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The Deep Dive: Why Carlton can (and can't) win the flag in 2022

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Where have all the taggers gone? (1:23)

Matt Walsh & Jake Michaels discuss the disappearance of tagging in the AFL, and if the role could limit recent dominant performances from midfielders. (1:23)

Every Wednesday of the 2022 season, ESPN will combine with Champion Data to provide an in-depth analysis on a particular hot topic in the AFL.


Is a 17th premiership cup on its way to Ikon Park?

Seriously, imagine saying that 12 months ago...

Carlton's first half of season 2022 has been nothing short of exhilarating for long-suffering fans who have basically endured two decades from hell.

But salary cap breaches, which saw the club obliterated by AFL penalties -- including significant fines and being stripped of several draft picks -- a bundle of wooden spoons, numerous coach sackings, and for some supporters, a lifetime of mediocrity, will all be worth it if the Blues can salute on the biggest day on the AFL calendar - a stage that has been foreign to the club for far too long.

It's not unfathomable.

After 10 weeks, Carlton sit comfortably in third position with an 8-2 win-loss record and percentage of 114.6 - one game clear of fourth and fifth.

There's still three months of regular season footy to transpire, but the sample size is big enough to suggest this surge up the ladder isn't, and should no longer be seen as, abnormal.

Among the Blues' eight victories this season include a hoodoo-snapping triumph against the Tigers in Round 1 followed by an encouraging display to hold on against the Dogs in Round 2, convincing wins against North Melbourne, Adelaide and GWS, and last week's inspiring effort against fellow top four aspirant Sydney.

Hiccups along the way? You betcha. In fact their 15-point win over the Swans was the fourth time in eight weeks they've had to hold off a second-half surge by the opposition, despite establishing early game-winning leads.

Against Hawthorn in Round 3, the Blues burst out of the gates to lead by 41 points nearing half time, but conceded nine of the final 11 goals to claim a thrilling one-point win. Just two weeks later they nearly bottled it again, withstanding a mammoth fightback from Port Adelaide who turned a one-stage 50-point deficit into just a three-point defeat.

But despite their in-game lapses and inability to sustain their best footy for four quarters, they've simply found ways to win - the first sign of a genuinely good, maturing team, who in past years would likely see themselves 4-6 or 5-5 when faced with the same adversity after surrendering big margins.

They've hardly put together a complete four-quarter effort, which shows that their best -- being able to put games to bed when their foot is on the accelerator -- is almost a league-wide best. But is that a sustainable system when the going gets tough in September?

To the naked eye, the Blues have incredible depth, one of the best spines in the game and genuine match-winning star power on every line -- think Charlie Curnow, the injured Harry McKay, Patrick Cripps, Sam Walsh and Jacob Weitering -- which is accompanied and well supported by role players who are flourishing under Michael Voss' system.

Some experts have even started to tout them as Melbourne's biggest challenger, and there's merit to the suggestion.

A noticeable change that Voss has implemented is their conservative avenue to the forward line when in possession in the defensive 50. The highest disposal-winning team in the competition ranks 18th for corridor use when exiting the backline, despite scoring the second-most total points from their defensive half so far this season.

Their stoppage work is another clear one-wood, understandable when you have a midfield that boasts the likes of the aforementioned Cripps and Walsh, potential recruit of the year George Hewett, Adam Cerra and the vastly improved Matthew Kennedy.

The Blues rank third in the league for points from stoppages, but are more impressively restricting the same thing from happening the other way, ranking second to only Melbourne for points against from stoppages.

And just in case you needed further evidence that this uncompromising midfield group is arguably the best in the AFL, the Blues rank second in all the following categories: contested possession differential, post-clearance contested possession differential, groundball differential, and post-clearance groundball differential. Who leads the league in each of those areas? The reigning premiers and universal flag favourites in 2022.

Perhaps most frightening is the average age of selected players in the Carlton team each week is 24.78, which is the sixth lowest overall and second youngest of the top eight teams, behind only Fremantle. Their average matches played is currently 74.6 - the fourth lowest of any side in the league.

The Blues are doing a lot right, but don't be fooled, because there are still chinks in the armour. The question is how catastrophic can they prove to be as we progress further through the season?

Offensively, Carlton are ruthless, but one of the performance indicators used to measure a team's flag potential has and always will be how they defend without the footy, and it's there where the Blues are still slacking.

To play devil's advocate, the past 10 premiers have ranked in the top six in the AFL for both points against and points against from turnovers, with Carlton currently 9th and 11th, respectively. In comparison, Brisbane (sixth and fifth) and Melbourne (first in both areas) are clearly ticking those boxes to prove a more balanced game.

Nine of the past 10 premiers have also ranked top six for points from turnover differential, with the Dees (first) and the Lions (second) clearly outperforming the Blues (10th) when it comes to this key metric. Allowing opposition goals per inside 50 (12th) is another area the Blues need to desperately address, but this stems from issues further up the field.

Carlton is currently 12th for all of time in forward half (100% of past 10 premiers ranked in top six), forward half stoppages (80%) and forward half intercepts (80%). They also rank 13th for defensive 50 to inside 50 transition against, meaning teams are moving the ball far too easily from one end to the other if the Blues don't convert from their forward entries.

Admittedly, Voss could be bolstered by defensive reinforcements in the later rounds with forgotten defender Caleb Marchbank and key interceptor Mitch McGovern potentially returning from injury to help take the load off key pillar Weitering.

That'll help, sure, but put simply, like Melbourne -- and Brisbane to an extent -- the ability to move the ball freely while at the same time applying enough pressure on the opposition and maintaining a defensive structure behind the ball is pivotal to premiership success.

Carlton ticks a lot of boxes, and they deserve to be in the top four and feature in their first finals series in nine years and fifth in 21 years, but some flaws still exist.

How far they can go remains to be seen.


The curious case of Carlton in 2022

The good

Points from stoppages - 3rd

Contested possession differential - 2nd

Post-clearance contested possession differential - 2nd

Uncontested possession differential - 1st

Disposal differential - 1st

Average age of selected players each week - 24.78 (sixth lowest overall and second youngest of the top eight behind Freo)

Average matches per game - 74.6 (fourth lowest of any side)

Keep an eye on

Percentage - 8th

Points per game from turnovers - 7th

Points against - 9th

Quarters won - 20 (a win rate of 50%, ranked equal 10th)

The bad

Points from turnover differential - 10th

Pressure applied - 14th

Opposition defensive 50 to inside 50 transition - 13th

Opposition defensive midfield to inside 50 transition - 14th

Time in forward half - 12th

Forward half intercepts - 12th

Forward half stoppages - 12th

Opposition goals per inside 50 - 12th