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The big question hanging over the Essendon hype train

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Expert
27th February, 2019
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Facing one of the longest finals loss streaks in the league, Essendon has emerged as the 2018 offseason’s darling. One key unknown dogs them as the preseason gets underway.

Tonight is the first test of many for the Bombers, and you better get used to watching them, because they’ll be on your free-to-air screens every other week in 2019.

With a staggering 13 games on either Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights, the AFL has made an extraordinary bet on the rise of Essendon as a finals contender – or something more.

This season’s narrative isn’t a passé ‘Comeback Story’ marketing campaign, which spun the punishments dealt for a sophisticated doping program into martyrdom. I raise it for two reasons; one, it stunk and it still stinks, and two, this season is much more real and tangible.

That being said, there’s an element of the usual types long on the hype train. Nary a week goes by without a long column or a lengthy radio segment devoted to the reasons why the Bombers are back. We’ve had Richmond and Collingwood emerge from the bottom four mire to play in finals and win premierships. It’s Essendon’s turn, they assume.

But they aren’t alone. Essendon is one of the consensus picks among the people who know to rise from loser to finalist in 2019. An at times scintillating second half of the season is the spark, and the boost to its playing stocks through acquisition and better health are the timber.

Whether that creates a flame remains uncertain, and hinges on the answer to one critical question.

Dyson Heppell of the Bombers (left) walks to the war cry with Zach Merrett of the Bombers during the 2018 AFL round 11 Dreamtime at the G match between the Essendon Bombers and the Richmond Tigers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on June 02, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia.

Essendon. (Photo: Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

A game of one third and two third halves, or something
Essendon hit the one third mark of the 2018 season with an improbable 2-6 record, scoring just 69 points per game (would’ve been third worst in the league if it carried the full year) and dropping games to Fremantle, the Western Bulldogs and Carlton along the way.

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From that point on, the Bombers were 10-4, scoring 92 points per game (would’ve been fourth best in the league if it carried the full year) and winning games against Geelong, West Coast and Sydney along the way.

This is the greatest source of Essendon optimism. Subtract the team’s performance in the first third of the season – note: it should probably be discounted as a rule anyway given it was between 10 and 12 months ago – and the Bombers were winning at the pace of a 15 to 16-win team. In 2019 that would’ve seen Essendon reach the top four.

What changed? Essendon released assistant coach Mark Neeld for one. Reports at the time suggested Neeld had an outsize role on match day – nothing specific was ever on the record – and there were communications issues across the coaching group. Whatever it was, Essendon’s improvement coincided with his departure.

If we look at some simple first third/second-two-thirds splits, not a whole heap changed on the stats sheet. Essendon won about as much ball at the contest (112 adjusted contested possessions and a +2 differential per game in the first part, versus 113 and +5 in the second part), took about the same amount of marks inside 50 (12.5 per game versus 12.1 – both relatively high marks for what it’s worth), and surprisingly took about the same numbers of shots for goal despite the significant difference in scoring output (26 vs 28).

Where the Bombers tightened things up was in their ball use and defensive work. Essendon’s tackle rate (tackles per 50 minutes of opposition possession) surged from 60.7 to 70.8, while incidentally their average opponent’s tackle rate fell from 64.9 to 55.0.

As a reminder, avoiding tackle pressure is just as important as creating it, as last year’s West Coast and Collingwood teams demonstrated (their full season opponent marks were 59.9 and 56.7 respectively).

How did Essendon do it? Returning to their ball-controlling ways of a year or two ago. The Bombers took 90 uncontested marks per game in the second part of the season, versus 76 in the first.

Advanced statistics would paint a nice picture here, but I suspect watching some tape there was plenty of slow play in the back half before an incisive move forward eventuated. As a result, Essendon’s time in possession rocketed from 48 minutes per game (bottom four rate) to 52 minutes (would’ve been second behind Geelong).

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Last I checked, the only way to score goals is if you have the ball in hand; according to Newton’s law of physics or something the opposite holds for stopping your opponent from scoring goals.

At this sort of headline level football can be a pretty simple game if you want it to be, and that seemed to be Essendon’s approach in a post-Neeld world.

This should be the club’s default philosophy heading into 2019, with a twist that we’ll get to shortly. The Bombers demonstrated an aptitude for constructive, incisive football in the back half of last season; if they can pull off something similar again, they’re going to have the weapons to lift their scoring to another level.

Essendon’s points per scoring shot in the second part of last season would’ve had them ninth, despite it sitting in the top six for both shots and raw scoring. A lift to Melbourne’s league-leading rate would see the Bombers rise to 98.3 points per game, which would’ve been second to the frenetic Demons.

Devon Smith

Devon Smith of the Bombers celebrates a goal. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Red and black topped up
The Bombers have the tools to get there. One of the upsides of the doping saga was the improved draft capital that came with a year or two down the bottom of the ladder. To this point, it’s hard to argue Essendon has put a foot wrong taking advantage of it.

Indeed, the Bombers have been one of the shrewder drafters in the league in the past five years, picking up Zach Merrett and Orazio Fantasia outside the top 25 in 2013, the serviceable Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde in what is rapidly becoming a wonky 2014 draft, and nabbing another serviceable AFL player (Darcy Parish) in 2015 (the jury is still out on Aaron Francis, more on him in a moment) – albeit paying a fairly high price considering the return to date.

Then in 2016 they used the number one pick on Andrew McGrath who could be one of the best 20 players in the league if he hits his projected level. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti was a doping ban year flyer in the rookie draft, but has solidified himself as one of the most watchable players in the league.

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A pre-doping core in place, and the young talent pool stocked, Essendon flipped to bolt-on mode. The past two years have seen the Bombers leverage their draft capital to add Adam Saad, Devon Smith, Jake Stringer and Dylan Shiel to its home grown core.

Last year’s Essendon optimism turned out to be a little misplaced, though it was somewhat justified at the time given the strength of the Saad, Smith and Stringer acquisitions. Ultimately injuries to key forward half planks Joe Daniher (seven games played due to osteitis pubis) and Fantasia (13 games, knee) and the slow start were too much.

But if we flip that, the Bombers are suddenly set to receive an extraordinary boost in their attacking potency.

Joe Daniher was rated inside the top 20 on last year’s The Roar AFL Top 50, with Cam and Josh having him inside their respective top 10s. He has dropped in this year’s ranking on account of injury, but if he were to repeat his 2017 output (65 goals, 15 touches and almost two contested marks per game) there’s little doubt he’d leap back to that sort of ranking.

Daniher has what it takes to play a Lance Franklin-style range game, but will undoubtedly spend most of his time as the team’s true full forward given the midfield and half forward weaponry available.

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Joe Daniher

Joe Daniher. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Fantasia and McDonald-Tipungwuiti provide the pace and ground ball control – Fantasia also providing some scoring punch. Smith and Stringer will be the high half forwards, rotating through the middle to throw alternate looks at centre bounces.

James Stewart presumptive second tall forward, but the Bombers have options to put around Daniher as the focal point in Cale Hooker (presumably starting down back in 2019) and Shaun McKernan if required.

It’s a front half full of punch, and it’ll receive quality service all year.

Dipping back into The Roar Top 50 for a moment, former GWS Giant Dylan Shiel divided opinion in 2019. He dropped from a spot inside the top 30 in last year’s to outside of the top 50 in this year’s list, which is perhaps a product of his status as the fourth or (gasp) possibly fifth best midfielder at the Giants.

Of GWS’s six best midfielders – in this column’s opinion: Callan Ward, Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly, Dylan Shiel, Lachie Whitfield and Tom Scully – Shiel has played the second most games in the past three years (70 of 72, Ward hasn’t missed a game).

Dylan Shiel

Dylan Shiel. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

What’s fascinating is Shiel hasn’t flexed up his workload in games where one or two of those six players have been missing. He averaged essentially the same number of disposals (26 to 27), clearances (5.5 to 5.7) and contested possessions (10.1 to 10.3) in games where all six played against where four or five of them played.

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He’s Mr Consistent, and consistently great (only 21 players had 25 touches, five clearances and ten contested possessions per game last year; Shiel was not one of them) but perhaps to the detriment of his reputation. It also perhaps doesn’t help that Shiel isn’t a noted goal kicker, booting just six majors in 2019 (and a career high of 13 from 23 games in 2016).

However, Shiel has been at best the fourth or fifth best midfielder for GWS for his entire career. That’s not his fault. Now at Essendon, he is going to be the number one midfielder, and he’s got a chance to shine.

His situation has been compared to Chris Judd moving from West Coast to Carlton in the middle of last decade; he’s not Judd, but I get where folk are coming from.

Aaron Francis is a wildcard for the Bombers. He stormed onto the collective consciousness of the footy wonk community with his two stellar games as an intercepting defender to end 2018. He joins a defence that is a little light on traditional stoppers, and which will instead turn to the team-based defensive strategies of fellow Big Four member Richmond.

And this, folks, is where the biggest question mark hanging over Essendon will need to be answered.

Take it to the top
Can John Worsfold coach? I have no idea. But the queries that came Essendon’s way in the first third of last season all centred on this one – significant – question.

It was a common refrain of West Coast fans and followers at the end of the premiership coach’s tenure in 2013. By the time he left the Eagles, the team’s game plan could be summarised as “kick it long down the line to a stationary forward” and “run back in defence if that doesn’t work”.

It gave us Mark LeCras’ 12-goal game in 2010 – against the Bombers – but it also gave us 9-13 and three ten-goal losses to end the 2013 season.

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John Worsfold

Bombers head coach John Worsfold. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Media/Getty Images)

But if we’ve learned anything in the past three two it’s that head coaches don’t have as much sway over things as they did in the past. Coaching is as much a team game as ever; Essendon made a key addition to its team by attracting Richmond defensive coach Ben Rutten in the off-season.

To be clear, Rutten is not the architect of Richmond’s ball movement and defensive strategies. That’s Blake Caracella, who has been lauded by all and sundry for his impact on the Tigers over the past two years. But Rutten clearly worked with Caracella to implement Richmond’s strategies and tactics, and brings that nous to the Dons.

Essendon might be as uniquely placed as a team like West Coast to implement a zone-based defensive structure: Michael Hurley is a lesser Jeremy McGovern, Hooker has shown he can nullify a big bodied forward when required, and Francis and Martin Gleeson (who missed 2018 with an ankle injury) playing the mid sized interceptor roles.

It will require a similar level of commitment the Dons received from their midfielders in the second part of 2018, but if they did it once why won’t they do it again?

There’s little doubt Essendon have all of the pieces they need to make a leap from 11th to the top eighth in 2018.

Indeed, like North Melbourne, Port Adelaide and Adelaide around them, the ladder is somewhat misleading given we had such a quirkily close finish to the season (four teams on 12-10 records, all missing the eight).

Can Worsfold and his off field crew put it together? We will get our first look in a few short hours.

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