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Why Melbourne could be the team to beat in 2021

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Roar Guru
5th May, 2021
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Since 2000, of the 11 teams who went 7-0, only Essendon (2000), Hawthorn (2008) and Geelong (2009) went on to win the premiership.

Teams with a 7-0 record that did not win the flag were Hawthorn (2001), St Kilda (2004 and 2009), West Coast (2005), Geelong (2008 and 2013), Fremantle (2015) and North Melbourne (2016).

But with Melbourne having out-muscled and outplayed Richmond two matches ago to win by 34 points – with the latter arguably the toughest team going around for the last four seasons in terms of its attack on the ball – the Demons sent a message to the other 17 teams by overcoming an early three-goal deficit against the premiers.

And with Richmond rebounding a week later to beat the previously undefeated Western Bulldogs, even without champion player Dustin Martin, Melbourne’s form now looks even stronger.

So why the improvement in the Dees in 2021 given they finished 17th in 2019 and ninth in 2020 after making the preliminary finals in 2018?

I would not have a clue beyond a talented 2021 squad that includes 15 players with 80 to 160 games’ experience prior to the 2021 season.

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As should be expected by a team that is undefeated after seven rounds, Melbourne ranks high in most key statistics: third for contested marks, third in kicks, fifth marks, sixth handballs, fourth disposals, third tackles, and sixth for marks inside 50m.

But the one statistic that impresses me most is that they are leading contested possessions, with 149 per game, ahead of the Western Bulldogs, Brisbane and Port Adelaide.

With the AFL much more of a running game than when players basically stayed in their positions, the importance of the contested possession is obvious once boring passages of uncontested possession between teammates are finally ended by kicks into a contested space.

As always, winning the hard ball is inspiring to teammates, as well as creating or fulfilling opportunities for players down field through good delivery.

We often listen to commentators talk about the great game setups of winning teams when reviewing games, but the truth is that all coaches and teams are only likely to have their best plans executed if their team wins enough of the hard ball.

In other words, Nathan Buckley – now a source of ridicule given Collingwood’s poor form – could have the best plan out there but it counts for little if his team cannot win the ball enough times to fulfil or create opportunities down field, assuming his forwards are competent enough to lead, mark and kick goals.

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Ten Melbourne players average seven or more contested possessions per game, including some of their best players of all shapes and sizes, which helps explain why they are getting on top all over the ground.

Clayton Oliver (187cm and 85kg) not only averages 16 contested possessions per game (highest in AFL), but is playing above his past best season average in terms of contested possessions, contested marks, kicks, disposals and marks.

Christian Petracca (186 cm and 96 kg), averaging over 11 contested possessions per game, is having his best season game average for kicks, marks and disposals.

Max Gawn (208cm and 109 kg), arguably the AFL’s best ruckman, is having his best season in terms of contested possessions, contested marks, marks, kicks and disposals, despite his game average for hitouts being down with Luke Jackson taking up some of the ruckman duties.

Max Gawn in a Melbourne Demons huddle

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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Kysaiah Pickett (170cm and 67kg), only in his second year, is a small player with an amazing eight contested possessions per game while also kicking a valuable 14 goals.

Other players averaging over seven contested possessions include Jack Viney (178cm and 84kg) currently out injured, Tom McDonald (194cm and 99kg), Jake Lever (195cm and 91kg), Luke Jackson (198cm and 84kg), Angus Brayshaw (187cm and 87kg), and Alex Neal-Bullen (182cm and 80kg).

With such a group of players getting the hard ball, it is hardly surprising that other Melbourne players are playing well, including Bayley Fritsch (188cm and 82kg) who has kicked 18 goals this year.

Of course, being undefeated after seven rounds is no guarantee for success. A team must withstand mental lapses that can be associated with a few quick losses, has to overcome other top teams, and must have enough depth to cover injuries.

While Melbourne has already experienced season-ending injuries to Marty Hore, Aaron Nietschke and Adam Tomlinson, it does looks like they have considerable depth, with backup players being part of the undefeated Casey Demons after three rounds.

Although Melbourne is one of four equal favourites with bookmakers to win the 2021 premiership, along with Richmond, Port Adelaide and Brisbane, it is going to take a very good team to beat the Demons in September should they have reasonable luck with injuries.

And for a team with a great VFL history that has not won a flag since 1964, it would be great to see.

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