Melbourne are the best of a burgeoning 2017 AFL middle class

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Melbourne are the finals bolter you’ve been looking for, a team charged with talented youth, enviable depth and a front six with oodles of potential. Competition for spots in the eight will be hot all year, but Melbourne are the best placed of all the challengers.

    While it’s tempting to place no stock in preseason form – what with a seeming unwritten rule that in the first few weeks only one team is allowed to play with its full strength line up – there are still clues as to how teams are set to go about their business in the year proper.

    Melbourne is one such team who impressed upon me a confidence in all facets of their game that I did not hold a month ago.

    Coming into the JLT Series, I wrote Melbourne’s big question was whether Simon Goodwin could get his team firing from minute one. Not only has he got them firing, the Dees have played with an attack on the ball both inside and outside that will put teams under pressure all year.

    His willingness to instruct his team to switch the play from half back has been exhilarating, with the Dees gunning their way across the ground in both of their hit outs to date.

    It has been a great start to a critical year in Melbourne’s multi-year rebuild. The Dees sputtered to the 2016 finishing line, a 111-point shellacking at the hands of Geelong coming after a 20-point loss to the faded Carlton. A winning record and positive percentage – both of which had eluded the team for a decade – were well within reach at the end of Round 21. It left us all wondering how far away the team was from real contention. The Paul Roos departure added another layer of unusual complexity to the picture.

    This could certainly be the year. Melbourne’s first two preseason games have cast aside the doubt I had about their transition to Goodwin. There are plenty more substantive things in Melbourne’s favour, and the one big downside has become far less of an issue in AFL-level football in recent years.

    Indeed, there’s a non-trivial chance that Melbourne’s biggest challenge in the year ahead will be managing expectations. This is an excellently constructed football team, with few glaring weaknesses and an abundance of youth. Their traded players look set to play outsize roles, while recently drafted talent will add the finishing touches. If all goes well, Melbourne should finish comfortably inside the top eight.

    Dom Tyson Melbourne Demons AFL 2016

    No extra Watts required
    Melbourne’s case for the eight doesn’t rest on their deep-batting midfield, which we’ll get to in a moment, it’s at the pointy end of the ground where the Dees can make hay in 2017.

    Last season, Melbourne scored on 43.4 per cent of their inside 50 entries, more than three percentage points below league average and good for third worst in the league. The issue was two-fold: a lack of forward pressure and some scratchy delivery from a young midfield resulting in poorer quality opportunities.

    Melbourne’s four leading goal kickers (Jesse Hogan, Jack Watts, Jeff Garlett and Dean Kent) laid a combined 180 tackles across 80 games of football, a tackles per game mark (2.25) among the worst for top four goal-kicking units in the league.

    As a point of contrast, West Coast’s top four goal-kickers (Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling, Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps) laid 299 tackles across 92 games – an extra tackle per player per game. The team’s collective tackles per inside 50 per game (11, per the Footy Live app) was below average, but not the worst in the competition.

    Building pressure isn’t the primary objective of the first choice forward line, but the best teams of recent years have been able to add this element to their game.

    At the same time, Melbourne’s young midfield wasn’t delivering the ball with a level of consistency and predictability that is the mark of excellent teams. The Dees were a run-and-carry midfield team last season, with their midfield kick-to-handball ratio well below one (a ratio of less than one implies the playing group executed more handballs than kicks). Of Melbourne’s regular midfielders, only Bernie Vince (2:1), Christian Salem (1.47:1) and debutant Josh Wagner (1.2:1) had positive ratios on the season.

    These issues are likely to continue, although there’s a strong change Melbourne’s ball movement bias shifts towards kicking. So what is there to be positive about? Personnel and game style.

    Melbourne’s forward line was unsettled last season, as the youngsters drafted in recent years struggled with injury and form. Christian Petracca, the hard luck story of 2015, played 17 games after injuring his toe in the preseason, never really establishing himself as an attacking threat in Melbourne’s forward line. Sam Weideman, Melbourne’s top pick in the 2015 draft, couldn’t crack the team until Round 20, and showed glimpses of his athleticism in the final rounds of the year. The duo have been two of Melbourne’s best-performed players in the preseason campaign to date, with Petracca’s second game particularly notable (19 disposals and four goals).

    James Harmes (19 games), Billy Stretch (16), Ben Kennedy (15), and Aaron Vandenberg (14) all spent time split across half forward and on the third line of the midfield, helping build Melbourne’s depth in both areas. Their game time will probably be pared back with a fit Angus Brayshaw and newly-traded Jordan Lewis to snare their spots.

    With Petracca’s budding mid-size mastery, and Weideman’s potential upside, it looks as if Melbourne’s perennial whipping boy Jack Watts could enter the year as a forward without a guaranteed role. It’s the latest twist in a career which has thrown up a few for Watts. Last year was clearly Watts’ best for the club, with 38 goals and a high half forward role that made the most of his talents. Now it is unclear whether he has a role in Goodwin’s scheme, which prioritises quick ball-movement and kicking over the area of the ground which Watts did most of his good work last season.

    Melbourne Demons player Jack Watts

    In reality, it is more likely Watts has been left out because he is a mostly known quantity. The JLT Community Series is an opportunity for clubs to experiment, and that is likely the case here. Indeed, Watts has been named in Melbourne’s line up for their final hit out on Thursday.

    So far, his absence has been barely felt. Hogan is such a dominant deep threat that he can run the inside 50 arc himself, creating opportunities for the medium-sized forwards in the air as second jumpers or small forwards when the ball hits the deck. Hogan looks to have bulked up once again in the off season, and will be playing above his listed weight of 97 kilograms. His overhead and lead marking is outstanding, his deft touch bodywork a throwback to a simpler time.

    Unlike most other teams, Melbourne have the luxury of a stay-at-home key forward that loves nothing more than staying at home. Hogan was one of 19 players to have taken more marks inside 50 than kicks to players inside 50, with the list a who’s who of big-bodied keys and nimble small forwards.

    The insertion of Weideman during the final rounds of 2016 and first two preseason games suggests Melbourne’s higher ups are keen to see what he can do. While that experiment is in play, Watts will be on the pine.

    The forward set up will benefit from Hogan and Petracca’s continued development and the steady play of Jeff Garlett and Dean Kent on the ground. Brayshaw’s forward-midfield flex will help matters, too. Melbourne won’t be converting at an Adelaide-like 52.8 per cent on inside 50 entries, but an improvement from 43.4 per cent to league-average will power the Dees to a top eight offence with minimal effort. Watts becomes the icing on the cake.

    It all begins in the middle
    An improved forward line will help Melbourne to no end, but all the action is in the midfield and just behind centre.

    Melbourne’s on-ball division was recently rated as the worst in the game by Champion Data, in what must be the worst example of the tail wagging the dog in the relatively short history of AFL statistical analysis. Melbourne’s midfield was rated 18th out of 18 midfields due to the time split of its players, meaning the best players weren’t considered ‘midfielders’ under Champion Data’s criteria. I can comfortably assert, with numbers and the eye test, that Melbourne’s midfield is significantly better than 18th in the competition.

    The Dees had an inside-50 differential of +3.0 last season, and got the ball inside their arc 53.8 times per game, ranked eighth in the competition. Their contested possession differential of +4.9 per game was fifth in the competition. Melbourne’s adjusted contested possession differential (which removes contested marks and free kicks, to measure groundball winning) was +6.4, also ranked fifth.

    In wins, these numbers pump up significantly – Melbourne’s inside 50s rise to 56.4 per game, but in losses they drop to just 51.6. Their collective consistency is among the best in the game.

    Any smart football observer can see why. Led by Nathan Jones and Jack Viney – now in paper, as well as in spirit – Melbourne’s midfield group is tough, uncompromising, and adept at clearing congestion. The eyes say Melbourne is one of the few midfield units in the game that has both a depth and breadth of inside ball winners such that the pace doesn’t fall away when one or two of their first choice stars has a rest.

    This group will be boosted by a sophomore season of Clayton Oliver (a red-headed Josh Kennedy protégé if ever there was one) and a full year of Angus Brayshaw. The quartet are set to form an imposing inside core that modern midfields are centred on. None know any other way than see ball, get ball, handball.

    This one-dimensional mindset brings with it consistent contested possession wins (after two narrow losses in Round 1 and 2, Melbourne won the count in ten of the next 12 games). But it is one dimensional; where most other teams have multiple threats on the outside, Melbourne had one: Bernie Vince, who carried an immense workload as an outside gunner. Tom Bugg notionally helped in this role, but is clearly a fringe player at his best.

    Enter Melbourne’s three new recruits: Jordan Lewis, Michael Hibberd and Jake Melksham, who will add an outside presence lacking in the Dees’ 2016 playing stocks.

    It’s difficult to forecast what will happen with Hibberd and Melksham, given it has been close to 18 months since they played at full AFL intensity. But on preseason form, they look set to add plenty off the half back line as line breakers, allowing Vince to play a more traditional running wing man role. Dealing with these three off the back of stoppages will prove a nightmare for opposition coaches.

    Lewis becomes the tweener, the midfielder capable of throwing his body at the contest or working in open space. More often than not, Lewis will likely find himself the facilitator, making the decision whether to kick long, short or handball sideways out of congestion. He will fill a role that has to date been mostly missing for Melbourne, and should fit snugly into the established ethos of the team.

    The sum of these parts is most certainly better than the 18th-ranked midfield in the competition. That’s not to mention Max Gawn, who it seems has a piece penned on his exploits at least weekly. Should it all come together as it looks on paper, with talent at the top, depth to roll through, and a blend of tuned up inside and outside machines, great things are possible.

    Jesse Hogan Melbourne Demons

    Goodwin’s plan
    A glance at Melbourne’s first two preseason games suggests coach Goodwin knows he has a potent attacking unit on his hands.

    Where former head coach Paul Roos implemented a defence-first, possession-heavy style, Goodwin appears to have afforded his players much more room to be creative and move the ball forward. The Dees have played at a remarkable pace, using long kicks and chains of handballs to clear congestion and get into dangerous areas on the ground. They change lanes at will, moving from left to right with 45-degree kicks and lateral running to shift their opponent’s zone defence.

    Melbourne have been one of the only teams to – so far – eschew aping the Western Bulldogs’ handball-heavy style, with kick to handball ratios of 1.11 and 1.08 against the Dogs and Carlton. That’s an increase on their 1.03 ratio for 2016.

    Most other teams have been closer to balance, or have indeed handballed more frequently than they have kicked. The Dees have also taken 80 marks in both of their games, which is more than they took on average per game last year despite preseason games being around 30 per cent shorter.

    The tools in the forward line will enjoy this fast style, with one on one aerial contests and chaotic ground balls making it difficult for opposition defences to stop the array of weapons waiting inside the stripe.

    This bias for action will place plenty of pressure on Melbourne’s defensive unit, headed by Tom McDonald. Where in the past the Roos mantra of ball control and defence-first meant numbers at the ball, Goodwin’s attacking style will see the ball pinging around the ground at a much more rapid, and unpredictable, pace.

    Fortunately, McDonald and his brother, Oscar, are very good defenders. Tom is consistently rated as one of the best stoppers in the game, his 7.1 intercept possessions a game not too far off the best key defenders. He’s something of a creator too, with almost three score involvements per game – more than Alex Rance and Jeremy McGovern.

    Neville Jetta’s transformation from flaky small forward to harassing small defender is one of the most interesting transitions to have never been fully fleshed out in the AFL media. Sam Frost has emerged as a viable third tall defender from Melbourne’s rookie list. It’s a unit populated by stoppers, but with the Dees want to push the pace it is good enough.

    Melbourne might not crack the top six defensively, and if last year is a guide top eight could be a stretch (Melbourne conceded scores on 49.3 per cent of opposition inside 50 entries, the fourth-worst in the league). But with the firepower up front it might not matter. If Goodwin’s scheme can boost Melbourne’s forward 50 score conversion rate to merely league average, the Dees score 95 points per game.

    Now is their chance
    By rights, Melbourne are still a year or two away from reaching their apex, particularly when you consider their list demographics. But with their moves of the past two seasons, the Dees have signalled that their time to rise is now.

    The Dees are still a young group on the whole, with the sixth-youngest full list in the competition. Melbourne has a league-high 19 players in the 21-to-24 age bracket, and just four players older than 29 (Heritier Lumumba is on the list but has retired). Last season the Dees were the younger side in all but one of their games. The bolt on additions of the past three or four seasons have all been about accelerating Melbourne’s rebuild; around half of Melbourne’s traded players over the past four years have been older than their average list age.

    Besides, being young doesn’t matter in the new AFL paradigm.

    Melbourne’s first chance at a trip to the finals is this year. While there were positive signs in 2016, their youth showed up in a level of inconsistency that only the most mercurial of teams can get away with. Adding Jordan Lewis and Michael Hibberd, the return of Jake Melksham, and getting 20-plus more games into a growing young core will help iron this out.

    Max Gawn of the Demons and Stefan Martin of the Lions

    Their fixture is amenable to a finals tilt. The Dees play fellow mid-table aspirants Collingwood and St Kilda twice, as well as the Blues, Crows and Roos. The concern with the Adelaide double up is the Dees travel to Adelaide Oval but play the return leg in Darwin, not at the MCG. That looks tough from here.

    There is also a very tough stretch from Round 12 to Round 15 where the Dees back up on a double-double consecutive six day break: they play a Monday in Round 12, Sunday in Round 13, Saturday in Round 14 and Friday in Round 15. That hasn’t happened in the AFL for at least four years, and perhaps ever. In that stretch, Melbourne play the Western Bulldogs, West Coast away and Sydney, too. Yikes.

    Simply, this ups the pressure on Melbourne to beat every team that finished below them on the ladder last year. Do that, and beat up on a downtrodden North Melbourne, the Dees will end the home-and-away season on 11 wins. The mid table is set to be in an unprecedented state of flux, but from here Melbourne look better than Brisbane, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fremantle, Gold Coast, North Melbourne and Richmond. It is achievable.

    However, Melbourne haven’t beaten North Melbourne or St Kilda for a long time. A really long time, in fact: 15 and 13 games, respectively. So there’s something of a cosmic significance to Melbourne’s 2017 double ups.

    If they fail to overcome these losing streaks, then a push for finals looks a challenge. If they can, then it’s on. Failure would also suggest the team is still a year or two away from growing beyond its recent past characterised by off-field ineptitude and bad quality football. I suspect the wins will flow, as they will for most of the year.

    The top of the middle class, Melbourne and its down-trodden fan-base should feel confident enough in their team and coaching staff to circle the second week of September in their calendars.

    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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