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Just how far can the Western Bulldogs rise?

Expert
13th April, 2015
62
3989 Reads

I’m going to start this article with a list. We all love looking at lists, after all.

Hawthorn
Fremantle
Port Adelaide
Sydney
North Melbourne
Essendon
Richmond
Geelong
Brisbane
Gold Coast
Adelaide
West Coast
Greater Western Sydney
Collingwood
Western Bulldogs
Carlton
Melbourne
St Kilda

That looks mighty similar to an AFL ladder, doesn’t it?

Now you won’t believe me because it’s not a credible thing to do, but this was my predicted AFL ladder come the start of the season.

It was based on some data – mostly offensive and defensive output, strength of schedule, and game style by-the-numbers from last year – a little bit of forward planning based on this year’s draw, and a fair degree of gut feel.

My ladder is largely in line with the Roar’s football aficionado Cam Rose, at least so far as brackets of teams go. The biggest differences of opinion are perhaps Fremantle and Gold Coast.

But it’s Round 2, so who cares what my ladder was before the first ball was bounced?

Well, it’s actually very important to what I’m going to be doing on The Roar throughout the season. Once a fortnight, I’ll be refining and revising my first prediction of the ladder based on what I’ve observed over two rounds of footy, and shed some light on teams, trends and the troupers that make it all possible.

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What you’ll see is what I think the final AFL ladder, and what these positions imply, will look like come 5pm on Saturday 3 October.

The statistically minded of you will recognise this as taking a Bayesian approach to prediction: setting expectations, and iterating based on new information as it comes to hand.

For normal people, think power rankings, but based on something more than whether a team won or lost on a weekend (*cough afl.com.au cough*).

At the same time, I’m not using any kind of rigorous predictive model. Footy is really complicated, and no one has quite cracked the ‘moneyball’ nut yet (and no, Herald Sun and David King, moneyball isn’t just picking up recycled players). But like everything I do, it’ll be evidenced based.

For clarity, let’s call them my ‘Improper Projections’.

Not everything or everyone will get a mention. In fact, I’ll only pick on two or three things each column and have my way with them. It’s a little early in the season to be drawing insights based on how the numbers are shaping up, but from the next edition onwards we’ll start being able to be more conclusive.

So without further delay, here’s a look at how the ladder has changed since the start of the season, two sides who have exceeded expectations, and one that looks set for disappointment.

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Improper Projections
Round Two, 2015

There are a few big moves in the first run of Improper Projections for Season 2015.

18. Carlton (-2)
17. St Kilda (+1)
16. Melbourne (+1)
15. Collingwood (-1)
14. West Coast (-2)
13. Greater Western Sydney (|)
12. Brisbane Lions (-3)
11. Western Bulldogs (+4)
10. Gold Coast (|)
9. Geelong (-1)
8. Richmond (-1)
7. Adelaide (+4)
6. Essendon (|)
5. North Melbourne (|)
4. Port Adelaide (-1)
3. Sydney (+1)
2. Fremantle (|)
1. Hawthorn (|)

The Bulldogs are rising, fast
Losing your captain, your Brownlow medallist, your most experienced player, your coach, and your chief executive sounds like the perfect way to ruin your season before it begins. And so it was at Whitten Oval.

The Western Bulldogs arguably had the toughest run home in the competition among the bottom sides last year.

Between Round 16 and Round 23, the Dogs conceded an average of 114 points per game (ranked 15th) in playing Hawthorn, Geelong, Sydney, and North Melbourne as four of their final eight opponents.

They managed two wins, against a Gary Ablett-less Gold Coast and the 18th-placed St Kilda, but all of the stories coming out of the Dogs in September was that team’s senior players weren’t made of the right stuff to thrive under coach Brendan McCartney.

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Then, the exodus began. Shaun Higgins was the first, exercising his rights under free agency to join North Melbourne. Adam Cooney decided a fresh start was also required, holding out for a trade to Essendon in the dying minutes of last season’s trade period. Liam Jones was moved on to Carlton. Daniel Giansiracusa traded the Sherrin for a clipboard.

But the biggest shock was club captain Ryan Griffen’s defection to Greater Western Sydney, with arguably the most significant trade in recent AFL history taking place with the Bulldogs securing 2013 number one pick Tom Boyd (and promptly paying him many dollars); also spending their first draft pick in the process.

The investment on Boyd (T) has been characterised as buying a blue chip stock. I’d say it’s more like an annuity. Boyd (T) is a big, upfront investment designed to guard against market uncertainty and provide constant returns regardless of what’s happening.

Tom Boyd in action. Photo:Michael Willson Tom Boyd’s move to the Dogs has shaken things up. (Photo:Michael Willson)

Just on Boyd (T), everyone jumped on the deal, calling it a reckless gamble on the unproven potential of a 19 year old key forward.

Haven’t you been paying attention to the AFL over the past few years? Key forwards are rapidly becoming the most value commodity in the league, and it’s because there are very few good ones.

The Bulldogs made it very clear in August last year (yes that’s right!) that they felt the need to pick up a young key forward that showed potential, and upon hearing the news that your captain wants to desert you made the call to burn the draft pick they would’ve used drafting one to get the deal done.

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The contract sounds onerous, but when the AFL gets a 30 per cent jump in its salary cap in the next broadcasting agreement, it’s going to look about par for a player of his calibre.

In among all of this, McCartney decided that he’d lost his authority among the playing group, and chose to resign. Chief Executive Simon Garlick fell on his sword shortly after. Its easy to characterise these moves as those of a club in crisis.

And that’s what everyone did.

I had them in the bottom four for this season, Rosey had them 17th, and real professionals – people that watch and write about football for a living – thought stagnation was an absolute best case scenario.

A season-ending injury to your best and fairest player from the previous season was supposed to compound things, and the Dogs were all but written off.

After two rounds, and two wins, we’re all being proven to have been grossly pessimistic on the Western Bulldogs.

To put it plainly, the Bulldogs have shown they’ve got what it takes to escape the bottom rungs of the ladder in 2015, a place they’ve called home since the departure of Rodney Eade in 2011.

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The only way you can rise up the ladder is to beat sides that are expected to end up above you, and that’s what the Dogs have done in the first two rounds of the season in defeating West Coast and Richmond.

It’s built on some tweaks to McCartney’s emphasis on swarming around the contest and using handball chains to clear the ball; it’s also driven by the natural improvement of a list we all forgot is chock full of talent, and the return of two veteran heads to the defensive end of the ground.

Their victory against the Eagles in Round 1 was through the application of maniacal pressure. The Dogs laid a grand final-like 96 tackles in the game, and forced West Coast into being the only side to have more handballs than kicks in a game so far this season.

Their pressure was so intense that the only way West Coast could move forward effectively was through outlet kicks from half back. Once the Dogs were set, the Eagles simply wilted under pressure and continuously turned the ball over.

The last quarter was all Bulldogs. Trailing by two points (11.6.72 to 12.2.74 for West Coast), the Dogs put on 10 scoring shots to three in winning by ten points. They kicked three goals and seven behinds, squandering a number of relatively gettable goal opportunities. In reality, they should’ve won by four or five goals.

West Coast were only in the game by virtue of their slingshot opportunities, and the high quality scoring opportunities that these generate. The Dogs allowed them just 40 entries into forward 50 for the whole game (that’s 10 per quarter), which was the fewest of the round and yes that includes Geelong, who were forced through a fine mesh screen by Hawthorn.

The Dogs’ victory against the Tigers was somewhat less decisive, but perhaps more impressive given Richmond are expected to be around the eight come September.

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They lost every headline statistical category: kicks (195-224), contested possessions (125-143), inside 50s (48-53) and clearances (32-34). It was their defensive performance inside 50 that got them home, allowing Richmond just 21 scoring shots on those 48 inside 50s (44 per cent conversion), and conceding just nine six pointers (42 per cent accuracy). Both of these marks are about 10 per cent below the 2014 AFL average.

Just to underscore this, Richmond took 17 marks inside their forward 50. Since this stat was collected, there have only been 11 scores of 66 or less when a side has taken that many marks inside 50. The average score of teams that took 17 marks inside 50 was 106.

A big part of this defensive performance are the Bulldogs two lone veterans, captain Robert Murphy and stalwart Matthew Boyd. Murphy has been particularly outstanding over the first two rounds, racking up 18 and 24 disposals respectively in the first two rounds, playing off the half back line and providing the type of leadership and marshalling that is becoming ever so crucial in modern defensive schemes.

250 gamer Robert Murphy of the Bulldogs Bob Murphy in not so happy times (Photo: Will Russell/AFL Media)

Boyd (M) has put up strong number, too, tallying 33 disposals on eight marks against the Eagles, and 25 disposals on ten marks against the Tigers.

Mitch Wallis has been providing the in-and-under grunt in lieu of Tom Liberatore, leading the Bulldogs in both contested possessions (15.5 per game) and clearances (7.5 per game).

He’s in the top ten across the league in both of these categories to this point in the season, and looms large as a potential most improved candidate, should such an award exist in the AFL.

The Bulldogs United Nations have performed well, too, by which I mean Jason Johannisen and Lin Jong. Both players were well off everyone’s radar at the start of the season, but have started the year well and are helping fill out the bottom end of the Bulldog’s starting 22.

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But for mine, the Bulldog’s most impressive charge so far this season has been Marcus Bontempelli. He also goes by ‘The Bont’, and is the clear heir to the ‘Best Nickname in the AFL’ throne once Boomer Harvey calls it a day.

Bontempelli was runner up in the AFL Rising Star in 2014 after going at pick four to the Dogs (behind his new teammate Tom Boyd, GWS running machine Josh Kelly, and St Kilda’s Jack Billings).

At 192cm, and probably more like 90-95 kegs after two preseasons (he’s listed at 85 kgs), Bontempelli has been a revelation since making his debut in Round 5 last year. A runner-up finish in the Rising Star was probably more a product of his playing 16 games.

He kicked one of the more incredible forward pocket goals you’ll ever see, too.

Thus far in 2015, Bontempelli has generated 14 inside 50s for the Dogs, executed 12 clearances and laid 20 tackles. He’s yet to really hit the scoreboard in the same way he showed glimpses of in the latter part of last season, but given the injuries and personnel changes the Dogs have seen he’s all of a sudden become the crucial cog through the middle that he was always going to become at some point in his career.

Conflict of interest declaration: I own 100 shares in Bontempelli Enterprises, and forecast him to become a member of the Must-Watch Footy Club in the next couple of years.

And that’s really the big point with the Western Bulldogs. They lost Giansiracusa, Griffen, Higgins, Cooney and Jones, and are playing better footy without them than they did with them.

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A big part of that must be credited to Luke Beveridge, a branch from the Alistair Clarkson tree that is rapidly supplanting the Roos variety as the most desired among front offices across the league. Beveridge has been spoken of as one of the game’s foremost strategic thinkers, and is clearly building on the contested possession framework his predecessor built at Whitten Oval.

Look, it’s premature to be talking about finals for the Bulldogs. But will they outperform early season expectations? If you’re asking me, count on it.

And what of the next few years? Let’s project their Round 2 roster (plus Tom Liberatore) out to the 2018 season.

Bulldogslist

Add in another couple of top draft picks, and that’s a list full of prospect come 2018.

So who knows? A premiership may be just a few years of development away. Hawthorn might have won enough of them by then to give the Dogs a shot.

West Coast are cooked
From a team on the rise to a team that looks set to fall.

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I’ve got major concerns about how West Coast are going to go for the rest of this season, and it’s all about their defence. Two passages of play from the first quarter of their game against Carlton on Friday highlight this well.

Now, the Blues are terrible, don’t get me wrong, but have been reasonable in the first quarter of both of their games this season. That’s what marks these two goals as red flags for West Coast.

The first was a slingshot turnover at about the five minute mark of the first quarter.

West Coast turned the ball over on Carlton’s half forward line, and tried to run and gun through the corridor. A miskick resulted in a re-turnover, with Andrejs Everitt ending up with the ball at the back of the centre square. There were six Eagles right there, and no one forward of this position.

Everitt kicked ahead to Bryce Gibbs who was lagging West Coast’s fast break on his forward wing. Six West Coast players were there, but not anywhere near Gibbs.

As a reminder, no one is forward of the ball at this point in time, so it’s up to those six Eagles in shot to get back and stop Gibbs from running on.

Everitt, kept running and created an outlet option for Gibbs to use. He’d gone from having three Eagles in front of him, and three along side, to being ahead of all but two of them.

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As Everitt received the ball, four Eagles were in pursuit. They never got  near him as Everitt ran in and kicked an uncontested goal.

It was lax defence on the part of West Coast, and was further reinforced by a Carlton stoppage goal in their forward 50 just two minutes later.

The Eagles struggled to get the ball out of their 50 in this passage, leading to a ball up just a couple of metres forward of Carlton’s goal. Marc Murphy hangs off the back of the forming pack, unmarked. Tom Bell is almost so perfectly lined up across the other side of the stoppage that it seems like a set play. At least Bell has a couple of Eagles around him. Not one Eagle senses what’s unfolding.

The ball is bounced, and Tom Bell jumps as a third man. Unopposed, mind you. Chris Masten impersonates James Harden circa 2013, but that’s about it.

Murphy gets the ball uncontested, and slots home the goal. Superman McGovern watches the ball sail over his lid.

Now the first of those passages was a fast break, and so is somewhat forgivable. A top tier defence would have closed it down, or at least made it difficult for Everitt. But the second one was inexcusable, and is a marker of what we’ve got to expect West Coast will serve up in their defensive 50 for the remainder of this season.

West Coast have been decimated by injury, and it’s only Round 2.

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They’ll be playing McGovern and Will Schofield as their two tall defenders for 20 more games. This week’s match up with Fremantle – who are massively throwing down on Hawthorn (how is it that these two don’t play until July?) – has massacre written all over it.

Beyond this week they’ve got another Derby against Fremantle, and play Adelaide and the Bulldogs twice. Their away slate includes Brisbane, North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, and Richmond. I reckon they’re in real danger of winning less than eight games, and in a competition that looks more even than it has since before the expansion sides came into play that may not be enough to escape the bottom third of the ladder.

We really should have seen Adelaide coming
Let’s wrap this week up with a really quick look at Adelaide, a team that’s having a lot of column inches (and podcast minutes) dedicated to it right now. First off, we really should’ve seen Adelaide coming.

Last season, Adelaide were the third best offensive side in the competition, putting up 98.9 points per game which was bettered only by Port Adelaide (99.1) and Hawthorn (one billion). Despite this, they ended up on 11 wins, missed the finals, and sacked their coach.

Adelaide finished behind their little brothers Port again in 2014. (Photo: AFL Media) Dangerfield is in full contract year mode. (Photo: AFL Media)

You know what, though? They under performed their Pythagorean expected wins by 2.5 games (which could be two, or could be three), which was the most of any team in the league last season. Perhaps the much vaunted offseason review uncovered some genuine weaknesses in Brenton Sanderson’s regime?

Let’s go with that Adelaide’s output should’ve given them 14 wins – that would’ve given them enough wins and percentage for sixth place on the ladder in 2014. This was a team who took Hawthorn to within a kick of not making the 2012 grand final, after finishing second on the ladder.

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A change of coach, to a guy who has been toiling away in Assistant Coaches Land for close to 15 years, some tactical and physical tweaks, and a press that would make Ross Lyon proud, have Adelaide’s list primed and ready to make an assault on the eight this year.

Speaking of the list, once again we really should’ve seen this coming. The Crows have Patrick Dangerfield, Rory Sloane, Taylor Walker, Sam Jacobs, Daniel Talia and Eddie Betts. That’s a pretty strong list of players to build positional lines around.

Dangerfield is putting up contract year numbers (sorry, couldn’t resist), Jacobs is enabling his midfielders clearance dominance (85 versus 54 clearances in their first two games), Betts and Walker have kicked 13 goals between them, and Daniel Talia has kept his opponents to one (North Melbourne) and one (Collingwood) goal so far.

Yeah, we should’ve seen this coming.

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