From 15th to fifth in less than two months, the Carlton revival has been as rapid and drastic.
From a team that was tight, scared, couldn’t move the football and couldn’t score, the Blues have become a brutal, freewheeling force that has rocketed into contention as a team who, should they qualify, could shape the finals series.
After six straight losses and having lost seven of eight games, coach Michael Voss was absorbing the pressure from everywhere while searching for ways to inspire a circuit-breaker and free up the play among his charges.
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The Blues ranked 16th for points for, 12th for clearance differential and last for goals per inside 50 and accuracy across the first 13 rounds of the season.
Amid the inability to win the ball at the source or manufacture meaningful scoring chains, the Blues defence was holding up, ranking sixth for points against as they went through their rough patch.
It seemed like the bright spot, with critics coming for their offence. But Voss knew that for all his sides’ flaws and failure to score, the defensive profile of the side needed to improve, and quickly if they wanted to recalibrate their season.
“I don’t want to be walking out of here being lost on the message of that we’re not defensively good enough right now,” Voss said post-match after the Round 10 defeat to Collingwood.
“I‘m not going to get lost in offence, you can ask me about it but I’m pretty clear on what we need to get better at so I don’t want to be confused walking out of here guys – get after that.”
The Blues ranked ninth for opposition scores inside 50 and were 12th for defending opposition ball movement across the opening nine rounds of the season.
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“They were OK, but they were letting the opposition move the ball pretty well & they were leaking a little bit inside 50,” former Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley said on Fox Footy’s On the Couch.
”They lost to Collingwood in Round 10 & he walked into the press conference & pretty much declared that their focus was around defence.
“That was a moment where he was getting questions fired at him left, right & centre. They lost the next 3 games, but won the next 7 since. In that time, since that press conference they have been 1st with a bullet.”
Since the loss to Collingwood, the Blues across the competition rank first for points against, third for opposition scores per inside 50 and fifth for defending ball movement.
“They‘re nine goals better than the next best defensive side in that time & they’ve improved & tightened up in their back 50 & they’re defending ball movement better than anything.” Buckley said.
Since the Round 10 loss, the Blues tweaked their personnel in their back six through both form and availability issues.
The moves made have paid dividends.
In what had been a settled and stoic defensive group, Voss slowly rang the changes to the defensive mix, introducing Jordan Boyd, Brodie Kemp and Alex Cincotta to the senior team who have all taken their opportunity with both hands.
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The inclusions of Caleb Marchbank and recently Zac Fisher who excelled on the weekend across halfback have given Voss and Carlton the extra flexibility and crucially depth in the back half.
The moves, along with the forward half inclusions of David Cuningham, Lachie Fogarty and Jack Martin have enabled the Blues in becoming a more pressurised, potent with their ball movement and completing meaningful scoring chains.
Not only did the Blues shore up their defence as the coach was insistent on was the biggest and most pressing of a laundry list of issues, but has helped correct other aspects of the game.
That’s despite losing key soldiers along the way.
Finding ways to keep winning without first choice midfielders Sam Walsh, Adam Cerra and Matthew Kennedy and spearhead Harry McKay, all lost in consecutive weeks, speaks to the build and belief in system.
Plus, the exposure and development in the list at both VFL and AFL that have been at times under fire, but now being celebrated.
Since the breakthrough round 14 win against Gold Coast, the Blues rank first for points for, points against, clearance differential, goals per inside 50 and third for goal accuracy across the competition.
”That pressure & intensity & effort that you‘re seeing to get after the ball helps them going forward, but it also has assisted their capacity to defend.” Buckley said.
“It’s largely been off the back of the senior coach saying this is our philosophy, this is what we’re going to build our game plan off. Whether we’re going well or not, this is where we start & this is where we finish.”
The results have come and so has the credit towards the senior coach for remaining steadfast in the face of the inferno that was racing towards him.
Suddenly, the rear-view mirror is nowhere to be seen at Ikon Park as they push towards what would be their first finals campaign in a decade. But Voss is remaining steadfast and resolute in what Carlton’s ambitions are for the remainder of the season.
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“What we‘re keen to tell is what our ’now’ story is, not so much what happened last year or what happened six weeks ago. We’re done with looking back. We’re looking at now and we’re looking forward,” Voss said post-match on Sunday.
“We take those lessons with us. Clearly, they come with us because you find yourselves in those situations again and when you find yourself thriving in those situations it comes from exposure. There‘s no other way.
“We’ve gone through a bit of that and we’ve gone through a bit of that together. That’s our story that we tell. At the end of the day, we’re just really enjoying where we’re at and we just feel like we’ve got so much to gain and still so much left to give.”
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