The AFL free agency period has officially begun, with Adelaide Crows defender Jake Kelly and Richmond Tigers tall Mabior Chol the first players to find new homes for 2022.
If we didn’t know beforehand, we do now.
There’s something about the Western Bulldogs that Essendon cannot stop.
It wasn’t a 21-consecutive goal mauling like we saw in 2019, but for the third time in the last four match-ups between these sides, the Sons of the West piled on their highest score of the season (to date in 2020) against the Bombers.
Essendon’s week begun contesting a bump to the head, and finished with a slap in the face. A team whose credentials had been lauded the week prior were embarrassed and exposed on the bright lights of Friday night footy.
In reality, Essendon should never have been in the conversation of league heavyweights. Outside of the win against Collingwood, the Bombers have scrapped and clawed their way to a 4-2 record with ugly wins against teams unlikely to feature in finals contention, in North Melbourne, Fremantle and Sydney.
Whilst you can only play the teams you are up against, the performances paled in comparison to a Richmond/Western Bulldogs caliber ascent which have empowered the “why not us?” mentality in recent years.
Friday’s loss should not have come as a surprise. With Dylan Shiel’s suspension, the Essendon midfield was missing three of their biggest weapons at stoppages, in Shiel, Dyson Heppell and Jake Stringer. Against a side with an elite midfield group, who made a mockery Essendon’s late last year (won contested ball by 36, overall possession count by 124), the dam wall burst.
It was the third quarter in which Essendon was held goalless and conceded five, which broke the game open. The Bulldogs won the uncontested ball count by 28, moving the ball with relative ease at times as Essendon’s pressure began to fall away.
38 tackles for the night was Essendon’s lowest count for the season, down 17 on their average for 2020. It was a really disappointing result.
Given the abundance of smaller players getting a game out of necessity, the influence of Richmond intellectual property in the coaches box and the precedent set two weeks ago, when their pressure was through the roof against Collingwood, we know what this group is capable of and they didn’t come close to showing it.
To lose the tackle count and possession tally in the same game is alarming, particularly considering the extra day’s break that they had compared to the Bulldogs.
And despite addressing the poor clearance numbers in the first half by winning the clearance battle in the third quarter, Essendon were unable to take advantage of winning first use, losing the inside 50 count by five.
With an on-ball rotation almost exclusively comprising players 180 centimeters or less (Andy McGrath, Darcy Parish, Devon Smith, Zac Merrett, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, etc), stopping the likes of Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore was always going to be a difficult task. Heck, even with the bigger bodies it’s not easy. Combined with a career-best performance from Tim English and it was almost impossible.
Furthermore, in what was a clever move from Luke Beveridge, he threw something at Essendon that they would not have been expecting, in the form of targeting Jordan Ridley.
Ridley has been a revelation this season, coming from relative obscurity to become a fantastic intercept defender. At time of writing he is in the top 10 across the league for marks taken at 6.8 per game and is using the ball at 88 per cent efficiency.
Playing alongside Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley, he has been afforded the luxury of playing on less-dangerous, ‘third tall’ types, rather than wrestling the big banana in the goal square.
On Friday, Bontempelli rested at full-forward, forcing Ridley to play with added accountability and pushing him outside of comfort zone. After seven touches and six marks in the first quarter he finished with just 14 touches and eight grabs.
Not only was Ridley held to account but Jason Johannisen was assigned to Adam Saad, and Conor McKenna played under duress, having had surgery on a broken finger earlier in the week.
Boom. There goes Essendon’s run-and-carry game that so predicates so much of their scoring. Combined with a getting beaten around the ball and seven goals in the result.
It’s no surprise that Essendon found it so difficult to move the ball and score without the potent halfback line that has been so strong this season, and that the Bulldogs had 23 shots on goal from 48 entries. That’s nearly every second forward 50 entry leading to a shot on goal. Factor-in Josh Bruce putting multiple shots on goal out of bounds on the full in the first half and the ratio becomes even worse.
A likely win against the struggling Crows this week is seldom going to rectify any major wrongs of last week, and should be another easy four points. But soon enough the likes of Richmond, Port Adelaide, Geelong and Brisbane will come around, giving the football world some legitimate data points to assess the team on against proper contenders.
Only then will we know whether the early season was false bravado, or something we can hang our hats on.