By Ivor Vaz and Lachlan James
Let’s be clear: we take our footy almost as seriously as we do our sausage sizzles. What’s more, us Aussies love an underdog (terrible pun intended). So as footy fans around the country dust off the barbeque – salivating at the dual prospect of a snag and a good ol’ fashioned upset – there’s one question on everyone’s mind: Can the Western Bulldogs actually win the 2016 AFL Grand Final? We turned to analytics software and data visualization to find the answer, which might surprise you.
At first glance, the Swans are flying
Over the 2016 season, the Sydney Swans dominated, finishing atop the AFL ladder and clinching the minor premiership. Subsequently, the Swans enter the Grand Final – their third in the past five years – as deserving favourites.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs have quite another story. An undoubtedly talented squad was continually hindered by injury concerns throughout the season, with the team literally limping towards September. But they’ve defied the odds so far, putting in especially spirted performances throughout their finals campaign. Can they keep the momentum going?
At a glance, the data suggests that the Swans are a formidable team. Known for their toughness around the ball, Sydney has averaged 164 contested possessions per game compared to the Bulldogs’ 149 per game. Also, Sydney has put plenty of pressure on the ball carrier, averaging 10 more tackles per game than the Bulldogs. So, knowing that these important facets of the game win you finals, what chance do the Bulldogs really stand? Can they continue their fairytale run and outlast the Swans on the weekend? The data says that it’s possible, and here’s why:
The Dogs play well away from the kennel, but…
Since both teams are technically playing an ‘away game’ for the Grand Final match at the ‘G, could this deliver the Bulldogs a slight advantage?
- The Bulldogs average away score (84) is almost identical to their average home score (88), but slightly lower
- The Bulldogs average marginally more contested possessions away (151) compared to when they play at home (148)
- The Bulldogs increase their tackling pressure on-the-road, averaging 70 tackles per game compared to 65 tackles per home game
The young dogs’ game plan and intensity stands-up away from home. But, it’s also clear that the Swans rise to the challenge of playing on less familiar turf too.
- The Swans average away score (100) is almost identical to their average home score (99), but slightly higher
- The Swans average marginally fewer contested possessions away (163) compared to when they play at home (165)
- The Swans increase their tackling pressure on-the-road, averaging 81 tackles per game compared to 75 tackles per home game
While lesser teams tend to noticeably drop-off in key statistical areas of the game when playing ‘away’, this is not so for the Bulldogs. In fact, the Bulldogs boast a higher average tackle count per game on foreign soil (70) than they do at Etihad Stadium (65). The Doggies’ average number of contested possessions per game also increases marginally when on-the-road (151 compared to 148). What’s also impressive is the fact that the Bulldogs have been able to turn-over the scoreboard at a near identical rate, scoring an average of 88 points at home, and an average of 84 points playing away.
Even though the data proves that the pugnacious pups of the red, white and blue aren’t afraid to take the fight to their opponents anywhere, anytime, the hard numbers demonstrate that Sydney are far from overawed away from the SCG.
Like the Bulldogs, the Swans actually increase their pressure on the opposition ball carrier away from home, laying an average of 81 tackles as the visiting side, compared to an average of 75 when playing in their own backyard. While Sydney’s average contested possession count per game slides slightly on-the-road (163 compared to 165), impressively, they actually have a higher average score per game – albeit by the slenderest of margins (100 compared to 99).
The Bulldogs and the Swans perform strongly away from home. But while the stats indicate that both teams will bring the heat this Saturday, tellingly, Sydney has higher average scores, contested possession and tackle counts than the Dogs – either at home or at hostile venues.
So now the question becomes this: Has the Bulldogs’ finals form been hot enough to give them a fighting chance this weekend?
The final straw
Like a true underdog story, the Bulldogs are the first team to make it to the Grand Final from seventh place (under the current finals system). They took on and beat three teams – including last year’s grand finalists, West Coast and Hawthorn – that finished above them. It’s also their first Preliminary Final win in 55 years. So what brought about this change? Have they literally stepped up their game in the finals? In a word, yes.
- The Bulldogs have lifted their game across the board during the 2016 finals:
- The Dogs have increased their average score per game by 16.7% (98 compared to 84)
- The Dogs have increased their number of average contested possessions won per game by 8.8% (161 compared to 148)
- The Dogs have increased the average number of tackles laid per game by 2.9% (70 compared to 68)
On the other hand, the Swans appear to have felt the effect of a ferocious finals campaign.
- The Swans have fallen away in all three key metrics during the 2016 finals:
- Sydney has experienced a 10.9% decrease in their average score per game (90 compared to 101)
- Sydney’s average number of contested possessions per game has decreased during the finals (163 compared to 164)
- Sydney has laid 3.8% fewer tackles per game during the finals compared to their season average (75 vs 78)
The Bulldogs have been fired-up during the finals – and it’s not just an impression. We can see remarkable improvement in key performance indicators – contested possessions, tackles and total score – during the finals. Conversely, the Swans have under-performed – compared to their seasons averages – during the finals.
The Bulldogs have amped-up their game and are going in considerably harder in September. They have increased their contested possessions from 148 per game to 161 per (8.8% increase) and are tackling more too (70 tackles per game compared to a season average of 68 per game). Most importantly, their hard work is also resulting in significantly higher scores (98 compared to 84). That’s a whopping 16.7% increase on their season average.
Inversely, data indicates that the Swans have softened-up during the finals series, dropping off in all the areas in which the Bulldogs have excelled. The Bloods are winning less contested possessions (163 compared to 164), sticking fewer tackles (75 compared to 78) and scoring markedly less (90 compared to 101) than they were throughout the home-and-away season.
Critically, with both teams having played three games throughout the 2016 finals, the Bulldogs lay claim to a higher average score compared to the Swans over that period (98 vs 90).
We sniff an upset
Ultimately, yes, the Swans are a strong team. And, if they replicate their season averages on game day, they should win on Saturday. However, as the data indicates, the Bulldogs’ current form is enough to beat Sydney where it really counts – on the scoreboard.
So with the scent of September elevating the Sons of the West to new heights, can the Doggies secure a second flag? Whatever the case, they have their eyes locked on that cup, and an opportunity to make history. Let’s see if they can take their chance.
Data source: www.afl.com.au/stats