St Kilda vs Essendon: Friday Night Forecast

Ryan Buckland Columnist

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    The home stretch begins with a high leverage showdown between the Saints and Dons.

    It’s almost a must-win game for the Dons, while St Kilda can lock themselves in the eight for another week with a win. Moreover, this is a fun stylistic match-up.

    Slingshot football is the name of the game this evening. Both Essendon and St Kilda love to counter attack from their back half, the Dons with their fleet of small forwards and the Saints with the tall timber. Both teams get by with high scoring rates per inside 50, compensating for deficits in territory and time in possession with efficiency.

    After a languid start to the year the Saints have reeled off four straight wins, against North Melbourne, Gold Coast, Fremantle and Richmond – last weekend’s victory the best of the lot. St Kilda controlled the first half of the game, and the second quarter in particular, obliterating the Tigers 52-28 in contested possessions, 24-5 in inside 50s, and kicking 9.5.59 to 0.1.1.

    The Saints’ press suffocated Richmond, cutting off their rebound attack opportunities; a hot streak at centre clearances meant the Tigers never got a look in. It was mesmerising.

    Tim Membrey of the Saints

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    St Kilda have been somewhat streaky all year, going on mini-runs of wins and losses. They’re now 9-6, a game inside the eight, and as a result of last weekend’s domination have a percentage over 100 for the first time since Round 9.

    It’s all looking up, the team many predicted would end the year as one of the eight best teams in the competition are putting themselves on track to do so. However, Friday night is arguably (depending on your perspective on West Coast) one of the last two opportunities the Saints have to test their mettle against a peer.

    From here, St Kilda play Sydney, Port Adelaide, West Coast, Melbourne, North Melbourne and Richmond in their final six. It is among the toughest schedules, made doubly difficult in the early stage by consecutive weeks of travel to Sydney and Adelaide. The Saints will need every point of percentage they built last week against Richmond, and would love to add to it with a big win against the Bombers.

    Essendon themselves are still well in the finals race on account of a much softer final six games. After this evening, the Dons have North Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs, Carlton, Adelaide, Gold Coast and Fremantle – all but one of those games (Gold Coast) played in Melbourne.

    A win against St Kilda has the dual effect of Essendon moving within percentage of eighth (remaining results pending), and also closing the gap between their most likely competitor for a finals spot.

    Gun to my head, one of these two teams will end up in eighth spot. This is not good for me either way because I said neither of them would make it. There could be a twist yet to come.

    So, tonight has all the makings of one of those early August elimination finals that the commentators love, but without the gaudy name or overhyping. At the same time, it promises to be a fast game under the Etihad roof.

    Both teams have made minor changes to their line-ups. The Dons have rested Jobe Watson, and replaced him pretty well like for like with Craig Bird. St Kilda lose Billy Longer to a hamstring injury and Tim Membrey to suspension, bringing in Tom Hickey and 18-year-old debutant Josh Battle.

    Standing at 193 centimetres and weighing in at 89 kilograms, Battle is a mid-sized key forward who is still in high school; not a bad way to end the school holidays I guess.

    With St Kilda and Essendon wanting to play a fast, counter-attack heavy game, I see the encounter boiling down to two key elements: St Kilda’s press, and Essendon’s young midfield.

    On the latter, the Dons have been at their best this season when their midfield has pried open a gap against the opposition. In wins, the Dons have an average contested possession differential of +3.3 and a time in possession differential of +6.1 minutes. In losses, those figures drop to -7.4 and -8.3 respectively.

    It’s easy to see why: Essendon run with a very young midfield core, handing the keys to Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish, with the older guys playing more cameo roles. Having the youngsters run the show is a recipe for variance, which the Dons have tasted both the sweet and sour of this season. It’ll stand them in good stead going forward of course.

    Darcy Parish Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    St Kilda’s press has been one of the most hardy in the competition in recent weeks, the Saints averaging an extra five inside 50s their way and almost four less against over the past month. Their inside 50 differential of +7.5 over that stretch would be the third best mark on the season, behind just Port Adelaide (+11.0) and Adelaide (+9.0).

    The Saints love to park their tall defenders in the middle of the ground when they trap the opposition in their defensive 50, forcing kicks wide and scrambling on the subsequent ground balls. Essendon will do the same with Michael Hurley and co – setting the stage for an intriguing structural battle down both ends.

    It might look scrappy at times, but I promise you there’s a chess game going on under the surface.

    From the outside, it looks like a candidate for a fast and high-scoring game. Both teams have the tools to kick 100 points, and do their best work when they choke off opposition attacks. The market is giving Essendon a five-point head start, but I think they’ll need a little more.

    St Kilda should win this evening, their form over the past four weeks has been strong enough in spite of the opposition to give me enough comfort to pick a five-goal margin. Their press will beat Essendon’s press, and the Dons don’t have the midfield chops to make the game up across the ground.

    That’s my Friday night forecast, what’s yours?

    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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