AFL coaches may not tag an opposition player every week but they must have the option to do so if it becomes necessary.
Hawthorn’s Tom Mitchell took complete control against Collingwood at the MCG on Saturday night, amassing a staggering 54 disposals and helping his side to a comfortable victory.
The question Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley has to ask is why he allowed Mitchell the chance to attain a VFL-AFL all-time record number of possessions without appearing to try and limit his output.
And it’s not as if Collingwood weren’t aware of Mitchell’s ability to accumulate.
He won 50 and 35 disposals in his two matches against the Magpies last year, winning three Brownlow Medal votes on each occasion.
To be fair to Buckley, most coaches these days are prepared to let the game unfold in the initial stages.
They want to see how their players are going, and who is impressing for the opposition, before taking action.
But if someone dominates like Mitchell, you simply have to act.
He had 29 disposals at half-time and yet continued to dominate in the second half.
Speaking generally, pre-match planning for coaches focuses heavily on the forward targets of an opponent and even a key defender or rebound defender.
This is primarily because it is easier to predict that they will play there and in many ways, match-ups at either end of the ground won’t disrupt the overall team system coaches are employing.
The midfield is slightly more complicated because of the number of players who rotate through it.
Opting to play a tag in the midfield can be viewed as a disruptive effect to the team’s rotations when you decide to lock down on an opposition star.
It can also create a reactionary approach, too.
If you decide to tag the likes of Richmond star Dustin Martin or Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield, they can take their opponent forward and expose them in that part of the ground, as well as disrupt the defensive set-up.
But the Martins and Dangerfields of this world must love it.
There is no doubt the current trend of not playing a tag on the competition’s stars makes it easier for them to influence matches more consistently.
As a coach, I always played a tag on the opposition’s best midfielder.
Tony Woods was my preferred option at Hawthorn and he had the discipline and concentration to take on this difficult and crucial task.
And while today’s game is different, I still believe the option needs to be available.
Port Adelaide’s use of Brett Ebert on Saturday shows how effective the approach can be.
He did a great job on Fremantle’s Nathan Fyfe and he showed the role is not always completely negative.
Ebert (28 disposals, nine score involvements) surpassed the input of Fyfe, who had 22 touches and kicked one goal.
It helped Ebert that Port were winning, which makes the task easier to perform, but he also helped them win by doing the job so well.
At the MCG, Buckley conceded he didn’t believe they could actually stop Mitchell around the contest.
There is no doubt that is not easy. Mitchell is an excellent player, particularly at stoppages.
But surely those around the contest and nearest to Mitchell knew that in those situations, he was the most likely target of his rucks and would get to positions to win the ball?
The instructions needed to be clear to all Collingwood midfielders that someone had to close down Mitchell as a No.1 priority.
After the match, Buckley claimed he tried Taylor Adams, Steele Sidebottom and Jack Crisp on Mitchell at various times, to no effect.
You could accept Sidebottom not being used in the role, given his attacking flair, but Adams or Crisp needed to accept a totally negative approach to try and shut Mitchell down.
Every player has to accept their role for the team and that role can change during a match.
AFL coaches rely on their system of play and train and educate it, so they can be reluctant to change during a game and alter their approach, claiming that when opposition players get off the chain, it is about team defence and not individual defence.
But the game is also about tactics that arise at any given time in a match.
Buckley needed to adjust and find a way to stop or, at least, curtail Mitchell’s influence.
Clearly, he couldn’t or didn’t. I’d like to think he couldn’t.
Peter Schwab played 171 VFL/AFL matches for Hawthorn from 1980 to 1991, winning three premierships. He later served as Hawthorn coach, AFL National Umpiring director, AFL Match Review Panel chairman and Brisbane Lions list manager.