Ross Lyon sides always seem to be about Ross Lyon, more than other teams seem to be about their coaches.
He’s always been such a divisive person within the football world, all stemming from a combination of respect he’s held in, yet with no premiership to back it up, and game-plans that have almost always been seen as stifling, negative and joyless.
He is reaching a cross-roads in his coaching career, and if things don’t improve over the next 12-24 months, the Dockers gig will probably be the last senior AFL job he ever has.
B: Luke Ryan Joel Hamling Ethan Hughes
HB: Nathan Wilson Alex Pearce Michael Johnson
C: Brad Hill Nat Fyfe Stephen Hill
HF: David Mundy Shane Kersten Michael Walters
F: Hayden Ballantyne Cam McCarthy Brandon Matera
Foll: Aaron Sandilands Connor Blakely Lachie Neale
Int: Sean Darcy Darcy Tucker Harley Bennell Andrew Brayshaw
Em: Matt Taberner Adam Cerra Brady Grey
Fremantle are on the rebuild, but they have more than enough talent to get people excited about watching them play. And they’re not that young – the Dockers are ranked ninth in games experience, and 11th in age.
They have a number of attacking weapons, but can Ross Lyon harness them? Outside play has been Freo’s achilles heel in recent times, but they have addressed that with additions to the list.
Nathan Wilson has been brought in to provide run and drive off half-back, something Freo have been missing in recent seasons. Wilson is one of the best kicks in the game, but needs to be fed the ball. At GWS, he had Heath Shaw and Zac Williams alongside him as primary ball users from defence, but they both had more strings to their bow than Wilson does.
In the last two years, Wilson has averaged 12-14 kicks per match, but he has to get that number up to 20+ at the Dockers to become a truly notable player. At the moment, he’s just a nice one.
Michael Johnson is still important, despite being one of the oldest players in the league, but is more of a role player these days. The rest of the backline is basically populated by guys that are mature-aged but still somewhat light on for AFL experience. Hope is still held out that Alex Pearce can return and fulfil his early promise.
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Old hands like Lee Spurr and Cameron Sutcliffe should start falling behind in the pecking order now, and Tom Sheridan is at the crossroads. Does that Cyril Rioli goal in the 2015 preliminary final still haunt him?
The midfield is where Fremantle can win games, if they can click together on a regular basis.
Nat Fyfe shouldn’t be forgotten in the conversations about Dustin Martin and Patrick Dangerfield. Completely over his 2016 leg injury, he’s ready to hit a new peak in the prime of his career after a strong finish to 2017.
Apart from contested marking, Lachie Neale’s stats don’t lose much when measured against Fyfe’s, and it might surprise many to learn that Neale actually won 19 more clearances than Fyfe from the same amount of games last year. This can be attributed to Fyfe spending more time forward than Neale, but they form a formidable duo.
Aaron Sandilands will be feeding the ball down to both Fyfe and Neale, forming a lethal clearance combination with both, but even if the veteran big man goes down, the boy-giant Sean Darcy looks primed to take his place. Ross Lyon has hinted that both will be played together at different stages too.
The Hill brothers, Stephen and Brad, will run the wings but don’t do enough damage, particularly when impacting the scoreboard. They only kicked 17 goals between them last year, and need to get that up closer to 40 – especially given the forward-line is weak and midfield goals are valuable.
Connor Blakely has made great strides every year, and looks ready to take on even more responsibility this season with the departure of Lachie Weller. He’ll be a bridging young midfielder, a conduit between the established stars like Fyfe and Neale, and the new draftees Andrew Brayshaw and Adam Cerra. Darcy Tucker is another young mid who will be looking to make a leap after two years on the list.
Up forward, a lot falls on the shoulders of Cam McCarthy. He was okay last year, without being exceptional, but should improve again after missing a year of football in 2016. Is he going to reach great heights, or is he one-dimensional like a Simon Minton-Connell who was a lead, mark, kick player, and needed an open forward 50?
The problem is the Dockers almost never have an open forward-line because of their stodgy ball movement.
Michael Walters has made his name as a forward, but showed that he could be a damaging midfielder last year, and should be playing at least two-thirds of the time in that part of the ground.
The recruitment of Brandon Matera from the Suns hints that this is a probable scenario. David Mundy continues to be Mr Reliable, even after a role change last year which saw him spend more time forward.
With Fyfe, Neale, Walters, Mundy, Wilson and the Hill brothers delivering the ball into the forward half of the ground and inside 50, there should be no excuses. If Ross Lyon doesn’t release the shackles and let them go, then it could be the beginning of the end for him, if not the end of the end.
Given Fremantle’s tall forwards aren’t flash, and like we’ve been asking of other bottom teams, does Ross Lyon follow in the Richmond lead? Can Lee Spurr be re-deployed as a pressure specialist up forward after years as a back pocket plumber?
Perhaps McCarthy is the traditional tall, David Mundy to play as a secondary marking target, or Nat Fyfe when he’s resting there, and then use a mix of Hayden Ballantyne, Brady Grey, Matera, Spurr, and mature-age small forward recruit Sam Switkowski to chase, harass and tackle.
And then we have Harley Bennell. Will he end up being worth all the trouble? It’s getting harder to be optimistic as each week goes by, when news frequently surfaces of an off-field incident or a new injury.
There are interesting times ahead for Fremantle. They are in a rebuild, but with a list profile that does not lean particularly young. They have addressed key weaknesses with their recruits from other clubs in the last two years, but have also added three top eight picks in the last two drafts.
Is there a way for Ross Lyon to implement a game plan that can both deliver more wins and give the fans something to cheer? They’ve got a prickly opening nine rounds to contend with, where they will probably start favourite only once. Let’s see what they’ve got.