The Deep Dive: How Cats and Swans can win the Grand Final

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

And then there were two.

After 198 home-and-away matches and an epic finals series to date, the 2022 season will culminate with a Grand Final match-up between Geelong and Sydney. And rightly so, they were arguably the two most complete, and consistent, teams in the competition.

The Cats are riding a 15-game win streak into this Saturday's premiership decider, their most recent win a bruise-free 71-point preliminary final thrashing over a hapless Brisbane which perfectly epitomised a dominant second half to the year.

Meanwhile, the Swans have won their last nine matches -- none more gripping than their preliminary final heart-stopper, surviving a last-gasp surge from Collingwood to hold on by a solitary point.

How will this game play out? With the help of Champion Data, we've taken a look at the statistical output of both sides this season to pinpoint where the game could be won and lost for both teams.

Interestingly, both teams are highly ranked in most key metrics, but have done so via contrasting styles.

So, here's a look at how each team can clinch the flag.

How Geelong can win

Geelong will be hoping this match works out to be a 'business as usual' style contest given how complete their system is across the field. Put simply, if the game is on their terms, winning the premiership is as sure as night follows day.

In attack, the Cats rank No. 1 this season for inside 50 differential (+12.1), second for points for (97.7), first for points from turnover differential (+25.5), and are the number one team in the competition for capitalising on inside 50 entries (47% score rate).

Chris Scott's defence is also primed and has proven to be the AFL's biggest road block for opposition teams. They're the hardest team to score against (67 points per game), and restrict teams' scoring rates to 39.3% per inside 50.

This stingy set up is led by three-time All-Australian Tom Stewart and young key defender Sam De Koning, who has risen out of the blue this season, with both players losing just 20.8% and 25.8% of defensive contests competed respectively. Both players are also averaging 2.9 intercept marks between them this season and are the only teammates outside of West Coast talls Tom Barrass and Jeremy McGovern to both rank inside the top 10 in this category.

The importance of their ability to act as that brick wall combination cannot be understated, with 37.3% of Geelong's scores this season being masterminded from either defensive 50 or defensive midfield.

One key area of contrast between the two teams is the kick-to-handball ratio, with the Cats (ranked 14th in the AFL) proving to be more handball heavy than the Swans, who rank third with a ratio of 1.75. Despite this, the Cats go forward from a general kick 91.1% of the time, but the Swans are ranked 18th when it comes to electing to go forward by foot.

It's the same scenario in defence; Sydney ranking third for kick-to-handball ratio (1.69) in the defensive half, contrasting Geelong's 14th (1.37).

It highlights the importance of Geelong's forwards to pressure the Sydney defenders when the game is played in their front half so not to allow the Swans to control the tempo of the match with a kick-mark system. This has often been the case in season 2022, John Longmire encouraging patience until defences are caught napping and the right handball can be released to launch an attack.

The pressure that is required can be delivered in spades by usual midfield hard-nuts Joel Selwood (4.4 tackles per game), Cam Guthrie (five) and Tom Atkins (6.3), but it's the forward crop of Brad Close, Gary Rohan, Gryan Miers and Tyson Stengle that must take initiative in this area and limit Sydney's rebound capacity by foot, instead at a minimum force defensive half handballs and keep the Swans under serious heat.

Still, Sydney isn't afraid to take the game on from the back half if required. A likely destination when in possession in defence is the wing (they take this route 34.1% of the time) and have used the corridor the sixth-most frequently of any side (19.9%). Where don't they go all that often? The boundary, avoiding the safety net 54.1% of the time. It's just another area of the game where the Cats' set up -- dominant all season -- needs to be switched on to force the Swans boundary-side as much as possible coming out of defence.

A major weakness of Sydney's that Geelong can also exploit is points scored from stoppages in the forward half. Across the season, the Swans are averaging just 11.9 points through this source (second-worst return in the league). At least halving contests in their back half therefore giving the Cats an immediate advantage.

They've been the best side all year at defending opposition inside 50s and are excellent without the ball, but the 2022 introduction of being one of the most potent teams in the league has made them a simply formidable outfit, and one well and truly on track for a first flag in over a decade.

How Sydney can win

We know coaches like to focus on their own team's strengths, but John Longmire will have a few head-scratching moments this week when trying to dissect Geelong's game.

The Cats have been the best team all year -- sides don't know where to go against them and their defensive setup difficult to penetrate (as the Lions found out last week).

But all 'strong' game plans have one similar Achilles' heel: pressure.

Sydney is the AFL's No. 1 pressure team and they need to live up to that billing on the weekend to turn the contest into a chaos one, something we saw Geelong struggle with when facing the No. 2 pressure team in the competition -- Collingwood -- in the qualifying final.

The Cats escaped with a six-point win that day but faced the most tackles they had all season (85), and visibly couldn't handle the heat in the first term, leaving them as exposed as we've seen in recent months.

If the Swans can hunt the ball carrier and turn Geelong's uncontested possessions into contested ones, it can lead to rushed decision-making which could in-turn allow Sydney's runners to swarm and get the ball inside 50 to an unsuspecting Cats back six.

Sydney ranks third for points from turnovers this season (57.4) and second for turnover scores differential (+17.9 points), highlighting the importance of pressure to the way they need the game played.

And while pressure is always critical in finals, so too are clearances and stoppage battles, which the Swans must win if they're any chance of snatching the flag from Victoria.

Ruckman Tom Hickey, who was one of his side's best players last week and was pivotal in Sydney's one-point win over the Magpies with 15 touches, 27 hitouts, six score involvements and five clearances, needs to at least emulate that performance and ensure the Swans get ascendancy through the middle of the ground.

Neither team tends to 'dominate' in the ruck stats, but right now the Swans rank 15th for hitouts-to-advantage (-3.5), and the Cats not much better at 10th (although in the positives at +0.1).

The sides are also even(ish) when it comes to clearances -- Sydney was the eighth-best clearance differential team (+0.9) in the competition, while Geelong was sixth (+1.6). The main difference, however, is capitalising on said clearances, with the Cats scoring nearly five points more per game than their opposition from that source, and the Swans -- albeit in the positives -- still lacking compared to their opponents with a +1.2 scores from clearances differential.

But let's narrow our focus to the centre bounces, which is where this game could really be won or lost.

The Cats are the second-best centre-bounce clearance differential team (+1.5), and the Swans are languishing in 15th with a clearance differential of -1.5. It looms as a critical component of the contest because winning clearances around the ground when Geelong are set up with an extra number behind play almost works into their favour, so to speak.

So when are the Cats most vulnerable? Well, thanks to the AFL, the six-six-six rule means it's impossible to outnumber your opponents from a centre clearance, meaning Sydney's biggest chance to make Geelong's defenders accountable will come in the middle of the ground.

Thus, big games from Longmire's on-ball brigade consisting of Luke Parker, Callum Mills, Chad Warner and James Rowbottom -- and hybrid types Isaac Heeney and Tom Papley when pinch-hitting -- will likely mean the Swans are on top in this key area.

The Cats have a score from centre-bounce clearances differential of +2.9 points which ranks third in the league, while the Swans rank 11th (-0.5).

Crucially, 52.9% of Sydney's scores come from midfield. But this does not including centre bounces -- which is a string that must be added to their bow.

This is going to be a battle of territory game. It won't be easy. But if the Swans can trust their ball use out of the back half and gain the upper-hand in the engine room, then the cup could be headed back up the Hume Highway for a second flag success since 2012.