Knights commits to Neagle and Gumbleton

Essendon coach Matthew Knights has told the Sunday Age that he is going to play youngsters Jay Neagle and Scott Gumbleton alongside old stagers Matthew Lloyd and Scott Lucas in the Bombers forward line this season. Fantasy coaches who are already looking at an embarrassment of riches in the forward rookie choices are going to want to know what this means for their statistics.

The Sunday Age story includes this key passage, which was supported by a story on the AFL site.

In 2009, Knights will raise eyebrows with a tall forward structure including Matthew Lloyd, Scott Lucas, Jay Neagle and Scott Gumbleton, whose anticipated return after spending his first two seasons on the sidelines was underlined at the start of spring-summer training with a 15.4 beep test.

“Throw in Adam McPhee and David Hille, who goes forward a bit, and I guess we’ll resemble a tall timber forest, but I’ll stick to it because we’ve just got to get games into Neagle and Gumbleton,” said Knights. “I know it’s left of centre and it will be 10 or 15 games before you might see some progress, but in the short term I’m not interested in their form because in the long term I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Knights may not be interested in their form (come on mate, gimme a break!), but fantasy coaches are. Traditionally, AFL teams are selected with three tall forwards, so four talls is a big departure. A lot of coaches are going to be copying what Hawthorn did this year, which was to go with a four-forward structure that left one of Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead or Mark Williams one out in the square, depending on the matchup, and the other three including Michael Osborne as a forward tagger standing on the 50 metre arc. Other teams use variations of this strategy, with the half-forward flankers running into the centre to join the midfield.

With four talls plus Leroy Jetta as the crumber and maybe a forward tagger who can hurt on the scoreboard like Angus Monfries, this probably means that one or two of the four talls will have to spend a lot of time up the ground… unless the Bombers take a leaf from previous Alastair Clarkson tactics and go with a new version of Buddy’s Box, the four-cornered system pioneered by the Hawks in 2007 which isolated four key forwards one on one by spacing them evenly around the 50. Gumby’s Bin, perhaps?

I think the snippet above about Gumbleton’s beep test is key here. Lloyd will continue to run up the ground as he did for much of 2008, so his production won’t falter, but if Gumby can go with him, he may also get rotations through the midfield and, like Lloyd, turn into a decent fantasy player. On the other hand, this probably spells bad news for Lucas, who will be fighting for inside 50 targets with three other talls. I could very well foresee this four-prong structure turning into a three-tined trident on the field, with Lucas and Neagle swapping for each other as third tall inside 50. Of course, the default position is that Gumbleton and Neagle would be the ones spending most time on the pine, but I still don’t trust Lucas’ fitness after his poor second half of 2008.

This is obviously a work in progress, and we probably won’t get to see the full version of this new forward structure in the NAB games to gauge what each tall’s role will become before the real stuff kicks off. What’s your opinion, who is going to win and who will lose? And don’t say everyone’s a winner, that’s patently not going to be true. All four of these players are fantasy relevant in 2009 so this is a big issue. Tell me how you think this will play out in the comments.

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