We’re at the stage of the season where every genuine premiership contender is having its weaknesses forensically analysed.
Collingwood are no good at stoppages. Port Adelaide’s defence is suspect. Brisbane fall asleep every second quarter. Melbourne don’t have a functioning forward line. If you believe the buzz, then whoever eventually stumbles over the line to claim the flag in this most wacky of seasons will have overcome some serious deficiencies.
Amid all that, there is one team in the race for finals who, I’m confident to say, have fewer game-losing weak spots than any other. And it just so happens they won’t be in the top four, and will have to do it the hard way in September despite being in a quite terrifying run of form.
I’m talking, of course, about the Western Bulldogs. No, just kidding, it’s Carlton.
That’s three of the current top four the Blues have ploughed over in a season-changing eight-game winning streak, following their desperate clinging on against Melbourne in what might not have been the best win of that stretch, but was certainly the gutsiest.
They’ve done it with a largely second-string midfield, shorn of Sam Walsh and Adam Cerra on Saturday night and having made one of the year’s gutsiest substitutions in ruling Sam Docherty out of a tense last quarter with an apparently minor corked calf.
They’ve done it with half their key forward pairing missing, Harry McKay’s absence forcing the Blues into a new-look forward line structure of Charlie Curnow, a makeshift but blossoming Tom De Koning and a bunch of pressure smalls.
It was that midfield that fought a full-strength Melbourne on-ball group, with Clayton Oliver back in the fold, Jack Viney at his ferocious best and Christian Petracca able to be used in menacing bursts, to a standstill at the MCG, and in fact probably shaded the contest given it was a pair of centre bounce clearances from Patrick Cripps to start the last quarter that proved the game-winning blows.
That they were the Blues’ first two goals from stoppages for the night actually adds to the significance of the result: the Carlton of last year faded drastically when teams found a way to curb their dominance at scoring from the coalface. The 2023 addition clearly has more strings to their bow, with their attacking ball movement and frenetic turnover game in the front half, embodied in their staggering 21 tackles inside 50, unrelenting throughout the night. The two centre bounce goals were just the cherry on top.
Equally impressive was that the Dees themselves took until halfway through the third term to get their own first goal from a clearance, despite up until that point leading the stat by 10. As a Bulldogs fan, Melbourne’s damaging potential from clean stoppage breakaways is permanently embedded into my brain (see Grand Final, 2021 for more information), so while the Blues themselves weren’t scoring with their usual gusto in that way, neither were the Dees – one of many occasions where a draw is as good as a win.
The reason for that was mostly down to pressure on the ball-carrier. While the Demons provided just as much of the hard stuff going the other way, the Blues set the tone for this desperate, finals-like atmosphere with five of the first six tackles of the night, the opening stanza on what would turn out to be the season’s highest tackle count to date.
In greasy but not dismal conditions for footy, 87 tackles to 88 aren’t numbers you see often outside of September. It felt for all the world like a final; indeed, should the ladder pan out as expected from here, the Dees and Blues could well meet again come semi-final time.
Interestingly, this has been a Blues weakness for much of the season: they lost the tackle count by 17 against St Kilda last week, with a lack of pressure contributing to the Saints’ fast start, while until beating the Dees they had just one game with a pressure rating of over 200 – and that was against West Coast in Round 7, so it almost doesn’t count.
In fairness, though, Carlton spent half of the season, y’know, sucking, while in their seven-game win streak tests for them in midfield have been few and far between. Since starting their surge against Gold Coast only once have they lost the clearance count (by one, to Port Adelaide) and with it controlled territory, averaging over seven more inside 50s per match in that stretch. They haven’t needed supreme, repeat defensive acts because usually one or two have been enough to cause a turnover, and when they get the ball, they’ve been nigh on impossible to stop.
Having started so ferociously, it was all the Dees could do to hang in there, stack numbers behind the ball, fight back with their own tenacious tackling and desperation, and somehow hold the Blues to just one goal at quarter time despite a 24-4 inside 50 disadvantage.
Yes, that is correct. TWENTY-FOUR TO FOUR.
The only concern was whether the Blues had spent all their petrol tickets without cashing in on such a dominant start; as it turned out, they hadn’t.
For all their injury woes, the Blues’ midfield in its current state was tailor made for this sort of midfield challenge: George Hewett was one of the AFL’s best defensive on-ballers last season, with his toughness over the ball and tackling ferocity without it both traits hardly seen from him during an injury-plagued start to the season. Paddy Dow, too, seems to be playing every game as if it’s his last, and with seven tackles of his own plus four clearances – only Hewett and Docherty had more of the latter – he came out of a battle with Petracca, Viney and Oliver and could leave with head held high.
Then, of course, there’s Patrick Cripps, in what was if not his best game of the season, then definitely his most impactful. I’d argue the removal of Walsh and Cerra from that midfield mix in recent weeks has actually freed him up; with Hewett taking over primary in-and-under duties, the captain is free to be more damaging as a handball receive option bursting out of packs rather than being under them.
Five clearances is pretty standard Cripps areas, but seven score involvements – behind only Petracca for the night – is a significant uptick on his season to date.
For all his strengths as a contested beast, he’s more than that at his best, and with the Blues’ midfield in its current state he’s getting to display all his extra traits beyond the coalface more and more often, to great effect – this kick to a leading Curnow a prime example.
Behind the ball, too, the Blues look better than ever, both in forcing turnovers and then especially in rebounding from them. Carlton have for much of the season been among the best in the business at conceding points, but there was a time they found it impossible to move the ball with any fluency from their defensive 50.
I recall countless turnovers in their defensive half from the Blues which either went straight back over their heads for goals or, at the very best, were neutralised to spurn an attacking move and leave them still needing to hold their opposition at bay.
Those Blues might have been able to restrict the Dees to eight goals as well, but in a game like this with the pressure dialled up to 11, scoring nine themselves would surely have been beyond them.
By midway though the third term, they had three of their six majors from defensive 50 possession chains – supremely impressive against a Demons outfit which seldom allows you to move the ball with freedom – and had gone inside 50 from 32 per cent of said chains.
The quicker you move the ball against Melbourne, the more nervous that defence begins to look: Adelaide and Brisbane have done it with great, albeit not match-winning effect in recent weeks; the Blues were only capable of piercing them sporadically, but when they did, goals out the back opened up like this one for Matt Owies.
(As an aside, the kick from Curnow to set it up was one of the best of the season.)
Tagged quite a bit in recent weeks, a freed-up Adam Saad was central to a lot of this with seven rebounds: Nic Newman, even more so, is the calming presence behind the ball every good team needs, with his measured ball use and elite kicking skills (his 27 kicks for the night a game-high) giving the Blues both ample territory and ensuring it wouldn’t come pinging straight back.
Jacob Weitering was shaky early in the season, and I think it’s his form surge contributing to the Blues’ improvement rather than the other way around. Behind the ball, Carlton look safe in a way they just didn’t earlier in the season, and it’s a rarity for key forwards to get hold of them now – Jacob van Rooyen barely got a look in on Saturday night.
Desperate at the contest, structurally sound behind the ball and all without losing their capacity for dynamic, electric play off half-back: little wonder Michael Voss deemed it Carlton’s best win of the season post-match.
With all that in mind, it’s time to circle back to the original point of contention: the Blues being the best team in it.
Part of that is simple logic: they have beaten three of the current top four in the last month, and what’s more, done it in distinctly different ways. They shredded a vulnerable Port Adelaide with midfield explosiveness and a forward line that cashed in on deep entries against undersized opponents; they beat Collingwood at their own game with superb ball movement from half-back and a Charlie Curnow burst; now, they’ve knocked over the Demons in the sort of tight, tough, contested arm-wrestle that champion teams make it their business to win.
Finals still aren’t beyond all doubt, though they’re surely a formality at this point: neither Gold Coast on the road nor GWS at Marvel Stadium will be straightforward, but the Blues in their current mood have no business losing either. If they miss finals, then it would be due to a dramatic fall in their own form, by which point they wouldn’t be the best team in it anymore and will deserve their fate.
The AFL Draft will be shown on Fox Footy and Kayo. CLICK HERE for a seven-day free trial to watch the AFL on KAYO
But should that win streak become ten heading into finals, even if it’s only good enough for fifth, it would be hard to look at any of the other seven September-bound teams, in whatever order they find themselves, and think any of them genuinely better in the moment than Carlton are right now. Especially with McKay, Walsh and Cerra, and maybe Jack Silvagni too if he can squeeze his way back, fit and firing again.
This season has already been about as far removed from a normal season as is possible: the only thing that stands in the Blues’ way from continuing their run deep into September is the weight of history stacking up against them. Teams don’t win flags from outside the top four, nor make grand finals.
To be clear: I don’t think the Blues will win the premiership. They have forced themselves, with their poor start to the season, to do it the hard way, and that means they need to go four from four, three of them against the year’s top four, to lift the flag.
And given they were one goal umpire deciding Christian Petracca’s last-minute kick actually wasn’t touched away from losing a match that was always on their terms on Saturday night, it’s hard to see them being both dominant enough and lucky enough to pull that off.
One shocking game, maybe even one shocking quarter, can kill their season from there: that’s how far back the Blues were coming from seven weeks ago when this madness started.
But if the grand final were to be played tomorrow, and Carlton, for whatever reason, were chosen to participate, then it would be hard to not have them as favourites. They lack for nothing personnel-wise, their game style is perfectly honed to maximise their strengths in half-back speed and stoppage grunt to surge the ball forward, and – and this is key – they are playing with the belief borne of eight straight victories that says nothing is impossible. I saw my own Bulldogs ride a similar wave to the promised land, against even more extreme odds, seven years ago.
It’s all still stacked against Carlton actually winning it all, even now, after all that they have achieved. But the fact it’s even a conversation worth having is remarkable: I can’t remember ever thinking fifth was such a genuine premiership chance as they are right now.
In a competition as even as it has ever been, with the margins so paper-thin as to be almost inconsequential, Carlton are, for now, the best team in it.
Whether that will be enough to overcome the obstacles still in front of them, only time will tell.