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Why Justin Longmuir’s Dockers are a long-term flag threat

It has all worked out perfectly for the Dockers and Justin Longmuir.

Heading into a home elimination final showdown against the Bulldogs, the coach would be delighted with how Fremantle is set up in their first of what will hopefully be many September games going forward.

Certainly for Longmuir himself, this could well be the start of him establishing his legacy as a coach in just his third season.

Fremantle has been an interesting team in the eyes of the public throughout the season.

After Round 8 they’d lost just once and were seen as a dark horse for the flag. Two weeks later, they were pretenders, following six-goal losses to Gold Coast and Collingwood in trying conditions.

Yet after another fortnight, defeating Melbourne and Brisbane, everyone hopped back on the bandwagon, believing anything to be possible. Then they lost to Carlton and had a three-week winless stretch which ultimately saw them slide back in the minds of many.

We’re a fickle bunch, aren’t we?

The Dockers finished the season with 15 wins and a draw – this would’ve been enough to make top four in every season since 2016, yet whatever excitement was previously there for Fremantle has seemingly evaporated.

What’s seemingly lost on plenty of pundits is that the Dockers are playing premiership football in their first final since 2015 and it’s been perfectly crafted by a coach in the infancy of his career.

It’s pretty obvious why the Dockers aren’t taken seriously. We’re infatuated with scoring in a game where success is often built on defence and Fremantle was ranked 12th in points for on the season.

They had five players kick at least 20 goals, but Rory Lobb led the way with only 34. The midfield group isn’t too concerned with hitting the scoreboard, Andrew Brayshaw led the way with 11.12 while there aren’t too many flying shots from elite kicking half-backs due to a relatively regimented structure.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Yet that defensive work is so good that we can park any offensive concerns to the side for now.

Longmuir has this backline playing like a well-oiled machine and teams find it far too difficult to break it down.

They were clearly the most miserly group in the league, conceding scoring shots just 38.1% of the time the opposition entered their attacking 50. For reference, they conceded the exact same number of inside 50s as Sydney this season, who conceded shots 41.94 percent of the time.

It’s a whole-of-ground effort that is so, so difficult to navigate as the opposition and from Longmuir’s perspective, puts him in the upper echelon of tactical coaches already.

The Dockers conceded the third-fewest marks inside 50, the second-fewest goal assists and the third-fewest metres gained on average per match.

The opposition find it difficult to transition the ball out of defensive 50 thanks to the second-ranked forward line for forward tackles, and the work rate of the high half forward, particularly Lachie Schultz and Sam Switkowski, means the pressure doesn’t just drop off once the ball moves onto the wing.

We have a season’s worth of evidence to outline just how valued the pressure side of the game is for Longmuir.

The midfielders simply must lay tackles and are often lined up on the defensive side of contests to be restrict the opposition. Brayshaw, Will Brodie and Caleb Serong averaged nearly 16 tackles a game between them alone, it’s outstanding commitment. They were all ranked above average/elite for pressure acts, defensive half pressure acts and tackles inside 50 as midfielders.

(Photo by Russell Freeman/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Yet the strength of the defence itself when the opposition can get the ball inside 50 just adds another level of protection against conceding a score. Alex Pearce defended the second-most one-on-ones of all regular players in the league and was above average for his loss percentage. Brennan Cox’s breakout season saw him produce even better numbers.

However it’s the entire defensive scheme, you can imagine Longmuir scribbling manically on a whiteboard like an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, that really makes this a functionally sustainable and threatening defence.

The pressure up the ground is either completely restrictive, or highly influential over the top of ball that enters Fremantle’s defensive 50. Often it’s high balls and you’ve got Cox, Griffin Logue, Luke Ryan, Jordan Clark and Hayden Young all ranked above average for spoils. The same group of players, minus Logue and adding Heath Chapman, are rated exactly the same for intercept possessions.

The ball retention from aerial entries is outstanding, among the best in the competition. If the ball hits the ground, Brandon Walker has enjoyed an underrated season where he has excelled at cleaning messes. It’s perhaps the team’s Achilles heel, but it’s one that they’re mobile enough to cover.

Put simply, Fremantle’s defence alone is the reason why this isn’t some fluky finals appearance that may end up being meaningless if it results in an immediate exit.

Dockers coach Justin Longmuir talks to his team

(Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

Justin Longmuir’s Dockers conceded more than 85 points once. They conceded less than 70 points in 12 games.

Now, will the lack of attacking firepower hold them back?

The art of coaching is to keep one’s cards close to one’s chest.

Fremantle hasn’t been a high-scoring team, but perhaps that has partially been by design.

The Dockers have been notoriously protective of the ball for large portions of games this season, often playing within themselves.

They’re the highest possession team in the league but rank just 11th for inside 50s, the half-backs generally have a field day in chipping the ball around, frustrating the opposition, a little like the Eagles used to do.

Yet no team is as incisive as the Dockers when they choose to take the game on. Inevitably, they sit back for longer periods, yet flick a switch and move the ball at such speed and using angle, that they’re extremely hard to stop.

Indeed, they’ve had 10 games where they’ve scored at least 90 points, all of which have naturally resulted in wins. In fact, in 2022, when Fremantle has put 69 points on the board, they’ve won.

At time the Dockers have appeared unnecessarily slow with ball in hand, only to explode in the third quarter and put games away in that period – they failed to lead at half-time in six of their wins and in their draw against Richmond.

Outscoring Geelong by 17 points, Melbourne by 42 points, Brisbane by 18 points and most-of-the-season top-eight team St Kilda by 32 points in the third quarters of these games alone, the Dockers showed how devastating they can be offensively when they decide to get the ball flowing.

Much like Chris Scott waited a good half a season before playing his cards, turning the Cats into the most well-rounded team in the competition, we can expect Justin Longmuir to do the same in this week’s elimination final.

Perhaps the conditions will force his hands, should inclement weather be a factor but regardless, the Dockers are well prepared for either scenario.

Fremantle’s misfortune in the wet is a myth, with the Dockers perfectly capable of playing with speed and looking to move the ball forward quickly. They will have learnt not to over-possess from the Collingwood game and understand the power of field position in the rain.

Should it be dry, the Dockers will welcome back Matt Taberner, Rory Lobb and Griffin Logue, a trio capable of stretching the Bulldogs’ weaker defence as was shown in Round 21.

Matthew Taberner

Matthew Taberner (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The loss of Tom Liberatore hurts the Bulldogs far more than Nat Fyfe’s absence does the Dockers, given the skipper’s regular absence throughout the season. The powerful talent of the Bulldogs’ midfield will need to work hard to beat the defensive-sided centres of the Dockers.

Further, we can trust Justin Longmuir to have multiple strings to his bow. Knowing how Fremantle has played multiple styles within games throughout the season will always keep the opposition guessing. They’re equally as capable of winning a shootout as they are of shutting an opposition’s attack down.

Really though, this September is merely the first step in the story of Fremantle’s rise to success and the legacy that Justin Longmuir will create.

Ross Lyon is the only coach to have won multiple finals at Fremantle, and he took over a team two seasons removed from a semi-final appearance, who were in a position to make finals in 2011 prior to a capitulation.

For three seasons, Longmuir has moulded his team to play finals-worthy football that will hold up at all times.

In 2022, he has created the best defensive unit in the land with a dangerous offensive edge that cannot be slept upon.

This is the base for his team going forward, one that can cause damage against any opposition.

This season has worked out perfectly for the Fremantle Dockers, who are now a premiership contender by default going forward thanks to Justin Longmuir.

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