By Brynn O'Connor
Tom Cole, Liam Duggan and Dom Sheed celebrate a goal. Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
West Coast are back and they’re back in a big way.
After accumulating a 1-3 win-loss record after round four, their worst start to a season since 2013, the Eagles now sit fourth on the ladder and have firmed as many bookmakers’ favourites to claim this year’s premiership.
It’s a sharp rise from the despair the Western Australian side faced after a five-week stint in Queensland’s AFL hub from round two. The Eagles started poorly losing their first three games before registering wins in their final two matches.
Back home at Optus Stadium, the Eagles have registered their fifth straight win, thanks to two convincing performances over Fremantle and Collingwood, and a gritty nine-point victory over Geelong.
After such an unconvincing start to the season, it’s clear to see the Eagles have regained their mojo, with one statistic in particular pointing to the key reason for the turn-around in their on-field success.
It’s no secret West Coast loves to retain the ball through precise and carefully constructed ball movement. They systematically rip through opposition presses to give their potent forward line, headlined by Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, first look through clean delivery.
West Coast look destined for finals footy for the sixth time under Adam Simpson. Photo: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos/Getty Images
A vital component of obtaining this movement is the ability for West Coast’s players to take marks.
In the Eagles’ 2018 premiership year, they were ranked number one in the AFL for marks, averaging 101 per game.
It was such a reliable indicator of their performances that in any game where they took over 90 marks, they always recorded wins.
Fast forward to 2020 and as of round 10, West Coast are again the number one team for marks, averaging 81 per game.
In their three losses this year to Gold Coast, Brisbane and Port Adelaide, the Eagles have taken 56, 47 and 71 marks respectively, which are well below their season average.
It’s a stark contrast to almost all of their victories, where they accrued 119, 92, 90, 111 and 86 marks.
The only anomaly to this came in their last win over Geelong, where they totalled 57 marks.
This can be attributed largely to the Cats’ dominance in the same category where they tallied 95 marks, combined with their efficient defence, which is ranked number one for conceding the least total points against in 2020.
Josh Kennedy celebrates one of his four goals against Geelong in round nine. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Despite being down in their key statistic, the Eagles still managed to wrestle a win late in the final quarter through some stellar individual performances, highlighted by Josh Kennedy’s four goals and a hitout masterclass by ruckman Nic Naitanui.
Barring the Geelong match, and taking 2020’s shorter quarters into mind, it appears that 80 marks and above might be the new 90 as an indicator for West Coast’s performance and likely victory.
It is worthy to note that the marking statistic can’t be used as a standalone argument as being the sole reason of West Coast’s resurgence.
However, it’s a very strong measure that other facets of the Eagles’ game are in sync, as seen when their lowest marks tally occurred at the same time their midfield was dubbed to be "soft" in their rut of three straight losses earlier this year.
The Eagles’ next two confirmed fixtures are favourable, coming up against an out of form Carlton and an inconsistent Hawthorn, at their fortress in Optus Stadium.
As for many things in this strange year that has been 2020, nothing is certain, and no team is invincible.
However, make no mistake that opposition coaches will be worrying and drilling into their side that when you come up against West Coast, you have to stop their marking game.
Otherwise winning almost becomes a statistical anomaly.
Cover Photo: West Coast Eagles