Tom Liberatore is the league’s most underrated player.
He might even be the Bulldogs’ most important midfielder.
Through five rounds, it has become clear that from a functional perspective, Liberatore is the cog that allows the Bulldog machine to run smoother than any other. Plenty of club-related discussions circled around the Bulldogs’ incredible, yet almost unnecessary midfield depth, where coach Luke Beveridge would need to continue his trend of having players play out of position to fit everyone in.
Outside of internal stakeholders and fans of the club, many simply overlooked Liberatore, carrying the assumption that he would be one player to make way from the regular midfield mix for his more talented teammates.
There are many AFL fans whose opinions of Liberatore still stem from a couple of years’ worth of off-field cameos and indiscretions.
Yet here we sit, nearly a quarter of the home-and-away season completed and looking at the best clearance player in the competition who has taken his game to levels not far below his 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Of course, the numbers are impressive. Liberatore is averaging 24 disposals, 8.4 clearances, 6.2 inside 50s, 5.2 tackles and a scoring shot per game.
He is ranked first for clearances, sixth for inside 50s, seventh for contested possessions and is in the top 20 for tackles and score involvements.
Liberatore’s previously overlooked kicking efficiency has taken a step back this season with the huge uptick in output at the contests, however, this has been a non-factor for the Bulldogs as he is clearly playing to his strengths.
And that’s what makes the 28-year-old so vital to the team.
As is the case with many of his teammates, Liberatore has previously fallen victim to Beveridge’s creativity at times.
Sporadically, we have seen Liberatore caught on a wing or a half-forward flank in transition in the past, and it makes for slightly awkward viewing for a player that encapsulates the Bulldogs’ spirit centrally.
He was always a tackling machine, however, the numbers certainly took a big step back after his second ACL tear in 2018. After the injury, the midfielder certainly took measures to play within himself rather than with reckless abandon at the bottom of packs in the middle, but his role had been adjusted to account for his continued recovery.
We can be infatuated with numbers at both ends of the spectrum, holding them in high or low regard, but what isn’t measured is the intangibles of effort and leadership, which have never wavered for Liberatore.
He has always played with heart and focused on his strengths.
2019 was somewhat of a crossroads for him, with the immense pressure of needing to prove himself after a disappointing 2017 paired with the difficulty in rebounding from another ACL tear.
Such is his character that he proved to everyone that he was clearly a member of the club’s best line-up while fighting through relative AFL adversity.
But truthfully, Liberatore has always been a good player for the Bulldogs at a bare minimum. Even when asked to play a different sort of role, Liberatore has been a player that can just do it.
After his first ACL tear in 2015, he came back and proved to be dangerous forward of the centre, finishing with 14 goals and 16 goal assists in the magical premiership season.
After the second ACL tear in 2018, he cemented his spot once again.
Now in 2021, Liberatore is playing perhaps the most important footy of his career in the role he loves, as a centre-square midfielder.
The Bulldogs have been a dominant force in the early parts of the season, ahead of the Round 6 clash against quasi-rival GWS, a team Liberatore himself has struggled against.
Overall, the team’s numbers are incredible, untouched in the competition statistically.
Liberatore’s work in the middle has been immense, and his adaptability has been such that he was even able to be rested from tough centre square work against the Suns, only attending around 53 per cent of the contests.
Leading the competition in clearances is only important if a player can provide a decisive advantage to his team in the post-stoppage possessions, and Liberatore is masterful at it.
The only way Jack Macrae, Marcus Bontempelli and Adam Treloar thrive as midfielders breaking away from stoppages and finding space is because their teammate on the inside is feeding them.
Macrae’s playing an all-time season, with his clearance work seemingly going unnoticed too, but his strength in ball use has largely benefitted from locating the space that Liberatore’s magnetism on the inside has created.
Watch Liberatore in any game in 2021, and you’ll see him lined up against the opposition’s most dangerous extractor and fighting tooth and nail for the ball. He follows the ball closely around the ground and it is more evident than ever that the Bulldogs are clearly lining up at least one free player in a position behind Liberatore to be fed the ball.
In positions where his goal is to extricate himself from the shackles of multiple opposition players, you can see the clear intent to feed the ball backwards with his understanding of the direction of the openside.
This isn’t to say Liberatore doesn’t have his own limitations, typically guilty of bombing the ball inside 50 with the sole intent of removing the ball from his possession when under intense pressure.
Given the offensive juggernaut the Bulldogs have shown themselves to be, Liberatore certainly isn’t assisted by the tendency for the opposition to place more emphasis on defensive 50 coverage.
With time and space, he can certainly control possession better. But it’s the confidence the Bulldogs’ midfielders have in their teammate that make him such an important part to this team.
There is a newfound sense of reliability about the team’s performance and output, and there’s no coincidence in the fact that it has coincided with the fact Liberatore has locked in as the main clearance player.
The output is at a high level, the pressure is elite and the follow-up work is fantastic – Liberatore is averaging 26 pressure acts and 1.4 tackles inside 50, both classified as elite.
But it’s also the general release on the pressure valve on the players surrounding him that is having just as big of an influence.
Historically, Adam Treloar and Marcus Bontempelli have been the players that have had to do everything in the midfield for their teams.
At Collingwood, Treloar had to do all the clearance work, be the x-factor to burst from stoppages, apply the most pressure and set up goals in attack.
The Bulldogs’ skipper has had to be the team’s most well-rounded midfielder, balancing his contested and uncontested work, which impacted his performance at times.
In 2021, both players are well down on clearances and tackles, and have improved their numbers significantly in inside 50s, scoreboard impact and uncontested possession ratio.
They are thriving in an environment that has Tom Liberatore doing the grunt work, relieving these damaging offensive players of their previous burdens.
Josh Dunkley is working well in his rotational role alongside Liberatore, while Macrae’s aforementioned freakish talents on the inside and out remain consistent, predominately winning his contested ball and clearances around the ground.
The resulting flow-on effect means there is less pressure for rebounders and wingers like Lachie Hunter, Bailey Smith, Bailey Dale and Patrick Lipinski, as their more illustrious teammates are rotating through the same areas and attract more attention.
Fears of oversaturation with the Bulldogs’ midfield group have been allayed as Liberatore’s reemergence as the league’s best clearance player has resulted in more clearly defined roles at the Bulldogs, something not seen for a long time.
Not many players across the competition are having the impact that Liberatore is having on his team.
Many like to look at the flashier players with excellent highlight reels for their votes for most underrated.
The phrase itself is overused, but the sentiment remains relevant.
2021 looks to be a fantastic year for the Bulldogs and it will largely be defined on the sustainability of output from their famous number 21. History says he can do it, and he has the full confidence of his team and the Bulldogs’ coaching staff.
By the end of the season, he may be playing alongside a Brownlow medalist and even a Norm Smith medalist.
So don’t be surprised if things keep going the way they are and the man himself becomes a two-time Charles Sutton medalist.
It’s time we start paying more respect to Tom Liberatore, as he is the key to the Bulldogs in 2021.