Breaking clearances and defending the counter – how Carlton coach Michael Voss fills gaps for the Blues

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It’s 1995 and the football world is painted in a shade of blue.

That year’s grand final was one of the most anticipated in years, pitting the top two teams in the standings against each other on the last day of September.

Carlton, minor premierships with arguably the most punishing defense in the league, took on second-placed Geelong with the most dangerous attack in the league.

Both teams won their preliminary finals by more than 10 goals, easily sweeping their toughest rivals.

Their only meeting this season was a thriller, with Carlton winning a nail biter by just three points.

But the grand final was not an epic for the ages, instead Carlton blew Geelong out of the park at half-time.

Gary Ablett was kept scoreless for the first time in three years, and Carlton set a record for most wins in a year, with 23.

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By the end of the match, Carlton had sealed his record as 16th Premier and was on top of the footballing world.

Carlton literally couldn’t hurt. Then Peter Dean fell off the podium.

Over time, Dean’s downfall has felt less like a celebration gone wrong and more like a metaphor for the two and a half decades to come.

A few near misses in the years that followed were perhaps signs of false hope, their loss to the Roos in the 1999 Grand Final being their last real fight.

Salary cap violations, lost draft picks and five wooden spoons followed in the new millennium, with the once-proud club falling on hard times.

Years in the wild followed, punctuated by a period of skill led by Brett Ratten.

Now the Blues sit in the top four and the Dean-inspired stumble may seem to be coming to an end.

With new coach Michael Voss at the helm, long-suffering Blues fans are hoping their time has come and it’s not another false dawn.

Rise socially

Even in the darkest times, there are moments of light along the way. It was no different for Carlton.

Then Blues captain Chris Judd was a prime rookie for Carlton.(Getty Images: Mark Dadswell)

New prospects – from star rookies (Chris Judd), number one draft picks (Matthew Kruezer, Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Walker and Marc Murphy) to legendary coaches (Mick Malthouse) – littered the Bruises during this drought.

The Blues’ latest manager, David Teague, started with an impressive surge of form before reality started to set in again.

Under Teague, the finest moments in footy were gripping, aesthetically pleasing, counter-attacking footy that revolved around a prototypical key forward position.

When he came out he looked spectacular. However, there were compromises.

For all the excitement created when Carlton came out on the break, their defense was inclined to leave equally exciting attacks the other way.

With waves of players rushing past the ball and faster ball movement prioritized, limited pressure was placed on the ball and deeper defenders were often left isolated or alone.

No team allowed more one-on-ones than the Blues last year, and their ability to slow down teams after turning it over was limited.

An AFL player holds the ball and looks up as he runs with defenders struggling to follow behind him.
Carlton under David Teague was good up front, but the Blues couldn’t defend after turnovers.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Dylan Burns)

Fixing these structural defensive issues was a critical issue for Voss, but perhaps not the only one.

Overall, the signs look positive for Carlton so far this year.

Carlton sets up more cautiously during competitions and does not rush prematurely.

Above all, the Blues seem to defend the counterattack more effectively.

This has included deploying spare defenders who can help close down those high-value individual opportunities.

This took the sting out of their turnovers attack a bit, but, in turn, they can prevent opponents from registering cricket scores.

It’s not just the defense that has improved so far this year.

Voss – as one of the most damaging punters of his era – has an innate eye for not only how to win the hardball, but also how to make it useful.

At Port Adelaide, he helped make the Power group one of the strongest in the competition, one that focused on both sides of the ball.

That strength carried over to the Blues’ early-season form.

So far this year, Carlton has had one of the most damaging punt setups of any team in the competition.

Part of the equation is to focus more on who is targeted in the middle, but part is the staff.

The signing of Adam Cerra and George Hewett in the offseason gave the Blues two more quality options to win the ball, allowing Sam Walsh to work more on the outside.

A Carlton player puts his fist on the ball in his hand as defenders grab him by the shirt and shoulder.
George Hewett’s skills in winning the ball allowed a wider role for players like Sam Walsh and Patrick Cripps.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Cameron Spencer)

This forced opposing teams to focus less on shutting down Patrick Cripps, giving their talisman more room to do what he does best.

Cripps responded with a career year and finally added a serious front string to his bow. He’s recorded career highs in goals and marks under 50, a remarkable feat considering he’s only played seven games and a few this year.

It is also emblematic of the Blues’ reworked forward structure.

Last year, Carlton was heliocentric around Coleman medalist Harry McKay, who was targeted as much as any player in the competition.

This led to a somewhat predictable and focused attack on relatively few contributors.

Thanks to Charlie Curnow’s return from injury and some tactical repositioning, the Blues have more ways to hit the scoreboard this year.

McKay has worked further down the pitch and Jack Silvagni looks revitalized in a forward role.

Last year, McKay was targeted 248 times inside 50, the third most of any player in the competition.

The next highest Carlton players were Eddie Betts and Levi Casboult, with 72 targets apiece.

While McKay is still in the top five targets this year, with 85, Curnow has already been targeted 73 times this year.

A Carlton striker holds the ball to his chest in the air, as an Adelaide defender steps back.
The Blues forward line has no shortage of options this year – Charlie Curnow has already been targeted 73 times.(Getty Images: Daniel Pockett)

When any of these three taller forwards play higher up the pitch or take a spell off the bench, Cripps tends to float forward more.

This creates mismatches in the opposition’s defensive setup, a situation Carlton is ready to capitalize on.

In short, the Blues play a well-rounded style of football, which has improved significantly from years past.

It’s a style that, combined with the amount of talent on the roster, prepares the Blues to play football in the final.

The Blues are always blue?

In his first stint as senior coach at Brisbane, Voss managed to take an aging Lions side to the finals in his first year before facing four years well out of the finals.

A debate still exists in Northern footballing circles over the cause of the Lions’ decline, a debate only interrupted by the recent rebuild led by Chris Fagan.

Voss received the rarest thing in football: a true second chance.

Carlton has had his fill of proven senior talent through trades and free agency over the past few years, combined with a healthy sprinkling of high draft picks. Few can argue that the raw talent is there.

The second half of the year is always more difficult for teams that have changed during the offseason. Opposition analysis becomes more accurate and the rest of the league begins to understand the inner workings of what is going on.

Carlton’s early season form has also been boosted by a relatively loose schedule so far, beating only one team currently in the top 8 (Richmond in eighth place).

The return home looks to be much more difficult than at the beginning of the year.

Few can deny, however, that the Blues play well on foot.

So good, in fact, that diehard Bluebaggers across the country will be hoping their team win their first final since 2013.

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