Essendon’s Round 1 performance was one of the hardest to read of any club, making them a tough team to get a read on ahead of the AFL’s June 11 restart.
Despite holding a comfortable lead for the majority of their Marvel Stadium clash with Fremantle, they conceded four goals to one in the final quarter and had to hold on for an unconvincing six-point win.
With John Worsfold entering his final season as Bombers coach before handing the reins over to Ben Rutten, this is a strange season – but Bombers fans should not let their club get away with calling it a building year.
Here are four burning questions for Essendon heading into 2020’s resumption.
Essendon come into 2020 in a somewhat a weird place. Yes, they played finals last year, but they also got blown off the park by West Coast once there and were the first finalist since themselves in 2009 to make the top eight with a percentage under 100.
As such, expectations are lukewarm at best on the Bombers.
Three consecutive 12-win seasons with two finals appearances is a fairly solid foundation to build off, and they’ve been very active at the trade period of late.
But acquiring Jake Stringer, Devon Smith, Adam Saad and Dylan Shiel and making no meaningful improvement in that time is just not good enough.
Essendon’s Round 1 team was the fifth-youngest and sixth-least experienced side in the competition, but they haven’t traded like a rebuilding team so they can’t get away with acting like one in 2020 – coaching transition incoming or not.
The lion’s share of their most notable players are 27 or more years old, so it’s time to get serious and have a decent crack.
It was the biggest story of last year’s trade period and only a fool would bet on this saga being done and dusted.
As a contracted player, Essendon were perfectly within their rights not to entertain Daniher and Sydney’s trade request, although any suggestion the compensation they demanded was reasonable or that the Swans were obligated to meet it is pure lunacy.
But, the Bombers now have a 26-year-old pending free agent on their hands who might not play at all this season and has managed just 11 games over the previous two.
I can see the argument that, without a key forward they were excited about in the draft, no amount of first-rounders was enough and, if they can convince him to stay and help him get back into form, they might come out ahead.
But right now the most likely outcome is he walks to Moore Park for nothing at the end of the season.
In his stead, the Dons are understandably (given their approach to the trade) short on replacement options. James Stewart stands at 199cm but, at 26, you’d imagine we’d know by now if he was going to develop into a spearhead.
There is some tall timber in club’s youth cohort, but Noah Gown (20 years old) and Harrison Jones (19) are too young to be thrown in the deep end and it doesn’t make sense in the context of their previous trade activity and age profile to be throwing a rookie in the goal square now.
It’s a big conundrum for Worsfold and co. this season. The Bombers were by far the lowest scoring finalist last season, with their home-and-away season tally of 1702 points 13th in the league and a whopping 183 behind the second-worst top eight side.
Jake Stringer (33 goals) and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (32) were dangerous at ground level, while Mitch Brown (21) and Orazio Fantasia (20) chipped in, but it dries up very quickly after that.
They had fewer marks inside 50 last season than everyone bar the Suns.
But the problems don’t just stem from the forward line – the Dons had the fourth fewest inside 50s last season too.
Jacob Townsend could play an interesting role this season, while Fantasia had an injury-interrupted 2019 and could contribute a lot more in 2020, but ideally the Bombers would like a breakout season from someone like Josh Begley, Jayden Laverde or Will Snelling to make them more of an offensive threat.
Finally, comes the strangest coaching transition I can remember. Paul Roos and Michael Malthouse both opted to retire (although both would later make a return) and left their respective clubs with multiple grand final appearances, a premiership, and a permanent place in the hearts of their supporters.
Poor John Worsfold, however, kind of got sacked via lay-by.
Rutten will presumably take a bigger role in the coaches box as the season wears on and, depending on early results, that process could be accelerated.
For a club that has very clearly claimed not to be rebuilding (and I believe them), a coaching handover in this context is just so… weird.
Essendon fans will be hoping they like whatever they end up seeing from their incoming coach.