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Opinion

Western Bulldogs and Melbourne a clash to savour

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25th May, 2021
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There is plenty of ineptness around the league this year, but we can’t write about St Kilda’s lack of heart every week.

It’s time to celebrate the clubs at the pointy end. It’s not often we get a true top-of-the-table clash between the two clear best teams, and they are to be savoured.

With both the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne two games and percentage clear of third, sitting at 9-1 and locks for the top four, there is no doubt that this is a heavyweight bout. There is every chance these teams will meet again in September, and possibly on the last Saturday.

The Dogs have claimed the scalps of Brisbane, Port in Adelaide, West Coast and GWS, with their only loss to Richmond after leading at one stage by 25 points. It was the loss they had to have.

The Dees have clocked Geelong, Sydney and GWS away, as well as the Tigers. They are coming off their only loss of the season, to a hungry Adelaide on the weekend. Having ground their way to recent wins over North, Sydney and Carlton, they were due to drop one, and it will sharpen them right up.

What the Dogs have done better than the Demons is pulverise a vulnerable opponent, and go in for the kill. They’ve put triple-figure margins on North and St Kilda, as well as claiming a 62-point victory over Gold Coast.

Stefan Martin

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Melbourne by contrast haven’t yet won a match by even ten goals, with a 50-point win over Hawthorn their biggest. Their wins have been controlled and professional, either holding an opponent at arm’s length for the duration, or putting the game to bed quickly after an arm wrestle.

For the Dogs, we know it starts in the midfield. Whether it’s Stef Martin, Jordan Sweet or Tim English (if he plays) in the ruck, they don’t always win the hit outs, but they do clear the ball. Their clearance differential (+9.1) is almost twice as much as the second best team (Geelong at +5.2).

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They know how to win the footy. As they should, with a star-studded midfield, right? They’ve jam-packed that area of the ground with talent, to the point that Bailey Smith is probably sixth in line if everyone is fit, but could be the leading midfielder at several other clubs.

It’s not as if Melbourne is short on star quality in the middle of the ground, either.

Max Gawn of the Demons celebrates a goal

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

While not quite having the depth of the Dogs, they probably have the edge in top-end star talent, especially with Max Gawn in the ruck.

Gawn is going to win most of the hit outs, so it is likely that Tom Liberatore will be roving to him, with Clayton Oliver (coming off a career-best game) going for the same ball. They sit one and two in the league for clearances, and there are none harder at the pill. Yum.

Christian Petracca and Jack Macrae are also in the top ten for clearances this season, but go about things in very different ways.

Petracca can explode from stoppages, using his brute force and power, and likes to penetrate inside 50. Macrae is a silent assassin, favouring death by a thousand (high quality) cuts. He’s just always where the ball is, either getting it, receiving it, or laying a tackle on the person with it.

Marcus Bontempelli will certainly be floating between midfield and forward, as is his want. James Jordon might keep an eye on him at stoppages, and good luck to the young man on that one.

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Marcus Bontempelli

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The Dogs have had Josh Dunkley out for a while, and now have Adam Treloar missing as well. Smith will certainly play more inside, and perhaps Lachie Hunter will play more central on a wing after appearing to push forward more in recent times.

The Dees still don’t have Jack Viney to call on as another contested bull, but have Ed Langdon patrolling the wing in stellar form.

While the Dogs might hold the aces in the midfield by a slim margin, even missing two of their best – and Melbourne fans could rightly contest that – the contests between talls at either end could also decide the contest.

Aaron Naughton, Josh Bruce and Tim English have been marking everything inside 50. Naughton leads the league in that stat, with Bruce also in the top five.

Those two have kicked 57 goals between them, and rarely get in each other’s way. Their task is made easier by the 6-6-6 rule and the Dogs’ centre clearance dominance, so if Gawn can keep the ball away from Liberatore and company, that will help the Dees.

Melbourne also have Steven May and Jake Lever, who have been marking everything in defensive 50. There have been games where these two have been simply impassable, like playing against Jeremy McGovern and Brian Lake at the same time. Harry Petty and Michael Hibberd are handy in this area too.

Jake Lever

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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So we have the best marking forwards against the best marking defenders! It’s mouth-watering.

Up the other end of the ground is where the more less-heralded players will be congregated, but it will be no less important.

The Dees have manufactured goals through Bayley Fritsch as the medium, Tom McDonald as the mobile tall and Kysaiah Pickett as the swooper, with Petracca resting forward. Luke Jackson and Max Gawn have swapped ruck and forward to give genuine height deep, while Ben Brown and Sam Weideman are trying to force their way in.

Alex Keath and Zaine Cordy have held the fort down back for the Dogs, leading the most miserly defence in the league. But has this been more to do with lack of opposition opportunity thanks to their midfield dominance? Probably, but that’s why it’s a team game. It’s hard to dominate everywhere, and you just have to pull it all together to win on the day.

The Dogs have the edge in running half backs, even with Christian Salem in career-best form. But if Melbourne can assert themselves in the middle, can Caleb Daniel, Bailey Dale, Taylor Duryea and Hayden Crozier defend against the multi-pronged forward set-up mentioned earlier?

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The scene is set for a magnificent spectacle. And the rolling fixture, whether you are for or against it, has certainly delivered what we want on a Friday night. The match being held at Marvel ensures that weather will not be a factor. The only question left is what sort of crowd will be allowed to attend, if any.

The Dogs couldn’t be any more full of confidence, coming off an 111-point win over St Kilda. Melbourne will back to their hungry best after a perfectly timed loss.

Assuming both midfields produce a high level within a fierce contest, in a high pressure game, I trust the Demons’ key backs more than I do the Dogs’ key forwards, and that the Dees have more avenues to goal.

There’s a strength to Melbourne this year that I think can win the day.

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