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How do Collingwood Magpies win games they shouldn’t?

How Collingwood's results have compared to expected results based on stats which project the result, albeit hypothetically.

How Collingwood’s results have compared to expected results based on stats which project the result, albeit hypothetically.Credit:The Age

So there’s an element of mystery in Collingwood’s recent come-from-behind, white-knuckle wins.

The pattern of Collingwood’s (second) Melbourne match was similar to the Carlton escape. The Demons had 24 more forward thrusts, won the clearances by an astounding 22 (21-7 from the centre) and owned the contested ball by “only″⁣ 24.

Elite ball-users out of defense are an important part of Collingwood's success.

Elite ball-users out of defense are an important part of Collingwood’s success.Credit:Getty Images

Yet there’s also been a cluster of Collingwood narrow wins that the Pies should have won with more comfort than their standard of under two goals. Over the course of their dozen wins from 13 games, the first five – Fremantle, Carlton (round 11), Hawthorn, Melbourne (Queen’s Birthday) and Greater Western Sydney – were quite different from those three return games against their old foes.

In discussing Collingwood’s unusual season of close encounters, senior and assistant coaches from rival clubs observed a raft of themes or traits.

These were, in no particular order, that the Magpies defended exceptionally well, that they were elite in transition from defense – using a game style similar to Richmond’s fast-and-furious method. They had elite ball users Nick Daicos and Scott Pendlebury, plus interceptors such as Darcy Moore, Jeremy Howe and Brayden Maynard, whom Leppitsch called “a wrecking ball” and liked to a brave and brutal defender of his era, North great Glenn Archer.

And while the Pies don’t own a Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay or Tom Lynch in their forward line, coaches noted that they had a diverse range of dangerous forwards in Elliott, Brody Mihocek, Jack Ginnivan and their startling six-gamer Ash Johnson.

Jamie Elliott and Jack Ginnivan are part of a dangerous Magpie attack.

Jamie Elliott and Jack Ginnivan are part of a dangerous Magpie attack.Credit:Getty Images

They tended to take risks when trailing late in games and had pulled off those bold plays with composed and efficient use of the ball, via Pendlebury and the Daicos brothers, and accurate conversions, as in the Melbourne, Carlton and Essendon results. Nathan Buckley’s most salient comment (on SEN) about his old team was that while they lost clearances, they were excellent in winning the first contest after a clearance – either in defense or attack.

One senior coach from a rival team observed that the Pies seem to win with a different method at the onset of their 11-game streak. “They were playing more of a front-half game earlier in the year and they’re playing more of a back-half game now.”

Leppitsch acknowledged that this was the case, and that they would prefer to be playing with the footy in their attacking territory – as in the Fremantle game and first games against Carlton and Melbourne – than defending in their defensive territory, as they had lately.

“There’s games that we thought we should’ve won by more and there’s games that we’ve stolen over that period,” said Leppitsch.

“There’s been games we’ve managed the clock really well and won and then there’s been times we’ve managed the clock poorly and won, when we’ve had those leads, like the Giants’ game, and still won.

“The important part is that we’ve got the wins at the end. Look, I’ve never been involved in a team like this in my 30 years in the game …

“I don’t think you can underestimate the non-statistical stuff that we do well, which is staying in games spiritually and also managing moments and managing the clock.”

Leppitsch felt that it was more useful to examine Collingwood’s quarters – which varied enormously – rather than just games. The Carlton game just gone was an example, with the Pies having conceded two goals in the first half, but eight to one in the third term when Cripps and co broke the dam wall.

He said some quarters have had high inside 50s and low efficiency, others the opposite. “We definitely have a lot of inconsistencies in numbers between games.”

The end result, though, has been an unprecedented collection of narrow wins.

Was there a unifying theme of this season? “I think it’s belief,” said Leppitsch.

An opposition coach noted that the belief impacted on the opposition, too. “They believe they’re always in it and that belief rubs off on the opposition.” Their opponents know that they’re coming.

Leppitsch and others within Collingwood’s football department are under no illusions that they are humming perfectly, given deficiencies that they’ve surmounted.

“Some of our big-chunk stuff isn’t flying that well – as far as scoring from front half and stoppages scores and some of the stuff you usually see as premiership indicators, we’re an anomaly in those fronts,” said Leppitsch, who saw parallels with Richmond of 2017 (where he was also defensive coach), but also major differences due to personnel, such as Richmond’s three conventional small forwards and Collingwood’s distinction of skilful wingers, Josh Daicos and Steele Sidebottom.

The Tigers also had Dusty Martin and Jack Riewoldt in their pomp.

“The beauty is we don’t get too bogged down on the numbers component of it because we know managing the moments and what’s in front of us is the most important thing,” Leppitsch said.

Collingwood’s Houdini act might not continue in the finals. Or it might. There is still something within this team, over the past 13 weeks, that is hard to pin down or explain. They’ve challenged even their own expectations from pre-season and in games.

“We’re doing some things that sort of defy a lot of that logic,” Leppitsch said.

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