Melbourne has confounded us all. Show me someone who says they saw this Demon season coming and I’ll show you a liar, a fool, or both.
The Dees could mount a comeback, and surge from a 1-5 record to something approaching 11 or 12 wins in their final 16 games. It has been done before: Sydney came from 0-6, and Richmond 2-6, in 2017 and 2014 respectively. They were both embarrassed by nine goals or more in their respective finals losses.
History says Melbourne’s 2019 season is all but finished when it comes to the realistic premiership ambitions held by them and most of the league at large.
How did it come to this? There will be plenty written and spoken over the next week or so, to be sure. Much of it, we hope, will be informed by some conversations had in confidence, because there is nothing about the circumstances we thought Melbourne found itself in heading into the year that lead to this outcome. Something has gone terribly awry.
Indeed, immediate past Melbourne coach Paul Roos hinted “something has gone terribly awry” on Fox Footy. Roos suggested the team’s coaching structure may be contributing to the multitude of issues leading to the singular problem of a 1-5 record.
On the field it is playing out in two key ways: an abject failure of the side’s defensive game – which, OK, you could’ve seen coming if you squinted a little – and a breakdown of its ability to transition the ball in attack. Sprinkle in some mean regression from its powerful midfield, and you have these sorts of catastrophic outcomes.
Points for: 69.3 per game, ranked 16th. Points against: 100.2 per game, ranked 17th. Quarters won: 8, ranked 16th. Uncontested possession differential: -38 per game, ranked 16th.
It’s bad. And there is no reason to expect it will get any better this season.
Melbourne was impotent against Richmond from about the 20-minute mark of the first quarter through to the end of the game. They won plenty of the ball – a contested possession differential of +11 on the game, built on a sturdy +18 start in the first quarter – but like every week to date simply couldn’t do anything with it.
This Melbourne is a far cry from the Melbourne that ran over the top of the eventual premiers, the West Coast Eagles, on their home deck in Round 22 last season.
The improvisation has already begun. Clayton Oliver started at full forward at the first bounce. Tom McDonald – don’t look at my preseason predictions column please – has been thrown behind the ball. Michael Hibberd, an All Australian half back 30 games ago, tagged Dustin Martin for much of last night. These are the moves you make when you know moves need to be made, which is also when things are pretty dire.
It should continue. The spectre of Melbourne’s tanking shenanigans loom over any talk of a team playing for next year. But that is precisely what the Dees should be doing from today onwards.
Reminder: “tanking” is not tanking. If you do it right, and follow the Six Steps to Tanking Perfection, you can earn some extra credit now to spend at a later date.
Average players who are known quantities – I’m looking at you, Sam Frost – should be left out of the team in favour of players who could add a little bit of something. The Dees can look to their opponents from yesterday evening for some inspiration: Sydney Stack and Jack Ross have given the Tigers an instant exogenous boost.
Steven May and Jake Lever should be conservatively managed back to full health. If that means May’s groin evolves into an OP diagnosis, so be it. Lever’s knee injury history demands kid gloves as it is, so extending his return to 2020 isn’t that big a stretch. Any material injuries from this point should be seen as an opportunity to accelerate a preseason program.
Melbourne’s young midfield core should have the keys turned over to them. Oliver, Angus Brayshaw, Jack Viney, James Harmes, Christian Salem and Christian Petracca should be the starting five every week from here on out. I mean you write those names on a page and you look at how it’s playing out on the field, and it just doesn’t make sense.
And yes, that means Christian Petracca plays on the ball. In the words of an esteemed member of Footy Twitter last night, it’s time Melbourne worked out exactly what to do with their former number two draft pick. Two years ago it looked as though he was going to become the next great high half forward, with a raking right boot and power to bullock through every player in the league.
Instead we get the sort of half a game of insipid handball receives that we got last night, with the occasional spurt of brilliance.
There isn’t a team in the league who wouldn’t have a crack at rehabilitating him from his early career malaise. If Petracca can’t handle the heat of an on-ball workload, the worst that can happen (in a tanking scenario) is the Dees get one almightily strong pre-text to trade him at the end of the year.
Melbourne holds both its first and second round picks in the 2019 draft. It’s not clear it needs them; Melbourne’s list ticks almost every box imaginable for a team on the rise, right down to the rump of pre-prime age players who should age together nicely. By taking actions to improve its chances in subsequent seasons, it can ensure the picks it owns are as valuable as possible.
It may then come down to whether the Dees have the salary cap space to make any adjustments around the edges that emerge as necessary in September and October. One complicating factor will be the end of Clayton Oliver’s draftee contract extension, signed after he had played his seventh AFL games and before he emerged as a future Brownlow Medal contender.
The Dees will have provisioned for him to begin to earn at that level, but given the moves of recent years one has to assume the club’s salary cap flexibility is limited.
That’s still a ways in the future. But given the way the season has unfolded for the Dees, it isn’t so far that it should be out of their minds. Indeed, there’s not a lot which should shake those investors who are long on Melbourne stock, save perhaps a downgrade to the team’s off field leadership rating (which soared in 2018).
Melbourne might be done for now, but they will be back. There is too much talent available to this team for its last seven games to be a harbinger of the end of a run that never really got going. If it is, something will have truly gone awry.