For many AFL fans, Luke Beveridge can be difficult to understand. Since taking over as head coach of the Western Bulldogs, the team has firmly followed his path. But this often goes against the logic of foreigners.
He cited both Che Guavara and the children’s book The Salty Dog to his team as motivational tools, a group he leads on the principle of trust and working together toward a common goal.
Every Thursday at team selection, guesswork about dog selections seems to fail even the most avid followers. Beveridge shows the proper respect for the team’s traditional positions and sheets – none. The only thing that matters is winning.
This path has also been successful, with Beveridge being the most successful coach in the Bulldogs’ long history.
But for all of Beveridge’s experiments, there has been one constant. Jack Macrae has been in the middle, hoarding the ball and using it wisely.
Often overshadowed by top-flight teammates, the three-time All Australian might be the league’s most consistent player on the competition’s most inconsistent side in recent years.
‘Bevo Ball’: territory and possession
While there’s a lot of mystery and chaos accompanying descriptions of Beveridge’s and the Bulldogs’ approach, at its core lies an application of one of football’s fundamental principles.
Territory and possession. Win both, and you’ll win a lot of football matches.
‘Bevo Ball’ advancement is how territory is won and retained. It apparently exists to make other sides uncomfortable – the concept of gaining the upper hand through uncertainty.
It all starts with the Bulldogs’ tense defensive setup, based on teamwork and spacing.
When on a turnover, the Bulldogs quickly get into shape – setting up triangles on the ground to segment opponents’ pitches.
The weight of the shapes leans towards the precious middle ground. The Dogs then force the teams to work slowly around the floor to get the ball back on defense.
The triangles are spaced so that a Bulldog can contest any kick made in the covered area, leaving no unwanted targets uncontested.
The design is to deny any easy kick or leading opportunity. It is also to trick opponents into mistakenly kicking the trap or long kicking the line.
In these long contests down the line, the Dogs have a number of big talents in the air and a host of midfielders and small defenders who know how to position themselves to win (or tie up) the ball.
Stop wins and the key to skilled defensive ball users
This feeds into the second element of Bevo Ball, which is the possession part – largely via stoppage play. Since their breakthrough in 2016, no team has been better at earning stoppage time.
By so consistently turning a so-called “neutral” ball into an advantage, the Dogs use the boundary as an extra defender.
Ideally, that translates to a weight under 50 starters for the Dogs, enough to stifle opposing defenses.
In defense, Bevo Ball prioritized skilled ball users over just negative defensive ability. Players like Caleb Daniel and Bailey Dale are perhaps more valuable in this scheme than any other and are counted on to gain ground and retain possession.
Bevo Ball can come loose at times, as was the case against Sydney last Friday night. Teams that move the ball quickly can keep the Bulldogs’ ground defense from building up and expose the Dogs’ undersized defense.
Allowing fast and direct ball movement from the opposition sides has been their biggest problem this year.
The Bulldogs’ system is to prevent teams from finding a clear ball in the center of the field. In general, the Dogs have been better than most teams at doing this. But when opposing teams break through, the Dogs’ deep defense offers little resistance.
Similarly, if the Dogs fail to gain possession because of saves, they may struggle to secure the territory so desperately needed for their strategy to work. It’s also what made them cruel in the 2021 Grand Final.
So far this year, their stoppage dominance has mostly held – thanks in part to the AFL’s Mr Consistency Jack Macrae.
Jack Macrae is the Mr Consistency of Dogs
For all Beveridge lovers, Bevo Ball lives and dies on the constant commitment of its players.
Some players are constantly celebrated in the media, others turn heads with flash and trickery. Macrae instead opts to let his actions on the pitch do the talking.
The former number six draft pick could be the best player in the competition without it being talked about all the time.
In a midfield filled with big stories and personalities, Macrae’s understated brilliance often goes unnoticed. Macrae is a do-it-all midfielder, capable of filling almost any role anywhere on the pitch.
He’s as reliable as anyone else in the league at getting the ball and using it well.
Macrae doesn’t just mindlessly hoard the ball, he also uses it skillfully. His ability to contribute to scoring chances is critical to the success of the Dogs forward line.
Macrae fits into an oversized Bulldogs top midfield group, with the 191cm Macrae paired with the 193cm Bontempelli and the 187cm Dunkley.
Even Bailey Smith (184cm) and Adam Treloar (184cm) are bigger than most other midfielders.
This group has long given Beveridge an edge in winning possession. Anything can go straight inside or be the breakout to get the ball forward. Without the ball, they know what roles to fill in their tight defensive structure.
Where Bontempelli and Smith often work in front of the ball, Macrae is a true ‘all-court’ player.
Mr Consistency wins his possessions across the width and length of the pitch.
This means Macrae gets fewer highlights to score goals, but is no less valuable to the end result. In Bevo Ball, the system is more important than the individual.
With time running out for the Bulldogs’ 2022 season, there’s little room for error for Beveridge and Macrae to get the Dogs back into the top eight and into September.