Marcus Bontempelli looks like the future and dominates the present. He is already a superstar. Soon, he will be a supernova.
Bontempelli’s movement is strange and wonderful. He’s built like a mountain and slithers like a viper.
He doesn’t accelerate into flames like Patrick Dangerfield, and he doesn’t glide across water like Scott Pendlebury. Instead, he hunts.
He ambles after the ball with purpose, showing his mountainous 192-centimetre frame, looking like Travis Cloke if Cloke’s centre of gravity was a little lower and he was listening to Miles Davis.
But with the ball in hand any semblance of awkwardness evaporates. He becomes its master – in total control of time and space.
Like the Cloke of yesteryear, his hands are like glue in the air, but no glove is required. So many of the greats make the ball feel like an extension of their body, and at 20 years old, Bontempelli already inspires that feeling. You get the sense he would have at seven years old too. With the champions, you just know.
He’s fearless, which figures, because with his towering physique there shouldn’t really be any reason for him to be afraid. His kicking is powerful and bullet-like, and his goal-sense is virtually peerless for a midfielder his age – he averages almost a goal per game and is third on the Bulldogs’ goal-kicking chart this year.
He operates in Pendlebury Standard Time (PST), showing that rare, magical awareness where everything seems to occur for him in Keanu-Reeves-in-The-Matrix speed, processing chaotic situations with an almost inhuman calmness. In a game obsessed with speed and aggression, Bontempelli uses the fire and mania of his opponents against them, sidestepping and dummying fools into oblivion.
The football player Bontempelli reminds me of most doesn’t even play the same sport. The Bont moves like a taller version of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere who works out more, providing the illusion of devastating pace with sumptuous turns and weaves.
Wilshere’s trademark is to have his back to his attacking goal, receive a pass, but instead of possessing the ball like defenders expect him to, he lets the ball continue on its path, and then quickly turns to chase after it. In this split second of manufactured confusion, Wilshere creates his advantage against defenders, over and over again.
Bontempelli’s game is littered with similar moments of instinctive genius. In the first quarter of last weekend’s clash against North Melbourne he took a regulation mark on the back-flank in front of his opponent then immediately wheeled around and zoomed past the defender in a singular motion.
It was a totally innocuous moment, but in a position where most players would simply go back on their mark – the safe, predictable custom – Bontempelli was proactive, leveraging expectation against his man, creating that slight advantage that gives birth to incisive offence. He’s an artist who paints when he feels like it.
Bontempelli couldn’t buy a beer in New York City and he’s eighth in the betting for the Brownlow. And he’s only scraped the surface of his potential.
What he’s shown so far has been like Robert De Niro in Mean Streets – The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are still to come (we pray that there will be no late career Meet the Fockers for the Bont).
You won’t find Bontempelli in the top 30 in the league for disposals, tackles, clearances or inside 50s. He averages just 24 touches a game – less than either of the superstar Richmond duo of Shaun Grigg and Bachar Houli. These statistical shortcomings aren’t an indictment of Bontempelli though – they’re just a testament to how influential he is when he does get the ball.
He was the headline star last Saturday night, the dominant player on the ground with just 19 touches. How many midfielders in the sport can be a game’s most influential player with fewer than 20 disposals? Bontempelli’s touches are so decisive though, and his game so well-rounded – nine tackles, eight marks, 79 per cent disposal efficiency and a goal on the weekend – that he’s the rare on-baller who can dictate a game’s direction without accumulating huge numbers.
Bontempelli will find the ball more often over time, and the rest of the league should be very afraid. Over his first three years he’s upped his disposals per game tally from 15.9 to 21.1 to 24.2. Given his imposing physique and exceptional nous, there’s no reason that number can’t eventually approach 30. When that happens, the walls of the AFL will start bleeding.
As admirably stubborn as they are, this Bulldogs season is a lost one. But nothing is lost when you get to watch Bontempelli every week.
Every fan-base longs for a generational star, someone who makes going to the football worthwhile every single round.
Richmond and Carlton fans can put up with the existential dread that surrounds and consumes the likes of Tyrone Vickery and Levi Casboult because they get to delight in the wonders of Dustin Martin and Patrick Cripps. Bulldogs fans have that for the next decade with Bontempelli, and in a reality that is foreign to Tigers and Blues supporters, they have the added benefit of the rest of their team being really good too.
It’s not all there just yet for the Bulldogs and the Bont, and there was a symbolic moment to open the second quarter against North Melbourne that spoke to this. Before the bounce, the camera zoomed in on Jake Stringer and his #9, then eased out to bring Bontempelli’s #4 into the picture. It was a snapshot of the future, and glory to come.
From the bounce, the ball spilled towards the far wing and Stringer and Bontempelli both hunted it with conviction. There was nobody around them but they were both so hell-bent and focused on the ball that they collided and took each other out. The ball rolled meekly into congestion and a ball-up resulted.
It was a nice little moment of blind youthful exuberance, an illustration that while the future is bright, the present still needs some polish.
But with Marcus Bontempelli as the artist, the finishing touches will inevitably come.