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How Justin Longmuir took Fremantle Dockers’ defence to next level after Ross Lyon

FREMANTLE is moulded in Justin Longmuir’s image but built in Ross Lyon’s shadow.

The Dockers didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel when they replaced Lyon with Longmuir at the conclusion of the 2019 campaign, but they added some colour and additional sharpness to an already stout defensive lineup.

The early days of Longmuir, with Fremantle on the road for much of a COVID-interrupted 2020 season, might have been a tough watch, but the foundations of the side’s now renowned defence-first system were being honed.

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The Dockers scored fewer than 40 total points in losses to Carlton, West Coast, Richmond and Geelong. They even scored totals of 50 or fewer in wins over Sydney, Hawthorn and Melbourne.

Justin Longmuir addresses the Fremantle players against Geelong in R7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Despite finishing three games outside the top-eight in a truncated season, Fremantle still conceded fewer points across the year than the second-placed Brisbane. But they also tallied less points scored than a Sydney side that finished third-from-bottom.

It was, in essence, very similar to Lyon’s first year out west. In that 2012 season, as the former St Kilda coach preached defence at the forefront of his system, Fremantle won some games kicking only eight goals, lost others kicking just five, and held its opponents to under 50 total points in six separate matches.

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In hindsight, the dour approaches adopted by both would pay dividends just a couple of seasons on. Lyon helped the Dockers make the Grand Final in 2013, while in 2022 their defensive system is the toast of the town under Longmuir and has drawn comparisons to the unbeaten reigning premier Melbourne.

That’s where Fremantle’s unique profile under Longmuir comes into play. Having inherited a side that knew how to defend from the Lyon era, the first-time coach – credited for much of Collingwood’s rise to the Grand Final in 2018 where he was an assistant under Nathan Buckley – has added more layers, more colour and sharpness, to the mix.

Like the Demons are currently doing – and the Tigers did during their run of three flags in four seasons – the Dockers are making their crust perfecting the art of defending both high and deep during their stunning start to the year. The fact they’re doing both impeccably well is testament to the 41-year-old in charge.

Fremantle covers deep through its strong team defence, evidenced by the fact it now concedes the fewest opposition scores per inside-50 in the competition. Champion Data notes that its rate of 37.3 percent of scores per opposition entry went past Melbourne as the AFL’s best last weekend.

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The club allows its opponents to generate an inside-50 from just 18.5 percent of rebound-50 chains (ranked first, and improved from 24.4 percent last year). It also only allows the opposition to retain the ball from just 41.2 percent of kicks inside-50 (ranked third, and improved from 51.3 percent last season).

But what’s just as remarkable is the manner in which the Dockers defend high, and how the side’s five small forwards in attack – Sam Switkowski, Lachie Schultz, Michael Walters, Travis Colyer and Michael Frederick – set the tone for how the Dockers defend across the entire field.

Travis Colyer and Lachie Schultz celebrate a Fremantle goal against Geelong in R7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Fremantle has recorded an average of 26.1 forward-half intercepts per game this season, the most of any team. They also score an average of 34.3 points per game from that source, ranked third in the League.

Meanwhile, Champion Data notes that its pressure factor – led by star pressure forwards Switkowski and Schultz, in particular – now ranks sixth in the competition. Last season, it ranked second-last.

While it’s the key forward duo of Matt Taberner and Rory Lobb – in addition to Josh Treacy last week and debutant Jye Amiss this week – that might often steal the headlines, it’s their five speedsters defining and deciding most games.

The profile is unique, but it’s also incredibly effective and sustainable. Combined with some savvy recruiting, some in-form talent and the perfect blend cohesiveness, it has Fremantle on track for September for the first time since Lyon guided the Dockers to the minor premiership in 2015.

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