THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – MELBOURNE DEMONS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

I found this preview really difficult to write – it’s the first of the 12 I’ve done so far that I felt that way about. Plainly put, the Dees absolutely sucked in 2019 – they were horrid. Heartless, gutless and at times, insipid, they undid all the work they put in, in 2018 to flounder at the bottom of the ladder.

What a nightmare it was for the Demons in 2019. After listening to Melbourne supporters crying in relief after making the 2018 Preliminary Final, it felt as though they were really being set up to fail. They were the fairy tale team – people wanted to see them succeed and be the next team to break a lengthy premiership drought.

Little did I know the belting they copped at the hands of the West Coast Eagles in that final was but a precursor to the horrors that would follow in 2019.

Players were injured, traded or simply could not find form, the forward line failed to function, and those who excelled in the midfield lost the ability to collect the footy and actually do something with it. They were exposed on the outside and watched in collective bemusement as their highly-touted recruit, Steven May, struggled to fire a shot.

But that was then, and as happy as the Demon fans would be to put 2019 behind them, there would be some nervousness heading into 2020 as well. What if they can’t recapture the scintillating form of 2018? What if that was their chance and they blew it? What if the psychological scars of 2019 run too deep?

I’ll try to remain positive, as I believe the Dees will be improving in 2020, but without acknowledging where they’ve been it is hard to look at where they’re headed, so no getting annoyed when I bring up 2019 – it happened; it must be touched on, frequently.

Let’s explore the 2020 Demons, and their chances with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE BIG FELLA

I really felt for Max Gawn in 2019. He was busting his ass, working to provide the best outcome for his mids at every stoppage, and it just wasn’t working out for him.

He was the All-Australian first ruck in 2018 and actually improved his work around the ground in 2019, with a +1.87 in disposals and +2.35 in clearances won. Gawn achieved career high numbers in both stat categories as he took more responsibility for clearing the footy, particularly when it came to light that he wasn’t going to get a heap of help from his mids.

Clayton Oliver was still good, but for the most part, it was Gawn v everyone at those stoppages, and after Round One, where the Port Adelaide Power and their tandem of Scott Lycett and Paddy Ryder targeted the Melbourne big man, it looked as though Max was in for a long season.

It was a long season, but for different reasons. Gawn claimed another All-Australian selection – this time on the bench, as he continued to be one of the very few Demons to show some ticker and put his body on the line.

He was equal ninth in the league in contested marks in 2019, often drifting back to prevent the floodgates from opening at half back, and was one of three players to top 880 hit outs for the season, but it was his friendly rivalry with Brodie Grundy that probably captured the attention of most casual footy fans.

The pair split their contests in 2019, with Gawn absolutely dominating a hurting Grundy on Queen’s Birthday. It was a reminder that, although Grundy was being touted as the best big man of the season, Max had plenty left to give. As if to twist the knife, Gawn racked up career-high totals against Grundy in disposals (34), and clearances (10) to go along with 19 contested touches as well. In short, he gave Grundy an absolute whacking, and whilst Grundy would go onto even their score at 1-1 later in the season, Gawn’s form against his rival should not be easily dismissed.

So, what does 2020 hold for Gawn?

The big man remains the centrepiece of any challenge the Dees can provide. Though other pieces may improve or fall away, it will be the form of Gawn that dictates whether a return to the finals is plausible.

In 2018, Gawn reached the once impossible number of 1000 hit outs in a season. It has been done five times now, with Grundy topping it for the second time in 2019. Gawn needs to hit that mark again – his hit outs are more than just getting his hand to it first. Gawn’s taps are creative, effective and set the Dees off and running. Gawn remains the only man to ever hit the 1100 hit outs in a season milestone. Can he top it and drag his team back to respectability in the process?

 

MEMORIES… LIKE THE CORNERS OF MY MIND

It wasn’t that long ago, was it?

2018 finals series… a wave of momentum carrying the Melbourne Demons towards a Grand Final… the supporters beside themselves with excitement, anticipating what could be, flying to Western Australia to support their boys…

It was a great time to be a Demons fan.

But great times to be Demon Fans have been too few and far between. As soon as they made the finals, as soon as they threatened to become a force, back down the ladder they tumbled.

But these are the Melbourne Demons – not the Melbourne Goldfish. Do we think they have completely forgotten what got them to the dance in 2018? Do we believe that this team, one that played such an exciting brand of football just two seasons ago has forgotten how to play the game, and what it takes to win?

2019 would indicate maybe they had a significant bout of amnesia, but this is a club that was on the upswing and possibly… just maybe got a little ahead of themselves. If they are legit, 2019 was the lesson – the kick in the ass they needed to knuckle down and have a great pre-season, ready to rumble again in 2020.

I know they had a lot of injuries after 2018; we heard all about how the amount of surgeries impacted the 2019 season, but three other teams went as deep, or deeper than the Dees – a long finals campaign is not a problem exclusive to Melbourne. Some teams are back year after year – they manage. So too should the Demons. There are no excuses for a fall of this magnitude, and there is no other way to respond other than improve.

The experienced Melbourne players need to go back to what got them to the dance in 2018. We all know what that is – hard work, and if they aren’t willing to do it; the extra training sessions, the early rehab, the individual work when no one else is there to push them, then the Dees should start concentrating on those who are.

 

THEY CAN’T GET MUCH WORSE

There were some players who just weren’t themselves in 2019. Well, they weren’t the players they were in 2018, anyway. Not that I want to dwell on what is ostensibly the bad in the good section, but to understand the improvement that’s possible, firstly it is important to how far they fell.

Angus Brayshaw went from 26 touches per game to 22, and fell away by a clearance per game as well.

Jack Viney fell three disposals per game, and was down almost three clearances per contest as well in a pronounced form drop. When you think of his season, what is the standout moment for him? Getting sat on his ass by Sydney Stack? Is that how he wants to be remembered?

Christian Petracca dropped a disposal and a half per game and dropped in his clearance numbers, though spending more time up forward could probably explain that away.

Jake Melksham struggled to get on the park, playing just 12 games after 23 in 2018, and Nathan Jones dropped four touches per game. Whilst the Dees did see statistical improvements from Christian Salem and James Harmes, the net loss in output was significant.

So, what’s the upside then, Mongrel?

I’m glad I asked.

I cannot see Jack Viney and Angus Brayshaw repeating that sort of form in 2020. These two were the in-and-under players Clayton Oliver and Max Gawn required to help out in 2019, and it did not play out that way. All they need to do is match their 2018 results and we could see a Demon resurgence. That’s no small feat for Brayshaw, who was third in the Brownlow that season.

So, realistically, what is expected from the Melbourne midfield overall? We’ll skip over Ed Langdon and Adam Tomlinson until the next section, but we need to look at those established players in this rotation, and what they could provide.

With Gawn giving silver service, there is no reason that Brayshaw and Viney cannot combine for ten clearances per game. Together, they averaged 7.6 in 2019, and really, the onus here is on Brayshaw to make good on the form he showed in 2018. Viney was already at 4.3 per game in 2019, but Brayshaw needs to lift.

If those two are performing to that level, it allows James Harmes to focus more on his stopping ability and less about winning the footy. He is a highly capable player, but if you’re looking at who you want to be the second best mid at stoppages for the Dees, I doubt you would have him as your choice. He is perfect for the fourth mid role, but as someone who you’ll be relying on to win the footy; I’d rather others.

The 2019 Melbourne Best and Fairest results indicated how big the chasm was between the top two (Gawn and Oliver) and the rest. Viney came third, which indicates just how poor the rest of the team were last year. The lift has to come from all over the park, but it’s the mids who need to get the ball rolling, and it begins with Viney and Brayshaw.

 

SOME NEW FACES OUT WIDE

One of the big issues at Melbourne in 2019 was the lack of run. The Dees have the talent to find the ball and feed it out, but once they do, it seemed as though it was going to someone who was content to throw the ball on his boot and hope, or someone who would be looking to dish off again.

I covered Viney and Brayshaw above, and they are two who tend to throw the ball on the boot indiscriminately… but I don’t want to whack them anymore; they should improve markedly in 2020. The Dees were missing the players who spread quickly, lose their man and found plenty of space.

They took steps to address this problem in the recruitment of Ed Langdon from Freo, and Adam Tomlinson from GWS. I’m completely sold on one of those moves, but I am a little iffy on the other.

Ed Langdon is a running machine, and sat only behind the superhuman Brad Hill in terms of metres gained for the Dockers. He was ranked 27th in the league, but as he deferred to Hill often, I expect him to make another leap this season and could see him residing comfortably inside the top 15 as a conservative estimate.

Langdon loiters, in the best possible sense, about a kick off the play, and has become quite adept at knowing the right time to break into space. Traveling at 25 touches per game and running at 70% efficiency, I would be hoping for Langdon to break the 20 uncontested disposals average in 2020 (he sat at 17.3 in 2019).

Only four players were able to hit that mark in 2019 – Andrew Gaff, Matt Crouch, Lachie Hunter and Jack Macrae. If Langdon can push himself into that bracket, he starts to make the Melbourne forward set up a little more dangerous. Our resident Fremantle writer, Matt Passmore has been banging on about how Langdon’s delivery isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I guess Melbourne will be finding out whether this is the case for themselves as we hit around five or six games into the season, but I am looking at his move to the Dees as a very positive one both for him, and the club.

The other move of attracting Adam Tomlinson to Melbourne is the one I am not sold on at all. Tomlinson is the sort of player that seemingly always looks out of place. Play him forward and he doesn’t look comfortable. Play him in defence and he gets lost. Play him on the wing, as GWS did in the finals, and… you get what they got in the finals. And what they got was 13 disposals per game and zero influence.

I really think the Dees could have done better here. Tomlinson has never averaged over 17 touches per game. He has never picked up more than 12.3 uncontested touches per game in a season (2014 in you’re playing along at home) and whilst the Dees were desperate for run, and Tomlinson does have the tank, getting his hands on the footy seems to have been a major problem for him over the years.

So, what was the appeal? He’s a big body – 194 centimetres tall and pushing 100 kilograms. He is someone who won’t be easily pushed around, and perhaps that was what the Dees wanted?

Tomlinson had been making noise about leaving GWS for quite a while. I’m hopeful that he was a square peg in a round hold up there, and in a new environment, will be able to find his niche and start delivering.

Personally, what I’d love to see is Neville Jetta back in defence, Tomlinson move to half back, and Christian Salem moved to the wing. Salem and Langdon on one wing apiece would provide the sort of run and carry the Dees lacked last season, and would have Tom McDonald licking his lips. Langdon and Tomlinson on the wings only half fixes the issue.

 

GETTING THE PLAYERS THEY RECRUITED – FINALLY

The Melbourne backline was shaky in 2019, and on paper, it got shakier when Sam Frost packed his bags and headed to Hawthorn.

But things aren’t always as they seem, and the Dees may start to look a lot more solid in defence as two players in particular get a pre-season together, and get into great shape.

“Great shape” and Steven May really don’t go hand in hand, but from all reports, he has put the work in this pre-season and is looking at righting the wrongs of 2019, where he showed up out of shape, got himself suspended, and then found himself injured more often than not.

May played just eight games for the Dees and was one of the more disappointing recruits of the year. Actually no, he was THE most disappointing recruit of the season.

Jake Lever’s time at Melbourne has had a large interruption due to a knee reconstruction. Joining after the 2017 season, Lever was meant to help the Dees build  into a winner, and they were ticking along nicely in 2018. Sadly, much of that was without the former Crow.

Lever played 11 games in his first year as a Demon, and came back from that knee injury to play eight more in 2019. His presence in the back half in 2019 was comparable to his role in Adelaide, and you’d think with an injury-free pre-season, we might start to see some improvement from him.

Sam Frost saw the writing on the wall coming into 2020. He saw Steven May determined to do the work he should have done last season, he saw Jake Lever recovering well from his knee issues, and he knew what was coming for him – time in the VFL.

Lever and May have the potential to form a highly effective defensive duo in 2020. May will be determined to make amends for his… well, his fatness in 2019, and Lever wold have to feel as though he has been robbed not of one, but two seasons.

The Dees need a lift in defence, and if they can get May and Lever both firing, there might be a little bit of stinginess from Melbourne in 2020.

 

THE FORGOTTEN YOUNG STAR

All hail Patrick Cripps.

All hail Marcus Bontempelli.

Don’t forget about the redknob playing for the Demons. He can play a little bit, too.

Clayton Oliver is no oil painting, and I am sure there has been many people who wished he was invisible over the years, but he certainly isn’t. Still, that hasn’t stopped the AFL media from treating him as though he is.

For all the plaudits and kudos other players his age receive, it seemed as though 2019 handed Clayton Oliver as many kicks in the ass as it did pats on the back.

“He gets rid of the ball too quickly,” chided Garry Lyon about the way Oliver disposed of the ball. I watched Oliver after this comment, and I remember wondering whether Garry would be more pleased if Oliver held the ball, got tackled and either caused a stoppage, or was pinged for a free kick.

The instances Lyon was critical of are the quick little gives that Oliver executes irrespective of the scoreboard. He wants to involve his teammates and get them off and running. He wants to move the ball quickly  in order for his team to have an opportunity to score – god knows, they had enough trouble scoring at any time in 2019, let alone when the ball moved slowly.

Lyon’s criticism was harsh. Oliver’s quick hands would be lauded if the Dees were winning games in 2019, but as they were experiencing an absolute mare of a season, every action, and every mistake was magnified in the eyes of the press, and Oliver had to take it on the chin.

What wasn’t spoken about was that Oliver topped the 30 disposals per game mark in 2019 – the first time he’d ever done that. He also notched career-high numbers for clearances (6.95) which was good enough for fifth overall in the league. At a time his fellow midfielders were floundering, Oliver remained a shark, getting first hands to the ball and working his ass off in the middle.

He is one of just three players EVER to accumulate 400+ contested possessions in a single season (Josh Kennedy and Patrick Dangerfield are the other two), and is absolutely fearless when it comes to his turn to put his head over the footy in a pack.

Forget what Garry Lyon says about him releasing the footy too quickly – a bloke who wins the third highest amount of contested footy per game in the league isn’t afraid of being tackled – Oliver is a young champion of the game. At just 23, he is already a 2x Best and Fairest winner, and when all is said and done, his name will be in the discussion around who the greatest players in Melbourne history are.

He is well on the way already.

 

RETURN OF THE JET

I’m not sure any player was missed more by Melbourne in 2019 than Neville Jetta.

Ultra-reliable and rarely beaten, Jetta was limited to just seven games in 2019, exposing holes in the Melbourne defence with his absence.

Jetta didn’t play in a win at all in 2019 – the first time this has occurred in his career. He was vitally important in 2018, and is one of the few small defenders capable of completely locking down a talented and normally elusive small forward.

At 29 years old, Jetta would have entered the 2019 season believing that after ten years on the list, and with his first ever back-to-back winning seasons behind him, that his team may have been on the cusp of something big.

The collapse may have hit him, sitting on the sidelines, harder than anyone else.

Jetta is a key component to the Melbourne resurgence in 2020. In order for them to recapture the form that saw people jumping on their bandwagon in 2018, the Dees need improvement all over the park. I touched on May and Lever’s expected leap above, but the return of a fit Neville Jetta goes a long way to shoring up that defence.

 

KIDS TO LOOK FORWARD TO

There was some genuine bemusement when Melbourne selected Luke Jackson with the number three pick in the draft last year – not because anyone doubted the ability of the kid, but because the Dees already possess this dominant ruckman who, at 27, has plenty of footy left in him.

But there is the feeling that Melbourne have drafted Jackson not as a ruck, but as a tall forward to bolster what was their strength in 2018, and became yet another of their many weaknesses in 2019.

Jackson stands at 199 centimetres and has a nice pair of hands. With the Melbourne forward set up faltering so badly in 2019, those making the decisions at Melbourne may be looking longer term than any supporters. They may believe in Tom McDonald, Sam Weidemen and Christian Petraacca to turn it around and hit the scoreboard in 2020, but realise that a long term strategy is required as well.

Kysaiah Pickett was the other addition that seemed to raise a few eyebrows – not because of his name, but because the highlight package presented seemed to hone in on one aspect of his game – “he likes to hurt blokes” said proud uncle Byron, who also had a bit of a penchant for dropping the shoulder into his opponents, and in some cases, rendering them unconscious.

Pickett was picked up at number 13 and may be able to have immediate impact. He played in the SANFL last year, so is already accustomed to playing against men, and if he is anything like his uncle, could provide some real fireworks for Melbourne.

Unless Daniel Andrews bans them.

 

A QUALITY ACQUISITION

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure… and whilst I don’t think Essendon thought Mitch Brown was trash by any stretch, the Dees may have picked up a little piece of treasure when they welcomed Brown to the fold as a delisted free agent.

He was solid for the Bombers in 2019, ranking third in goals with 21 in his 16 games. He was also able to kick 3+ goals on four occasions. The only other players to do that at Essendon were Jake Stringer and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.

Another one for you – when Brown kicked two or more goals in a game, the Bombers had a record of 6-0 in 2019. If he can provide a solid third option for the Dees, he may prove to be one of the best pick ups of the off-season, and take some pressure off Tom McDonald and Christian Petracca.

 

THE BAD

 

THE DISAPPEARING ACT OF ANGUS BRAYSHAW

Okay, I touched on this bloke above, but let’s dive a little deeper, shall we?

What the hell went wrong in 2019? How can you go from being third in the most prestigious individual award in the caper to looking as though you don’t want to be out on the field.

Angus Brayshaw looked like a lost soul last season. I haven’t seen a guy look like he has lost his smile in regard to footy since Gary Ablett Senior decided retiring was the best option in 1991.

It seemed to me that Max Gawn and Brayshaw had developed a brilliant chemistry in 2018 – some of the ruck taps to Brayshaw on the run were almost poetic in their beauty. The stats probably say that Clayton Oliver was the number one target, but the way Gawn would find Brayshaw on the move… it was thrilling football.

But that was missing in 2019. Completely missing. Whether defensive-oriented mids were a wake up to the Gawn and Brayshaw tandem, or Brayshaw just wasn’t able to get to the right spots, the combination just didn’t have the same zing to it. Brayshaw floundered, and instead of the games with 30+possessions, we started to see more in the teens.

In 2018, Brayshaw had six games with 30+ disposals and four games with under 20 touches.

In 2019, he had three games with 30+, and eight games with under 20 disposals.

At times, Brayshaw played like someone who had given up on the season – he had five games in succession where he had disposals in the teens; an average of just 14 touches per game over that stretch. It was embarrassing.

The eldest of this current crop of the Brayshaw clan, Angus finds himself at the crossroads after five seasons in the league. Another step backward may see him placed on the trade table – a step forward could see him play a huge part in the Demon resurrection.

Two months into the 2020 season will give us answers as to where Angus Brayshaw’s career is headed.

 

A ONCE POTENT FORWARD SET UP

This was something I didn’t see coming in 2019. As we progressed through the latter part of 2018, it appeared as though Tom McDonald made the big leap into the elite forwards of the competition, and in doing so, it allowed Melbourne to start assessing their list with a more careful eye.

What did T-Mac’s form mean to the Dees? Who suddenly became expendable?

History tells us that Jesse Hogan’s time at Melbourne came to an end as Tom McDonald rose to become the number one forward. Really, it was a gutsy decision to trade him, and ultimately it may turn out to be a good one (his first season in purple was nothing to write home about) but the improvement from T-Mac did not come.

As a matter of fact, he went backward by a significant margin.

After averaging 2.65 goals per game in 2018, T-Mac had just 1.20 in 2019, and that figure was inflated considerably by his last game, in which he was injured and also kicked six goals.

Prior to that, he had kicked multiple goals on three occasions and had been held goalless seven times.

But the bad news didn’t stop there – Sam Weideman was earmarked as the player ready to step into the secondary forward role behind McDonald. Well, he got one part right – he was behind McDonald – bloody miles behind him. And maybe he got the wording wrong and thought it said “a forward role in the seconds” because that’s where he ended up.

There was word that Weideman was requestion around $650K per year prior to the 2019 season. I really hope the Dees didn’t fork that out. He played 11 games and kicked 11 goals in 2019 and will probably best be remembered for missing a shot at goal after the siren against the Crows.

But wait, there’s more.

The absence of Jake Melksham really hurt the Dees as well. Playing just 12 games, he was still able to be one of their best distributors inside 50, averaging 1.17 goal assists per game to go along with his 1.25 goals.

Melksham is the sort of player that binds a forward set up together. He gets to the eight spots, makes intelligent plays and his teammates know that if they find space, he will look to get them the ball.

The Dees find themselves trying to scramble back into contention in 2020.In order to do so, the McDonald-Weideman combination needs to start working, Luke Jackson should be incorporated slowly, and Jake Melksham needs to get his body right and stay on the park.

Get those right, and things may be nowhere near as bad as they seem.

 

THE GOODY AND THE BAD

So the Dees signed Simon Goodwin to an extension at the commencement of 2019, but just 12 months later, he is one of the coaches who will be under pressure to perform.

Last season was the kind of season that would drive a coach insane. Injuries and poor form combined to make Goodwin look inept in the coaches box. He looked like a puppeteer that broke the strings every time he pulled one, resulting in a tangled mess that he was ultimately responsible for.

The Dees have had their time off, and time to recharge the batteries. There will be a lot of eyes on Simon Goodwin and the way the team responds to him early in the season. By the half-way point of the season, if the Dees are struggling, I would not be at all surprised if the drums start beating, and his position, irrespective of years left on the table, is being questioned.

 

THE UGLY

 

WHAT IF 2018 WAS THE ANOMALY?

This is what Melbourne supporters don’t want to hear, and for good reason.

2017 saw the Dees miss the finals on percentage, and it hurt. The club printed out finals paraphernalia and was ready to roll into September, but that would have to wait 12 months, and when the 2018 season rolled around, the club was chomping at the bit for September action.

They were good early, knocking over both Geelong and Hawthorn before running into West Coast and being brought back to earth with a thud. Though that loss was devastating, it should have been the launching pad for an assault on 2019. Obviously, it wasn’t.

So, if the Dees actually had one good season – almost an excellent season, what if that’s as good as they can muster? By the standard they set in 2018, the following season was abysmal, and could have been worse. They won on a last gasp goal against the Gold Coast Suns in Round Eight – had that game gone the other way, the Dees would have won as many games as the Suns for the season, and what was people’s opinion of the Suns in 2019?

I don’t believe Melbourne are anywhere near as bad overall as they were in 2019. There is too much talent, and too much experience on this team to flounder so badly two years in a row, but as much as last season broke the hearts of Melbourne supporters, I am not sure they could handle another one of a similar nature.

Enough is enough for the Demons, and 2020 has to be the season they dig their heels in and win as many games on guts and determination as they do talent and skill.

 

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