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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    The Crowd Says (14)

    • July 14th 2017 @ 9:31am
      David Rudland said | July 14th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

      The last time you offered up a 5 goal Bomber defeat, which was recently, against the Swans, well, we know what happened and that it was only a diabolical series of events that prevented a Bomber win after being in an apparently unassailable winning position. So I challenge your assessment again here. Still, it will take time for sports commentators/reporters like yourself to believe that Essendon is worthy of considerably more credit than they’re getting. Their form at least deserves a narrower final margin as I also believe you’re placing too much weight on the Saints most recent performance and as impressive as it was, it was against a unusually inept Tiger outfit on the night.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 10:03am
        Lester Pridham said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

        I agree it’ll be closer than 5 goals. Much closer.. But still backing in the saints.
        You say they haven’t been as good as they have seemed… Same goes for bombers.. even more IMO
        Bombers are good but saints are better if they bring their A game.. Saints are still inconsistent though so if they can get this one it will be big for them

      • Roar Guru

        July 14th 2017 @ 10:52am
        XI said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

        A five goal margin doesn’t necessarily a comfortable win. It could be within a kick until the last 5 minutes and one side kicks a bunch of junk-time goals. I tipped the Saints by 20 points but then if the Saints play like they did last week it’ll be 10 goals.

        • Roar Guru

          July 14th 2017 @ 11:02am
          AdelaideDocker said | July 14th 2017 @ 11:02am | ! Report

          I’m doing the blog for this one tonight, and I’ve gone Saints by under a goal. I genuinely believe this one is going to be a close one.

          I’ve completely forgotten, XI, are you a Saints fan? Something tells me you are, but I reaaaaaly cannot remember.

          • Roar Guru

            July 14th 2017 @ 11:49am
            Cat said | July 14th 2017 @ 11:49am | ! Report

            Good to know the blog is covered, I’ll be watching and reading and commenting too.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 7:03pm
        Sir Col in paradise said | July 14th 2017 @ 7:03pm | ! Report

        Thanks Ryan – now you have put a mocca on the saints !!! I go for two teams – long story – so do my sons and whenever I fly them down to watch *swans n Saints when you pick them they loose !!!! One son is a bombers n Saints man – bombers first – so a big game in the family – bombers my third team as when a kid played against Neil n Terry and of course loving see Joe finally looking very good !!

        Any way back on topic – now having flown for 3 hours and in pub across the road you tip Saints – so looks like I am down a 100 to my boy !!!….may as well give it to him now !!!

        • July 15th 2017 @ 8:49am
          nick said | July 15th 2017 @ 8:49am | ! Report

          Hope you have paid up?

    • July 14th 2017 @ 10:51am
      Aransan said | July 14th 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

      Ryan, a well considered piece as usual.

      Some commentators have been surprised that Watson was rested, after missing last year and coming to the latter part of his career he does need to be managed — especially since this is the second of two 6 day breaks. The Essendon VFL team played last Sunday which would have meant a 5 day turnaround for any player elevated but Essendon rested Bird, Begley, Langford, Leuenberger and Dea from the VFL to ensure they would be fresh if needed. Of the mature midfielders, Bellchambers, Bird, Myers and Colyer will be important. Begley keeps being selected as an emergency, hopefully he will get a game in the AFL soon.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 11:03am
      Sydneygirl said | July 14th 2017 @ 11:03am | ! Report

      Think it will be loser than five goals. Tipping Saints but with no real confidence, given the season so far.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 4:23pm
      Nick said | July 14th 2017 @ 4:23pm | ! Report

      Saints by 35 the Saints press will needle the Dons all night

    • July 14th 2017 @ 6:02pm
      me too said | July 14th 2017 @ 6:02pm | ! Report

      Saints on consecutive 6 day breaks after a trip to perth. will come down to their fitness, goal kicking accuracy, how well hickey can compensate for longer, whether battle can recreate his form in the preseason intra-club match (kicked five straight), and if savage can repeat last weeks form after replacing the very consistent webster (injured). bombers pushed the saints last year – surprisingly nine changes to this years saints side, so both very different teams – and a win here would see them very well set for a finals spot.

    • July 14th 2017 @ 6:48pm
      Bruce said | July 14th 2017 @ 6:48pm | ! Report

      Bombers by 3 goals.

      • July 14th 2017 @ 7:08pm
        Sir Col in paradise said | July 14th 2017 @ 7:08pm | ! Report

        Your on the money now Ryan’s picked the bombers !!!!

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