The Western Bulldogs are finished for 2017, but are still the best-buy low candidate in the AFL

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    Another disappointing loss in the books, it’s time to think about 2018 and beyond for the Western Bulldogs. Contrary to the current doom and gloom, there are abundant reasons to be a Bulldogs optimist.

    What went wrong for the Western Bulldogs? That’s the wrong way to frame what looms as one of the biggest debates of the second half of the year. The more appropriate question is: what went right? And not this year, but last year?

    The Dogs finished seventh after the home-and-away season last year, running into the finals with a horrid injury list and a 3-3 record over their final six games. In a dour, utterly depressing Round 23 game, the Dogs looked as though they’d given up on life.

    Then came the pre-finals bye, and the return of many first choice players, and the focus on winning one-on-one battles at ground level and playing a territory game. The Dogs had swarmed their way to success in 2016, but it had mostly been a defensive strategy. Luke Beveridge extended it to the pointy end of the ground, rolling with small forward lines and seeking to punish opponents who played tall.

    Over the finals series, the Dogs averaged a heady +21.0 in adjusted contested possession differential (contested possessions less free kicks and contested marks) over their four games. Geelong were similarly strong (+20 over two games), but all of that (+38) came against the Hawks in their qualifying final. The Dogs also upped their kicking significantly, booting the ball 1.17 times for every handball compared to 1.05 times in the home-and-away season.

    Their style was starkly shifted. Then came the favourable match up in week one against a soft-as-well-poached-eggs Eagles. It rolled into a favourable match up against the tiring Hawks, which the Dogs exploited to the hilt. It rolled into a classic encounter against the GWS Giants, who had the chops to manage the Dogs in tight and still get an outside game going. We all know how that one ended.

    Then came grand final day, and all the emotion and belief that surrounded it. Then the grand final happened.

    It was a series of extraordinary events. The Dogs were no way known the best team of the 2016 season, and that they won the premiership over an unprecedented four week stretch made that notion vanish. Expectations should have been tempered.

    Based on the views expound across the spectrum of football media, it appears Hawthorn’s three straight flags have messed with our collective ability to assess the difficulty of making it through a 27-week season as the last team standing. Let alone doing it twice, and better still twice in a row.

    Should the Dogs have improved? Yes. A team coming from seventh place who limped to the home-and-away finish line riddled with injury should have pushed for a finish in the top four. A young midfield, with a super dooper star at its core; a stoic defence helped by a scheme that starts further up the ground; investment in the forward line, their weakest link in an otherwise sound personnel base.

    I saw it, and I was confident enough to predict a mini-leap from 15 wins to 16 or 17.

    This has not materialised. The Dogs find themselves with a losing record and precious few weekends to turn it all around. The enormity of such a task appears not lost on Beveridge, whose press conference following Friday night’s loss at the hands of the Adelaide Crows was revealing.

    The worst loss since I’ve been at the club
    Teams lose games of football for a variety of reasons – some of them predictable, others less so. We have had a greater share of the latter this year, the season’s parity promise delivered in spades.

    The Dogs were not favoured to win on Friday night, but the manner of their loss came as a surprise to all involved. Every single problem that has crept into the Western Bulldogs game – structure, system, personnel – manifested in a 59-point loss that could have been twice as bad.

    Rain teemed down in the first half, conditions that should have halted Adelaide’s free-wheeling style and given a boost to the Dogs who love the slop. Adelaide found the going a bit tougher than the Dogs through the middle of the ground, with the inside 50 count favouring them 33-26 and contested possessions 86-80. However, Footscray could only muster four goals to Adelaide’s five, with the Crows taking a three point lead.

    Conditions changed at the half; there was no more rain, and the ground once again became pristine. The game changed with it. Adelaide ran riot, the Dogs unable to stop them no matter how many numbers they threw at the ball or behind it. Footscray’s misfiring forward line somehow played scrappier football in the dry than in the wet, unable to get shots off or retain the ball in their half of the ground. It was a riot.

    Jason Johannisen Western Bulldogs AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    The Dogs would go on to score just 13 more points for the game (1.7 in the old scale) on 24 inside 50s. Their forward 50 forays had the direction of a cannonball fired in the dead of night, Adelaide’s Jake Lever able to roam across defensive 50 and intercept at will. There was no fluency to their play, no spirit or verve, and perhaps most troubling for coach Beveridge very little heart.

    By the end of the third quarter, the team was going through the motions, letting itself be dictated to by an Adelaide team spreading the field wide and overwhelming an undersized Dogs’ back 50.

    Post-match, a forlorn Luke Beveridge used the bland, generic, clichéd line of questioning presented to him with remarkable latitude, laying out the issues he sees at the heart of his team’s troubled season and hinting at the forward agenda.

    We were beaten one on one, we allowed them to take six intercept marks in our forward area, our intensity level wasn’t where it needed to be again in that third quarter, and they controlled the aerial game, and we didn’t use the footy well enough.

    That was the first 30 seconds. After some platitudes, the hammer came down as a journalist asked whether the loss would lead to some harder questions being asked of the club.

    There’s a lot of variables which creep in at a football club that affect performance, and it’s difficult to identify what they are and then quantify the effect they have on the group. But there’s a line in the sand types of experiences – and we’ve had a few of them already where you say they can’t look that way again – and tonight’s second half was definitely one of those experiences which was too disappointing for a team and a club that’s come a long way, we don’t want to regress but we regressed a bit.

    After some more immediate questions were posed, Beveridge was asked about Taylor Walker and Josh Jenkins taking a combined 18 marks inside forward 50. He took a wide bearth.

    We need to live in the real world: we lack height. We are challenged vertically. Pound for pound, we would have been a hell of a lot lighter than the Crows. So we’ve got to play a certain way to try and get an edge and we weren’t able to do that for long enough which is the frustrating part.

    We were dominated from an aerial point of view, we should have been better, we should have been better from a technical point of view and we’ve got to coach our players better to improve in those areas.

    Do you make wholesale changes?

    We’ve been really fortunate for the past couple of years that you consider that draft of Caleb (Daniel), Toby (McLean), Bailey Dale, Lucas Webb, Joel Hamling when he was here, Tommy Boyd came through then, we had a really good mix of young players who came in and filled a void. They’re important players for us. Last year it was Josh Dunkley, Marcus Adams, some of our younger guys are more key position types and probably aren’t quite ready yet for the level so we haven’t been able to draw on that draft.

    There’s a lot of teams with injuries, but we’ve probably been challenged a bit with depth. So, you can’t just make wholesale changes, the boys need a chance to improve.

    Keeping the faith
    In his usual way, Beveridge was calm, measured and direct. With him, we always know there is meaning in the words he says – most coaches are like this of course, but the temptation to fall back on weasel words and platitudes after a loss must be strong.

    Luke Beveridge deep in thought

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    So it was revealing that after stating across the press conference that there are no excuses for his team’s bad patch, Beveridge spent two thirds of his press conference rattling them off: a lack of height, injuries, depth challenges, the throes that come with a young team, unquantifiable variables like hunger and want, coaching, foot skills, structure. He painted the picture of a man staring at an exam paper, knowing he needs to pick up the pen.

    He’s right about the season. It’s not too late for the Dogs, nor is it for many teams that finds themselves outside the top eight with seven games to go. But he’s also right that if things don’t change soon, the Dogs will be also-rans – even if they play in September.

    I won’t anticipate what comes the Dogs’ way for the rest of this year. Beveridge is a master tactician, an indisputable fact made clear by his young team’s rapid rise up the ranks and sparkling September run in 2016. Anything I say will look dumb.

    The Dogs’ height challenges do look more glaring when their midfield isn’t able to choke up the play in the middle of the ground. Nothing has really worked forward of the ball: big, small, mid-sized, ground balls; it’s not clear there is a path for anything workable to materialise. Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke’s collective availability would be a plus, but it is clear there are more pressing matters at hand for them.

    We can count on Beveridge getting whacky, trying different set ups across the ground in an effort to find something that works. He has a 100 per cent strike rate in AFL Coaches Association Coach of the Year voting after all.

    Beveridge is the Dogs’ greatest asset. So long as he is in place, it’s hard to think success will escape Footscray for meaningful periods of time. Like Alastair Clarkson, his teacher, at Hawthorn, Beveridge is a recruitment tool – “come and play for the best coach in the competition, the guy who will extract from you the purest distillation of football talent”.

    But the reasons for buying low on the Bulldogs don’t end with the CEO. For one, the team’s young talent is unquestionable.

    Marcus Bontempelli has had a down year by his lofty, and early-career, standards, but remains the eighth most influential player in the game according to the official AFL Player Ratings. He is one goal away from joining Patrick Dangerfield, Dane Zorko and Dustin Martin in the 20-10-1 club (20 disposals, ten contested possessions and a goal a game – hat tip to Adrian Polykandrites), and he’s still 21 years old.

    The Dogs’ midfield is full of flexible inside-outside talent. Jack Macrae is leading the league for giveaways per disposal, only turning the ball over on four per cent of his football actions. Lachie Hunter’s numbers have come back to earth, driven by a modified role that has seen him spend more time in the forward half of the ground.

    Caleb Daniel is the heir to Sam Mitchell’s throne, and already has Mitchell-like moments of wizardry on a game to game basis. Mitch Wallis has been one of the most impactful forward half rotation players in the competition since returning from his broken leg in Round 9. Luke Dahlhaus’ destiny is as an impact midfield-forward.

    If Tom Liberatore can start winning the ball deep in packs again, the Dogs are legitimately stacked through the middle for the best part of a decade on these guys alone. It extends to the depth players, who all project as competent starters capable of flexing across the ground.

    Jake Stringer has upside, if only because we know what he did in 2015. Tom Boyd has upside, if only because he’s two metres tall and can bulldoze anyone in the league.

    The rest of the team’s tall stocks still need time on the vine. Zaine Cordy looks like he’s getting ready to make the leap to competent key defender, and he’s just 20 years of age. It’s hard to look at Tim English and not think he’s a reincarnated and slightly pastier Dean Cox.

    That’s not to mention the older players, like Jason Johannisen, Jordan Roughead, Jack Redpath, Matthew Suckling and Easton Wood – who all play their roles at very high levels. Johannisen just signed on through the 2022 season – through both restricted and unrestricted free agency.

    It’s hard to conceptualise this, but the Dogs are one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the league. If the tea leaves are correct, and the trio of Matthew Boyd, Dale Morris and Robert Murphy retire at season’s end, and all other things being equal, the Dogs will enter 2018 with the second youngest and second least experienced list in the competition.

    Right now, outside of this veteran trio, the most experienced player on the Dogs’ list is Travis Cloke – he is the sole 200 gamer. He, along with Liam Picken and Tory Dickson, are the only players who will be 30 or older at the start of next season.

    Robert Bob Murphy Western Bulldogs AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    With this in mind, I see it as likely the Dogs will be a big player in this off season. The looming retirement of their three celebrated veterans, the early re-signing of their biggest expiring contract in Johannisen, and the ability for teams to manoeuvre their way into a large amount of salary cap space this year (by restructuring deals following the 20 per cent spike in this football year plus the salary cap banking mechanism) means the Dogs should have plenty of money to play with.

    They signalled their intent last week, throwing their hat into the Jake Lever Sweepstakes. He fits both need (he is tall) and demography (22 years old next season), and is a prodigious talent – albeit plying his trade as a loose defender in 2017.

    The Dogs could also be a big player in Sam Reid’s restricted free agency; Reid is slightly older than Lever (26 next season), but has fewer miles on the odometer than a typical middle age key forward. He is also tall. Tom Boyd is still 21 years old, mind.

    The Dogs off field crew have earned themselves a sterling reputation for identifying and recruiting bargain-basement talent in recent years. The Tom Boyd deal showed the club is not afraid of making big moves if they think it can help make their club better.

    While the Western Bulldogs may be at a low ebb, it’s hard to objectively view their future as anything but bright. The Dogs are the best buy-low candidate in the league. A disappointing 2017 season could be spun as the price of success; for a club so starved of success, it is a price worth paying.

    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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