The Roar
The Roar


Footy Fix: The Bombers have a big weakness - and Freo just showed how to exploit it

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24th June, 2023
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There’s no doubt Essendon have been one of the season’s biggest surprise packets.

Seen by many as a bottom-four side in a developing year under Brad Scott, the Bombers won eight of their first 13 games before last week’s bye, and headed west to take on Fremantle with the carrot of a win pushing them to just percentage behind fourth-placed Melbourne, and looking good for a September berth.

But the Dons head back across the Nullarbor with tails firmly between their legs, the Dockers not only comfortably handling them by 32 points – a margin that, if anything, flattered them – but exposing their flaws for the world to see.

It’s fair to say this warning from Champion Data’s Daniel Hoyne a few weeks ago didn’t go down to well with Bomber fans.

Let’s get the cold, hard facts out of the way first: the Bombers are bottom-five for inside 50s per game, and if one of Gold Coast or Hawthorn have a stormer on Sunday, they’re in danger of dropping even further.

Compounding that, only Richmond and West Coast have conceded more than their 791 inside 50s for the year – North Melbourne are level. Only the Eagles, and they barely count, have a worse differential than them for entries into attack, sitting currently at -81 – -10 against Fremantle.

Then there’s the other issue Hoyne flagged: averaging 65.8 intercepts per game puts the Dons in the bottom three for that as well, with Jordan Ridley, their best interceptor, averaging 2.3 a match – equal 29th in the competition.


This is a dire combination, so full credit has to go to Brad Scott and his coaching team for working on a solution. They seldom intercept mark, but only the Tigers are ahead of them for rebound 50s, ranking them among the best in the competition at getting out of sticky situations when the ball reaches ground level.

Mostly, it’s through a chip kick to a hard-working midfielder, often Zach Merrett or Nic Martin – the Bombers are first in the competition for marks, with another 102 against the Dockers pretty much bang on their season average.

What’s equally impressive is that the Dons, heading into their clash with Fremantle, were averaging a competition-best 23 points per game launched from their defensive 50. Actually, that doesn’t even do them justice – they’re the best team at that since 2010.

Bombers games, as a rule, are low-stoppage: they rank dead last for clearances this year, but an even deader last for clearances conceded. On average, they had a little over 68 of them per game heading into Round 15, a full two behind their nearest rival – Collingwood. That’s a handy team to be trying to replicate.

Handily, too, the Bombers are in the top six for winning centre clearances, the one time when there is a guaranteed stoppage. Their game against Carlton a fortnight ago was a perfect example of how they love to operate: they were bullied for inside 50s, with the Blues racking up 56 to just their 31; but the Dons conceded only 35 around-the-ground stoppages for the match, shading them 19-16, and bossed the centre bounces 13-7.

Nick Bryan and Sean Darcy of the Dockers contest the ruck.

Nick Bryan and Sean Darcy of the Dockers contest the ruck. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)


Pressure is key to all of this, with the Bombers’ +31 edge in tackles against the Blues playing a huge part in diluting the quality of their inside 50s – just nine of those 56 inside 50s ended in a mark, compared to 11 of 41 for the Dons.

Essentially, this is how Essendon like to play: force a pressured kick inside 50, bring it to ground, get it in the hands of a quality kicker such as Jordan Ridley or Mason Redman, find an outlet – often Martin or Dyson Heppell, who sit first and fifth for the club or average marks – then work the ball upfield with neat, precise kicks – the Dons are second-last this year for clangers – and into the competition’s most fascinating forward line.

Kyle Langford is the usual target – he has 33 marks inside 50 for the season. Here’s a list of people with more: Oscar Allen, Nick Larkey, Jesse Hogan, Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron, Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay, Joe Daniher and Eric Hipwood. All considerably larger than Essendon’s Mr Fix-It; and with 25 goals for the season, plus another against Fremantle, he’s made good on his end of the bargain.

A lot of it involves finding a mismatch against a smaller defender, with the big dogs occupied by a resting ruckman – Scott LOVES picking two rucks, normally Andrew Phillips and Sam Draper – or Sam Weideman or in the last two weeks Peter Wright, and capitalising: given he’s scientifically proven to be stronger than Steven May, he’s a real danger man.

Langford’s class masks an issue: with just 17 marks inside 50 from 11 games, Weideman is far from a commanding presence inside 50 (and misses a lot of shots to boot), and while Wright came back at the perfect time to cash in with five marks inside 50 and five goals against the Blues, when he was given an almighty bath by Alex Pearce on Saturday night in Perth, the Bombers found it mighty tough to score.

Langford, too, didn’t kick a goal after the first five minutes, and had just two marks inside 50 for the match – Luke Ryan, who took 18 grabs himself, five of them intercepts, ruling the skies with aplomb all evening and setting the Dockers up for rebounding regularly.


Redman, the most crucial cog at the other end of the ground, was also curbed, a great forward defensive role by Sam Switkowski and Lachie Schultz restricted him to just 13 disposals and two rebound 50s – both season lows.

In total, they had 37 rebounds for the match, a good eight lower than their average and their second-lowest tally for the year (three of their four previous-worst came, as it happens, in the only three games they dominated the INSIDE 50 count, against North Melbourne, GWS and Hawthorn).

But that’s only part of the story: where the Dockers truly exposed the Bombers was at clearances. And specifically, the centre.

The stats themselves don’t tell the full extent of Freo’s dominance: they won the clearance count in total 34-31, and 14-11 from the centre. But the scores were outrageous: eight goals to two, a +40 differential, in scores from clearances, and 28 points to one from the centre.

The Dockers exposed a simple truth: the Bombers’ defence, pound for pound, is awful. It’s only working as a team, with Heppell and Martin pushing back from wings to clog up space and a ruckman behind the ball for aerial support, that they make it work.

With the 6-6-6 formation, the Dockers could and did surge the ball forward from the guts, with Caleb Serong far too good for any Bomber midfielder – his 10 clearances (six from the centre), six inside 50s and 12 score involvements were all team highs – and then exposed the Dons one on one, like Michael Walters did here.


It’s a great mark, but an indictment on Jake Kelly and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher that Walters, a small man, was able to outmark them both from an initial position of disadvantage.

Helping matters for Freo is that their forward line, for all its faults, is perfect for this job. Pressure smalls like Schultz and Switkowski consistently prevented the Bombers from ruling the ground ball in their defensive 50, as is their wont, and the extra pressure on that defence meant danger at all times.

It wasn’t like there were more forward 50 stoppages – all up, 66 ball-ups and boundary throw-ins is about par for the course for the Bombers this year – but rather, the ball staying in dispute for longer. And the Dockers made them pay a lot.

In the below clip, you can see Sam Durham hold his position wide of the disputed ball, anticipating Zerk-Thatcher will win or at least neutralise: but Schultz is too desperate, knocking the ball forward to the man Zerk-Thatcher had left to contest, namely Jy Amiss. He goals.

Something similar happened not long after: Redman the culprit this time, staying wide of the contest looking for a handball receive, only to see Andrew Brayshaw charge into the fray, shrug a tackle, and kick a superb goal.


Last week, the Dockers were bullied at stoppages by GWS; the week before, against Richmond, the Tigers’ frenetic ball movement played havoc with their defence.

The Dons were, in many ways, a perfect match for them: they play sensible, ball-control footy from defence, which leaves them vulnerable to pressure causing turnovers, and aren’t Giants-level strong in midfield, giving the Dockers and Serong in particular an edge to exploit.

To then turn those advantages into the sort of contest-scoring dominance the Dockers enjoyed was exceptional coaching from Justin Longmuir, and exceptional play from his team… and leaves the Bombers with a problem to sort.

Teams now have a blueprint for beating Essendon: come at them. Defensively, they always set up well, but the quicker you can move the ball inside 50, the more likely you will be to create one-on-one contests, where the Dons are extra vulnerable.

Three goals from Luke Jackson and two from Jy Amiss, both talls as good below their knees as above their heads, was the proof of the pudding: the Dockers had a forward line with everyone capable of doing their bit at ground level, where the Bombers usually have control.


This isn’t the end of the world for the Bombers: they’re still well ahead of where just about everyone forecast they’d be, and not every team has the weapons Fremantle do at ground level in attack and around stoppages. Not every game will they come up against a Serong type on absolute fire, nor a team seemingly determined to right the wrongs of a prior shocker.

But it is something other teams will be looking at closely. The Dons, as a rule, lose the territory battle most weeks, and find a way to win despite it. Thanks to the Dockers on Saturday night, there’s now a blueprint to make the most of it.