The clock is counting down to this year’s grand final, a clash of the titans that will have legion football fans at Optus Stadium and at home in Victoria on the edge of their seats.
The game is shaping to be one of the more memorable affairs in recent history. On one side we have Melbourne. Arguably the best team all season, they have hardly dropped the ball all year. Off the back of an 83-point preliminary final trouncing of Geelong, the Demons are looking to finish their season as AFL premiers, a title that has escaped them for the last 57 years.
However, coming away from a huge preliminary final victory of their own, a 71-point win over Port Adelaide, the Western Bulldogs will do everything in their power to halt the Demons’ momentum. Despite a dip in form late in the year that saw them drop out of the top four, the Bulldogs are firing on all cylinders once again and will be no walkover come Saturday night.
Each side has a few crucial areas that coaches Simon Goodwin and Luke Beveridge must keep an eye on to maintain a chance at victory or possibly lock it up for good. While not all of these could be the sole reason for a victory or defeat, they could easily combine to create a winning formula.
Here are three keys to victory for each team in the grand final.
Melbourne: feed the beast
Everything Max Gawn touches seems to turn to gold. His game against Geelong in the preliminary final will undoubtedly go down as one of the great finals performances in AFL history, one that we’ll tell our kids about for generations to come.
As good as Stefan Martin and Tim English were last week, Gawn is simply a different beast to Scott Lycett. They are going to have their work cut out for them.
Gawn is carrying a five-goal haul from the last game into the big dance, and he’ll be eager for more. He has a will to win like nobody else on his team, the hallmark of a great captain. You’d almost struggle to find anyone from the Bulldogs to even match that. Not to mention that, besides all this, he’s still the best in the league as far as a ruck contest goes. If he’s anywhere near as influential in this game as he was against the Cats, the Bulldogs have already got a difficult task ahead of them.
Western Bulldogs: break down the Demons defence
The Demons defensive setup is easily one of if not the best the league has had to offer this season. It’s evident when you look at the statistics. With the fewest points conceded, most intercepts and most tackles this season, the Demons are extremely difficult for sides to break down. The pressure and structure they bring to a game are immense.
But there is a way for the Bulldogs to crack this game wide open and potentially make victory a much simpler task. Quick, patient build-up play.
No side in the AFL this year has handballed more than the Western Bulldogs, not to mention they are also very clean with the ball, coming in at fourth for disposal efficiency. Utilising their efficient handballing ability, a fast yet tactical build-up could be a great way to prevent the pressure that the Demons tend to put on the ball carrier. It could also be a method that frees up some targets for the Bulldogs once they invite just enough pressure.
However, as we mentioned, the Demons are brilliantly set up. For this reason, the Bulldogs cannot be too eager going forward. Throwing the ball on their boot whenever they find space won’t do the Bulldogs any favours. Mistakes will increase and there will always be a Demons defender waiting, which could be the undoing of the Bulldogs game. The structure of their own players will be key here.
Melbourne: stop Caleb Daniel
Speaking of build-up play, when it comes to moving the ball out of the backline and creating opportunity going forward, defender Caleb Daniel is as good as it gets. He is arguably the best kick in the league, with a freakish ability to put the ball on his boot and find a target in an unlikely position.
The Demons must find a way to quell his influence on the game. In fairness to Port Adelaide, a lot went wrong for them in the preliminary final loss, but one thing they did right was keeping Daniel somewhat subdued. Daniel was easily one of the best afield the week before that in their one-point win over Brisbane, so it is clear the influence he can have when he’s firing.
Relentless pressure is the only answer for Melbourne here. Find someone quick who can stay by Daniel’s side whenever the ball is near him but equally can get away from him to create scoring opportunities. Kysaiah Pickett and James Harmes were the two starting half-forwards for the Demons in the prelim and both are very good tacklers. One of them will likely start on Daniel, and either would be a great option to try and shut down his game.
Western Bulldogs: isolate Jake Lever
When the ball goes through the air in a Melbourne Demons defensive 50 you will almost always find Jake Lever somewhere underneath it. A first-time All Australian this year, Lever has been brilliant at finding space and taking intercept marks, allowing him to initiate attacks for his team. He is the number one player for intercept possessions this season, averaging 10.5 a game.
Lever is great at reading the ball before his opponent, so if the Bulldogs forwards allow him to find the space that he usually does, it could be very difficult for them in this game. In the absence of Josh Bruce, a player they had in both of their encounters with Melbourne this season, the Bulldogs must deploy some extra tall timber to battle with Lever in the air, as Lever’s defensive partners Steven May and Harrison Petty will also need to be dealt with.
May and Aaron Naughton are likely to be matched up in a battle I will touch on shortly, so Josh Schache and Tim English are the obvious options to go forward and help deny Lever. With the latter also sharing the ruck duties with Stefan Martin, the Bulldogs could even look towards the 2020 No. 1 pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, who did not play against Port Adelaide, to increase their height and provide another target up forward.
Melbourne: don’t let May leave Naughton’s side
As previously mentioned, Steven May should be the obvious choice to match up against Bulldogs spearhead Aaron Naughton. Naughton is relentless in the air. He is first for contested marks this season and second for marks inside 50 – only Tom Hawkins has more. Rarely will you ever see Naughton back out of a marking contest.
The only player at Melbourne that can stop Naughton is Steven May. May is easily one of the league’s best one-on-one defenders, and he cannot leave Naughton’s side in this game. In the unlikely case that May’s injury from the preliminary final is worse than we first thought and it hampers his grand final performance, it could spell great trouble for the Demons. There likely isn’t any other Demons defender, including Lever, who could match up on Naughton and shut him down. Naughton’s best games this season have put teams away, and if Steven May isn’t influential enough on the final day, the Demons could be put away as well. This match-up is everything for Melbourne.
Western Bulldogs: Tom Liberatore
We’ve spoken of the crucial May-Naughton match-up for the Demons, but one that is arguably even more crucial for the Bulldogs is Tom Liberatore’s. Whether it is Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca, Tom Liberatore must be the man to shut one of these players down.
The Melbourne duo ran riot against the Cats, the definition of a midfield mismatch. The telltale moment came three minutes into the second half when Petracca retrieved the ball from the centre and burst away, handing the ball off to Max Gawn, who streamed through to kick the second of his five goals.
The main takeaway from this passage of play is that Joel Selwood simply could not keep up with Petracca. There was no good match-up for him, or for Oliver for that matter, for the entirety of the game.
However, Liberatore is at the peak of his powers. An elite tackler, Libba is one of the most relentless players in the league, and he needs to line up against one of those two Demons players in the grand final. If they both impact the game the way they did against Geelong, Oliver and Petracca could potentially be the reason the Demons lift the cup at the end of the game.