Footy Fix: Ross Lyon is the AFL’s most boring coach once again – and it’s suffocating the Saints’ season


On the scoreboard, it looks like a creditable St Kilda performance.

A loss to a Port Adelaide outfit many see as a premiership contender by just 10 points on hostile territory. A clamping down of the Power’s strengths around stoppages, especially out of the centre. A dogged fightback in the last quarter to continue to press right to the final siren. A gritty performance when dealing with not only the opposition, but some decidedly home team-slanted umpiring.

The reality, though, is somewhat removed from that rosy picture. This was as vulnerable a Power team as the Saints could have hoped to come up against, with an already vulnerable backline shorn of Aliir Aliir after half time to a Jack Higgins dangerous tackle, then likewise losing Sam Powell-Pepper and Connor Rozee to complete a night of carnage. They were ripe for the picking for a statement-making win, the kind that a team coming off a horror performance last week should have been desperate to produce.

Instead, the Saints played slow, painstaking football like usual, and it took until the last 10 minutes, when their only prayer was to try and take the game on, for caution to be thrown to the wind.

It’s a long way removed from the St Kilda which burst out of the blocks at the start of 2023 playing fierce, speedy football to cut teams apart in a very un-Ross Lyon-like way. I wrote a glowing review a little over 12 months ago expressing delight at the pace of their turnover game, and the all-encompassing pressure suffocating teams good and bad.

Jack Steele. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

What they’ve dished up so far in 2024 has been more quintessential Rossball: slow, methodical ball movement invariably ending in long balls up the line and 50/50 contests, and long bombs into a forward line built for pace and leading up rather than contested marking. The problem is that it’s coming with a playing group that is a far cry from the star-studded teams behind the 2009-2010 Saints and 2013-2015 Fremantle’s deep finals runs under Lyon, when if there was any doubt a player always had a Nick Riewoldt or Matthew Pavlich as a get-out option.

The absence of Max King in the last fortnight has laid bare the obvious problems with such a style in modern footy: on Friday night, the Saints managed just seven contested marks and eight marks inside 50. Three of those contested grabs were taken by Callum Wilkie behind the ball.

Having minimal aerial presence ahead of the footy is understandable when without your spearhead, but to play the same way with and without King makes the Saints incredibly frustrating to watch, especially against a team like the Power with vulnerabilities to exploit.

By quarter time, the Saints had scored from 75 per cent of their inside 50s; by half time, it was still high at 50 per cent. It wasn’t a surprise, either, with Port ranking among the league’s leaders at conceding scores per inside 50s.

The issue was supply: just eight inside 50s in the first term, and 20 by half time, was never going to be enough against Port, no matter how many times they butchered chances from set shots. Time and again, the Saints were repelled on the wing when a long bomb was either sharked by a Power player or a stoppage was forced, where, with an 8-3 clearance advantage to quarter time and 17-13 by half time, Port consistently held the upper hand.

Even in the centre, Lyon’s defence-first philosophy was apparent: beginning with Liam Stocker at the first bounce, the plan was clearly to deny the Power their usual explosive bursts from midfield to drive the ball into attack – few teams have scored more from stoppages in 2024 than they.

It certainly worked, with Port taking until late in the second term to get their first goal from a clearance; but the lack of any impetus going the other way was telling, with the Saints also severely restricted when it came to clean breakaways. Often, it seemed the plan was to allow the Power mids to win control of the ball and then corral, forcing them into high bombs forward without accuracy, rather than actually try to win it themselves.

Or this. This happened quite a bit, too.

Another turnover in St Kilda’s defensive half leads to a Sam Powell-Pepper goal ????

???? Watch #AFLPowerSaints on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 26, 2024

Jack Steele was in All-Australian form to start the year, but with 15 disposals on Friday night, his main role was seemingly to tackle like a man possessed – that’s a bit like using a monster truck to plow a field. The Saints look infinitely better with him at the bottom of packs trying to win his own footy, and then following up around the ground with his underrated field kicking and sensible decision-making.

The Power finished +21 for contested possessions, having ranked top four in that stat in 2023. It’s not a new problem, and it hasn’t been helped by Mitch Owens, a revelation last season with his ferocious attack on the ball, nearly permanently confined to the forward line.

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With the footy, especially in defence, teams have cottoned on to the Saints’ desire to possess the ball above all costs, and press high in the knowledge they will corral themselves by chipping sideways looking for safe options.

This makes even more dangerous, ambitious passes critical – three times in the first half the Saints kicked into the corridor at half-back, had telegraphed passes turned over, and were punished with two goals and one let-off.

Stuff like that doesn’t happen anywhere near as regularly if St Kilda weren’t so frustratingly easy to predict, and therefore, defend.

And there was nothing in the way of imagination or ingenuity; certainly nothing like this Dan Houston torp in the second term, successfully catching the Saints’ defence off guard with something out of left field and leaving them ripe for Willie Rioli to run rings around.



— AFL (@AFL) April 26, 2024

This slowness of foot and mind invites pressure, with the result a whopping Port pressure rating of 200 compared to the Saints’ 171, and an extra 28 tackles despite having far more possession. Usually, a tackle count this slanted is an indictment on one team’s defensive pressure – here, it was the Saints’ attacking pressure that was crucially low.

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The most frustrating part of it all is that the Saints aren’t forced into playing like this due to limitations in their list: in Jack Sinclair, Bradley Hill and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera, they have three players blessed with both damaging speed and exquisite kicking skills. That’s a trio that could easily do for the Saints what the Daicos brothers regularly do for Collingwood, or what any number of GWS players did with scary regularity against Brisbane on Thursday night.

Instead, we have Wanganeen-Milera safely chipping the ball around the back half: he had just one score involvement from 26 disposals on Friday night, and is 95th in the league for them this year with 32.

Sinclair, for his part, had his best match of an injury-interrupted season to date, finishing with 9 and finding the ball regularly when injected onto the ball after half time.

Jack Sinclair read that like a book!#AFLPowerSaints

— AFL (@AFL) April 26, 2024

Hill is having a wonderful year but was slightly off his game on Friday night, with the Power aware of how regularly the Saints look for him with ball in hand and restricting him to 14 disposals.

Everything about the Saints seems to be geared towards stopping the opposition from scoring: five or six years ago, that was a viable strategy, but it’s fast becoming out of date.

The best teams are moving the ball quicker, capitalising more aggressively on turnovers, and scoring more heavily. Heading into Round 7, six teams had at least 567 points on the board for the year; the same amount as 2023, but four more than in 2019, Lyon’s last year at Fremantle, and three more than in 2015, the last time those Dockers were a flag contender.

Only West Coast, North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Adelaide had scored fewer points than the Saints heading into the weekend, with their 62 goals only ahead of the Eagles and Crows. Matthew Nicks had the courage to tweak his gameplan and become more aggressive a fortnight ago. Will Ross the Boss?

It honestly seemed like Lyon had adjusted his methods to the times last season, especially to begin with; but as the weeks and months have gone by, the spark and the style has slowly been sapped away from the Saints; and this time, there’s no Lenny Hayes or Nat Fyfe or Brendon Goddard or even a Michael Walters to provide the star factor required to carry this stodgy gameplan to reliable success.

Once again, Lyon finds himself coaching the most boring team in footy. And whatever you might make of the Saints’ quality, it’s actively holding back a team that proved in the first two months of last year that it could be so much more.

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