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Opinion

'Stuck in quicksand': The Bulldogs are lost in mid-table mediocrity again - and something's got to give soon

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Expert
11th April, 2024
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At some point, a line has to be drawn in the sand at the Bulldogs.

Quite frankly, it’s grown pretty tiresome, watching the same rollercoaster that never quite marries up to even weekly expectations, and the same divisive reaction that comes from it.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect. Something’s a little off with the players, something’s a little off with the coach, something’s a little off tactically and something’s a little off with the board.

There are Luke Beveridge loyalists, there are Luke Beveridge haters and there are independent observers who are simply befuddled by the tricolour-donning Dogs.

We all know the story, in fact, we’ve been through it multiple times before, and the Bulldogs still find themselves stuck in an almost self-enveloped patch of quicksand.

No one has quite been decisive in recent seasons. Everything just sort of ticks along with silence, almost like a subscription with a forgotten auto-renewal.

The Bulldogs aren’t a bad team, but they aren’t a good team. They tease with the bottom half of the eight. Sometimes they make it, and sometimes they don’t.

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A month into 2024, they have two dominating victories, they were smashed once.

Gather Round’s Geelong game was a real chance to secure a third win, which would’ve been huge given they’re not playing fantastic footy. They snatched at chances, while the Cats were able to hold on with exhausted legs. They played in nearly biblical rain five days earlier.

No team relies on its star players quite like the Bulldogs, which is never a recipe for success. Tom Liberatore played one of the greatest inside midfield games of all time against the Cats, Marcus Bontempelli was a dominant figure, Adam Treloar got plenty of the ball, and it nearly got the Bulldogs over the line. Nearly.

Offensively, it’s all driven by brilliant performances, rather than a machine-like level of reliability from a group of players playing their roles well.

Beveridge has made an intentional tactical switch, Aaron Naughton’s playing the traditional centre half-forward role and pushing higher up the ground, while Jamarra Ugle-Hagan’s staying closer to goal.

The development of Sam Darcy was sorely needed as a conduit between the two, and a genuine second ruck option.

Also, Naughton has just four goals in four games, while Ugle-Hagan has just six. Sorely, sorely needed Darcy has been.

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The move was meant to unlock space and different avenues to goal with Naughton coming inside 50 from a different angle – but quite simply, 10 goals from the two star key forwards isn’t good.

Cody Weightman has been great in a couple of different ways to start the season but again, his six-goal haul was an out-of-the-box performance that really got the Bulldogs home, not something to bank on constantly.

Defensively, Liam Jones and Ed Richards are the only two reliable cogs. Buku Khamis has been pretty solid, but the moment they can let him play as an interceptor rather than a key defender is where we’ll see him really start to blossom.

There’s been a random rotation of all sorts of players off half-back and precisely none of them have really caught the eye as meaningful contributors.

When you watch the Bulldogs play, it’s almost as if they’re split into three different parts of the ground and coached as such, whereas the best teams in the league have this whole-ground flow, this commitment from a playing group to attack and defend together and reap the rewards, just as they’ll suffer the consequences together.

Tom Stewart Marcus Bontempelli

Marcus Bontempelli competes with Tom Stewart. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

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Is it the players? Is it the coach? Probably a bit of both, although it’s probably time we stopped criticising Beveridge for failing to extract all he can out of such a talented list – maybe they’re not so talented after all.

The numbers always look nice on paper for the team, they average the second-most disposals, the most marks, the most clearances – if Beveridge was a fantasy coach, he’d win the main prize every season.

They tackled more last year and didn’t focus on uncontested marking as much; increasing free marks indicates a desire to control the game.

In order to control the game, you want to have players with the skills to run into pockets of space and execute difficult, angular kicks.

Two of the players that spring to mind as elite players in that sense are Jack Macrae and Caleb Daniel, perfectly suited to a retentive style that hypothetically, requires targets to be hit and eyes to be lowered.

Now in their limited opportunities this season, they’ve been poor. Whether that’s because they’ve dropped off, or because they’ve been treated poorly by the coach feels like a bit of the chicken and egg scenario. Although as a subscriber to the theory that “form is temporary, class is permanent”, maybe the latter is more applicable.

Maybe the biggest knock-on Beveridge at the moment and indeed in recent seasons, is this apparent obsession with hitching his wagon to unorthodox recruits, whether they be of mature age, delisted by previous clubs, off different rookie lists or simply state league performers.

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The very best coaches set up a system and cherry-pick players that can slot in perfectly, even if the outsider doesn’t recognise it at first. That’s what the Richmond dynasty was built on, Melbourne’s success, even the Bulldogs back in 2016 had that going for them.

The 2024 edition of the Bulldogs has no system. It feels at times that Beveridge is just picking players he had previously had a vested interest in recruiting, over established players who seemingly don’t fit his ideals.

Let’s not forget Daniel was one of the smartest and most damaging half-backs in the league in a very different way to most, yet he was the one chosen to fill the clear deficiency on the inside and has played as a forward flanker and sub.

Three-time All-Australian Macrae was hardly failing as a footballer either.

Of course, the loyalists would indicate that you can’t have it both ways – you can’t criticise Beveridge for being stubborn and then criticise when he changes things too.

But the coach has always been one to throw the magnets around to varying levels of success yet nearly a decade into the role, all anyone really wants is consistency.

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Naturally, this long into a business relationship, burnout occurs.

That’s why the blame for this average experience overall is shared across all the internal stakeholders at the club.

Beveridge is trying his best, you’d trust that the players are trying their best and the board is trying to support the best they can.

Again though, there’s some sort of disconnect at play here, and the team’s enigmatic charm of Beveridge’s early reign has well and truly worn off.

How will 2024 play out? They’ll come out and obliterate some teams, they’ll fall apart against others, they’ll be around the mark for finals and it’ll be a mystery as to how that’ll go.

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At some points though, the line to the rollercoaster isn’t as long, people grow tired of it and there are more innovative, appealing rides to line up for. It’s not the attraction its creators think it is, and it’s not bringing in the success they feel it deserves.

Something’s got to give at the Bulldogs because treading water for years on end isn’t fair to Luke Beveridge, his players and the club’s fans.

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