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It's time to ease up on the Bombers

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Expert
30th June, 2022
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There’s still plenty to be positive about at Essendon.

Have they been disappointing this season? Absolutely.

But Essendon’s list was never built to be a finals team in 2021, let alone in 2022.

More than a few experts had the Bombers as a top-eight team this season. Only Essendon fans would feel more let down than these folks at their current position, as well as a certain former coach who tipped them for the flag.

The truth is, though, Essendon completely over-performed in 2021 to make the finals when they had very little right to.

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They played attacking footy without much care for the defensive side of the game, which blew bad teams out of the water and petered out to genuine mediocrity overall against the good teams.

The forward mix had experience, burgeoning talent and good ground-level play.

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (34 goals) and Cale Hooker (33) were there, which demanded more defensive attention and let Essendon ease Harrison Jones into the team.

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Jake Stringer had some continuity in his game, Peter Wright was ticking along while the forward pressure of Will Snelling and Devon Smith was a key factor in locking the ball in.

The shock of having James Stewart and Jayden Laverde become the established key defenders for the group at least gave the Bombers a bit of an unknown x-factor, with Jordan Ridley starring as an interceptor and Nick Hind breaking out.

Midfielders posted big individual numbers as Darcy Parish become an above-average player and there was a youthful enthusiasm to the group.

Darcy Parish

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

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But they over-performed and those aren’t the standards the Bombers should be held to.

While having three wins from 14 games is deplorable, perhaps we could have tempered our expectations in hindsight and allowed a young coach to keep developing a young squad.

The issue with making the finals and creating such expectation is that the external timeline shifts, which means the board’s timeline shifts.

Ben Rutten’s caught between a rock and a hard place, because he has a list that is working on a timeline he had in mind when he started, but one that has changed in the eyes of others.

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Put simply, you do not actively seek then subsequently take three first-round picks in one draft and believe you’re in a position of a contender.

They let Joe Daniher go, Adam Saad was traded and Orazio Fantasia was allowed to leave. Wright and Hind were cheap, risk-free selections to try and help give the Bombers some structure.

Sure, Michael Hurley’s absence was unexpected, but the Bombers chose to shift two forwards into defence and develop the offence, with the help of Hooker. That was a conscious decision made for the long-term well-being of the club.

We live in an AFL world where patience is almost non-existent and bad results at big clubs are intolerable.

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We don’t handle excuses very well, nor do we give passes to struggling teams, even if they’re deserved.

Even internally, it would’ve been a shock for the board, as well as first-year coach Ben Rutten, to be so successful immediately and it has shot them all in the foot.

Of course, all this doesn’t really excuse how poor the Bombers have been. The numbers make for ugly reading.

The Bombers have been horrible defensively, conceding the fourth most points in the league, while offensively, they’ve scored the third fewest. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Dylan Shiel leaves the SCG with his Essendon teammates.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

That’s a jump from 81.36 points against per game to 94.79.

It’s a drop-off from scoring 88.77 points per game to 74.5.

Specific statistics are perhaps even more damning.

They’re averaging more than nine fewer tackles per game, they have dropped from seventh to 16th in metres gained, their inside 50 pressure is one of the league’s worst and they’re getting less of the ball.

Many won’t want excuses, but the list is hardly an end product with clear, gaping holes, and the injuries haven’t helped.

Players that have missed significant minutes this season include Stringer, Snelling, Nik Cox and Kyle Langford. Hooker and McDonald-Tipungwuti retired, Hurley’s still nowhere to be seen and at least one of Parish, Zach Merrett, Andrew McGrath and Dylan Shiel have been absent in most games.

Given Essendon’s game was completely attacking and relied on getting the ball forward, tackling and hitting the scoreboard, these are incredibly vital players to be absent.

In 2021, there was almost a shock value to Essendon. The data experts loathe no word more than momentum, yet the youthful exuberance of this group produced some rather illogical results, particularly a top-eight finish.

The season was really about getting games into kids, as it has been this season. The difference between the two is that the more experienced players performed exceptionally well last year. This year, they’ve all taken a step backwards.

If you look at Essendon’s list, you’ll realise that context is important and that competing was hardly an end goal.

Twitter user @SgtButane posted some numbers indicating just how inexperienced the Bombers are.

They’ve averaged the second-fewest games per player overall and of their 14 games, they’ve been the least experienced on every single occasion by an average of 30 games.

As well as a young list, they’ve got holes that are yet to be filled.

Zach Reid might be the best of the three first-round picks in the 2020 draft and he’s the long-term key defender. He has had some game time this season, but has had to overcome some serious injuries and illness to get onto the field and he needs time.

The rest of the key defensive options are almost non-existent. Stewart was always seen as a depth player, Laverde purely fills a role that is needed on an AFL field, while the younger Brandon Zerk-Thatcher hasn’t quite come on.

Realistically, they’re looking to fill a position with an opposition player via free agency or trade – a second-round pick for Jeremy McGovern certainly wouldn’t hurt them.

While Wright has had a breakout season, the lack of assistance in other targets has hurt. Harrison Jones and Kaine Baldwin have taken the spot as a second tall and have received too much defensive attention to handle – Rutten has tried to remedy that with the selection of two ruckmen in the team.

The overall numbers as a group have been horrible, but post bye, the available names are getting better in quality. And while the immediate reaction to a loss to West Coast is one of criticism, the offensive side of things has picked up.

Since the bye, the tackling has improved dramatically, the directness to send the ball inside 50 has picked up and the clearance differentials have improved. They’ve shown a better ability to win contested ball and the ball protection has at least taken a step forward.

Unfortunately for the Bombers, there’s no defensive quick fix for the sieve that is their back 50. They’re going to continue to be undersized and are ill-equipped to handle one-on-one contests.

Andrew McGrath and his Bombers teammates look dejected after losing to the Western Bulldogs.

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It’ll be up to the midfield’s uptick in tackling to work better in the defensive half – at least make the opposition rely on contested marking.

Overall, when judging Essendon, context is important and it may well be worth focusing on what has excited fans, rather than looking to evict a second-year coach.

Nic Martin’s recruitment was superb, Mason Redman has finally started to reach his potential and Wright has been in great form. The mid-season signings of Massimo D’Ambrosio and Jye Menzie simply add to the bevy of young talent that will get time at AFL level to develop.

Let’s not forget Ben Hobbs, or Archie Perkins’ midfield time.

If this was a team that finished in the bottom six last year, we’d see Essendon as being in a disappointing position, but clearly praise the fast-tracked development of so many players under the age of 25 who will be, at the very least, reliable contributors earlier in their careers than most. 

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Given where the list sits and the fact the Bombers have salary-cap space, it isn’t hard to imagine the timeline for being a genuine finalist was always set to be in 2023 or ’24.

They can chase a free agent, although throwing too much money at Daniel McStay would be a massive red flag, while still having room to develop their youth.

A high pick in this upcoming draft could add elite midfield prospects George Wardlaw or Elijah Tsatas, or even add key defender Jedd Busslinger and form their defensive duo for the next decade.

It’s easy to kick a team when they are down, criticise the coach and call for massive changes, as almost every person in the media and AFL environment has done.

And while many Essendon fans will be disheartened, and some furious, context is important and remaining supportive of an extremely young group looking to grow is an important step in fandom.

2022 has without doubt been an extremely disappointing season for the Essendon Football Club, but the future still looks bright and there’s plenty to be excited about.

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