It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why so many people are bullish about Essendon, but to suggest the team are a contender for finals is a bridge too far.
Sitting outside in 11th but with a percentage of 101.9 through 14 games, the Bombers have been the third-highest scoring team of 2021, a remarkable turnaround from the team that was ranked 14th in 2020 and 13th in 2019.
Heading into each of these seasons there were murmurings of a Richmond-style approach being adopted by the Bombers, which never eventuated.
What we’ve seen from Ben Rutten in charge is that the current style is uniquely Essendon’s, and it’s exciting. Also helpful to their attack is that they’re the third most accurate team in front of goal, with an accuracy of 56.16 per cent.
Cale Hooker, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Jake Stringer have combined for 80 goals, while Harrison Jones has emerged as a fantastic young prospect, contributing 18 of his own.
Games the Bombers participate in tend to produce highlights, such is the free-flowing nature of their contests. With burgeoning young talent continuing to emerge and skilful players all over the ground, associating high hopes with this club is natural, which hasn’t been the case in the past.
Perhaps, though, there’s a chance we’re overhyping the Essendon Football Club right now, in 2021.
When teams outperform expectations we tend to get extremely excited by their prospects.
Heading into the season, many believed the Bombers to be a bottom-four team, which was further solidified when Michael Hurley was ruled out and even more so Dylan Shiel, Sam Draper and Jye Caldwell went down with injuries, as well as Andrew McGrath a bit later on. Stringer’s missed a few games, and last year’s trading of Orazio Fantasia and Joe Daniher were other key drivers for predictions of a poor season.
Yet this Essendon group didn’t fall away as many expected and have shown unanticipated resilience as a group.
However, while the Bombers are sitting just a game outside the top eight, only the victory over a depleted West Coast in Perth commands a real badge of honour.
People may point towards the three-point loss to the Swans and the recent 11-point loss to the ladder-leading Demons, but in each of those matches the opposition had eight and six more scoring shots respectively.
In fact the Bombers only narrowly beat the Dockers at Marvel Stadium due to their opposition’s inaccuracy; at that point Fremantle hadn’t won in their previous six attempts at the venue.
Essendon have lost to Hawthorn (and they only just snuck over the line in their second meeting), to Carlton in a shootout, to GWS in a good contest and to Richmond after getting into a winning position but not then not getting a touch of the ball for the last 14 minutes of the match.
Comparatively to preseason and indeed in-season expectations of course the Bombers are playing well.
But a large part of their percentage has been built on two performances against hapless opposition, having beaten St Kilda by 75 points and North Melbourne by 72 points, kicking a combined 284 points across the two contests.
Realistically it mightn’t thrill the fans, but the Bombers are probably a middling bottom-ten side that is a clear level below finals quality but a clear level above previous bottom-four expectations.
There are clear defensive issues that will need to be addressed given Essendon have conceded the fifth most points after 15 rounds. During the preseason Hurley was earmarked to take the forward role to support Peter Wright and Jones, while Hooker was going to be the defensive mainstay to help ease James Stewart and Jayden Laverde into their new roles, while Brandon Zerk-Thatcher continued to develop.
Injuries saw that dream come to an end, and it has been a big reason for being exposed down back despite the best efforts of these much-improved players.
The drafting of Zach Reid was fantastic but demands patience, while Jordan Ridley is only now just recapturing his All Australian form after an early-season concussion and ensuing role change.
As a result the emphasis has ultimately been placed on playing at breakneck speed when the ball is on the outside and being aggressive on the inside – the Bombers are ranked fourth for tackles and sixth for metres gained, really gaining a lot from Nick Hind and Dyson Heppell off halfback.
It’s also quite evident that Hooker’s resurgence has played a key role, which on paper seems unsustainable, but ultimately the veteran is playing the exact role necessary.
Finishing with around 40 goals in 2021 while Peter Wright and Harrison Jones find their way in this team is golden, provided the 32-year-old isn’t relied upon in the future.
While the bookends look to be filled with young talent at the Bombers, expecting immediate results and strong performances is a key reason we all need to settle down a little.
Against the top-ten teams Essendon have two wins and six losses at a percentage of 80.52, with their average points scored dropping from 90.57 on the season as a whole to 73.88 in these games.
Even suggestions of a Melbourne-like rise next season seem absurd at this stage, with no indication that it’s a possibility, given the discrepancies in games against finals-contending teams.
Now, this isn’t designed to criticise the Bombers in any way.
We’ve discussed the offensive beauty of the club and the career resurgence of no fewer than four players being switched to defence.
Darcy Parish cannot be ignored either, averaging 31 disposals, eight clearances and six inside 50s a game. Kyle Langford is stringing together his best and most consistent footy, averaging 21 disposals and six marks and hitting the scoreboard every game, while Will Snelling turned himself into one of the more underrated forward-half players in the competition, averaging 17 disposals, five tackles and a goal a game.
Don’t discount Mason Redman’s last seven games either, averaging 20 disposals, five marks and five rebounds a match. Nik Cox and Archie Perkins are pretty great too.
Heading into the season with a new coach, a lot of positional changes and plenty of unknowns, not much was expected of Essendon. That’s been the case for a little while for fans of the club.
2021 has already shown that the Bombers are in a better place than any of us could have imagined, and the signs are strong going forward, with plenty of young talent in the works and some already performing to a high level.
As is the case with almost anything in the AFL world, recency bias tends to drive judgement and create overreactions, which may well be in play here too.
There is no indictment to be had on the Bombers, and fans have a right to be excited.
But we’re still a couple of years away from the realisation of the newfound expectations and predictions of many, which must be kept in mind.
Right now, in 2021, Essendon are a team on the rise providing the competition with much-needed excitement.
Let’s not overhype this young team; we should let them develop at their own pace. Neither 2021 nor 2022 is the year for a Bomber attack in finals.