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AFL pre-season notebook: Is this man about to fix the Dees' biggest problem?

28th February, 2024
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28th February, 2024
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There’s no such thing as a meaningless pre-season game when you’re coming off back-to-back straight sets September exits.

And for Melbourne, it was a successful return to four-quarters footy against Carlton, running away 38-point winners over a lacklustre Blues in a match headlined by a colossal Max Gawn performance and a notably slicker-looking Dees when heading forward.

The Blues, meanwhile, have a few kinks to iron out, chief among them somehow finding a way to cover for defensive lynchpin Jacob Weitering as he looks set to miss the first few rounds of the season.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom – with three goals and ten marks from the much-maligned Harry McKay, and a strong showing down back from Brodie Kemp, Blues fans shouldn’t panic just yet.

Here’s what we learned out of Melbourne’s win over Carlton.

Salem on the ball is a winning move

For the last two seasons, the Demons have squandered a premiership-winning set-up with one fatal flaw: horrid inefficiency moving forward.

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Whether it’s inaccurate kicking or a lack of cohesion between a star-studded midfield and a dangerous if less menacing forward line, booting a winning score has been a thorn in their side in big games time and again, with a pair of straight-sets exits the result.

But to their credit, Simon Goodwin and his coaching staff have clearly taken steps to address it over the summer. And chief among their plans seems to be the move of Christian Salem from half-back to the midfield.

A star in the Dees’ 2021 premiership across half-back, injuries have cruelled Salem – and the club – in the last two years, with his poise and class sorely missed whenever unavailable.

But now fully fit, he rivalled Max Gawn for best-afield honours against the Blues, and added a new dimension to a Dees on-ball brigade full of big names but with some glaring limitations.

With nine tackles and four clearances, Salem certainly pulled his weight in the clinches, but it was his work on the spread that really turned eyes; with four inside 50s, all in the first half, and a game second-best seven score involvements, good things happened with the ball in his hands.

The correlation was noticeable too: the Dees led the Blues 24-6 for effective kicks between the centre line and their attacking 50 by half time, and finished with 20 marks inside 50 – their best last season was 21 against lowly Hawthorn.

Kicking more than reasonably in front of goal, too, save for a few Bayley Fritsch bloopers, Goodwin can only have been thrilled with what his troops produced.

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The difference between the way the Dees entered their attacking 50 at Ikon Park compared to against the Blues in their semi final loss last year could scarcely have been more stark.

Adam Cerra handballs under pressure from Christian Salem.

Adam Cerra handballs under pressure from Christian Salem. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Big Max is still the man

The logic behind recruiting Brodie Grundy to tandem ruck with Max Gawn in the first place was dubious at best, but you have to give credit to the Dees for quickly assessing it wasn’t going to work and cutting ties with the former after just a single season, where other clubs would have stuck it out of nothing more than stubbornness.

Gawn clearly relishes being the number one man, the most obvious sign against the Blues in his angst at being called off for a break midway through the third quarter in the middle of utterly dominating Marc Pittonet in all facets.

Whether it was roosting goals from 60 metres, racking up 30 hitouts compared to Pittonet’s nine and finishing with an equal-team best 24 disposals, big Max was utterly colossal, and a big season looms large as the number one man again.

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It was proof that, for all Tim English and Rowan Marshall’s excellence, Gawn remains the number one ruck in the game. His first test in the season proper? Only former teammate Grundy at Sydney, who will likewise be chomping at the bit to prove his worth as the Swans’ undisputed number one ruck.

No Weitering? Plenty of problems

Here’s a hot take: removing a team’s best defender makes them far more vulnerable down back. Get me on First Crack pronto.

The problem for the Blues is that Jacob Weitering isn’t likely to be back until Round 3 from his calf injury, and will almost certainly need some time after that to re-acclimatise to the rigours of AFL footy having missed nearly the entire pre-season.

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With Caleb Marchbank also out indefinitely due to ‘post-viral symptoms’, the Blues are short-staffed down back, and with little help from a midfield not overly keen on applying much pressure on the Dees, were powerless to stop repeat marks inside 50, both contested and uncontested.

Brodie Kemp, to be fair, was excellent with eight marks – and two of his intercepts in the third term directly led to Blues goals up the other end.

But with Mitch McGovern stymied by the extra responsibility, and sloppy by foot to boot, the Blues’ best option to cover for Weitering might be this: just stop the ball ever getting down there.

Simple, right?

Back to bad old Blues?

For the first half of 2023, Carlton were a tough watch: their ball movement was slow, stagnant and prone to error, heightening their flaws and leaving them incapable of maximising the power of their midfield and the force of nature that is Charlie Curnow in attack.

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The Blues improved as the night went on against the Dees, but the first half hearkened back to those bad old days; hemmed into corners by a more aggressive and ferocious Melbourne, they were either unwilling to or incapable of taking the game on and trying to bulldoze their way out of trouble, as they did repeatedly in the second half of last year.

It took until the 23-minute mark of the third term for Carlton to score a goal from a possession chain starting in their defensive 50, which brought with it a run of three straight goals within five minutes from that source. Hopefully it was either an impressive opposition or some typical pre-season cobwebs that held that attacking intent back until then.

“I’m worried about their ball movement tonight,” was David King’s summary on Fox Footy.

“If you play safe in the modern game, you’re going to get clogged up. You’re going to get caught at the halfway mark of the ground and you’re going to play out of your back half most of the night.

“I’d like to see them play with a bit more dare – they’ve trained that way throughout the pre-season.”

Weitering’s absence no doubt lends itself to a bit more conservatism, given the obvious hole he leaves in defence; but the last thing the Blues can afford is to try and patch that up by taking away from their strengths. They couldn’t accomplish either against the Dees.

Top pick an Opening Round lock

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This pre-season, like always, has been full of young guns bursting onto the scene and showing they are already AFL-calibre talents.

So far in 2024, new Bulldog Ryley Sanders, Saint Darcy Wilson and North Melbourne’s No.2 pick Colby McKercher have been the standouts, and you can safely add Caleb Windsor to that category.

In just 11 disposals and 66 per cent game time, the Dees’ first-round pick from last year could hardly have done more to keep himself in the selection frame for Opening Round: supremely classy, a composed kick for goal and with a handy tank, he’ll be an ideal wingman if he remains ahead of Lachie Hunter, who is dealing with a minor calf injury, in the pecking order.

In recent years, the Dees have had the luxury of making their young talent bide their time in the VFL for months or even years before making the step up. But if they don’t break that trend for Windsor against the Swans, I’ll be surprised.

Random observations

– If Charlie Curnow is going to start snapping set shots like Harry McKay, the Blues are in strife.

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– I’m still far from convinced Tom De Koning can hold his own as a forward-ruck with any consistency, awesome finals series last year or not.

– He had a couple of bad shanks, but Harry McKay was clearly the best forward on the ground. Kudos.

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