There have been a lot of questions about Ben Brown’s form in recent weeks, but few have been able to provide an answer.
What has happened to one of the game’s best key forwards since the 2020 season restart?
As someone who has had the pleasure of watching him play week in, week out for a number of seasons now I thought I would try to provide some insight.
The answer is simple. Ben Brown is not a solo performer.
It seems like a strange take for those who have watched him kick 60+ goals in each of the previous three seasons, but it just means you haven’t been watching him, or North Melbourne’s forward line, close enough.
Let me explain.
Since making his AFL debut back in 2014, Ben Brown has rarely played alone up forward.
Let’s take it back to his breakout game: the 2014 Elimination Final against Essendon.
Brown, in his ninth game, came out and kicked four goals against the Dons and was a key to North’s second half revival.
However, it was Drew Petrie who kicked the match winning goals and Aaron Black also provided an option up forward that evening.
And that’s where the pattern started.
For the first three seasons of Brown’s career, he played alongside Drew Petrie and in 2015-16 Jarrad Waite was added to the equation, who came across from Carlton as a free agent at the end of 2014.
The trio kicked 116 goals between them in 2015 and 97 in 2016.
By this point, Brown had developed enough – both skill and confidence wise - that he could take on more responsibility and stepped up as North’s leading goal kicker.
But he still wasn’t doing it alone all the time, as Waite was still managing to play 10-12 games a season.
Even though Waite wasn’t always there, Brown and the playing group as a whole had hit a sweet spot in terms of their confidence and game plan, so Brown could still string together a number of powerful performances in his partner in crime’s absence.
However the numbers don’t lie and the duo were better together than apart.
At the halfway point of 2018, Brown and Waite were the best goal-kicking duo in the competition.
By round 10, the pair kicked 55 goals between them in nine games. Neither of them kicked a goal in round one.
From Brown’s 61 goals in 2018, he kicked 41 of them when Jarrad Waite was playing alongside him.
Can you now start to see where I am going with this?
Yes, he’s the club’s #1 forward but he plays so much better in a partnership.
At first it was Petrie, then Waite and now it’s Nick Larkey.
Larkey has played just the one game so far this season and since the season reset in round two, Brown has appeared to be a shadow of his usual self.
He has kicked just six goals in six matches and has only scored multiple goals on one occasion (round three against the Swans).
It’s easy to say clubs have “figured Brown out” in 2020, but that would mean the tactic is to double and triple team him at every contest.
Because since the Roos lost Larkey to injury, there hasn’t been a reliable second option playing alongside Brown and therefore it’s been easier for teams to chuck an extra defender on Brown, as there is no risk of another forward stepping up and dominating in his place.
That’s a personnel and depth issue that the club desperately needs to work on.
Sure, they have injuries but plenty of other clubs do.
The good clubs are able to find reliable, hardworking replacements. The rest cannot.
In round seven against Richmond, defender Josh Walker was sent to the forward line in a desperate move to support Brown and it actually worked. Walker played well and his presence alleviated some pressure off Brown.
Brown looked a little livelier and took a few marks because he was able to work hand in hand with Walker.
Yes he failed to have an impact on the scoreboard but that can’t be a surprise… can it?
This is a man who is carrying the criticism of an entire team on his shoulders.
The pressure on his to perform each week is mounting with each North Melbourne loss. Clearly he’s out of form, but he’s hardly the root of North Melbourne’s problems, rather a player who is suffering for it.
He is in desperate need of support from the midfield group, whose delivery into the forward 50 is atrocious.
The team’s lack of ability to execute cleanly inside the attacking arc is hurting them the most.
North is travelling at an abysmal 43 per cent for efficiency inside the forward 50 in 2020… and that’s based on all scoring shots, not just goals.
Most of the time it is bombed in long in hope and straight into the hands of the opposition.
It’s a huge issue that has managed to escape the attention of most people outside the club.
Ben Brown just needs some support and help in re-finding his confidence.
Nick Larkey doesn’t appear too far away and no doubt his return will give Brown a boost and assist the team in general.
Brown can and should bounce back; there is no doubt about it.
If this is a small rough patch in what has otherwise been a sensational career to date, then it is glaringly obvious at what needs to be done to bring him back into form.
He’s the scapegoat for a host of on field (and off field) issues North Melbourne is facing at the moment.
And while he needs to help himself, the club needs to find a way to help him and themselves too.