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An unexpected journey: Essendon Bombers season review

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Roar Guru
24th September, 2021
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Welcome to the review you’ve all been eagerly awaiting: me having a crack at my beloved Bombers.

I’m outspoken when it comes to my football team – everything is on the edge for me, and I am not going to apologise for that.

So, biased though I may be, we are going to try and review in depth the Essendon season. I am going to try and not speak in cataclysmic hyperbole, but there are things we did well this year.

We will go through what I thought worked, what I believe didn’t work – and it’s there, don’t worry – and the questions that remain before finishing off with my solutions to their problems.

What worked

Ben Rutten and the blue-collar pathos
‘Truck’ Rutten took the helm of a rudderless Essendon side missing four of its best 22 players and remarkably guided the team to the finals in his first season. Were it not for Simon Goodwin’s exploits with the Demons, Rutten would have been coach of the year. He brought a new hardened toughness to a Bombers side that was sorely lacking in that department.

Rutten was able to encourage mindfulness for the Bombers’ magnificent history as well as give players the confidence to stand independently on their own two feet. Getting old champions of the club to present players with their jumpers at the start of the year was a magnificent step and really left the younger generation with an awareness of the history and culture of Essendon and why it is important to be mindful of that.

Ben Rutten, Senior Assistant Coach and Team Defence of the Bombers addresses his players

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

The triumphant triumvirate
I am of course referring to the trio of midfielders that dominated the Essendon narrative for the entire year. First for their contract status and then for their magnificent play. We will begin with Darcy Parish, who went to an entirely new level this season, averaging 30.5 disposals, winning the Anzac Medal and the Yiooken Medal in matches against Collingwood and Richmond respectively and best on ground in the annual Country Game against Geelong. He was second in the Crichton Medal and first among Essendon players at the Brownlow Medal.

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Then there’s the Crichton medallist himself, Zach Merrett, who spurned free agency to make himself a Bomber for life while also winning his third Crichton Medal to join Dick Reynolds and James Hird as three-time winners.

Finally, there’s Jake ‘the Package’ Stringer, who became the highest ranked player according to the AFL player ratings since Round 14. He has led the Bombers goalscoring for the third time in his four years at the Bombers, and he did it playing primarily as a clearance beast, adding a big body to a Bombers midfield that desperately needs it. Moreover, with Jye Caldwell, Andy McGrath, Kyle Langford and Archie Perkins still developing and adding elements to their game, the Bombers midfield is becoming obscenely deep and will be difficult to manage.

The baby Bombers
The youthful Bombers were a breath of fresh air in 2021. We had Archie Perkins, Nikolas Cox and Harrison Jones play most games, getting extremely valuable experience in the firsts, though I think this may have been out of necessity given the lack of depth in the VFL side. The new faces of the Bombers have left the AFL community eagerly anticipating what comes next for the Bombers, and with another high draft pick to come this November, I am eagerly awaiting the style of player they will select.

I have been harsh on Adrian Dodoro, but suffice it to say I am now one of the converted. He has managed to pull a lot from his bag of tricks at the last few drafts, and he may very well be the path to the Bombers next premiership.

Archie Perkins of the Bombers

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

What didn’t work

The high zone
The Essendon Football Club have managed to jerry-rig a defence from elbow grease and the cast-offs of other clubs, so it is impressive. However, the Bombers do play a high zone that is very similar to Richmond, but their players lack the skill of the premiership-winning defenders the Tigers have. Additionally, there were multiple games where mercurial small forwards were able to tear the Bombers apart as they played the oversized Jordan Ridley on them, though this problem should be somewhat alleviated with the addition of Jake Kelly from the Adelaide Crows, who is rated second-best in the AFL for medium defenders when it comes to one on one.

However, the defence still has glaring faults, particularly in the decision to play James Stewart at fullback when they’re clearly deficient in key forwards. He did well to learn the position, but he is a stopgap while Zach Reid is developing his skill in the VFL.

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Lack of a key forward
Yes, Jake Stringer kicked 41 goals and Harry Jones took several promising steps forward this year. However, with the retirement of Cale Hooker the Bombers have been lacking a big key power forward to take contested marks inside 50. Some may point to the presence of Peter Wright and the steadying hand of Aaron Francis, but neither of these players is an ideal selection as a key forward. The Bombers still have Michael Hurley on their list, but the possibility of him coming back is still extremely limited.

Finally, the other element I would point to is the Bombers do not really need a key forward; they need someone able to exploit the talents of the other forwards on the field. Also, if they can correct Sam Draper’s absolutely horrendous set shot form, they will have a dangerous mullet down in the forward line.

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Questions that remain

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What is Cox’s best position?
Nik Cox is a unicorn-style player. He can kick it well off either foot, and he’s got the pace of a half-forward and the contested mark of a fullback. He can quite literally be sent to any position on the football field and play it well. He found his home primarily on the wing this year, where his clean ball use enabled him to fire an absolute dart down the wings while his height enabled him to out-mark the majority of midfielders, and his contested mark made him an aerial threat assuming he kept his width up and down the field. However, as I have mentioned with the retirement of Cale Hooker the Bombers urgently need a key forward, and Nik Cox may be the solution.

Can the Bombers contend again?
Much has been made of the 6000-odd days it’s been since the Bombers won a final, but perhaps the more glaring statistic is every time they have made the finals they have crashed out the next season. I am certain that Ben Rutten will be working his magic to ensure this doesn’t happen this time and working to keep a tight lid on things at the Hangar at Tullamarine. Given the demographic profile of the Bombers and how that has been dramatically reduced with the retirements of Cale Hooker, David Zaharakis and Patrick Ambrose, the Bombers’ age demographic has got considerably younger. There may be something of a decline next year, but the time at which the Bombers will be in top-four contention is rapidly approaching.

Jake Stringer of the Bombers reacts

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Solutions

Hold your first-round draft pick
Essendon’s game style still has too many deficiencies to be resolved by trading for another player. I know from lurking in several Essendon Facebook groups that the Dons faithful are demanding we go after Ben King, but King is unlikely to move, and the Suns are almost certain not to let him go. Instead the Bombers need to hold their first-round selection and pick another player like Nas Wanganeen Milera or Arlo Draper.

Sign some senior depth either on the VFL or AFL list
It was clear that at points this year Truck was leaving his young charges in the senior side because he didn’t trust the VFL program to effectively develop their skills. The Bombers failed to set up their reserve-grade list for success and will need to begin getting them in a position to at least be competitive so the young talent the Bombers gave up so much to acquire will be protected and not disheartened. I know for a fact the Bombers have been looking at a player like Luke Dunstan; they also extended Tom Cutler and should look at a couple of other players, like Jarrod Brander and Jasper Pittard, for depth, particularly in the VFL level.

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Season summary

Best win: Round 21 against the Western Bulldogs
The Bombers beat the Bulldogs for the first time in seven years, and two of the last three games in which a player scored seven or more goals were against the Bulldogs. Peter Wright hit a rich vein of form, handily breaking his personal best for goals in a match with seven goals. The Bombers pulled a rabbit out of the hat with this win. They were unable to parlay this to a finals win, but they did set the AFL world alight.

Best and fairest: Zach Merrett
Merrett is fast becoming a legend of the Essendon footy club with his third Crichton Medal, and I don’t think he is even halfway through his career. Consider this: having just barely hit free agency, nearly half his time at the Bombers has been rewarded with Crichton medals.

Letter grade: B+
The Bombers were expected to finish in the bottom four this year, so that drags them up, but they didn’t win a final, so naturally I cannot give them a perfect grade. This is an accurate reflection of where Essendon are at, though it very well may become an A should they make finals again in 2022.

Prediction: between fifth and 12th
The Bombers probably have the biggest range of positions they could end up next year, anywhere between fifth and 12th. However, I am hoping the Bombers are able to continue their rise up the ladder.

There you have it, folks. What do you think of my rating of the Bombers? As always, leave your thoughts below and I will do my best to respond.

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