Analysis: The deliberate, complex strategies behind Fremantle’s AFL-best defence

The true art of defence isn’t just about the back six saving the day. WILL SCHOFIELD explains what sets Fremantle apart.

Fremantle have the best defence in the AFL so far this season. Picture: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Fremantle have the best defence in the AFL so far this season. Picture: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The Fremantle Dockers have the fewest points scored against them in the AFL this season.

While every team in the AFL tries to stop the opposition from kicking goals, very few actually execute a team defence effectively.

So, how do they do it?

The Dockers have a great backline, the best in the competition, but the true art of defence isn’t just about the back six saving the day. It’s about team defence, every player having a role to play and the acknowledgment that one weak link can bring the whole system down.

Let’s look under the hood and break down how the Dockers defend.

Fremantle have one of the best backlines in the AFL, and every player has a part to play. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Fremantle have one of the best backlines in the AFL, and every player has a part to play. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Without the ball

The obvious place to start is to analyse the Dockers when the opposition have the football.

The way they defend depends on how the ball is moving. It can either be fast or slow.

SLOW PLAY

If the ball movement starts in slow play, from a free kick or kick out for example, the Dockers have time to quickly set up a zone-like defence. The closer they are to the ball, the closer they are to their man. The minimum objective here is to keep the opposition moving slowly, forcing them to kick long down the line and ideally on the same side of the ground as they start, stopping the switch. But the ultimate goal is to intercept the football and score.

Forwards put pressure on the ball carrier, manning the mark with urgency, often allowing wide kicks in order to pin the opposition to one side of the ground. They are trying to delay the opposition ball movement as much as possible.

Lachie Schultz, Sam Switkowski, Travis Colyer, Bailey Banfield, Michael Fredrick and co have this side of the game covered.

Lachie Schultz is great at putting pressure on the ball carrier. Picture: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images
Lachie Schultz is great at putting pressure on the ball carrier. Picture: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images

Midfielders set up in a zone. They will be responsible for players near them but, if they can hand over an opposition player running across the zone to their teammate to defend, they will. Defending like this not only saves energy but allows them to defend the most dangerous parts of the ground, the corridor, and not get pulled around the rest of the ground by their opponent.

Not the quickest midfield going around, the Dockers work to their strengths. David Mundy, Andrew Brayshaw, Caleb Serong and Will Brodie defend together and not alone in this area of the ground.

The wingmen play an extremely important part in this type of defence. They are the middle men. They must be able to go both ways, depending on what side of the ground the ball is on. If they are on the skinny side of the ground, the same side as the ball, they must press up and help defend closer to the ball – either by becoming part of the harassment and chasing, or zoning and handing over through the middle of the ground.

David Mundy (L) is a crucial cog in the Fremantle midfield. Picture: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images
David Mundy (L) is a crucial cog in the Fremantle midfield. Picture: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images

If they are on the fat side of the ground, the ball is on the opposite side, their running pattern is usually towards the backline to help the defenders. This allows defenders to press off their men, knowing they have coverage behind.

Don’t go too far, though. If the opposition switch the ball, everything changes for the wingmen. The fat side winger must now press back up to the game and the skinny side winger must run to help defend. It’s these running patterns that make the wingman the best runner in the team. They regularly cover the most ground of anyone out there.

Blake Acres, Jordan Clark and Nathan O’Driscoll are spending the most time on the wings currently. Acres would be in the top three of Fremantle’s best-and-fairest if voting stopped today.

Backmen play aggressively off their men, looking to press and intercept or spoil long kicks. The deepest defender on the ground usually provides some protection and depth in order to let their higher defenders impact the game and prevent out-the-back goals.

It’s a balancing act between playing too far off your man and just the right amount, as well as putting yourself in a position to help your teammates if required. It’s a specific craft that takes months, if not years of training, as it requires a chemistry between players – almost anticipating where they will be and what they will do before they do it.

Alex Pearce and Griffin Logue take the deepest role a lot, allowing Heath Chapman, Hayden Young and Luke Ryan to intercept and impact the play ahead of them.

Alex Pearce’s role allows others, like Heath Chapman, Hayden Young and Luke Ryan to impact the play ahead of them. Picture: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images
Alex Pearce’s role allows others, like Heath Chapman, Hayden Young and Luke Ryan to impact the play ahead of them. Picture: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images

FAST PLAY

The objectives are the same when the ball is moving fast, off a turnover for example. Intercept the ball and score. But the method is different across the ground.

There isn’t enough time to set up a zone, so Fremantle players will look to locate an opposition player. This is called “the moment”. It’s a split second that players must quickly switch from attack to defence.

The good teams’ moments are instant. Poor teams are slower to react.

In fast play, closer to the ball means pressure and harassment. Further from the ball means not having two players defending one opposition player and shutting down options ahead of the ball so the ball carrier hesitates – maybe just long enough for a chase down tackle from behind.

Fast play defence is still a full ground defence, it’s where teams can be exposed quickly if everyone is not on the same page, given that it is happening much faster. Decisions to impact the play must be made instantly. Right or wrong you need commitment. Sometimes an incorrect decision can be made right if it’s done with conviction, especially if your teammates trust you.

Fremantle is playing with ultimate trust in each right now, making them the hardest team to score against.

Defensively, Fremantle are playing with incredible trust in one another. Picture: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos/Getty Images
Defensively, Fremantle are playing with incredible trust in one another. Picture: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

With the ball

Defending with the ball in your hands is not commonly thought about, but it is something that happens in the best teams.

With the ball, Fremantle take what the opposition gives them.

If the corridor is open, they will move the ball through the middle of the ground quickly. If allowed, they will look to switch the ball and let their runners go to work on the open side of the ground. They are happy to take short hit-up kicks as they move the ball down the ground. And, as a last resort, they will have representation down the line for a long get out kick. But ultimately the decision is with the ball carrier.

How do these things help them defend?

Moving the ball like this gives them time.

Time to set up and defend.

They prefer to move the ball safely and predictably to exit their own back 50. They play more of a kick mark game at times, if allowed by the opposition, so the build-up can sometimes be slower. When the opportunity arises they will go quickly by hand and foot, looking to kick the ball deep inside their own 50.

It allows the backline to press back up to their men, their midfielders and wingmen to move into better positions defensively and their forwards to stretch with length and re-engage their opposition, creating contests in front of the ball.

Sam Switkowski of Fremantle defends against Geelong’s Joel Selwood. Picture: <span>Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/Getty Images</span>
Sam Switkowski of Fremantle defends against Geelong’s Joel Selwood. Picture: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/Getty Images

It gives Fremantle time to set up defensively in the event of a turnover or free kick, so their fast play-slow play defence can kick into gear.

Put all of these things together defensively and they ultimately help you score, adding credence to the saying the best form of attack is defence. It’s true.

It’s a 360 degree approach to defend the way Fremantle does. It requires ultimate concentration, playing your role and understanding your teammates. Chemistry is important, because knowing what players around you are going to do dictates your own decision making.

It must be said, the Dockers don’t have a defensive game plan exclusive to them. Most teams in the AFL try to defend like this – the Dockers are just executing it better than anyone else.

It works best when all are on the same page, but safeties are in-built for when errors are made. That’s how footy goes, especially defensively. You can’t always make the right decision or get everything right all of the time.

But with full commitment, trust and a willingness to help your teammates, this style of defence trumps all others. As it is not just one player’s responsibility to defend, it is everyone’s and that’s Fremantle’s greatest strength. They are balanced. Not too hot, not too cold.

Tests are coming for this exciting young team in the west, but they seem built to withstand the incoming storm.

Will Schofield
Will SchofieldContributor

Will Schofield spent 14 years as an Australian rules footballer who played as a key defender for the West Coast Eagles in the AFL - battled his way to 200 games, a premiership in 2018 and Life Member of the Eagles. Can be heard on Fox Footy, Perth radio 6PR and his podcast Backchat. A fantasy footy aficionado, he's turning his skills to SuperCoach for the first time this season.