The last decade and a half has given Melbourne fans every reason to be slow to trust and quick to hate.
Eleven consecutive seasons without featuring in September is bad enough but that era was filled with gutwrenching moments like a wooden spoon in the club’s 150th year, that loss in Geelong, allegations of tanking, the wretched Mark Neeld era, frustrating false starts under Paul Roos and a final-round collapse in 2017 so unthinkable to everyone that the club’s long-suffering members were still delivered ticketing details for the finals series they’d just missed out on.
We all know how good 2018 was but, after the Demons followed it up last year with an unfathomably awful 2019, you had to wonder whether the previous season had been one big practical joke by the footy gods; drawing Melbourne fans in with the notion that their fate was finally turning, only to laugh in their face with a return to futility.
With a mountain of failures piled up since 2006, I can understand a record of 5-5 and a position of ninth not being enough to excite anyone yet, but I’m here to tell you something – the Demons are back.
Let’s take a look at their fixture so far this year. They’ve enjoyed hard-fought wins over the much-improved Blues and Suns, before crushing the Hawks, Crows and Kangaroos in games they were all considered a big risk of dropping.
Their five losses include competitive efforts against West Coast (in Perth) and Richmond, defeats by under a goal to Geelong and Brisbane and a shellacking by ladder-leaders Port Adelaide – their one bad game of the year.
This isn’t the formline of a club threatening for the flag in 2020 but, for a club that finished 17th last season, winning five games by a paltry average margin of nine points, this is a huge improvement that warrants notice.
As far as stats go, I’ll once again spare superfluous words where a table can tell the story more effectively.
I’ve used rankings rather than raw figures here, as 2020’s shorter match times make comparing numbers across seasons misleading and confusing.
|Contested possession diff.||1st||6th||3rd|
|Inside 50 diff.||1st||8th||4th|
|Marks inside 50||1st||8th||4th|
What really jumps out to me is a dramatic return to form in both contested marking and marking inside 50, as well as metres gained. For the first two stats, we all saw how Jesse Hogan – who made Melbourne’s forward line greater than the sum of its parts – was sorely missed in 2019, with Tom McDonald and Sam Weideman both flounder in his absence.
Weideman is enjoying the best year of his career so far, while the emergence of Luke Jackson has the forward line slowly clicking back into action. They’re not at 2018’s level yet, but the pieces are there.
As for metres gained, the return of certain players from injury and smart trading has allowed better users of the ball to fill more important roles.
This year, it’s Steven May primarily moving the ball out of defence and Ed Langdon providing much of the penetration on the wing. May has been moving the ball at a crisp 80 per cent effectiveness, while Langdon’s percentage is a career-best 78.2.
Last year, it was Christian Salem (73 per cent) and James Harmes (68) filling those roles. The numbers speak for themselves.
Combine this improvement with the scintillating form of Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver, and suddenly you’re looking at a team capable of moving the ball very well indeed.
The most important stat of all, of course, is scoring, and Melbourne are back on track there too. If you looked at raw figures, you’d claim they’re in a malaise, falling from 105 points a game in 2018, to 71 in 2019 and 63 this year.
But if you compare their scores to the league average, it tells a different story. They’ve not caught up to 2018 yet, where they scored 21 points more than the league average per game, but their plummet in 2019 – where they fell to 9.1 points per game below average – has been arrested and now they’re back to two points above average per game.
One huge change has been a move back to a handball-heavy style of play. The table above already shows how they went from fourth to eleventh to fourth again in handballs, but their kick-to-handball ratio is also interesting.
In 2018, it sat at 1.18:1 to one – very low compared to the rest of the AFL – before ballooning out to 1.4:1 last year. Again, you can see above what havoc that wreaked on their disposal efficiency and turnover numbers.
This year, it’s settled down again to 1.29:1 and, while their turnover numbers are still on the high side, their disposal efficiency is on the way up.
But if you think this means they’ve simply reverted to an old game plan that isn’t guaranteed to cut it, you’d be wrong. Going from game to game, there’s no correlation between their kick-to-handball ratio and winning or losing. While there’s clearly been a correction from what was too big a change last season, the Demons simply look to be getting better by foot.
So, what do Melbourne need to do to really get back to their best? The simple answer is effectiveness up forward.
Having May and Jake Lever on the park more has shored up the defence, while every man and his dog has read about Petracca leading the midfield march.
Up forward, however, is where the biggest room for improvement is. The Demons consistently generate plenty of inside 50s, but it’s how effective they are once there that often determines whether they win or lose.
Again, I’ll let a table do the talking here. Here, I’ve compared the relationship between Melbourne’s inside 50s per goal, which of their key forwards were playing (25 is Tom McDonald, 26 is Sam Weideman, 6 is Luke Jackson) and the result.
Clearly, it’s (generally) the more key forwards the better for Melbourne, but those numbers also tell me they don’t switch up their approach enough when some tall timber is missing.
If they can get that part of the game right, there’s no reason the Demons can’t get back to their 2018 heights.