And then there were two.
We are on to the season reviews for each of the grand finalists, starting with the Western Bulldogs. The Dogs built their game style around an explosive and mercurial forward line and exemplary pressure through the midfield. The one flaw in their game style was the lack of a bullocking defender who could handle the big gorilla full forwards.
We will run down what worked for the Bulldogs, what failed, and questions that remain about the Bulldogs, before finishing with the solutions for the Bulldogs to take the final step and a best and fairest, along with their best win and a letter grade, plus a dramatically too early prediction as to where the Bulldogs will finish next year.
Now without further ado, let us begin.
The obscenely deep midfield
The key differentiating feature of the Bulldogs is their midfield and the diversity of offensive potency they provide their forward-50 entries and the pressure they put on the ball carrier in transition.
The Bulldogs can form a symbiosis of inside and outside play to create forward impetus to get the ball moving forward, and when the ball turns over as it can sometimes do, they can turn immediately and push the ball carrier in the opposition into conceding ground.
Tom Liberatore has gone from being the problematic partier to becoming vital to the Bulldogs’ structure, gaining 189 clearances to lead the entire competition. He has Jackson Macrae hot on his rear with 177 clearances to go with his 880 disposals for the year, and captain Marcus Bontempelli.
Bontempelli was able to deliver his best return as captain to date with 31 goals, averaging 7.4 score involvements and 26.7 disposals a match to be considered one of the foremost midfielders in the competition.
Finally, there are the high half forwards and pseudo-midfielders Bailey ‘Bazlenka’ Smith and Adam Treloar, both of whom were able to use their deadly run and carry to damage sides on the outside.
Smith was particularly deadly in the finals and across the year kicked 17 goals while Treloar did himself no disservice by kicking 13 of his own despite a large injury-enforced absence. The Bulldogs have been able to construct one of the deepest lists that leads me into my next point.
Naming every player on the list
Luke Beveridge is a coach that values the integrity of selection, and in his drive to ensure that integrity he has named the entirety of his list. Beveridge named 41 of a possible 44 players across the span of this season even if it was only for one game here and there.
Such an attitude at the selection table encouraged accountability from each player while also ensuring that every player had the opportunity to show their worth at the highest level.
Moreover, it meant the Bulldogs took an array of different looks in every week so that sides had no idea what sort of side they were going to face.
However, there is a trade-off in that Beveridge does have a type of player, that type being a lightly built flanker like Jason Johannisen or Taylor Duryea.
But Beveridge has become a substantially better coach since the drought-breaking premiership of 2016 and it shows in his ability to chop and change the line-up as it is needed.
Their explosive forward line
Josh Bruce’s knee aside, the Western Bulldogs have key forwards coming out the wazoo. Josh Schache (pick two), Aaron Naughton (pick nine), and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan (pick one) were all taken in the top ten of the national draft, and form potent combinations and configurations to stretch even the staunchest of defences.
When you consider they have the 204-centimetre Sam Darcy still to come into this forward line, it truly becomes the land of the giants.
In this season alone Bruce and Naughton were able to combine for over 90 goals between them, while the vaunted prospect of Ugle-Hagan was able to show his brilliance in raw displays later on in the season, and he will only be better for the runs as he was routinely kicking bags of five goals earlier in the VFL.
The Bulldogs’ forward line is big verging on unmanageably huge, and they can rely on the raw athleticism of Ugle-Hagan and Naughton, but they will begin to need to assess whether they have too many key forwards and if any of their players will be forced out as a result of this.
Simply mentioning the key forwards is not fair as the Bulldogs also have a coterie of small forwards that are able to harass and harangue the defence and lock the ball in.
Cody Weightman is a weird combination between Joel Selwood and Hayden Ballantyne. He is a small forward that can play above his diminutive frame, he’s good above his head, he’s antagonistic on the ground and he is the prototypical small forward.
Then there is prodigal son Mitch Hannan, who found his way back to the Bulldogs this season after a stint at Melbourne. He was able to put in cameo performances during the finals series.
There’s also Jason Johannisen and Anthony Scott were able to play the small forward role to perfection, bringing pressure and chiming in with a few goals here and there as well.
The Bulldogs have developed one of the most well rounded offences in the competition and it’s only going to get better next year with the inclusion of Sam Darcy.
Well, they made a grand final so not much didn’t work. The Bulldogs were able to go on a post-season romp, winning every game except the climactic grand final against a red-hot Demons outfit.
But there are some clear aspects of the game that have not worked for the Bulldogs and we will detail those here.
The lack of key defenders
The Bulldogs are able to compensate for the lack of key defenders by applying pressure through the midfield to reduce the quality of the disposal coming into their defensive half.
But Alex Keath, Zaine Cordy, Ryan Gardner and Josh Schache does not make for optimistic reading regarding their key defensive stocks.
What stuck out was their inability to handle the two-metre-plus forwards particularly when they were able to get a clean run and jump at the ball in front of goal.
This trend was most clearly displayed in the Essendon game when Peter Wright was able to pile on seven goals in a dominant career-high showing.
The Bulldogs need to fix their weakness in front of their defensive goal otherwise they run the risk of never being able to contend.
The Bulldogs lost each of the three games mentioned here, dropping the Bulldogs out of the top four and making the likelihood they’ll win the flag substantially lower.
It is also one of the more curious statistics of Beveridge’s coaching tenure where he failed to lead the Bulldogs to the top four despite making two grand finals as head coach of the Western Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs dropped three games against lesser opposition that dropped them from the top two to the fifth overnight. The Bulldogs were obviously able to recover but things were looking extremely uncertain for a time there, particularly as the opponents they lost to were all inferior and lower ranked teams to them.
When Brisbane eked out a win to get into fourth spot, it looked likely that the Dogs would be out Week 1 of the finals.
How will the Bulldogs resolve their ruck quandary?
The Bulldogs are one of the last sides to draft a ruckman in the first round of an AFL draft, with most AFL clubs preferring to rely on the rookie drafts and trade table to bring in more mature ruckman rather than investing heavily in that ruckman across the early span of their development.
Tim English has had an ignominious career to date, frequently getting outbodied by the larger rucks in the competition. They brought in Stefan Martin to compensate for this shortfall but he spent as much time off the field injured as he did on the field, and given the demolition job Luke Jackson did on them in the grand final, it leaves them with more questions than answers.
Will the Bulldogs be thereabouts again?
A trend of sides that are comprehensively beaten in the AFL grand final is that they struggle to make it back there even the very next year. Sides either drop out of the eight (such as Port 2007, Adelaide 2017, GWS 2019) or they struggle to have an influence on the finals at all (such as West Coast 2016).
The Bulldogs stand a good chance of bucking that trend given they have a lot of young talent coming through that will only get better with another pre-season under them.
Forward or ruck: pick one
English has been negatively affected by the constant refrigerator hum of speculation around his preferred position, be it forward or ruck.
It was clear when Lewis Young started to play large chunks of games in the ruck that Beveridge didn’t have a lot of faith in his 205-centimetre ruck, but he needs to be given another pre-season to put on size and he needs to be given certainty around his position before English will be able to show what he’s worth.
Give Josh Schache a pre-season as a key defender
Schache clearly has the talent and the size to play a pivotal role in the Bulldogs heading forward but the addition of Sam Darcy to an already jam-packed stable of key forwards means he will have to find his position elsewhere.
He clearly showed some aptitude playing key back until Peter Wright wrecked his confidence, but this was the sign of poor coaching and a positional change made on the fly. Give him a solid pre-season down back where he can learn to punch the ball effectively and he will come on in leaps and bounds.
Best and fairest: Marcus Bontempelli
Unlike the Brownlow, ‘the Bont’ was able to canter home to win his fourth Charles Sutton Medal in eight seasons. He is an extremely deserving winner, being able to play forward or through the midfield.
He dragged his side over the line in multiple matches. It remains to be seen whether he can equal Scott West’s record of seven Charles Sutton Medals but he has gone a long way to getting there.
Best win: Round 10 versus St Kilda
In the second of two 100-point demolitions this season for the Western Bulldogs, they were able to comprehensively smash the Saints, leaving them listless in their wake.
It was a sign that the Bulldogs had come here to play and they should be taken seriously as barely over six months before this the Saints won an elimination final against the Bulldogs.
Letter grade: A-
They get an A- because they made the grand final but they didn’t win it. There are still things they can work on going forward however they’ve made good strides to winning a historic third premiership.
Way too early prediction: first to sixth
I predict the Bulldogs will be thereabouts again, bucking the historical trend of teams crashing out of the finals. It will be dramatically tougher as they will have a harder fixture and they won’t be given two easy games against sides like North Melbourne. However, I am backing them to get the job done again.
Well, there you have it folks. Only one more left now, and that is the Melbourne Demons. Tune in this week for my season review of the Melbourne Football Club.