Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Rise and Fall of Josh Gibson

In many ways, Josh Gibson is the figurehead of the Hawthorn dynasty. From its ascension to greatness along with its equally remarkable fall from grace, his career has mirrored both. When acquired by Hawthorn via a trade from North Melbourne after the 2009 season, the move was viewed as filling the key defensive needs of the team. The real reasoning tapped into the revolutionary vein of genius coach Alastair Clarkson. He usurped traditional structures and positions and replaced them with roles and zones. Gibson became the cornerstone of Hawthorn’s possession dominated game that oppositions found such difficulty in countering. He became the first domino in the chain by playing the role of loose man in defence. This role propelled him to superstardom, accentuating his elite reading of the play and his courageous demeanour as a brilliant spoiling defender. At North he was a good to average back-man, but not nearly big enough to be fully trusted against the power forwards and not quick enough to mark the tricky small and midsize types. Sitting out the back in the Clarko structure, Gibson was never fully challenged defensively. Instead his strengths became magnified, culminating in the creation of the ‘golden fist’ legend as he completed Hawthorn's team defence. The recruitment of Brian Lake in 2013 and the evolution of Sam Mitchell's role fully completed Gibson’s place as the fulcrum of the team. Lake provided the perfect defensive partner, a genuine key back that the team had been so lacking. Lake’s inclusion allowed Gibson to focus on facilitating the game plan from the back. Brett Ratten, who came to Hawthorn from Carlton at the end of 2012, further strengthened the back-line by positioning Sam Mitchell in bursts off half back, interchanging him with Gibson in a rebounding role. This allowed Gibson to segue between his dual roles of spoiling and being the quarterback of the game plan, with Lake and Mitchell expertly riding shotgun. Two Best & Fairest awards were forthcoming in the premiership years of 2013 and 2015 along with a place in the All Australian team in 2015 which sealed Gibson’s pre-eminence in the game. Despite standing out as the prominent part of the Hawks juggernaut, oppositions largely tried to match and better with the loose man they were afforded rather than feel compelled to limit Gibson's profound effect. The consistent response from rivals reeked of bravado devoid of the perception and associated clarity of how best to usurp the Hawks’ dominance. The irony of this is that the same self-defeating mindset which facilitated Gibson’s rise in the game has also been a key factor in his demise. It has seen Alastair Clarkson remaining stubbornly loyal to Gibson and the role he plays, to the point of self-defeating denial despite evolved tactics from oppositions rendering this role obsolete. On a simplistic level, last year saw teams choose to mark Gibson which deprived him of any zone-off freedom and exploited his defensive frailties. The hammer blow to Gibson is the current trend of opposition teams combining contested footy acumen with relentless two way running. This has vastly exploited noted weaknesses for the Hawks and has turned the tables by making the opposition’s loose man hold the advantage. They then victimise on the spread with lethal pace and as a result eliminate the Hawks’ ability to hold sway in their defensive 50. This then provides opposing teams with the advantage of the extra man and a glut of goals coming out of transition. If a contest did occur inside Hawthorn’s defensive 50, the pace and precision of the entries has eliminated Gibson’s ability to be a factor as he is marooned in no man’s land, leaving the defence isolated in one on one contests. This in turn has also nullified his place at the forefront of the possession strategy, which has deprived the Hawks of the crucial first link in the chain. With the diminished foot skills of the Hawthorn team, even if the role was still afforded, the ability to carry out a possession brand of football has been nigh on impossible. A big picture view of this situation is that the game plan that once facilitated such dominance is no more and with it Gibson, as its torch bearer, should have been consigned to the history books at the end of 2016.

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