The data says Brisbane are a flag contender – but the eye test tells a completely different story


There’s a slight disconnect between the data, the record and the eye test for the Brisbane Lions to start season 2024.

This week, Champion Data’s Daniel Hoyne reported on the numbers behind the Lions’ profile to start the season, indicating that the team’s current output would leave them shocked should the numbers continue and the Lions not reach a preliminary final at least.

The data indicates that the common premiership trends – being rated a top-four offence and defence for scores and ball movement and being one of the best teams in the “turnover game”, with 17 of the last 18 premiers being top three in defending turnovers – bode well for the Lions. This is all according to Champion Data, who are evidently extremely high on the Lions.

Then, there’s the record. Two wins and three losses, not good, but better than the winless start to the season.

Already, Brisbane has played Carlton, Collingwood and Melbourne, all seen as flag contenders in the preseason. They’ve also played the Dockers too, who have emerged as a legitimate finals threat.

This is where the eye test comes into play, where the knowledge of the data and the reality of the season so far indicates that maybe the Lions really just belong somewhere in between.

Heading into the season, fresh off a heartbreaking loss in the grand final and seen as the most likely team to challenge again, Brisbane had won 14 games in a row at their home venue. They’ve turned it into a fortress and made it difficult for opposition teams to play there.

Brisbane Lions. (Photo by Albert Perez/AFL Photos via Getty Images )

They’ve been challenged twice, by two very good, albeit shaky (to start the season) teams in Carlton and Collingwood.

In the opening round, they conceded 11 of the last 14 goals to see a 46-point lead turn into a loss. Against the Magpies, they had opportunities to punish but, instead, were leaky when the opposition got through the whole-ground defensive zone that was set up.

Even the Dockers, a team that has notoriously struggled to put up big scores on the board, who play with a more deliberate attacking approach than a lot of other clubs, functioned with a 50 per cent inside-50 efficiency rate, hitting the scoreboard regularly.

The data seemingly indicates that the Lions are a top-four defensive team in terms of points conceded and their ability to not concede from turnovers. Watching the team in the early part of the season has shown a reliance on midfielders and forwards making up for a lot of those defensive numbers; once the ball enters their defensive 50, they aren’t some almighty powerhouse that shuts an opposition down.

Jacob van Rooyen gets a nice sit!@VirginAustralia | #AFLDeesLions

— AFL (@AFL) April 11, 2024

It’s important to note that that’s a strategy in itself and the commitment by the players higher up the ground has been a key factor in the Lions conceding the fewest inside 50s over the past two seasons.

This, one would suppose, is where the eye test and the data may experience a misalignment of sorts. Because we can agree on the fact that the offensive potential of this group is extremely high and hasn’t gone close to reaching its peak so far this season.

The Lions have a lot of improvement to do in turning their inside 50 dominance into a genuine attacking edge that should give them all the advantages in the world – they’re averaging less scoring shots on more inside 50s than their previous four seasons and that’s also slightly skewed by the North Melbourne game anyway.

Defensively though, we should probably ask the following question: is it better to concede a higher number of inside 50s with a lower scoring shot percentage, or would a club rather concede fewer inside 50s at a higher scoring shot percentage?

Brisbane has conceded an average of 44.2 inside 50s per game, the fewest in the league. Their opponents have hit the scoreboard with 44.34 per cent of their entries.

Sensational stoppage work from the Dees to get things going ????#AFLDeesLions

— AFL (@AFL) April 11, 2024

On the flipside, we can have a look at Melbourne, a team that has conceded the third-most inside 50s, with an average of 56.3 per game. The Demons’ opponents have hit the scoreboard with 37.47 per cent of their entries. Overall, Melbourne has conceded less points on average than Brisbane has, despite conceding 12 more inside 50s per game. Context is important here, although it’ll work both ways.

Many are looking at the Lions’ comfortable victory over Melbourne as the potential turning point in the season; up against a fellow contender, Brisbane looked far slicker and stronger.

Though, the Dees’ form hasn’t exactly held up all that well and there were reasons for that heading into Round 5’s game. Melbourne’s wins have been against the Bulldogs, Hawks, Port Adelaide and Adelaide. Of course, the Power are the closest thing to a finals contender but are still unconvincing. When challenged by the Swans and Lions, the Demons had nothing.

On one hand, the Demons haven’t exactly come across as dominant opposition all season which can put a couple of questions on how good their defensive rating may be, but the Lions beating them shouldn’t really change any opinions either.

Zac Bailey celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

A couple of other comparisons for the season so far – Richmond is conceding a score with the same frequency as the Lions are per inside 50, while the Hawks sit at 43 per cent, a better defensive efficiency.

If Champion Data’s numbers are to continue for the Lions, they’d need to continue conceding the fewest inside 50s per game since 2015, which seems unlikely.

The trends can be fixed and, historically, the Lions haven’t been quite this leaky to opposition entries – that 44.34 per cent number tends to be a defensive rating for the middle-of-the-pack teams and has to be rectified soon.

Plus, the offensive upside of this playing group is amongst the league’s best. Charlie Cameron and Linc McCarthy haven’t found their best, Eric Hipwood remains inconsistent and they’ve not been getting many offensive returns out of Cam Rayner and the now-absent Zac Bailey.

TOO FAST. ????

Charlie Cameron put the burners on for this phenomenal goal! ????

???? Watch #AFLDeesLions LIVE on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 11, 2024

Kai Lohmann looks a keeper, while Darcy Gardiner’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

But needing to fix a defensive deficiency and offensive misalignment at the same time can be tricky and while he has taken them on some good finals runs in recent years, coach Chris Fagan hasn’t always been the most adaptable, flexible coach.

That’s why this looms as an interesting period to see whether the eye test, or Champion Data’s numbers hold more weight for Brisbane in 2024.

A tricky three-week stretch against Geelong, Gold Coast and most relevantly, the Giants, will offer offensive challenges, as well as difficult waters to navigate in improving their offence. The Lions would want and be expecting to win at least two if not all these games.

The Brisbane Lions deserved to be seen as among the flag favourites heading into 2024 and deserve to be treated with respect, as they sit just outside the top eight in an even competition while playing some of their worst footy in recent seasons.

Labelling them as a likely preliminary finalist and lauding their numbers at this stage though, it just doesn’t add up.
The Lions aren’t passing the eye test at the minute and have some improvements to make before we can call them flag contenders once again.

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