To many AFL fans, Luke Beveridge can be difficult to understand. Since he took over as Western Bulldogs head coach, the team has firmly run his way. But that’s often counter to the logic of outsiders.
He’s quoted both Che Guavara and the children’s book The Salty Dog to his team as motivational tools, a group which he runs on a principle of trust, and working together towards a common goal.
Each Thursday, when team selection comes around, guesses at the Dogs selections seem to fail even the most avid followers. Beveridge shows the appropriate amount of respect to traditional team positions and sheets — none. The only thing that matters is victory.
That way has also been a successful one, with Beveridge the most successful coach in the Bulldogs’ long history.
But for all Beveridge’s experimentation, there has been one constant. Jack Macrae has been in the middle, accumulating the ball and using it to good effect.
Often overshadowed by higher profile teammates, the three-time All Australian might be the most consistent player in the league in the most inconsistent team in the competition in recent years.
‘Bevo Ball’: territory and possession
While there’s a lot of mystery and mayhem accompanying descriptions of Beveridge and the Bulldogs’ approach, at its core is an application of one of the core tenets of football.
Territory and possession. Win both, and you’ll win a lot of games of football.
The advancement of ‘Bevo Ball’ is the way that territory is gained and retained. It seemingly exists to make other sides uncomfortable — the concept of gaining the upper hand via uncertainty.
It all starts with the Bulldogs’ taut defensive set-up — one based on teamwork and spacing.
At the moment of a turnover, the Bulldogs are quick to scramble into shape — setting up triangles across the ground to segment the field from opponents.
The weight of shapes tilts towards the valuable middle of the ground. The Dogs then force teams to work slowly around the ground from getting the ball in defence.
The triangles are spaced so that a Bulldog can contest any kick made across the covered area — leaving no undesired, uncontested targets.
The design is to deny any easy kicks or leading opportunities. It is also to lull opposition sides into making a mistake kick into the trap, or to a long kick down the line.
At these long, down-the-line contests, the Dogs have a number of talented talls in the air and a host of midfielders and smaller defenders who know how to position themselves to win (or tie up) ball.
Stoppage wins and skilled defensive ball users key
That feeds into the second element of Bevo Ball, which is the possession part — largely via the stoppage game. Since their breakthrough 2016 flag, no side has been better at winning stoppages.
By turning so-called ‘neutral’ ball so constantly into an advantage, the Dogs use the boundary as an extra defender.
Ideally, this results in a weight of inside 50 entries for the Dogs, enough to suffocate opposing defences.
In defence, Bevo Ball has prioritised skilled ball users over sheer negating defensive ability. Players like Caleb Daniel and Bailey Dale are perhaps more valuable in this scheme than any other and are relied upon to gain ground and retain possession.
Bevo Ball can come unstuck at times, as it did against Sydney last Friday night. Sides who move the ball quickly can prevent the Bulldogs’ up-ground defence from getting set and expose the Dogs’ undersized defence.
Allowing quick, direct ball movement from opposition sides has been their biggest issue this year.
The Bulldogs’ system involves stopping teams from finding clear ball in the centre of the ground. Generally, the Dogs have been better than most teams at doing this. But when opposing sides break through, the Dogs’ deep defence provides little resistance.
Likewise, if the Dogs fail to win possession of the ball from stoppages, they can struggle to get the territory so desperately required for their strategy to work. This is also what cruelled them in the 2021 Grand Final.
So far this year their stoppage dominance has mostly held — thanks in part to the AFL’s Mr Consistency, Jack Macrae.
Jack Macrae is the Dogs’ Mr Consistency
For all of Beveridge’s magnet moving, Bevo Ball lives and dies on the consistent commitment of his players.
Some players are feted constantly in the media, others turn heads with flash and guile. Macrae chooses instead to let his actions on the field do the talking.
The former number six draft pick might be the most consistently great player in the competition without being constantly talked about.
In a midfield full of big stories and personalities, Macrae’s quiet brilliance often goes unnoted. Macrae’s a do-it-all midfielder — capable of filling almost any role anywhere on the ground.
He is as reliable as anyone else in the league at getting ball and using it well.
Macrae doesn’t just accumulate the ball mindlessly, he also uses it with skill. His ability to contribute to scoring opportunities is critical for the Dogs’ forward line to succeed.
Macrae fits into a supersized Bulldogs peak midfield group, with the 191cm Macrae matched with the 193cm Bontempelli and 187cm Dunkley.
Even Bailey Smith (184cm) and Adam Treloar (184cm) are bigger through the body than most other midfielders.
This group has long given Beveridge an edge at winning possession. All can go right on the inside, or be the escape to transition the ball forward. Without the ball, they know what roles to fill in their tight defensive structure.
Where Bontempelli and Smith often work forward of the ball, Macrae is a true “whole ground” player.
Mr Consistency wins his possessions across the full width and length of the field.
That means Macrae gets less highlight time kicking goals, but is no less valuable to the end result. In Bevo Ball, the system is more important than the individual.
With time starting to run out on the Bulldogs’ 2022 season, there’s little room for error for Beveridge and Macrae to steer the Dogs back into the top eight and towards September.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC