Every year, at the end of the home-and-away season, the AFL’s All-Australian squad of 40 is announced.
It was more than just Liam Jones’ lid preventing Essendon sneaking away with a thoroughly undeserving win on Saturday night.
As fans of the Blues and the Bombers know all too well, this match-up always provides heightened levels of anxiety. Somehow, someway, these old foes find a way to make their supporters sweat, no matter the circumstances.
Saturday night was no different. On face value, Carlton should not have got close – Essendon had an extra week of rest and played almost the entire game with an extra man given the injury to Jack Silvagni.
Yet the Blues will be kicking themselves for not putting the game away much, much earlier.
Carlton bossed the game in almost every category: +14 in contested ball, a whopping +61 in uncontested possessions, +15 inside 50s and +14 clearances.
The inside-50 count in the final quarter was 13-8 in Carlton’s favour, while they also asserted their control in the clearances (12-3). Essendon could hardly fire a shot after a two-goal burst at the beginning of the term. Zach Merrett did not touch the football in the final quarter, while Devon Smith (two disposals) and Dylan Shiel (three) did not fare much better.
Across the back half they allowed Sam Docherty to do as he pleased, much as he did in Round 3, 2017 when he was a focal point in Essendon’s forward line, for whatever reason. On that day he had 20 disposals, eight intercept possessions and 500 metres gained. In a shortened game on Saturday, he managed to outdo himself with 32 disposals, nine intercepts and 547 metres gained.
Either the Bombers had forgotten about him, given his knee issues since, or they thought he was wearing red and black, because the disrespect showed by the misfiring forward line was alarming.
It was a damning performance from the Dons that proved that cracks which appeared in the previous two wins are in fact gaping crevices. More than anything else, it showed the deficiencies in attack that will hold them back from making any noise in 2020.
Their lowest possession winners on the ground were Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (four touches), Jacob Townsend (five) and Orazio Fantasia (six), and this trio combined for just two goals. Will Snelling (seven) and Jake Stringer (eight) also struggled to lay hand on leather.
It must be said that the service that they received was atrocious, with McDonald-Tipungwuti often cast in the role of pack-crunching full-forward, which was, to the surprise of no-one, wildly unsuccessful. It reminded me of the awkward post-Matthew Lloyd days when similar expectations were thrust upon Alwyn Davey.
Carlton did a fantastic job in forcing Essendon wide and denying them the corridor, often resulting in long, hopeless kicks down the line to undersized targets.
The tone was set early when Shaun McKernan and Levi Casboult engaged in a game of kick-to-kick at half-forward during the first quarter, displaying a lack of ingenuity and unwillingness to take a risk. So it should come as no surprise that four of Essendon’s eight goals were a product of using the corridor and moving the ball quickly. That is what you need to do when your key targets are not aerial threats.
By the time Cale Hooker was put forward in the dying stages, it was too little, too late. It was also a calamitous man-management mistake, as Michael Hurley was stuck on the bench, leaving the backline vulnerable against contested marking players such as Casboult.
In the end it was David Cuningham who the Bombers decided to socially distance from, marking uncontested, but was unable to ice the game.
The fleet-footed pair of Michael Gibbons and Cuningham were too quick for the Dons’ strangely tall and rigid backline. It’s hard to see how Mason Redman, Jordan Ridley, Marty Gleeson and Aaron Francis can all play in the same team, when all are of comparable size and stature and play largely similar, intercept-marking roles.
Ridley has been a shining light since the restart and Francis finally has continuity and confidence in his body, so it would come down to Redman or Gleeson.
Do the coaches pull trigger on the suddenly available Conor McKenna, who was released from his self-isolation period earlier than expected on Monday? It would be risky, but his flair and creativity is desperately needed. Let’s not forget that this is a guy who finished in the top five of Essendon’s best and fairest count last season. He is a critical part of the team’s identity.
If they play long and slow against Collingwood, Darcy Moore and Jordan Roughead will celebrate Christmas in July, gobbling-up intercept marks like they’re lathered in gravy and served with all the trimmings.
Ultimately, this loss reinforced what Essendon fans already know: the backline is more than holding their own, covering the shortcomings of an undersized forward line and a weakened midfield without the skipper.
They are in desperate need of a key forward and a ruckman. They know what their best scoring method is, and they know what doesn’t work.
2020 is a season like no other. New coach Ben Rutten has the chance to try something new, roll the dice and discover what works and what doesn’t. Take the opportunity. Get creative. Put Darcy Parish in the midfield.
Whatever it is, what happened on Saturday can’t be repeated.