Since John Worsfold took over Essendon in 2016 amid the most calamitous time in the club’s history, the best word to describe the club would be ‘mediocre’.
There’s plenty of differing opinions about whether Worsfold’s time at the Bombers has been a success.
Some point out that two finals series over the three years he had a proper football team and after the disastrous doping scandal is a good outcome. However, others point to the fact they were in this exact same spot before the doping scandal and therefore he hasn’t improved the list.
Whatever view you have won’t matter too much this season as Worsfold coaches for one more year and then hands the reigns to Ben Rutten under a succession plan that Essendon announced last year.
Finals are an expectation for the Bombers yet again in 2020, and you would assume a pass mark would be to at least win one final after failing at the first hurdle in September last season.
FB: Martin Gleeson, Michael Hurley, Aaron Francis
HB: Mason Redman, Patrick Ambrose, Adam Saad
C: Conor McKenna, Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett
HF: Orazio Fantasia, Cale Hooker, Devon Smith
FF: Jake Stringer, Shaun McKernan, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
Foll: Andrew Phillips, Dylan Shiel, Andrew McGrath
IC: Mitchell Hibberd, Tom Cutler, Kyle Langford, Jayden Laverde
Essendon’s defence is the best part of their team, and it should improve this season providing the likes of Patrick Ambrose, Aaron Francis, Mason Redman and Martin Gleeson can continue to improve.
Ambrose was terrific last year, shutting down some of the biggest names in the competition as a lockdown defender, and even though he’s 28 he has played only 87 games, which means there should be scope for improvement.
Francis was terrific in parts last season and has already shown he has the natural ability to make it at AFL level. He is a brilliant mark, extremely quick for his size and has sublime foot skills for a key defender. At the age of 22 he is a key part of Essendon’s future.
Michael Hurley is still one of the premier defenders in the competition, and although he didn’t reach the heights expected of him last season it’s hard to see him not bouncing back and being an All Australian contender again.
The main weapon the Bombers have in their backline is the run and carry that they generate, which can lead to goals. Adam Saad had a brilliant season last year, averaging 17 disposals a game, ranking second in bounces per game and 19th in total rebound 50s. Conor McKenna is another who had a brilliant season, averaging 20 disposals a game, ranking first in bounces per game and 15th in total rebound 50s.
The likes of Mason Redman and Aaron Francis are also good enough to break the lines with either their speed or kicking ability, which is always a worry for opposition teams.
Essendon has tried to bolster their midfield in recent years, trading in Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith from the Giants, but it hasn’t made much impact on the team.
Admittedly Smith had a brilliant debut season at the Bombers before being crippled by injuries last season. Even with him being fully fit, though, he is more of a half-forward than an actual midfielder, and that’s something Essendon has an abundance of.
The issue with the Essendon midfield is that they don’t have any star power. Zach Merrett is widely accepted as being their best midfielder, but he isn’t elite. Merrett averaged 28 disposals a game, ranked 13th in total inside 50s for any player and ranked 11th in total disposals across the competition. However, he doesn’t win the contested ball enough and he doesn’t damage opposition teams with his disposals. He ranked fifth in turnovers per game last year, which solidifies the fact that he doesn’t hurt teams enough.
Dyson Heppell hasn’t been the same player since the drug saga occurred. Heppell averaged 28 disposals a game in 2014 and looked like being an elite player in the competition, but he just hasn’t had as much damage in games as he used too. In hindsight being made captain probably wasn’t the right decision. Heppell is yet another Bomber that ranked in the top 20 for turnovers per game, something which is a trend among the Essendon midfield.
It sounds like a tape recording, but Dylan Shiel is another who gets plenty of the ball but doesn’t use it well. He is more important to the side than Merrett and Heppell are purely because he is a very good contested ballplayer. He ranked ninth in centre clearances per game last year as well as 19th in total metres gained and 14th in total bounces.
Their midfield depth is also an issue for them. Outside of Merrett, Heppell, Shiel and McGrath there isn’t much left. Smith can rotate through there to a degree, as can Langford, but it stops there. For the Bombers to improve this year they need at least a few more midfielders to have breakout seasons.
Essendon’s small forwards are among the best in the competition, with the likes of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (32 goals), Jake Stringer (33 goals) and Orazio Fantasia (20 goals) all having relatively good seasons last year.
There is scope for improvement out of these three as well. Jake Stringer’s best season was when he kicked 56 goals in 2015 as he carried his former team, the Bulldogs, to an unlikely finals berth. The very next season he kicked 42 goals and became a premiership player.
In 2017 Fantasia kicked 39 goals. He was the best Bombers small forward by a fair way that year and there’s no reason he can’t get back to that type of goal tally providing he stays on the park and has an injury-free preseason.
However, the big issue is still Essendon’s key forwards. With Joe Daniher out for the first half of the season, just like last year, the cupboard seems bare for the Bombers.
Cale Hooker will most likely find himself playing as a key forward this season, the position which saw him kick 41 goals in 2017. However, there would be serious queries around whether he could do that again. He’s three years older than he was then and he is already starting to slow down.
The forward line’s hopes rely on Shaun McKernan and, realistically, that is a terrible situation. He’s been in the competition for ten years now and he has struggled to get regular games until last season, during which he played 16 games and kicked a career-high goal tally of 17 goals.
The lack of even a competent key forward who can hold down and lead a forward line will be Essendon’s Achilles heel in 2020 and will most likely see them regress.
Essendon has scraped into the finals in two out of the last three seasons, but it’s hard to see that happening in 2020.
It’s hard to see where the improvement is coming from, with only McGrath, Parish and Francis looking like they can become very good players.
They didn’t address their need for a midfielder who can use it well or their lack of a good key forward – or even a second tall if Daniher were fit.
The 2020 season will be a rebuilding year for the Bombers as the succession plan takes place, but the supporters who are expecting another finals appearance won’t be happy.
Predicted finish: 13th