Swans’ strengths become sore points

Swans’ strengths become sore points

Sydney are just one defeat away from sharing an unwanted link with the ghosts of the darkest period in the Swans’ history.
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A loss to West Coast will hand them a 0-4 scoreline, something the club hasn’t experienced since the wreckage of 1993, when they sacked coach Gary Buckenara after three games, and despite installing a legend in Ron Barassi, racked up 26 consecutive losses.

It’s an unfair comparison in many ways, with this far more capable version of Sydney coming off a grand final appearance and hamstrung by injuries to key personnel.

But while John Longmire’s 2017 Swans have lost two of their three games thus far by a total of only 24 points, some disturbing trends are emerging that point to traditional strengths suddenly having become weaknesses.

Stoppages have long been a Sydney trademark, the Swans generating a healthy percentage of scores from clearances, as well as preventing opponents doing likewise. But both offensively and defensively, so far this season they have proved an Achilles heel.

Before 2017, Sydney had been ranked no lower than fourth and last year were second behind GWS on the scoring from stoppage differentials. At present, however, the Swans are last, outscored from clearances by their opponents by an average 14.3 points per game.

Even winning the stoppages, let alone converting them into scoreboard pressure, is proving a major issue. In 2016, Sydney were ranked sixth on the clearance differentials. Now they are 14th.

The fall-off is most pronounced in ball-ups around the ground rather than centre bounces and throw-ins. From there, Sydney ranked second last season for scores generated. They’re now last.

Dan Hannebery’s form issues until last week have been a key, the on-baller so far down about 30 per cent of his 2016 clearance output. But so have those of former skipper Kieren Jack, who to date has won only half as many possessions from stoppages as last year.

The Swans are also struggling with the other elements of a strong defensive game, contested possession and tackles.

On their way to the 2016 grand final, Sydney were second in the AFL on the differentials for contested ball. That has slipped to 16th. And on the tackle differentials, they rank a dismal 17th.

Again, Hannebery and Jack are keys to the slide, Hannebery having won an average of only 8.67 contested possessions per game compared with last year’s 13.15, while Jack averaged nearly six tackles per game last year and is so far going at just two despite the Swans chasing plenty of tail. Throw in the departure of prolific clearance winner and tackler Tom Mitchell and the malaise becomes easier to understand.

In a nutshell, opponents are having a lot easier time moving the ball against the Swans than they’ve been used to for a long time. And that has been reflected in the drop-off or arguably Sydney’s strongest suit, their scoreboard stinginess.

Last season, and in three of the past five seasons, the Swans have conceded fewer points than any rival. In the other two, they’ve ranked second and third for refusal to allow opposition scores. Which makes the 2017 scoreline such shocking reading.

In their three defeats, Longmire’s side has conceded an average of exactly 100 points per game. Compare that with an average last year of 68.9 points. That’s an extra 31.1 points per game, or just over five goals.

Only twice in 74 previous games had Sydney conceded more than the 110 points they allowed both Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs in their first two losses this season. Even the 80 points Collingwood scored in a one-point cliffhanger last week was two goals more than the Swans were conceding last year.

It’s still a lot less than the astronomical 145 points per game those Swans of 1993 gave up on their way to one victory. But the possibility of any connection at all between this version of Sydney and that hapless group should provide motivation to spare when the Swans take on West Coast on Thursday evening.