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Footy Fix: The Dees are as busted as Petracca's ribs - it's time for Simon Goodwin to find Plan B

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10th June, 2024
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Melbourne’s loss to Fremantle last week stands alone as the Demons’ worst loss since their time as premiership contenders began in 2021.

By comparison, their 38-point defeat at the hands of Collingwood on King’s Birthday wasn’t anywhere near as bad – but if you bleed red and blue, there’s every chance this one was even more disheartening.

This was a loss so deflating, so frustrating, so utterly indicative of everything going wrong with the Dees at the moment and everything that was already wrong with them even when they were properly good, that it might as well have signalled to the rest of the AFL that Melbourne is over.

10th on the ladder, having sat in the top four just a month ago, the Dees face an almighty fight to so much as make finals, never mind win one for the first time since the 2021 grand final. And the way they’re playing, this doesn’t strike as a team up for that challenge, or one capable of facing it even if they were.

This was a match that the Demons simply had to win heading in – not just to redeem themselves from their Alice Springs obliteration, but also simply because a Magpies team without a score of their best players, compared to just Jake Lever and, if you’re being really generous, Jake Melksham, was about as vulnerable as a reigning premier ever gets.

So how did they respond? By kicking abysmally for goal, as per usual. By spurning chance after chance to make something of their inside 50s, as per usual. By getting ripped apart by speedy ball movement from a midfield far less impressive on paper but boasting leg speed away from the contest that the likes of Clayton Oliver and Jack Viney just can’t match. As per usual.

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The Dees’ goalkicking was the biggest missed opportunity in footy on a day when Tom Morris’ X account was hacked only for the hacker to be a homophobe instead of posting something actually funny.

It would be easy to argue that that inaccuracy made them unlucky to lose by as much as they did, finishing with just three fewer inside 50s and with more shots – and just two points behind on the expected scores metric, too.

But when this is the norm for the last 18 months then it becomes a cop-out to suggest it was costly here: the Dees as a rule kick terribly in a way that that metric doesn’t take into account, and the general consensus out of their sprayed set shots and wild snaps in the first quarter especially was that it was vintage Melbourne.

On top of that, even the strengths are beginning to fade: Lever’s absence is not ideal, but the Dees’ miserly rocks behind the ball would have been able to cover for him in 2021 or 2022.

Now, the Dees are leaking like a sieve, especially at ground level. It’s incredible how quickly a seemingly watertight structure when the ball is in mid-air crumbles when the footy hits the turf, how quickly the likes of Trent Rivers, Blake Howes and Jake Bowey look out of their depth against even the most inexperienced smalls if Steven May can’t pull down an intercept mark and save their bacon.

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The above video is just the most egregious example out of King’s Birthday: the sight of multiple Demons flying for the same ball, spoiling one another, and leaving Pies everywhere free at ground level was a farcically common one.

Just as embarrassing were the identity of the goal-scorers: for the second week in a row, it wasn’t as if the Dees were getting a score kicked on them by Charlie Curnow or Jake Waterman or Charlie Cameron.

Harvey Harrison, a fine developing youngster who has eight goals in ten career games, bagged three opportunist majors feasting on the ground balls the Dees made a hash of neutralising. Aerially, Nathan Kreuger, best known for having failed to run out about three-quarters of his career AFL games, dobbed three, enough of them opposed to May to be properly alarming. And Will Hoskin-Elliott, returning from injury and thrown deep forward away from his 2024 role up the ground because really who the hell else did Craig McRae have to play there, managed two to bookend the first half.

That trio made the Dees’ long-held justification for their forward line woes due to lack of quality options look all the more hollow: in Jacob van Rooyen, Kysaiah Pickett and Bayley Fritsch, the most talented three forwards on the field were wearing red and blue.

The latter two, though, were responsible for the bulk of the errant kicking, with Fritsch all but invisible until the last quarter and wayward when he finally rocked up.

Van Rooyen was a shining light and had probably his best game as he regularly got out the back of the Magpies’ defence, and trying something similar in the weeks to come rather than reverting to bombing long aimless balls his way and expecting him to do something beyond his years is the way to go.

In midfield, Clayton Oliver is looking properly washed: for all his efforts to influence the contest after Christian Petracca’s injury, he is far from the clearance-winning brute he was even 12 months ago. Directly opposed to him at many a stoppage, Jack Crisp won the Neale Daniher Trophy by consistently outrunning and outhunting him, showing off speed and penetration, with 579 metres gained, Oliver simply could not match.

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By full time, the Pies lead the clearance count by 10 and the centre clearances by eight – a phenomenal number for a Scott Pendlebury, Jordan De Goey-less on ball brigade against Viney and Oliver, even with Petracca out with that nasty rib injury.

In transition, leg speed as a whole is a significant issue for the Dees.

The Pies ripped them to pieces on turnover because man to man they weren’t quick enough to run down the pacy Collingwood runners up the ground, while ahead of the ball their defensive structure was far too slow to get in position with the ball coming at them as maniacally as it did.

Damningly, all that happened despite the Dees’ second win of the day, alongside van Rooyen: Alex Neal-Bullen’s superb tagging job on Nick Daicos, reducing the Pies’ best player to 15 disposals, nearly all of them on the inside at stoppages, and hardly any impact at all on open play.

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That a tag of this kind is a rarity for Goodwin’s Demons kind of sums up my point: it’s time for Melbourne to try something new before it’s too late and a team still high on talent topples completely off the edge, which it will if the brilliant Max Gawn, again comfortably the Dees’ best, reaches the cliff.

Maybe that means spinning the magnets: put Pickett in as a permanent starting on-baller with instructions to do as Izak Rankine has done for Adelaide and worry solely about being an attacking force. Or maybe do that with Kade Chandler, whose underrated hardness and cleanliness with ball in hand could see him be a Sam Durham-type around the footy. Christian Salem, too, would be a real asset as a permanent on-baller, or maybe in a Harry Sheezel-like forward-mid role instead of at half-back, with his beautiful skills and rangy, loping pace.

In attack, there is enough to work with in van Rooyen and co. that the Dees mustered a more than respectable 13 marks inside 50, one more than the Magpies: but going inside 50, maybe it’s time to be braver and kick towards the central corridor rather than honouring leads to the pockets, where set shot kicking is more difficult – unless of course you’re Darcy Cameron.

Moving the ball quicker would also leave the 50 less clogged up, which is a big reason why the Pies were incredibly accurate on the counterattack and with their snaps. Pickett being around the ball on a permanent basis would certainly help achieve that.

Then, if you’re truly desperate, why not try May as a forward? Yes, it smacks of desperation and would be truly left-field, but at the moment Harrison Petty is looking total out of his depth as a tall marking option, at the opposite end of the ground to where he made his name as a promising young key back.

May is 32, and far closer to the end than the beginning: the future of the Dees’ defence is Petty and to a lesser extent Lever. I’m not sure what the point is of playing Tom McDonald as a key defender ahead of him, given Kreuger was still able to cut through for three goals and Petty’s contributions in attack have at times been painful.

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Maybe the answer is more to do with structure: set up the midfield for quicker spreads from the contest, which would mean having Ed Langdon and Caleb Windsor pushing right up at stoppages rather than totally holding their width. Or to prioritise overlap run coming out of half-back rather than safe, stodgy ball movement to clear the danger area but do little to attack unless a glaring hole opens up.

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The Demons of 2024 have made changes, but they’ve been minimal: this is still a defence-first team, still a team whose midfield focus is on winning the hard ball over getting it to the outside, still a team that has no idea what its forward line should look like and how to best use the talent it has.

If nothing changes, the Dees will still beat the good sides, still be woefully shown up by the better ones, and if they do scrape into September they’ll probably lose again even if they’re the better side on the night.

Throwing the whiteboard in the bin and starting again from scratch is the last-ditch move of the truly desperate: but if the prospect of a season, and a premiership window, gurgling down the drain doesn’t make Goodwin desperate enough, then what on earth would?

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