There was a lot of angst at the kennel among supporters following the last few years of player losses after the team’s grand final win in 2018.
It was a disappointing end to what can only be described as a mediocre 2019 campaign.
Coming off three convincing wins to complete the home-and-away season, the Western Bulldogs were left licking their wounds after watching GWS slam home ten goals to three in the second half of their elimination final to hand the Dogs a 58-point loss.
Since their premiership in 2016, the Bulldogs have failed to make the eight twice and barely managed a step better this season with their first-week exit from September action. So where is it that the Dogs have failed since their triumph in 2016?
In 2019, the Bulldogs conceded the fifth most goals of any team this season, giving up 280 goals at an average of almost 13 per game. This stat is enhanced by the fact that the Bulldogs were one of the better teams for inside 50s conceded, ranking sixth in that category, showing that they have an inability to stop opposition forwards’ efficiency around goal.
The absence of an elite key defender has been a problem that has plagued the Bulldogs over the past few seasons, allowing bags of five-plus goals to four different players all season while conceding 100 points on eight occasions.
This is where the AFL trade period has changed the landscape of the AFL, giving Bulldogs fans a new sense of optimism for the 2020 season.
Addressing their defensive concerns, 27-year-old Adelaide defender Alex Keath requested a trade to the Bulldogs a week ago. Keath averaged over eight intercept possessions and almost three intercept marks per game for the Crows, enjoying a breakout season in 2019.
Adding this defensive pillar to their back 50 is a massive inclusion for the Bulldogs, who can now have a marquee name manning oppositions number one key forward. Mixing Keath in with the pacey half back line of Jason Johannisen, Easton Wood and Caleb Daniel will provide an exciting new look to their back six for the 2020 season.
Scanning down the opposite end of the ground, the Bulldogs enjoyed breakout years from some more of their young stars.
Aaron Naughton was a revelation at full forward, clunking 53 contested marks for the season, which ranked second in the league, just behind Richmond star Tom Lynch.
Fresh trade recruit Sam Lloyd booted 38 goals for the season to lead the team, Bailey Dale booted 21 from just ten games and Josh Schache showed signs that he is ready to take the step into a consistent centre half forward role.
Schache (22), Naughton (19) and Dale (23), are all still incredibly young and still moving into the prime of their career, so watch for these three to take another step and stamp the trio as one of the best forward combinations in the league.
Rumours have it that Josh Bruce has also requested a trade to the Bulldogs, potentially adding the sixth best contested mark from the 2019 season and a 36-goal kicker to the already dangerous forward line. If the trade gets completed over the off-season, watch for Bruce and Naughton to be the best contested marking forward duo in the AFL in 2020.
The final thing for the Bulldogs fans to get excited about is their potent midfield group, that was one of the best in 2019 and the highlight of the Dogs’ 2019 campaign.
The group is led by their three stars: Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae and Josh Dunkley, who between them averaged 89 disposals per game (26.3, 33.3 and 28.3 respectively), which also resulted in all three players finishing in the top 20 on Brownlow night.
The scariest thing for the rest of the AFL about these three stars is that Macrae is the oldest of the group, and he’s only 25. All three players are still yet to hit their prime age, meaning they can only get better as a group.
They are supported by other talented young players – including Lachie Hunter, Ed Richards and Patrick Lipinski – plus a blossoming young ruckman Tim English, who is starting to show signs that he is developing into a permanent number one ruck.
Number seven draft pick Bailey Smith also came on in leaps and bounds in his debut season, playing all 23 games while averaging a handy 18 disposals and four tackles. This midfield group looks poised to play a major role in wreaking havoc throughout the competition in 2020, helped by a strengthening back line and a developing young forward line.
The Bulldogs had 17 of their starting 22 from their elimination final either 25 years old or younger, with an average age of 23.2 on their 2019 list (including Dale Morris, Tom Boyd and Liam Picken).
This group is primed to make the leap back into premiership contention and with their premiership window wide open, the Dogs need to be aggressive and get Alex Keath and Josh Bruce to the club.
Get excited Bulldogs fans, there’s a lot to like about the 2020 Western Bulldogs.