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Essendon were pathetic on Sunday against a Western Bulldogs outfit that had looked barely VFL level over the first two rounds.
The standard of football being played in the early rounds is high, which only emphasizes the ineptness of teams not up to the mark.
The heat must now be on the Bombers.
Their win against an understrength and underdone Adelaide in Round 1 had merit enough given they lost Zach Merrett to a concussion in the first term, even if they were outplayed for three quarters.
But Essendon’s performances since, against Fremantle and the Dogs, have been inadequate at best and deplorable at worst, especially for a club that considers themselves a finals lock and genuine top four contender. That’s the stuff of dreams right now.
The Bombers have won three individual quarters across the first three rounds, and only one in the last two weeks against a couple of sides that are unlikely to feature in September.
Essendon’s problem is they’re not covering the ground, which was most evident as the Dogs were running rings around them on the outside. This is either through desire, fitness, system, or a combination of all three.
Desire is player driven, and is unacceptable, especially at a club that has not won a final since 2004. The Bomber train has been stopping all stations on the way to mediocrity for 14 years.
Fitness and system are coaching issues. It’s hard to believe aerobic fitness could be an issue at AFL level for any club in this day and age.
As for coaching, John Worsfold has just last week signed a contract extension until the end of 2020, following the current league trend of tying up coaches no-one is chasing. Club hierarchy is obviously convinced there is no flaw there.
The Dons conceded 101 more uncontested possessions against the Bulldogs, the second worst of any team this year. They conceded 140 uncontested marks, the worst this season by a long way when conceding 100 is considered poor.
Essendon also allowed Fremantle to do as they liked on the outside, as the Dockers kicked and marked their way to victory largely untroubled in the second half, save for a few late goals when the game was over.
The Bombers only laid 43 tackles, the second least behind only the Bulldogs themselves in their limp Round 2 performance.
Only four forward 50 tackles was also the second lowest recorded this year. The league average per team per game is 9.5. The Dons rank 16th.
Interestingly, the bottom four in this stat, the Dogs, Dons, Saints and Cats, have won only one game apiece, and three of them have already been in the media gun for repulsive showings.
Also worth noting is that the last three pairs of grand finalists all ranked top five for inside 50 tackles in the years they played off for the flag. We have also visually seen the game trending the way of pressure in the forward half.
But don’t worry, as written previously Worsfold’s contract has been extended. He obviously knows what he’s doing, despite concerns about him being out of touch with the modern game even in his later years at West Coast.
The losses to Freo and the Dogs looked a respectable enough 16 and 21 points on the scoreboard, but on each occasion, the Dons were down by 33 points in the last term, which is a fairer reflection.
They had best not be thinking they are closer than they are. The internal reviews should be savage.
Looking at who needs to lift, our eyes should go straight to Essendon’s two best players, Joe Daniher and Zach Merrett. It was no coincidence that these two kicked three goals between them in quick time in the third quarter to get the Bombers back in the match.
Daniher took a big step forward last year and was expected to make a bigger leap in 2018. His stats through three games look just okay on paper, but his impact has been negligible.
He’s shown his best in patches only, and small ones at that.
Daniher is 24 years old and has played almost 100 games. The time for inconsistency is over. If he wants to take Lance Franklin’s mantle as the league’s best forward, he should learn from his Sydney counterpart.
Buddy has the spectacular covered, we all know that, but it has been his ultra-consistency that has truly set him apart as the best forward in the competition for over a decade.
Merrett is by far the most damaging outside player at the Bombers and is at his best either breaking lines with speed or breaking up defences with pinpoint passing.
Disregarding Round 1 when he was forced out of the game with a concussion, Merrett has had uncontested possession counts of nine against Fremantle and eight against the Bulldogs.
The last time he failed to reach double figures was Round 14 of 2015, which is 50 games ago for him. Across 2016-17 he averaged 20 uncontested possessions a game.
Taggers aren’t dead, but they are only targeted towards players they can beat. Merrett is currently one of them, and it is costing his team dearly. If he can’t find a way through, with or without the help of teammates, Essendon won’t play finals. You can take that to the bank.
The AFL wheel turns quickly.
A fortnight ago, the Bombers had just beaten a 2017 grand finalist, which appeared to solidify predictions and expectations of a 2018 finals berth.
After Round 3, they’re 13th on the ladder at 1-2, having lost to teams that aren’t currently in the eight, and may not appear there all season. Not only that, they’ve lost both games in the same way, which better teams are even more highly equipped to exploit.
Essendon’s stars are out of form. The coach is unimaginative and behind the times. The team is shaping up as a pretender.