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How the Saints crashed down to earth

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17th June, 2021
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St Kilda have clearly been the most disappointing team of 2021.

A team that showed so much promise in 2020 has tumbled swiftly back into a realm of obscurity that looked to be in the rear-view mirror.

Fans deserve more.

As the season has progressed it’s become abundantly clear that everyone was sold false hope on last season’s bolter that provided such excitement.

After finishing fourth in points per game in 2020, St Kilda have in 2021 been impotent up until their bye, averaging just 70.6 points per game, which is ranked 16th in the competition and, stunningly, is just two points more than what they scored in last year’s shortened games.

From an outsider’s point of view, for the Saints to achieve their top-four aspirations, it seemed clear that bolstering the defence and adding speed and class to the midfield was necessary, the two key areas that were lacking.

This was the time to signal intent and show the competition the legitimacy of the unexpected rise.

It ended up being quite the opposite.

Max King

Max King (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Adam Treloar was the big name on the market, while Jaidyn Stephenson and Jye Caldwell were certainly available. Although always destined for Port Adelaide, Aliir Aliir was too – asking the question wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Instead St Kilda recruited Brad Crouch and James Frawley to cover the two key areas.

Of course former Crow Crouch has recaptured some of his better form and over the last two months has been one of the club’s better performers, but it’s the intent and execution from the club’s hierarchy in the post-season that immediately drew concerns over the path of the club.

While Jack Higgins was a shining light, the club’s other recruits provided no improvement on existing stocks.

Despite Crouch’s current performances, averaging 27 disposals and six tackles a game, he wasn’t going to add great skill and spread out of the contest.

While the volume is predictably there for Crouch, St Kilda settled, the worst thing to do for a club seeking greener pastures.

And if that wasn’t enough, whether it was for depth or otherwise – and one would suspect the latter – the Saints decided that their best avenue to a stronger and more consistent defence was to poach Frawley, a player out of retirement who has put forward average numbers at best for a couple of seasons.

In his peak Frawley was excellent, but St Kilda had to know that the veteran who struggles with injuries wouldn’t solve anything.

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As part of the Higgins deal the Saints also gave up their second pick from the stacked 2021 draft to Richmond. That hasn’t turned out particularly well. Once again, the players themselves aren’t necessarily an issue, but rather the decision made around them.

What stood out at that time and what stands out right now about the St Kilda Football Club is that there is a lack of intent that has run rampant throughout the playing group, coaching staff and hierarchy.

Jack Billings of the Saints looks on

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

Statistically 2021 has indeed been a nightmare.

The offensive prowess is nothing more than a pipedream of yesteryear. Last season 23.73 per cent of the club’s inside 50s resulted in goals, ranked third. This season it’s 19.11 per cent. That’s only 0.2 per cent better than an improving North Melbourne.

Whether it’s the drop from fifth to 12th in marks inside 50, from seventh to 18th in goal assists or even the fact they went from being one of the most efficient teams, averaging 29.8 disposals per goal, to one of the worst, with an average of 36.6 disposals, everything is so inefficient that improvement cannot come without drastic change.

What about that so-called improvement coming from the inclusion of Crouch? He averages the second most disposals at the club and only the eighth most score involvements, eighth most inside 50s and has one of the worst kicking efficiencies, at 52.7 per cent.

St Kilda had built a tactic that was exciting, at times kamikaze and direct. Players were able to run in waves, and they could pinpoint targets inside 50 because of the space created by a bit of mayhem. It was enjoyable, captivating and made every position on the ground valuable.

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It turns out that was only because of the shortened quarters.

With Crouch in the side they’ve tried to transform from that team into one that tackles hard and wins clearances with strong, contested bulls overpowering the opposition midfield.

They’ve gone from being 11th to seventh for clearances per game and quite drastically from 16th to second in tackles.

Yet the fact is that 40.1 per cent of the club’s possessions in 2020 were won in a contested manner compared to 37.9 per cent this season. It’s a drop off that – despite taking into account that shorter games mean higher congestion due to fitter players – flies in the face of what the club is seemingly trying to achieve.

It has all amounted to a big backwards step.

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So a change in style that has been detrimental to the team, a lack of hunger across the playing group that is evidenced by letting six-goal leads slip against average opposition, players playing out of their preferred positions to their own worsened form and a lack of intent to change.

Where does that leave St Kilda?

It would be silly of anyone analysing that Saints to ignore the injuries they’ve experienced.

Jade Gresham and Zak Jones were the points of difference in the midfield, the guys that seemingly convinced the recruiting team that there was no need for anyone else extravagant.

Jones’s blistering breakaway speed from stoppages is inconsistent but at its best is unstoppable and has been missed, while Gresham seemed ready to take the competition by storm.

Rowan Marshall has proven to be so important in working in tandem with Paddy Ryder but also as a bona fide forward option who could take the pressure off Max King. His loss has been enormous.

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Ben Paton had carved out a perfect spot in the back pocket and had gone largely unheralded for his efforts in 2020, while inspirational captain Jarryn Geary seems to be caught in a never-ending injury loop. Ryder’s absence at the start of the season for personal reasons was well-handled but another unavailability.

These are significant games missed by key personnel, yet it’s an indictment on the rest of the playing group to suggest the Saints’ fortunes would’ve been completely transformed without injuries.

Absent players shouldn’t cause such a drastic shift in mentality and game plan, and if they do, that’s completely on the coaching staff.

One look at the West Coast Eagles, who have had just as many important injuries to their best 22, would indicate that it’s entirely possible to maintain structural and mental integrity while staying relevant. The Eagles have been able to blood youth and pick up enough important wins to keep them in the hunt while struggling at times.

Even the Tigers won a flag with a bunch of injuries throughout the season.

Yet the coaching staff at St Kilda have performed terribly in 2021.

St Kilda coach Brett Ratten looks on

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

If this was to be a forgettable year, one in which the Saints were too overwhelmed by their absences to compete, the fans would at least enjoy seeing the development of young talent in key areas to ensure a more well-rounded squad for 2022 and beyond.

Instead it’s more negativity that emerges.

Jack Billings looks to now have one foot out the door after half a year of occasionally playing on the wing, often being stuck on a half-forward flank and being seldom used through the midfield. Remember how the Saints could’ve used some class and better spread out of the contest?

Hunter Clark, who will now miss two months due to a crude bump by Adelaide’s David Mackay, has been incredibly hard done by this season. When Gresham went down, this was a natural fit. The 22-year-old should’ve graduated from a back flank into the midfield and really offered the Saints something completely different.

Instead, if anyone can truly identify what Clark’s role has been in 2021, they’d be a far better judge than even the coaching staff. Hopefully this hasn’t stunted his growth.

Jack Bytel’s opportunities have become limited by Brad Crouch’s inclusion and the fact that Luke Dunstan is now the preferred option. In the few games he has been able to play as a full-time midfielder the second-year player has shown he is ready. Saints fans are begging for him to be played.

Max King took it on himself to try and become better and recapture confidence by contacting an idol. Instead the 20-year-old keeps getting wheeled out to play against the best key defenders with no support and gets hounded in the media.

Then there’s the debacle across halfback, where trying to find some form for Bradley Hill has come at the expense of Nick Coffield’s confidence and form, while Tom Highmore had to wait for his opportunity.

It’s a miracle that Dougal Howard, Callum Wilkie and Jack Steele have been able to keep this ship afloat at times.

Dougal Howard of the Saints competes for the ball

(Photo by Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

It seems overwhelmingly negative at the moment for St Kilda because, quite frankly, it is.

Supporting Seb Ross and Tim Membrey’s wishes to go home to their families should have been seen as a big tick and one that can give a boost to the culture of the club, but when the president admits that there was strong debate regarding whether to allow it, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

It boggles the mind how criticism can be levelled at the players themselves for this action, and the fact that it is largely ignored how the players themselves may need the emotional support from their families as much as they are providing assistance is another black mark on the way in which the AFL community handles mental health.

The same can be said for Ryder’s personal leave. Whatever right the media, fans and even the club think they have to criticise and judge personal decisions of players should be shut down immediately given the circumstances.

Regardless, the positives are few and far between, but getting games into Ryan Byrnes has been good, as has the form of Higgins and Jack Sinclair in a new role.

Getting Jarryd Roughead and Billy Slater in behind the scenes hasn’t had the desired result yet, but they’re real culture builders, and if anyone will help pick up the slack, it’s two of the most successful sportsmen in modern history.

This leaves us with what we should expect out of the Saints for the rest of 2021.

If the coaches aren’t willing to make changes, nothing. That’s a pretty simple notion, but the above covers all of that in depth.

Instead the coaching staff and playing group must put the fans at the forefront of their mind and demand more out of themselves and each other. It’s imperative to the future success of this group that the rest of the year isn’t wasted due to pride getting in the way.

Keep getting games and proper midfield minutes into Bytel and Byrnes, ensure Highmore and Coffield play in their natural positions behind the ball and get Billings onto a wing and into the midfield rotation.

Make decisions on Jimmy Webster, Jack Lonie, Seb Ross, Luke Dunstan and Ben Long, because at the moment they’re depriving young players of opportunities and not performing exceptionally themselves, Dunstan potentially excluded.

Help Max King. Show support on the field and off it – no Saints got around Jack Higgins to help calm him down in the dying moments against Sydney, which shows a lack of strong leadership.

Brett Ratten and his coaching staff need to understand that they have two elite defenders behind the ball and that going forward they may as well try taking the game on.

At worst, playing a quicker pace doesn’t work out and the Saints end up in the exact same position.

Something must change to prove that the people in charge are right for the job and that the Saints can get back on the right track.

If it’s going to be a seven-to-nine-win season, it may as well come with some added excitement and momentum in the back end, with a scalp like Port Adelaide on the run home a reality.

At the end of the season move contracts around and do what you need to do to at least pretend to be in the market for Josh Kelly or just anyone that will actually improve the team.

Embracing mediocrity is an indictment on a club’s worth, and the Saints must do everything in their power to avoid that.

These long-suffering supporters deserve better than that.

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