Every year, at the end of the home-and-away season, the AFL’s All-Australian squad of 40 is announced.
And every year, fans and media pundits alike bemoan the omission of their own personal favourite players. Then, of course, they do it all over again once the final side is announced.
This year, the biggest snubs with respect to the initial squad were apparently directed at the likes of Steven May, Todd Goldstein, Lachie Whitfield and Jarryd Lyons.
One player whose name you probably didn’t hear thrown into the mix with other unlucky omissions is Zach Merrett. You really should have heard it, though, because it needs to be said: Zach Merrett was a star in 2020 and his absence from the initial squad of 40 was as glaring as that any of those players named above.
Ah, I can hear the arguments forming as I type these words.
“Sure, he gets plenty of the pill –”
Correct, 26.3 disposals per game, ranked fourth in the competition. Go on.
“– but he butchers it a bit, doesn’t he?”
19.4 effective disposals per game, ranked fourth, going at 74 per cent.
“Okay, but he dishes out a lot of cheap sideways kicks.”
413.5 metres gained per game, ranked seventh in the competition and second among all midfielders.
“He doesn’t really hurt opponents with his dispo–”
4.9 inside 50s per game, ranked third, with five score involvements per game (ranked 26th) in a team that struggled to post a rugby league score most weeks.
“Right, but he’s a bit of a one-way run–”
9.6 defensive half pressure acts per game, ranked 14th.
“Stats aren’t everything though, are they?”
Well, in the context of any rational, semi-objective attempt to determine who the best players were across each position in 2020…yeah, they kind of are. And in Merrett’s case, the numbers don’t lie (for the sake of transparency, the rankings above exclude players who played fewer than half of the 17 possible games for the 2020 season).
If you still aren’t convinced that Merrett would have been a worthy inclusion in this squad, then let’s look at West Coast’s Andrew Gaff for a quick comparison.
Why Gaff? Well, for starters he was picked in the 2020 All-Australian squad. He’s become something of a fixture too, having now made the squad in five of the last six seasons and being named in the final teams in 2015 and 2018.
Gaff also plays a very similar role for his side to that of Merrett, being a modestly-sized, outside midfielder, who bounces between the centre and the wing.
So, how do their numbers per game in 2020 stack up? Ignoring statistics where there was no significant difference between the two players, or where each player’s ranking was so low as to be negligible, here are the key categories in which Merrett comes out on top:
Disposals (+1.9), tackles (+1), inside 50s (+1.7), uncontested possessions (+1.7), effective disposals (+1.6), metres gained (+74.3m), clearances (+1.4) and score involvements (+1.5).
And here are the key categories in which Gaff is notably ahead:
Marks inside 50 (+0.5), intercepts (+1.7) and intercept marks (+0.4).
I want to be clear that I’m not picking on Gaff. He’s an exceptional footballer who had a good season. He just happens to be an ideal player against which to draw a meaningful comparison.
We don’t have to stop at Gaff, either. We could hold Merrett’s season up to those of Cam Guthrie and Hugh McCluggage – two other similar players who also made the cut for the All-Australian squad (in Guthrie’s case, the final side) – and Merrett would compare favourably.
If this still isn’t hitting home, feel free to jump onto footywire.com and use their handy player compare tool if you want to run the numbers yourself.
It’s not as if this season was an anomaly for Merrett, either. A quick glance at his performances since 2016 will show that he is an exceptionally consistent player. And he’s still only 24.
So why the lack of recognition?
For starters, I don’t think Merrett’s appearance and on-field demeanour aids his cause. In a world full of leg tattoos, bad haircuts and excessive goal celebrations, Merrett is about as vanilla as it gets.
Being a little on the short side, with a great poker face and a haircut that looks like it was done by his nan, isn’t going to catch many eyes. here is simply nothing flashy about the way Merrett looks or operates. Even pulling Nic Nat’s dreadlocks and breaking Jack Silvagni’s rib didn’t seem to shake up his image.
It also doesn’t help that he’s basically been doing the same thing week in, week out, for the last five years, without any major peaks or troughs. It’s so easy to take a player for granted when you know exactly what you’re going to get from them each time they step onto a field.
As soon as a hard-working, clean-cut, consistent type is no longer the new kid on the block, it seems they have to put up some absurd numbers in order to get the recognition they deserve. Just ask Lachie Neale.
Of course, there’s also the fact that Merrett plays for a middling side which apparently spent the best part of 2020 trying to relieve itself of any and all admirers. It can be tough to get noticed when people are so focused on how badly your side is travelling.
If you’re one of those people who had all but forgotten about Merrett, you can probably be excused. I’m not even convinced his own club values him as highly as they should, having stripped him of leadership duties – and the vice-captaincy – at the start of the year.
There was a rumour doing the rounds at the time to the effect that Merrett was dumped because he was too demanding of his teammates. I sincerely hope that isn’t true. Could you imagine – a club that is routinely criticised for not being ruthless enough, demoting someone for setting high standards?
Wait, don’t answer that. It does sound a little bit Essington.
And then there are the fans. A worryingly large number of Essendon supporters apparently don’t rate Merrett. In the past week I’ve found myself in three separate online debates on Essendon Facebook pages, with people who remain steadfast in their belief that he underwhelmed in 2020.
One of them actually referred to Merrett as ‘obsolete’. Obsolete? What does that even mean?
Zach who, indeed.