No team has been more bitterly disappointing across the first two rounds of this AFL season than the Western Bulldogs.
Four teams may currently hold an 0-2 record, but the Doggies are in a league of their own among the winless quartet. Fremantle and Carlton have both flourished late in their second halves and nearly snatched the win in three of their combined four defeats, while the Adelaide Crows were always in for a tough year.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, were supposed to be a top-four smokey – a dark horse in the competition’s upper half who nobody looked forward to playing. Instead, in their two 2020 losses, they’ve looked like a bewildered VFL team who turned up at the wrong venue.
It looked like they’d turned the corner in 2019 after two disappointing years of premiership defence, but right now they look stuck at square one. Where is it all going wrong?
Games are won and lost in the midfield and it’s clear whatever the Dogs are doing in the midfield simply isn’t working. So far, they’re dead least for clearances, metres gained and inside 50s, while also being second last for contested possessions.
Tim English has been absolutely monstered in the ruck so far, losing the hit-out counts 44-15 and 49-12 and the hit-out to advantage counts 14-1 and 20-3 in both matches. While the Dogs weren’t a huge clearance side last year, this sheer domination is seeing them lose the clearance counts – particularly centre clearances – badly.
In Round 1, Taylor Adams had more clearances than Marcus Bontempelli, Josh Dunkley, Jack Macrae and Lachie Hunter combined.
But clearances aren’t the be-all and end-all. Reigning premiers Richmond more or less don’t bother with them, relying on manic pressure around the ground to win the ball back and punish their opponents severely.
Unfortunately, when the Bulldogs find themselves without the ball, they’re just not working hard enough to get it back.
They’re getting outmarked around the ground with startling ease, conceding 93 marks a game – 83 of them uncontested – while their tally of 13 marks inside 50 conceded per game is the AFL’s worst.
The Magpies gave them a lesson in effort, increasing their average running speed in defence by 1.3km/h compared to attack, whereas the Bulldogs dropped off by the same amount instead. It was a similar story in Round 2, with the Saints increasing their running speed by 0.8km/h without the ball while the Dogs again dropped off by 1km/h.
In fact, the Western Bulldogs are one of just five teams who’ve run slower in defence than attack in both matches this season and they’re the only team who’ve been a full kilometre per hour slower on both occasions.
Not only that, there have only been three instances of a team running a full kilometre per hour slower in defence all season – two of them being by Luke Beveridge’s side. It’s just not good enough.
Difference in running speed (km/h), defence compared to attack
|Club||Round 1||Round 2|
Statistics sourced from the AFL’s Telstra Tracker.
If the stat sheet isn’t your thing, you only need to watch replays of the goals given up in both matches. None of Collingwood’s major scores in Round 1 came with a high degree of difficulty and, while St Kilda had a slightly harder time of it, most of their avenues to goal came off a Bulldog turnover, ended with an uncontested mark, involved easy ball movement from coast-to-coast or a combination of the three.
The last goal the Pies scored in Round 1, for example, saw a poor kick inside 50 picked off by Jeremy Howe, ten consecutive marks – nine uncontested – and a long kick inside 50 that spilt to a free Jordan de Goey at full forward, before he was able to hand off to a similarly uncontested Josh Daicos – who slot it through.
In the third quarter, De Goey breezed through the opposition at a full forward clearance and kick an easy goal, while Jamie Elliott and Callum Brown also scored very easy goals on the run thanks to a lack of pressure.
There were more egregious examples against the Saints, with the second quarter particularly poor. Dan Butler roved a tap cleverly on the half-forward flank before kicking to Jack Billings in the square, but he breezed through three stationary opponents in the process.
Butler was the beneficiary later in the quarter too when, in a sequence that already featured an awful Bulldog turnover, several uncontested marks – including one inside 50 – and superior St Kilda running, he snuck past several bickering Bulldogs to kick the easiest of goals.
The ease with which they allow their opponents inside 50 has meant they sit second last in points conceded despite conceding the sixth-fewest inside 50s. Dropping Zaine Cordy and keeping Ryan Gardner for Round 2 was clearly the wrong move, but the back six can’t do a whole lot if the blokes up the ground simply aren’t working.
Up forward, the scores of 34 and 49 should tell you the story. Again, the forwards can’t do a lot if the ball’s not coming down there much, but they have at least lifted their tackling pressure after a non-effort against the Pies.
Is it time to reassess your outlook on the Dogs? Yes and no. In a 17-game season, an 0-2 start with a percentage of 47.7 certainly puts them behind the eight-ball in their quest to improve on last year’s seventh-place finish.
But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Tom Liberatore is a good chance to return and give the midfield a much-needed boost next week, while the injured Easton Wood and suspended Lachie Hunter should return before Round 6.
Bailey Smith has also been a bright spot, collecting 23 disposals in Round 1 and 29 in Round 2, while also doing the hard yards in contested possessions, tackles and clearances.
Plus, the ‘0-2 curse’, where teams who started 0-2 didn’t make the finals, has been broken over the last three seasons, with Sydney (2017), Collingwood (2018) and Essendon (2019) all bucking the trend in recent years.
But, unless the Dogs increase their effort without the ball massively and work out something that resembles a defensive structure, this will quickly become another wasted season.