The Deep Dive: Why the Magpies aren't just making up the numbers

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.

Collingwood is about to enter the home stretch locked away inside the top eight and four points clear of those on its tail.

It's now Round 16, they're on a five-game winning streak for the first time since 2019, and have already chalked up three more wins than the entirety of season 2021 - a year that saw them drastically plummet to their worst ever finish in the AFL after a year of unrest and turmoil.

So, many tipped them to continue that trend and falter near the foot end of the ladder, predicting a bumpy start to Craig McRae's tenure, which has instead begun with a 9-5 record and a rush of deserved praise.

Yep, the Pies are exceeding expectations, but we shouldn't really be that surprised.

They haven't been perfect -- consecutive beltings to Richmond in Round 9 and the Western Bulldogs in Round 10 are living proof -- but outside of a now-unfathomable loss to West Coast in Round 4, the Magpies' form reads favourably, with wins against three of the top five teams on the ladder and losses of 13 and seven points against Geelong and Brisbane, respectively.

A case can be made that the Pies still have a core group that boasts enough quality to remain competitive. The consistency of having linchpins Darcy Moore and Jeremy Howe, and Brayden Maynard in defence, Jack Crisp, Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, Jordan De Goey and Taylor Adams in the middle, and Brody Mihocek and Jamie Elliott carrying a new-look forward line -- who all experienced the 2018-19 surge to within a hair of a premiership -- has no doubt been paramount.

Sprinkle in the recruitments of Patrick Lipinski and Nick Daicos who added a much-needed injection of polish, the rise and improvements of now-mainstays Darcy Cameron, Josh Daicos, John Noble and Isaac Quaynor, and the flair of newcomers Jack Ginnivan, Beau McCreery and Oliver Henry, and another out-of-nowhere rise up the ladder mightn't be too difficult to fathom.

It's important to note that while Collingwood hasn't been excessively wounded by losing Brodie Grundy to a PCL injury given the rapid success of unlikely ruck duo Cameron and Mason Cox, they are still best served with their number one big man. The Pies are 9.1 hit outs worse off and are scoring less from clearances without Grundy, but it still hasn't hindered their ability to win games and having those ready-made replacements have been a godsend.

Collingwood with Grundy (Rounds 1-6)

Hit outs differential: +5.2 (ranked sixth in the AFL)
Clearance differential: -2.5 (13th)
Score from clearance differential: +3.5 points (eighth)

Collingwood without Grundy (Rounds 7-15)

Hit outs differential: -3.9 (11th)
Clearance differential: -1.8 (12th)
Score from clearance differential: -5.0 (14th)

One myth was this season would be the first of a long rebuild due to their overall youthful squad depth. In fact, in Round 15 alone, the Magpies fielded the fifth-most experienced team, in terms of age.

According to Champion Data, not only has Collingwood been an exciting eye test in 2022, they've displayed a brand of footy that can stack up when the whips are cracking.

Collingwood have developed from a high-possession, methodical team in 2021 to a high-pressure, territory powerhouse this season, which essentially means they've stopped defending with the footy and started playing a more forward half game to allow them to defend without ball, and attack more aggressively with it.

Historically, there are seven key statistical pillars that underpin a side's premiership fortunes: points against, points against from turnovers, inside 50 differential, time in forward half differential, opposition score per inside 50s, points from turnovers differential and defensive 50 to inside 50 transition.

The 10 most recent AFL premiers have ranked in the top six in at least four of those categories, and nine of them in at least three. They're the seven strongest links we can make to premiership success, and right now, the Pies are ticking off the inside 50 differential (ranked fifth in the league), time in forward half differential (fourth) and opposition score per inside 50s (fourth) boxes. They're also the number one team in the competition for intercepts outside of the defensive 50 and score the fourth-most points from that source, while they rank second for intercepts in the forward half.

The Magpies are just an elite territory side. It's their one-wood.

But while they win the inside 50 count 64.3% of the time, their efficiency going inside and lack of potency in the front half remains a worrisome chink in their armour, with only four teams worse than Collingwood at scoring per inside 50.

Another part of the side's soft underbelly was their inability to stop the opposition from scoring, with McRae's game plan, albeit exciting to watch, criticised for being leaky. In rounds 1-9, the Pies were conceding an average of 90.7 points per game which was ranked 13th in the league.

But perhaps this is why the Collingwood coaching group needs to be lauded. Because impressively, from Round 10 onwards -- the start of the winning streak which begun with an upset of Fremantle in Perth -- the Pies are now the hardest team in the AFL to score against, averaging just 64 points against per game.

How have they adapted?

By using the corridor less out of defence. They ranked third for corridor use when exiting the back 50, but in the last five matches, they've dropped down to 16th and have taken a more conservative approach. As a result they have been punished with a score from just 11% of turnovers, which is ranked number one in the AFL.

Collingwood's mid-season shift

Rounds 1-9

Kick forward %: 1st
Defensive 50 to corridor %: 3rd
Turnover to score against %: 11th
Points for (avg): 89.2 (7th)
Points against (avg): 90.7 (13th)
Time in forward half: 6th

Rounds 10-15

Kick forward %: 2nd
Defensive 50 to corridor %: 16th
Turnover to score against %: 1st
Points for (avg): 80.2 (10th)
Points against (avg): 64.0 (1st)
Time in forward half: 3rd

The Pies have given up nine points per game, but in return are conceding nearly five goals less the other way. The challenge now for McRae and co. is to have his in-form side maintain this recent output which has startled many pundits.

The Pies have four seemingly winnable games awaiting them in the next month in Gold Coast, Adelaide, North Melbourne and Essendon, in a litmus test that will likely determine their fate in 2022

They're not there yet, and they have a percentage that suggests their spot in the eight is under serious pressure if they slip up. But if they scrape into September, trust us, they won't be there to puddle around.

Collingwood in 2022

The good

Points from turnovers: 3rd
Opposition score per inside 50: 4th
Post-clearance contested possession differential: 6th
Inside 50 differential: 5th
Time in forward half differential: 4th
Forward half intercepts: 2nd
Three-quarter field intercepts: 1st

Watch this space

Points for: 9th
Points against from stoppages: 7th
Points from turnovers differential: 8th

The bad

Groundball differential: 13th
Clearance differential: 15th
Score per inside 50: 14th