After Round 12, Melbourne sat on top of the ladder, a game clear of second and three games plus percentage clear of third. They had just outplayed the Western Bulldogs and Brisbane in consecutive weeks to stamp their premiership credentials all over the competition.
Since then, they have won two games, drawn one and lost three. Apart from a strong performance against Port, they have been uninspiring.
Across the season, the Demons have conceded 67 points per game. They conceded 66 points in the first 12 weeks, and have given up 70 per match in their last six.
Their defence isn’t a problem and is in fact in great shape. Opposition teams are trying to separate Steven May and Jake Lever to stop them from marking everything, with mixed success. They both read the play so well and May, particularly, is equally adept one-on-one as he is third man up.
Harry Petty has been effective replacing Adam Tomlinson. Trent Rivers has continued to be a find, Christian Salem is having a great year, and Michael Hibberd has been rock solid after some patchy form in recent seasons.
We look at Max Gawn, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Jack Viney, and think Melbourne should be clearance beasts, but the midfield hasn’t been connecting in this area of the ground to the level they should. They are ranked ninth in clearance differential this season, down from previous years where they have traditionally been top four in this stat.
Some of it will be due to young ruckman Luke Jackson taking more stoppages as he matures, while simultaneously asking less of Gawn and allowing him to rest forward. But while Gawn’s stats still look okay, he hasn’t been as impactful as recent seasons and any talk of him being in the All Australian conversation are surely a furphy.
Petracca and Oliver have been doing what they do, occasionally tearing games apart and being consistent in the meantimes. James Jordan and James Harmes have been strong in defensive roles when required. Ed Langdon is having a career-best season on the wing, and has been supported by Angus Brayshaw and Jayden Hunt on the outside too.
Melbourne is second for total inside 50s and fourth for inside 50 differential. They are creating the chances. Are they always quality chances? It’s fair to say they don’t have the class of a Bulldogs, Geelong or even Brisbane and Port when it comes to delivery inside 50.
But it’s the forward-line that is the issue, whether that is personnel or system.
Rounds 1-12, the Dees averaged 90 points per game. Since then, when their form has dipped alarmingly, they are scoring only 69 points a game. They have dropped to be seventh for points for overall, which simply isn’t going to cut it in September.
They haven’t been the sum of their individual parts in recent weeks.
In the absence of Ben Brown and Sam Weideman claiming the full-forward position as their own, Bayley Fritsch has been playing as the main focal point for inside 50s. A clever player, who is able to find space and has been confident in front of goal, he will be in the All Australian squad at least. He should be even more damaging as a third marking forward, if they can get their balance right.
Tom McDonald has been very good in his centre half-forward role. Kosi Pickett has probably exceeded expectations in his second year as the pressure forward pocket. Alex Neale-Bullen and Charlie Spargo have been solid role players, having their best seasons.
Throw in Petracca and Gawn resting forward, plus Jackson’s talent proving a hard match-up, and it’s not immediately obvious where it is going wrong.
Ben Brown played his best game in Melbourne colours in the loss to the Bulldogs on Saturday night, in conditions that didn’t suit him and with delivery that was rarely pinpoint. He was a constant threat in the air and showed some ground agility that has been missing from his game. His kicking is off though, with some bad set shot misses, which was formerly a strength.
The Demons haven’t played West Coast yet, but have beaten all other top 12 sides at one stage or another this season. They have proven their bonafides with a series of commanding wins against the best sides.
Before the loss to the Dogs, they had only been beaten poor teams. The question was whether they were having mental lapses in those games, saving themselves for the best opposition. The loss to the Dogs, where they were beaten all game, suggests there is a problem and the dip in form is real.
No team can stay up all year and it’s better not to. Most sides that finish top of the ladder don’t win the premiership. Paul Keating might say the Dees are in the midst of a recession they have to have.
But there are only four home-and-away games to go now. They’re cutting it fine.
They’ve put their top-four position in jeopardy, with the Eagles in Perth and Geelong still to come. There is still time to turn their form around, but it must be now.
Melbourne’s best is good enough to go all the way this year. It’s high time we saw it again.