Metres gained: Breaking down the AFL's most misunderstood statistic

Editor's note: This piece was originally published on July 17, 2019.

You would struggle to watch any game of football in 2019 without hearing a commentator or fan refer to metres gained.

It's become the sexy statistic that's synonymous with the modern game, but what does it mean and just how valuable is it? ESPN and Champion Data have joined forces to break down everything metres gained and explain what it all means.

Metres gained

As mentioned, this is the basic statistic we see and hear about on a regular basis. It's also one of the most misunderstood in football.

Raw metres gained is simply how far a player advances the ball towards their attacking goal with each possession. It does not take into consideration how effective the possession is or whether or not the ball has been retained.

For example, if a player picks the ball up and immediately kicks it 50 metres towards their attacking goal, they would receive 50 metres gained. If they were to mark the ball, run forward 10 metres and then kick it 50 metres towards goal, they would register 60 metres gained.

It also works the same way if you're going backwards. A 30 metre kick towards your defensive end will reduce your metres gained. Therefore, it's actually possible for a player to finish a match with a metres gained figure in the negative. An example of this happened in Round 18, 2010 when Jack Watts finished with -34 metres gained from his 27 disposals.

According to Champion Data, the current league leader for metres gained in 2019 is Jake Lloyd with an average 546.9 metres per game. The Sydney halfback generally collects plenty of uncontested ball in the defensive 50 and initiates his side's drives forward. The same can be said of the other four members of the top five in this category: Daniel Rich (523), Brodie Smith (522), Nic Newman (520) and Bachar Houli (506). Notice they are all defenders?

But as mentioned above, this stat can be very misleading as we tend to fall in love with the big numbers. On paper, a player having an 800 metres gained match is incredible, but impact can still come despite a low figure in this area.

Carlton's Patrick Cripps played a brilliant game in Round 5 against the Western Bulldogs, dominating with 37 disposals and 11 clearances in the win. However, he only finished with 84 metres gained.

Effective metres gained

This is where we start to separate the good ball users from those who turn it over more frequently. Quite simply, this is a better statistical measure than raw metres gained.

As the name suggests, effective metres gained is how far a player has been able to advance the ball without turning it over.

Once again we see plenty of general defenders featuring at the pointy end in this category. The competition leader after 17 rounds is Brisbane's Rich -- who is having a career best season -- with an average of 430 effective metres gained per game. He is ahead of Sydney's Lloyd, in second. West Coast captain Shannon Hurn -- who ranks 20th for raw metres gained -- is third for effective metres gained. This highlights just how good of a ball user he is. He almost never wastes a possession.

Interestingly, while Lloyd leads the way at Sydney for metres gained, it's his teammate and captain Dane Rampe who is actually the better ball user. This season, 84.55 percent of Rampe's metres gained have been effective, while Lloyd is down at 76.9 percent.

But what about players who really butcher the ball?

Last year's Norm Smith Medal winner Luke Shuey might be viewed as one of the game's elite, but only 262 of his 479 average metres gained are effective. So basically every week he might be gaining 217 metres for the Eagles, but he's not using the ball effectively with these metres.

Marcus Bontempelli, Josh Kelly and Patrick Dangerfield all feature alongside Shuey in the top five for greatest differential between metres gained and effective metres gained, meaning they turn the ball over at the highest rates. It's no coincidence these five are all inside midfielders who more often than not are under extreme pressure when disposing the football.

Assisted metres gained

This is a statistical measure we almost never hear about, but it's an important one which really highlights some of the more underrated players in the league.

To clarify, assisted metres gained is how many metres the player you directly get the ball to gains with their resultant possession. So a player who handballs laterally to a teammate who then kicks forward 50 metres is awarded with 50 metres of assisted metres gained. It does sound confusing, but it's pretty straightforward.

Leading the way in this area is Brisbane's star recruit Lachie Neale with 426 assisted metres gained per game. Champion Data says that's comfortably the most in the competition, 32 metres more than second-ranked Matt Crouch. Fremantle skipper Nat Fyfe is a further 19 metres behind in third while Jackson Macrae and Ben Cunnington round out the top five.

With Fyfe the obvious exception, these players are usually slapped with the underrated tag.

Neale is an interesting case study as he doesn't rank in the competition's top 100 for raw metres gained -- the sexy statistic -- yet leads all comers in assisted metres gained.

You could argue there should be more value placed on assisted metres gained as opposed to raw metres gained as players like Neale, Crouch and Fyfe are giving their teammates the opportunity to be effective. They can't be blamed for an ineffective disposal from a teammate after an assist, the same way a player who sets up a forward can't be blamed for a missed shot on goal.

Net metres gained

If we were to add up a player's raw metres gained with their assisted metres gained, we would get net metres gained.

Again, this is another off-Broadway measure we don't really hear about too much. It should also be noted that net metres gained will still include a player's ineffective metres gained.

Lloyd is streets ahead of everyone in this area with a net metres gained average of 916 per game. Coming in at second spot is Richmond's Bachar Houli (821), while Josh Kelly (772), Hurn (769) and Neale (760) round out the top five.

Of that top five, Kelly is the only player who ranks in the top 20 for both categories this season. The smooth-moving Giants midfielder sits 16th in metres gained and 18th in assisted metres gained.

But given effectiveness isn't taken into consideration when calculating net metres gained, it can still be a tad misleading.

So who are the most effective and impactful players?

There may not be an exact science to it, but the best way to work out the competition's most efficient metres gained players is to combine their own effective metres gained with their assisted metres gained.

By doing this, you are adding their individual effective work with what they have been able to set up for their teammates.

Without further ado, here's this year's top 10:

791m - Jake Lloyd (Sydney)
706m - Shannon Hurn (West Coast)
686m - Bachar Houli (Richmond)
659m - Lachie Neale (Brisbane)
654m - Daniel Rich (Brisbane)
644m - Lachie Whitfield (GWS)
641m - Caleb Daniel (Western Bulldogs)
618m - Mitch Duncan (Geelong)
617m - Zac Williams (GWS)
612m - Ricky Henderson (Hawthorn)

Of the top 10, six are considered general defenders and three are wingmen. The only inside midfielder who makes the cut is Neale who you have to think is a real Brownlow Medal chance in 2019.

It's also interesting to note that the Lions are the only side to have two players that feature in the top five in Neale and Rich, while the Giants have two players in the top 10, Whitfield and Williams.