These Dogs are top-four bound: No Hawthorn haze for the reigning premiers

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    We are in uncharted waters: last year’s premiers are by no objective measure the best team in the competition. But can the Western Bulldogs rise to that title in 2017? There are many reasons to be cautious, but one whopper that says they can.

    The Western Bulldogs won the 2016 premiership from seventh position. We’ve been over this a few times, but it once again bears repeating: no other AFL team has done this in the history of the current finals system.

    The Dogs not only won the flag from outside of the top four, they did it against the odds in each one of their four outings.

    Based on pre-game market odds, they had a one per cent chance of running the slate they did. The basis of calculation is different, but the Dogs’ run was only a little bit less spectacular and unlikely than New England’s recent Super Bowl victory.

    This is a salient fact to keep in your back pocket when assessing the prospects of Footscray this season. Yes, they are premiers, but they were in no way, shape or form the best team of the 2016 season – far from it. The Dogs are still young, and will get younger in the years ahead. They haven’t yet reached the level of recent premiers when it comes to consistent excellence, but there is a mighty strong chance the Dogs break through to that upper echelon in 2017.

    This year’s numbers game showed the Dogs failed to be blown out (lose a game by the average margin plus one standard deviation) last year. But by the same token, they failed to blow any opponent out of the water.

    The reason gets at why the Dogs were able to turn the tables on the prevailing football wisdom last season and win it all.

    Killing off the attractive football notion
    The Western Bulldogs limped to the September finish line, with injuries mounting and scoring plummeting. In their final six games, they scored 73 points per game and managed to split their ledger 3-3, as their line up changed from week to week. By the time Round 23 rolled around, the Dogs were missing close to a dozen players from their notional best 22.

    Fremantle weren’t travelling so well themselves, and the result was a torrid ‘game’ of ‘football’ that was a backwards-pass rule away from being called a rugby match. Footscray scored 49 points against a team who’d conceded 125 points a game in the five weeks prior. The Dogs were done.

    Except we all forgot two unique features of the 2016 season. One, the week off between Round 23 and the first week of finals meant the Dogs were able to bring back a bunch of their better players. But two, and more importantly, Luke Beveridge had his boys playing a style of football that kept them in games for longer.

    That medieval torture device I referred to in April last year turned out to be mighty effective in the heat of finals.

    The Western Bulldogs won the contested possession count by an average of 13.7 per game during the home-and-away season – a league high. During the finals, that jumped to a win of 28 per game.

    It helped that the Dogs had two favourable match ups in their first two finals; the West Coast Eagles, without their most important coalface player, and the Hawks, who decided to roll the dice and punt the inside battle. On paper, they had no right to beat the Giants and Swans though.

    At its heart, Beveridge’s system is simple: the Dogs look to create chaos, but in an orderly manner, to punish mistakes and crush it on turnover. Sounds contradictory right? That’s what makes it so effective.

    Luke Beveridge for the Bulldogs

    When the Dogs don’t have possession, they hope more than anything for their opponents to take a mark and slow play the ball. That allows them time to set up a finely crafted 18-man zone, which forces the opposition to kick long, sideways or to try and run through it. In any event, the zone keeps moving with the ball, waiting for the smallest mistake – a high kick that hangs in the air, a clanger, or a foolhardy midfielder who thinks he’s got the wheels to get around four Western Bulldog midfielders.

    Then the Dogs swarm like locusts, with numbers at the point of possession designed to either force a stoppage or set off a chain reaction of quick handballs and rolling movement. Occasionally, those turnovers result in a fast break with an overlap runner streaming out of congestion, but more often than that there is a mess of Bulldogs runners pinging the ball around like they’re stuck in a cartoon tornado. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

    The Western Bulldogs averaged 193 handballs per game in 2016, a clean 30 above the average of the competition and 46 times more than the 18th ranked West Coast Eagles. It was a similar story on the kick-to-handball ratio: the Dogs kicked just five per cent more than they handballed, compared to a competition average of 20 per cent.

    It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective, and it meant the Dogs were always able to stay in games – their largest margin of defeat was 57 points, against the Cats when they were premiership favourites. Otherwise, it was a string of margins of practically four goals or less. In a twisted kind of way, it was beautiful.

    (I’d love to have shown you a passage of play where this unfolds, but due to the Telstra Live Pass debacle that will have to wait for another day.)

    The ‘Scrays conceded 73 points per game, and even during their horror final-six games, managed to keep opponents to that mark despite the absence of so many critical cogs. Indeed, the Dogs held firm at that 73 points per game mark from Round 12 through the end of the home-and-away season.

    The system is likely designed for the overlap runners to play a greater role. But with injuries to Robert Murphy, Jason Johannnisen and Matt Suckling across the year, the flex midfielders which occupy the majority of the list took over ball movement responsibilities.

    While it was certainly an effective scheme for stopping teams scoring, the side effect was that it made it hard for the Dogs to go the other way effectively, scoring 85 points per game, ranked 12th in the competition for the season. The scramble to get the ball forward once it was won was just that, a scramble.

    The Dogs scored on just 43.5 per cent of their inside 50 entries last season, ranked 15th in the competition. It meant the midfield dominance the team usually enjoyed as a result of Beveridge’s system (the Dogs had the second best inside 50 differential in the home-and-away season: +8.9 per game) did not translate into points for.

    Evolution, not revolution
    The sum total of that analysis is the Dogs have the bones of an effective ball control system, which right now looks sustainable in direction if not magnitude. Opposition coaches have doubtlessly studied Beveridge’s system in the off season, and will have crafted ways to break it (handy hint: watch for clubs looking to move the ball off half back at warp speed during the rest of the preseason).

    Running the same system back is fine, and there’s little doubt the Dogs could reasonably expect to replicate the results of their 2016 season. But with this solid foundation in place, there’s a strong chance the Dogs can make a couple of personnel tweaks to head to the next level.

    For example, if Murphy is able to play 22 games as a dashing back pocket – and after Saturday’s showing I feel confident predicting it’s likely – and Jason Johannisen avoids melting his hamstrings Dash Parr style, then the Dogs can expect to have significantly more open overlap run than for most of last season.

    More critically, the Dogs will have a forward line that looks like it has been deliberately put together, rather than the bits-and-pieces set up they ran for most of 2016.

    Part of this was outside of their control. Stewart Crameri joined the Dogs just as the Essendon supplements situation was beginning to snowball. The higher ups had to nab Tom Boyd ahead of time and thrust him into an outsize role before he was ready. Luke Dalhaus embraced his destiny as an in-and-under midfielder. Everyone thought Jake Stringer was set to become a beefier, less mercurial Cyril Rioli after his breakout 2015. In the end, the front six was a bit of a mess.

    Tom Boyd chases ball

    Ironically, Stringer still ended up kicking the most goals for the Dogs despite looking out of sorts and being heavily tagged for most of the year. Tory Dickson almost kicked two goals a game, while Jack Redpath did just that in his ten games pre-ACL injury.

    Outside of that, a series of Dogs kicked small season-long totals as they were rotated through the forward half of the ground. They took just 10.8 marks inside 50 per game, ranked 13th in the competition. In losses, that figure dropped to 7.7, ranked 17th (behind Port Adelaide).

    A generous view might laud an unpredictable front six as a new level of forward-midfield flexibility – personified by the performances of Clay Smith and Liam Picken during their September run. I am more inclined to see it as an unfortunate reality foist upon the organisation, who made the most of it.

    Which is that whopping big reason why any outright pessimism directed at the Dogs is misplaced. The Dogs’ forward line situation has improved markedly from the same time last year.

    Crameri is back, adding a second mid-sized forward threat to complement Stringer. Dickson becomes the third banana in that fleet, able to sneak around and bob up for uncontested marks in tough spots on the field for goal kicking – and he’ll kick them more often than not.

    Boyd grew meaningfully over the latter part of 2016, particularly in the finals series, when he was asked to play a multitude of roles. His ice-cold final-quarter goal is one of the best moments of a grand final chock full of great ones. He won’t be a one-out tall this season following the signing of Travis Cloke, who for all his flaws can play one on one and takes contested marks. Accidental number one ruckman Jordan Roughead can also take contested marks – albeit he’s out for the first part of the season.

    It’s not quite a revolution, because one expects the Dogs to move the ball forward in the same way they did last season. But as an evolutionary step, adding a competent, well-rounded forward group to this midfield is exactly what they need.

    A premier without the pedigree
    In the background, there are plenty of smaller niggles working against a year of improvement. Most of them centre on the first issue we talked about: the Dogs are a premier without the usual pedigree.

    The Western Bulldogs have seen their fixture difficulty ramp up plenty, going from the 12th ranked slate in 2016 to the fourth ranked in terms of difficulty in 2017 – based on Pythagorean winning percentages from last year. The Dogs play each of last year’s top eight away from home, with trips to Canberra, Perth, Geelong, Sydney and Adelaide (games against North and Hawthorn are at Etihad). That shouldn’t phase the team too much, given by the end of the season the Dogs were just as good at stopping teams scoring away from home as they were in their torture chamber.

    They were given this slate due to their first up finals win; had they lost and finished in seventh, their home-and-away position, the double ups against the Giants, Swans and Eagles may not have all materialised.

    Their depth was also hit in the off season. Nathan Hrovat, Kobe Stevens and Joel Hamling were traded out, while Jed Adcock retired. All told, the Dogs lost just under seven per cent of the games their players played last season in trades and delistings, in the bottom third of the league.

    Mitch Wallis is still some way from returning from a broken leg. Ruckman Roughead had hamstring surgery yesterday and is set to miss the first quarter of the season. Offsetting this, of course, is the Dogs will get back a host of players who had interrupted seasons with clean bills of health.

    Youth could also be an issue. The Dogs had the youngest premiership list since the 2008 Hawks, and the least experienced matchday line up in however long you care to consider. Coming into 2017, the Dogs have the eighth-most experienced full list (excluding rookies) in the competition, although if you take Murphy, Dale Morris and Matthew Boyd out of the equation, that plummets to 17th. Take Cloke out while we’re at it, and the Dogs have less experience than the free pass Brisbane.

    It seems to be the biggest question hanging over the Dogs coming into 2017: Hawthorn flamed out of the finals altogether after their 2008 premiership, and they were young too. So, that’s the fate of Footscray too, right?

    Travis Cloke of the Magpies kicks a goal

    The Hawthorn question isn’t really a question
    Just because Hawthorn won a premiership ahead of time like the Dogs, doesn’t mean you can conflate the two circumstances.

    Hawthorn’s 2008 premiership side saw two of its three most experienced players never play again: Shane Crawford and Trent Croad. The third, Stuart Dew, played half of the 2009 season before retiring. That exposed a team that was extremely young and inexperienced. Brent Guerra was the most experienced Hawk, with 156 games at 26 years of age, in 2009.

    The Dogs will have the opposite occur in 2017, with the return of their 295-game captain in Murphy and injection of a near-250 game key forward in Cloke.

    Where there is some similarity is the surprising nature of the result. The Hawks built their premature flag run on the first of Alastair Clarkson’s tactical innovations: the cluster. In some ways, the Dogs rode Beveridge’s swarming zone wave to more victories than they perhaps should have given the combination of youth, talent and injury which was at the club last season. But even then, it is still a stretch.

    The only element of the Dogs’ season that has me concerned about the prospect of a fall from grace is if that new forward line group doesn’t work. While Beveridge will have made some tweaks to his system, we have seen in the first round of the preseason competition that teams are more willing to run the ball quickly out of half back to counter defences that want to build zones. Teams will do that to the Dogs, although it may not be as effective given the way they play. They may not be able to rely on holding teams to a dozen goals a week and hope to score 13 themselves.

    Everything else is detail. Yes, Footscray are young. Yes, they lost some depth. Yes, they have a tougher fixture. Yes, they had trouble scoring last season.

    But with a newly functional forward line, the team’s biggest weakness from 2016 has been actioned.

    The Western Bulldogs currently sit second on premiership lines. I’m not 100 per cent certain they warrant that level of respect, simply because the race is so wide open. But in a season where most of genuine contenders have flaws, the Dogs have gone about addressing theirs to build on one of the best-established base schemes and lists in the competition.

    If they can take it to the next level and earn that premiership pedigree they skipped on last season, there’s no reason why a top-four finish is beyond this team.

    From there, we know the damage the Western Bulldogs can do.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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