Tom Mitchell and the Rise of the Accumulators

Hawthorn’s Tom Mitchell is a cyborg with a singular objective: gather the red oval object and deliver it to humans that have the same two colours painted on their chest cavity walls.

He has been doing it a lot this year, 35 times a game in fact, and is set to break Lachie Neale’s record for most disposals in a home and away season just 12 months after Neale set it.

Now, as then, Mitchell is getting less than zero respect for his exploits. Tom Mitchell is averaging 35.4 disposals per game, the same number of disposals that Nathan Brown, Eric Hipwood, Nathan Vardy and Darcy Moore gather in a game COMBINED. They play vastly different roles, but the point is 35.4 disposals is a lot of kicking and handballing.

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Part of the problem with Mitchell and his fellow accumulators is perception. The accumulators don’t kick a ton of goals, don’t kick more than 30 metres frequently, and don’t take a lot of marks. They do burrow deep into packs, tackle like crazy, and do a lot of their work beneath the shadows.

There is a strange parabolic relationship between player disposal counts and their level of standing within the AFL.

  • Less than 18 disposals means you’re a scrubber (Player Example: Andrew Swallow)
  • Note: the 18 disposal threshold does not apply if you are a key position player, in which case getting as close to 20 disposals as possible is a hallmark of your greatness (Lance Franklin)
  • Note (II): the 18 disposal threshold does not apply if you are under 180cm in height. This is the Cyril Rioli Zone, where your merit as a footballer is judged in a more nuanced and/or sneakily racist way (Cyril Rioli)
  • Between 18 disposals and 25 disposals means you are a role player, capable of linking up efficiently or winning the ball at ground level. Or you play for North Melbourne (Zak Jones)
  • Between 25 and 30 disposals and you are an elite weapon gun unit specimen of a jet (Steele Sidebottom)
  • Break the 30 disposal plane and you are a useless hack that does nothing but win the ball, and everyone knows winning the ball is easy and anyone can do it (Lachie Neale)

Until recently, the accumulators tier was mostly empty. Between 2000 and 2008 just two players recorded 30 disposals or more on average in a given season – as in, it happened twice in nine years. The first was Nathan Buckley in the first year of the new millennium, and the second was Scott West in 2006. That was it.

In the nine years thereafter, it has happened 52 times – almost seven times as often. More than half (30) of those instances have been in the past three years, and further still, 15 players are doing it in 2017 alone. It is the Rise of the Accumulators.What does it mean? There’s two issues at play, one quantitative and one more subjective.

First, the number of disposals in a game of football is increasing. Like the Weimar Republic, there’s been hyperinflation in disposal counts. In the first nine years since the turn of the century, when two players averaged 30 disposals over a season, teams performed 316 disposals per game on average; in the second nine, the average has lifted to 367 per game.

That means a 30 disposal game between 2000 to 2008 was equal to about 9.4 per cent of a team’s disposals in a game, where between 2009 and 2017 a 30 disposal game was equal to 8.2 per cent of a team’s disposals. Like beer money at the ‘G, a disposal just isn’t worth what it used to be worth.

The other far more fun explanation is the rise of more specialisation in roles through the middle of the ground. Where in the recent past teams would employ a range of midfielders that switched between inside and outside roles, a modern midfield requires a depth of quality ball users to help transition the ball from front half to back. The days of everyone seeing the ball and winning the ball are over.

Adelaide are the avatar for this; almost all of Adelaide’s depth midfielders are the more wiry, rangey, long kicking and marking types. It means the core inside midfielders – Rory Sloane, Brad Crouch, Matt Crouch and Richard Douglas – do almost all of the heavy lifting, distributing the ball to wave running outside midfielders.

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It does expose the Crows to some risks. From the start of this year the knock has been they’re something of a house of cards; bust the scheme and they can be opened up meaningfully. In recent weeks clubs have worked out that the most effective way to beat the Crows is to hang back in their own defensive half and refuse to play the outside game.

Not every team subscribes to this world view – perhaps rightly given Adelaide’s recent form. But it is the way of the future. Clubs will increasingly turn to a narrower segment of their playing group to win the volume of possessions, and hope to have a battery of outstanding outside runners and ball users.

Which brings us full circle. The Hawks have tried to shift into more of this mode this season, playing a much more open and up tempo game in attack. It hasn’t worked, as we discussed last week. Central to this though has been the ability for Tom Mitchell to upgrade himself from fourth banana in a blue chip laden Sydney midfield to the point man.

Mitchell has always been an accumulator, albeit his season averages never rose this high in his time at Sydney. He has taken the opportunity afforded to him by the Hawks – both with and without his fellow trade in Jaeger O’Meara – and built upon his strengths. His gaudy 35 disposal per game average puts his dangerously to the right of the parabolic disposal count respect spectrum.

Lachie Neale had a similar experience last season, not making the All Australian team despite setting a new home and away season benchmark for total disposals, and likely being the difference between a really bad season and a downright awful season for the Dockers. His value is now being recognised in the official AFL Player Ratings system, where Neale has risen to the 13th highest ranked player in the competition.

The assumption surrounding accumulators is that’s all they do. It lacks nuance.

The Rise of the Accumulators means our collective respect for high disposal counts has to shift, in line with changing roles and general disposal inflation. Tom Mitchell might not make the All Australian squad of 40; he is an important and valuable player regardless.