The Bombers appeared to have been out of rotations late… but they found a way.
So, we are in the bye round for the Bombers.
Instead of writing a match review like I’ve been doing each round, I’ll do a summary of the Bombers season.
I will review what has worked, what hasn’t worked, what the Bombers need to do, and finally, where I think the Bombers will end the season. So, without further ado, read on for my mid-season review for the Essendon Bombers.
What’s worked for Essendon this year?
At the start of the year, the Bombers were predicted to be a bottom four side.
The machinations surrounding the senior coach, losing three best 22 players, and having raw youth meant that those predictions were probably right at that moment in time.
It has taken the exuberant youth, reinvigorated veterans, and a developing middle-aged cohort to assuage the footballing media of their underestimation of the Bombers line-up.
First, let’s begin with what I believe is the biggest change at the Bombers: having youth that you can rally around.
Be it Nikolas Cox (aka The Unicorn), Archie Perkins (The Perkolator), or Harry Jones (The Dead Eye), each player has brought something different to the line-up and the fact that it took until Round 12 for even one of these players to get a rising star nomination is an egregious misstep on the part of whoever decides these awards.
In particular, Cox has made a massive splash, playing every game this year and occupying a unique position – being two metres tall and talented on both feet. I just hope that Ben Rutten is smart enough to not play him in the ruck.
Additionally, Harry Jones has been a force up forward, clunking marks and galloping up and down the field to pressure the ball in transition using his superior tank to shut down various avenues to goal for the opposition.
While Perkins grows in confidence every match he plays – he will be a mainstay of the Essendon midfield for years to come.
With players such as Zach Reid, Josh Eyre, Cody Brand, Sam Durham, and the recently extended Nick Bryan yet to get a consistent run at it, the Baby Bombers are building towards something that I am eagerly awaiting.
Now, let’s talk about Darcy Parish. He gets his own paragraph, so good his improvement has been.
Although it’s taken injuries to Jye Caldwell and Dylan Shiel, it does not appear that Parish will relinquish his spot in the starting midfield of Essendon.
In 2019, Darcy Parish averaged 20.6 disposals, 8.6 contested disposals, 4.8 score involvements, 3.8 tackles, and 266 metres gained – decidedly average reading for players in his forward midfielder position.
Halfway through 2021, Parish is rated as elite for disposals (31.4), clearances (8), score involvements (7.8), and metres gained (473).
While he does have elements of his game he needs to improve, most notably disposal efficiency and tackling, he is launched into All Australian calculations, as well as being a potential smokey for the Brownlow.
Finally, wrapping up the positives for Essendon, today I want to talk about the scoring power the Bombers have brought to bear this year.
Cale Hooker has been a revelation in the forward line for the Bombers this year, kicking 29 goals to be eighth in the Coleman race.
The wily veteran has typified the Bombers attitude going forward this year with built-in effort and getting to the right spots, averaging 2.4 goals, 5.1 ground ball gets, and 6.8 score involvements.
Additionally, excitement machine Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti is the equal leader among small forwards with 27 goals, as well as being elite for score involvements (6.8), and goal accuracy (71.1 per cent).
The individual efforts of AMT and Hooker have resulted in the Bombers having the second-highest aggregate score in the league when you control for the number of games played.
However, it is my fervent desire that this is not a false dawn like 2017, where the Bombers also had an exceptionally potent forward line, but they went backwards the next two years, which culminated in last year’s ill-fated trade period.
What hasn’t worked?
Now, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the Bombers. Despite them drastically punching above their weight and exceeding expectations, there are things they can improve upon.
Most notably: defence. They are being scored against extremely heavily this year and this has routinely been a problem for the Bombers every year.
Making matters worse, the injury management of players has resulted in key recruits like Dylan Shiel and Caldwell going down with long-term injuries.
Finally, the contract machinations around the Bombers have left a feeling of uncertainty surrounding the futures of players.
While I will sing the praises of the Bombers’ manoeuvring regarding the backline until the cows come home, there is a sense they could be doing more.
Currently, the Bombers are in the bottom four for total scores against this year with only the Saints, Crows, and Kangaroos with worse aggregate score lines than Essendon.
Admittedly, they’re four points away from being higher than both Carlton and Hawthorn but if the Bombers are to contend, their defence does need to improve.
Part of the issue is the fact that there has been a high turnover of personnel in the backline, with a long-term injury to Michael Hurley, positional changes for Cale Hooker and Patrick Ambrose, while this is the first season for Jayden Laverde, James Stewart, and Dyson Heppell within the same backline, leaving only Mason Redman, Aaron Francis, and Jordan Ridley as the starting components from last year’s backline.
These fluctuating positions explain at least part of the inability to shut games down and limit the run-on scores that opposing sides have been getting against Essendon.
The other thing that Essendon has not been able to do well is controlling the ball and shutting the opposition out of games.
They’re ranked 13th in the league for marks (96 per game), and disposals (374 per game), which indicates that the Bombers are playing with reckless abandon and potent scoring that looks great when it comes off but they are allowing themselves to be surgically deconstructed by the better sides.
Furthermore, the Bombers are also relatively weak in the number of scores they get from the midfield where the majority of score involvements have come from Darcy Parish and Zac Merrett.
Exacerbating this is the comparatively paltry inside 50 counts the Bombers have, meaning they’re entirely reliant on scoring when it goes in there, being fourth in the league for efficiency inside 50, while they are 13th for average inside fifties.
This indicates to me that while the Bombers are playing a more blue-collar style, it is a drastic work in progress.
What are the solutions?
The Bombers have been a tease for the past 17 years, they’ve been largely irrelevant interspersed with frenetic periods of controversy.
They’ve have had multiple false dawns where the front office believes they’re on the precipice of something far better, only to over-commit their resources to the wrong players, leading to a descent down the ladder.
We saw it after 2017 when Essendon was surprised and made the finals, we saw it in 2019 when Essendon made the finals, and it has been nearly endless and cyclical.
The fear I have is the Bombers believe themselves to be closer to their premiership window than they are.
They need to continue to build on the core of young players they’ve brought in over the past year, particularly with this year’s draft class shaping as a potent draft for midfielders.
The Bombers should look at a couple of players like Matthew Johnson or Neil Erasmus who have the capabilities to be solid threats in the forward line.
The Bombers need to play a tempo brand of football and not drift out of games.
While the aforementioned stats with regards to marks and disposals are more than likely because they have played fewer games than two-thirds of the competition, the games where they have fallen out, they’ve fallen out in a big way.
In the Brisbane and Port Adelaide games, the Bombers were absolutely obliterated collecting the ball at the coal face.
To improve this, they need to improve their team defence and intercept marking, which did appear to be improving, particularly against West Coast Eagles, however, like all young teams, it is a matter of imbuing them with the resilience necessary to confront the best sides in the competition.
Finally, the prospect of Zach Reid has Bombers insiders champing at the bit with his unique combination of skill and height, leaving him a 203-centimetre version of Jordan Ridley.
Yes, the Bombers are playing extremely good football at the moment.
The question I have is how sustainable this brand of football is, and with COVID currently wreaking havoc on the season, the Bombers have a lot sitting up in the air.
I would be happy if they finish lower because that means a substantially better draft pick when they can only obtain a largely inconsequential finals position.
Best and Fairest: Darcy Parish.
I mean, obvious. Duh.
Best First-Year Player: Nick ‘The Unicorn’ Cox.
Thanks for reading, Roarers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my look at the first part of the Bombers season, and I look forward to deconstructing and discussing the latter half of the season with you all.