PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 13: Jamie Cripps of the Eagles looks to handball during the round four AFL match between the West Coast Eagles and the Fremantle Dockers at Optus Stadium on April 13, 2019 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Collecting the ball inside the Eagles defensive half, Norm Smith Medalist Luke Shuey turned to scan the field. 

With space ahead of him, he drove forwards to scope out small forward Zac Langdon, who opened his arms wide to take a speed-ball coming in from the West Coast captain. 

Keeping his cool, Langdon settled himself, eyeing multiple runners zipping past him from the left and right. He could have turned and had a stab at goal himself, but the Eagles were flooding the Crows' defensive 50 at high velocity and made the correct decision to dish it back to Shuey, who was tearing into the Crows’ arc. 

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Looking ahead, Shuey nipped a clever kick through to Liam Ryan with the outside of his boot, and Ryan made no mistake in completing the move with a precision set shot that split the middle sticks. 

It was perhaps one of the most intelligent plays of football we’ve seen from this Eagles side this season.

The Western Australian powerhouse attacked at pace, gave each other options inside the painted arc, and had the composure to hold onto the ball for that extra second to give the right pass. 

Put simply, it was simple, fast footy. 

From rock bottom to rocking the oval

It was a far cry from what we’ve seen from this West Coast side over the past few weeks. 

Struggling to create any fluidity and structure in attack this season, the Eagles have lost games because they’ve been too slow to get the ball forward. 

Their kick-marking game plan was quickly assessed and snuffed by Geelong earlier in the year, and since then, teams like the Bulldogs, the Swans, and most recently North Melbourne have found ways to press this slow-moving Eagles side at the back. 

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West Coast have been roundly criticised recently for their inability to revert to a different game plan when their kick-marking style of play doesn’t work, and on Sunday, with Josh Kennedy a late omission from the side, there were worries that the Eagles would struggle to be as clinical when pumping the ball inside 50. 

But after the turmoil of the last three weeks when Adam Simpson's convocation suffered a pretty humiliating string of losses to the Dogs, Swans, and bottom of the league Kangaroos, Sunday’s win showed signs of rejuvenation.

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Yes, the Crows are sitting third from bottom, and also came into the match on a three-game losing streak, but Adelaide must be respected as a dangerous side, who possess the ability to take advantage of any team -  as we saw in their demolition job against Geelong in Round 1 and their emphatic win over the Demons in nine-weeks later.

Rory Sloan and Rory Laird are tough ball winners and will scramble to make life hard for teams at the stoppage. When the Crows get the ball forward, you can almost expect to concede a score, with forwards Taylor Walker, Darcy Fogarty, and Tom Lynch giving defenders throughout the league nightmares. 


Speed and composure

The thing that most impressed me about the West Coast this weekend was their speed and composure on the ball.

Compared to their Round 17 loss to North Melbourne, the Eagles looked a very different side on Sunday, and although they did try to run their kick-marking plays at the start of the match, they got the ball moving a lot quicker as the game opened up. 

Highlighting the Eagles experience in the engine room, five-time premiership player Dermott Brereton commented on Fox Footy during the match that the Eagles are more impactful when their mids are able to attack at pace.

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"The biggest bonus for me is that Luke Shuey ran through the lines in the third quarter and found some real penetration. That's the biggest bonus for the Eagles," the five-time day and five-time night premiership player said.

The quality and experience players like Tim Kelly, Luke Shuey, and Nic Naitanui bring in the centre of the park to win the ball and create momentum through the corridor is remarkable.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 02: Tim Kelly of the Eagles looks for the handless options during the 2021 AFL Round 07 match between the West Coast Eagles and the Fremantle Dockers at Optus Stadium on May 02, 2021 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

 

Kelly, in particular, was superb in collecting the ball at the stoppage and transitioning forward.

Teams struggle to control this fast and direct style of play, in the same way the Eagles have struggled to arrest momentum from other fast-moving teams this year. And when the Eagles get going, they can be just as dangerous.

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Those attacks come mostly from their dominance at the stoppage. Marquee ruckman Nic Naitanui again showed his brilliance this weekend, dominating Reilly O’Brien to make 31 hit-outs, 11 of which were to advantage.

That gave the Eagles a platform to attack from and allowed them to record six more clearances from the centre bounce than the Crows. 

But it was the West Coast’s small forwards who caught my attention the most. 


A small forward master class

Usually, we’re commending the Eagles tall forwards for their exceptional marking abilities and their efficiency with the ball inside 50. But this week, the Eagles smalls put on a masterclass in crumbing around the stoppage and injected a ton of pace into the match. 

Jamie Cripps was the Eagles’ star player, shooting a career-best five goals, as well as collecting 21 disposals, and four inside-50s. 

Even when he wasn’t scoring, Cripps impressed, setting up his teammates to record 13 score involvements during the match. 

Meanwhile, Liam Ryan, Zac Langdon, and Jack Petruccelle also performed well in the latter stages of the match, with Ryan - to borrow a world game turn of phrase - also shooting a hattrick and Petruccelle taking home a brace of goals. 

Langdon was equally impressive this weekend. Although he didn’t get on the score sheet, he looked a lot more composed on the ball, setting up five goals while recording a 93.3% disposal efficiency.  

With this aforementioned quarter of crumbers operating at the stoppage to transition the ball forwards with their blistering pace, the Eagles have the potential to threaten sides as the season inches towards September.

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Their kick-marking style of play is growing a little slow, and although it can help the Eagles take the sting out of a match, it allows their opposition too much time to reset their defence, press higher up-field, get more numbers to the contest.

That enables sides to shut down the Eagles' ball receivers and force turnovers in more compromising positions. 

Interestingly, the Eagles have lost the handball count in each of their last four games, showing they are a lot slower when it comes to moving the ball around compared to other sides in the League. 

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As we saw in the game against the Swans two-weeks ago, the Eagles struggled to spark attacks using their kick-marking patterns, managing just 40 inside-50s during the match.

Last weekend, playing a more direct style, and utilising their added pace, the Eagles managed 60 inside-50s to the Crow’s 44 - a huge improvement on recent weeks.

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There are a lot of positives to take from this weekend's win. But this Eagles side still has a very long way to go till the end of the season, with their finals hopes still very much in the balance.

If West Coast can continue to play the fast brand of footy they showed on Sunday, and utilise the injection of speed their small forwards can provide around the stoppage, they should be able to hold down seventh place and bank their spot in this year's finals series.