier this year.

The Demons have crafted a new combination down back while also enacting a game plan that eases the pressure on that defensive line.


During the preseason, the Demons lost stalwart key defender Gabby Colvin to an ACL injury, so coach Mick Stinear turned to developing ruck Tahlia Gillard to protect the goal line.

Standing at 190cm, the equal-tallest in the competition, Gillard's height and strength in the one-on-one makes her a dangerous match-up for opposing tall key forwards.

Added to this, her booming kick and long handballs have proven reliable.

Gillard regularly plays as Melbourne's deepest defender: The last line of defence.

When fit, experienced midfielder Maddi Gay has played almost exclusively at centre half back, adding her ground level strength and contested marking ability behind the ball.

Meanwhile, regular defensive fixtures Sarah Lampard, Shelley Heath and Sinead Goldrick have been unleashed, allowed to play really aggressive, rebounding roles to gain ground out of the back half.

Emerging rebounding defender Maeve Chaplin has also played a huge part in the back line's success, reading the ball beautifully behind the play and adding a genuine attacking mindset.

Bringing the unit together expertly is Libby Birch, who sits about a kick ahead of Gillard, reading the ball and looking to intercept any opposing forward forays and organising her defensive charges.

Added to this, Karen Paxman has regularly started at half forward and pushed up to the contest, allowing one of the Demons' wingers to slide back into a more defensive position to further support that back unit.

Stinear also regularly moves vice-captain Kate Hore behind the play late in quarters to shore up that defensive line so as to not concede red time scores.

It is a delicate and sophisticated structure that is well-drilled and disciplined, one that is trusted by teammates higher up the field as much as it is supported by them.

Force the contest, force poor use

What Melbourne has built its game on this season has been pressure, but not in a way that is reflected in tackle numbers.

Rather, this is proven through fewer disposals conceded, heightened contested possession numbers and lower disposal efficiencies in teams facing Melbourne.

The Demons are conceding a disposal efficiency of just 53.6 per cent, the second-lowest in competition history.

Just one opponent this season — Fremantle in round six — was able to register a higher disposal efficiency against Melbourne when compared to its other games of the season.

Much of this poorer disposal efficiency is born out of Melbourne forcing the contest on its opponents.

Again, just one team this season — Fremantle — registered a lower contested possession rate (percentage of possessions that are contested) against Melbourne than against all other opponents throughout the season.

This breakdown has been outlined in the above table.

The Demons want to win the contested ball themselves but, when they do give up possession, they want to close down space and make that possession as contested as possible.

As a result of that pressured possession and, in turn, poor disposal, teams have really struggled to find control around the ground, and this is illustrated by low-marking numbers when teams come up against the Demons.

The contested ball begets inefficient use in disposal, leading to fewer marks and less control for opposing teams.

It is a cycle of pressure and panic that Melbourne brings to its opposition each week.

Control territory

By winning an average of 61.2 more disposals per game than their opponents — and applying that pressure when they do give the ball up — Melbourne is able to control territory throughout games, which protects its defensive line.

The Demons' back line is able to remain composed and disciplined because of the layers of defence teams must break through before even reaching the back five.

This season, Melbourne is conceding the fewest inside 50s and fewest marks inside 50 in competition history.

Teams simply cannot move into the attacking 50 consistently against the Demons.

Once opponents do enter their forward 50 against Melbourne, however, they are able to generate a score from just 33.9 per cent of those entries.

This is the second-lowest rate in the AFLW this season, behind only minor premiers Brisbane.

Essentially Melbourne doesn't allow its opposition to get into an attacking position, but when they do manage to slip through, they allow a shot on goal just a third of the time.

The best defence in the league starts high up the field. It is all about layers of protection and, when executed well, as Melbourne has done this season, it can set a side up for a successful run deep into finals.

On Saturday, Melbourne will face its biggest challenge of the season to date, a North Melbourne side with all the momentum and nothing to lose in a do-or-die preliminary final, and it will be upon this impressive defensive game style that they will lean as they vie for back-to-back Grand Final appearances.

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