THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – ESSENDON BOMBERS 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.

18 teams and 110,000 words and we finally come to one of the most intriguing sides of the 2020 season.

Listening to the press around the 2020 Essendon team, you’d think they’d run over a puppy. The negativity around the Bombers is in stark contrast to the wave of positivity that surrounded them heading into 2019. What changed? What has soured everyone on the chances of Essendon this season? Is it the Daniher saga? The fact that they fell over again at the first finals hurdle, extending a finals losing streak to 15 years? Or is it the continued lack of a genuine inside mid – an issue that remains unresolved since the retirement of Jobe Watson?

Make no mistake, people have jumped off the Bombers heading into this season, and I get the feeling that sits just fine with Essendon supporters.

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

 

THE GOOD

 

DEVON INSIDE

A bit of a Michael Hutchence tribute there… hope you enjoyed it.

How much did Essendon miss Devon Smith in 2019? The reigning Crichton Medallist played just seven games last season, but it was pretty clear that he wasn’t himself, and the pin was pulled after Round Eight.

The pressure in the Essendon midfield was underpinned by the fierce tackling of Smith, who led the AFL in that stat in 2018. In that season, he averaged an unbelievable 8.45 drag downs per game that season, and the fact that he dropped to 5.4 tackles per game was all that was needed for people to become aware that something wasn’t quite right.

So, the question I have, I guess, is whether his addition to this Essendon midfield is enough to give them the grunt they need to match it with the best in the league?

Sadly, I don’t think it is.

For reasons outlined further down in the preview, the Bombers are thin when it comes to ball-winners at stoppages. Smith is another who is being asked to play a role, as a clearance player, that is isn’t really equipped for.

He averaged just 2.57 per game in 2019, but in fairness, it is probably worth looking at his injury-free 2018 as the gauge regarding his potential to impact the clearances. Alas, he was at just 3.36 clearances that year, and that remains his career-high.

I had a particularly witty reader comment that Smith is such a good tackler because he is always second to the ball… yep, pretty witty, but the truth of it is that Smith’s tackles just stick. Almost every one of them succeeds in effectively stopping an opponent dead in his tracks. Whilst he may not excel in reading the ball off the ruck taps, he is extremely adept in creating the stoppages in the first place.

So, if he is not the difference in the middle, what does he bring to the table for the Bombers?

You’d want 7+ tackles per game from him, and plenty of mongrel as well. I’m a believer that with Heppell, Shiel and Merrett running through the middle, the Bombers lack a bit of toughness, and though Smith is not going to enter the UFC any times soon, his ability to bring down players adds a layer to the Bombers and allows players like Shiel (who lifted his game in the tackling department in 2019) to concentrate on some more of the attack than chasing tail.

If you get anything near what he provided the Bombers in 2018, it’s a huge win.

 

THE RUN

There is a sight that would scare the bejeezus out of quite a few opposition coaches when they watch the Bombers play, and that is the red and black wave that starts as a bit of a swell in the backline, gathers momentum, and crashes through the middle of the ground, sweeping all before it.

We’ve seen it in the GWS team at points – the orange tsunami, but this Essendon team of runners is capable of a wave of red and black that would crash down on an opposing defence with the kind of force that it simply could not withstand.

It starts with Conor McKenna and Adam Saad in the backline, and the emergence of Mason Redman in the second half of 2019 adds another hard runner to the mix. They combine with the midfield combination of Shiel, Heppell, Merrett and Smith, and they enter the forward half where Orazio Fantasia, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Jake Stringer lurk with intent.

It’s the leg speed that scares the opposition, and it is first and foremost on the mids of opposition coaches when their fixture against the Bombers rolls around.

I watched with interest the way the jaws looked to close on Adam Saad whenever he was fed the ball at half back in 2019. The opposition knows he wants to run. He is like a running back in the NFL – when he gets the hand off, you’d better believe you have to have a whole-of-team effort in place to curtail him.

It seemed to me that Saad was targeted several times during the 2019 season, with the efforts of teams to prevent his particular style of run and carry through the middle. We even saw big blokes like Nic Naitanui putting the hard yards in to ensure Saad didn’t have space to operate – having him under pressure for his possessions is key to stopping the Bombers.

But then there’s McKenna, who was +3 disposals per game last season, and has seemingly found his niche in the Bomber defence. Between him and Saad, they’re like a hydra (only with two heads… so perhaps more like a Port Adelaide supporter… okay, sorry Port fans…). You can’t cover both of them, and then there’s the developing Mason Redman who is not at all averse to tucking the ball under his wing and taking off.

The run of the Bombers still has enormous potential to be the undoing of many teams this season. Pound for pound, when we measure up the top tier of runners on any team, few can match it with Essendon for speed. It is their big advantage and the main string to their bow, particularly as their big forward looks more and more likely to miss time.

Can it be the deciding factor in their season, or do they need a couple of alternate plans when the run is shut down?

 

KIDS COMING THROUGH

I just wrote about Mason Redman above – he is a talent, but there are quite a few young blokes at Essendon who could take the next step in 2020.

I’ve got a little bit of flak from Bomber supporters over this before, but I reckon Andrew McGrath has been more or less the exact same player in all three AFL seasons to date, and I am not really sold on what position he should play. Personally, I like him off the half back flank, but I could see him settling in on the wing quite comfortably. He has good delivery when he is allowed time to size up options, and could be a killer going inside 50.

But are 21 touches enough for a player of his calibre, and should Bomber fans expect a leap this season?

I would sure hope so.

When you look at those who received nominations in the 2017 Rising Star award, won by McGrath, several have made significant improvement over the past 12 months – Tim Taranto, Hugh McCluggage and Tom Phillips have all progressed nicely, but McGrath… he seems very much the same player he was in his rookie season. 24 touches at 75% efficiency would be improvement enough for me.

Matt Guelfi has shown signs of having what it takes to be a handy running mid, but in a midfield full of runners, he may have to settle for a role off half back to develop. Doesn’t do enough meaningful things on a week-to-week basis as yet, but at 13.7 touches per game in 2019, should improve markedly.

Darcy Parish and Kyle Langford are two I often lump in together, as they are players often mentioned by Bomber supporters when they discuss who could be the next inside mid. I’ve watched these two – they’re not the answer. They’re handy, but neither appear combative enough to apply themselves in a role where players seem to thrive on hard ball gets. Between them, they get about 15 contested touches per game – the best in the league get that individually. And blokes their age – Taranto – are around 11 by himself.

And then there’s Dylan Clarke. I like what I’ve seen from Clarke, particularly when he is given a job to do. You can tell a lot about a player’s character by how they embrace a run-with role, and in 2019, Clarke relished running around with some of the best in the game, and shutting them down in the process.

His 6.4 tackles per game led the Bombers in 2019 (albeit in 11 games) and his game against Patrick Cripps, holding the Carlton star to just 11 disposals, was a sight to behold. Here at the Mongrel, we love a great tagger, and Clarke was incredible that day, limiting Cripps to his lowest total in two years (and that game was one he incurred an injury) and picking up 23 touches of his own.

 

FANTASIA

We all love Lennon and McCartney, right? What’s that – you don’t? Well, I can no longer be your internet friend.

Anyway, one of my favourite parts of their lyrical combination comes in the song “Getting Better” on the Sgt Peppers album. McCartney, his normally buoyant self, sings of how things are getting better, and Lennon chimes in with his custom sharp tongue on backing vocals with how things “couldn’t get no worse”.

It is their personalities in a microcosm. McCartney the optimist and Lennon the pessimist, and right about now, I think there are quite a few Essendon supporters who are optimists when it comes to Orazio Fantasia, and I am definitely in the role of pessimist. However, I do see their point if he can recapture his best.

Here are the highlights for Fantasia in 2019

Lowest disposals per game since his debut season

Lowest tackles per game since his debut season

Back-to-back four-goal performances in Rounds 5 and 8 (he had time off in between)

Dyed his hair blonde

Was embroiled in controversy over the pronunciation of his name

Was repeatedly pinched by Ben Stratton (did bugger all about it)

Was linked to Port Adelaide and gave them such a strong indication he wanted to join them that when he changed his mind, Port stated that they now have no interest in dealing with him in the future.

Talk about burning a bridge.

After Fantasia decided to stay with the Bombers, I read quite a few Essendon supporters joking about how he’d done nothing wrong in his dealings with Port and had every right to make his decision after exploring options…

… but make no mistake – he was definitely exploring options, and was seriously entertaining he idea of scooting away from the Bombers. After the season he just put in for Essendon, I reckon there may be a big question hanging over this bloke – not in terms of skill and what he is able to produce on the field, but in terms of what’s going on upstairs.

Want to know why he wasn’t in Essendon’s leadership group for 2020? Re-read above. How could he be?

So, how does he answer? What can he produce to stick it right up The Mongrel’s backside? Well, let’s have a look.

He’s played 20 games once in his career. Staying on the park for starters would be good. Career-high numbers for either goals (1.95 per game) and disposals (16.20) would be nice as well, depending on how close to goal he plays.

I’ve focused a bit on the midfield in this article, but a fit Orazio Fantasia would make the Essendon forward line infinitely more potent. He is skilful, zippy, and on his day can look unstoppable. There is no question in my mind that, at his best, Essendon are a much better team with him it, and at his worst, he may make Essendon fans wonder why they didn’t let him go to Port.

What do you say, Paul McCartney?

“He’s getting better… he’s getting better all the time…”

And how about you, John?

“He couldn’t get no worse.”

My thoughts, exactly.

 

THE UNDERRATED DEFENCE

I like players who look like they give a shit. Some may not like players showing emotion, but when someone on my team gets beaten, or makes a costly error, I like to know that they’re hurting just as much as the fans.

You know when Michael Hurley is hurting, or upset with his performance, and it is something I really appreciate about his game.

He is a leader in that backline, and along with Cale Hooker, provide the pillars for the Bombers to build a highly capable defence around.

But there is so much more to this Essendon back half, that when fit, could provide the ultimate springboard for their running machine. I covered Saad and McKenna elsewhere, with a nice tip of the hat to Redman as well (I really rate him), but the third tall defender position is where the Bombers can really stick the knife into an opponent and give it a twist.

Patrick Ambrose is coming off what is considered the best season of his career. Rarely beaten, he reminds me of David Astbury at Richmond – gets the job done with little to no fanfare, but at the end of the day, you know he would get a nod from the coach as he subtly congratulated those who pulled their weight.

Ambrose is 28 years old and could have a couple of really good years left at Essendon. With what he showed in 2019, the Bombers now have the freedom to allow Hooker, or the next bloke I’m going to mention to zone off and impact contests. Mongrel reader, Scott Wheeler will be fist-pumping when Ambrose claims a few victims this season – he has been banging on about him for a while now. Onya Scott!

Aaron Francis could be anything. I used to love when my old man would say that about players… but he used to put it in the past tense more often than not. “That guy could’ve been anything…”

Let’s hope it is never used in that fashion with Francis. He can be supreme in the air, and reads the ball in flight beautifully, but looking at the Bombers, with Hurley, Hooker, Ambrose and Francis, are they a little too top-heavy if all four line up in defence?

The obvious solution is Hooker to the forward line, but there was a strange stat doing the rounds last season about how he goes when he is switched forward mid-game (really well) as opposed to how he goes when he starts there (not so well).

I wouldn’t mind seeing Francis have a run up forward as well if Joe Daniher can’t get on the park. McKernan, Laverde and Stringer could use a pair of hands like Francis’ up there for help at times, particularly if the Bombers throw Jake into the middle for impact.

Finally, Marty Gleeson is another who has teased Bomber fans over the last couple of seasons. After missing 2018, he played nine games in 2019. How he travels, health-wise, in 2020 will be a real factor for the Bombers. He is a valuable link man who can break lines.

 

MORE HITS THAN MISSES

No Essendon player did more to improve their standing in the game than Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in 2019.

From talk about how he is the barometer for the forward line, to songs released in his honour (how awkward did he look watching them during the performance at the Legends game), Walla had a great year for the Bombers, leading them in tackles inside 50 (third in the league) as well as goals.

He had some blinding individual games, and I have always been a fan of his defensive pressure. His barrel-like physique (in the nicest possible sense) is incredibly hard to bring down in a tackle, and the way he attacks the ground ball is exactly the way you’d want a small forward to in the modern game.

What you’d love to see from him 2020 is a reduction in the gap between his best form and his worst.

Last year, in the first half of the season, the equation was simple. If Walla plays well, the Bombers win. Whether that is correlation or causation is up for debate, but it begs the question – where does he go when the team isn’t firing? Or perhaps where does the team go when Walla doesn’t throw them on his back for a quarter or so?

For mine, Walla was left to play a bit of a lone hand up forward in regard to smalls as Fantasia had a stinker in 2019. Long-time reader, Cam Allen believes that having Fantasia out there, irrespective of how well he’s going, makes Walla a more dangerous player. He may have a point, and I will be watching closely to see just how much impact they can have as a tandem this season.

If they’re both firing, Essendon become a huge handful in the forward half.

 

PEAK STRINGER

“Almost flying”.

Over the journey, there has been a bit not to like about Jake Stringer, but I do like his honesty when assessing his fitness coming into 2020.

We haven’t seen Stringer’s best at Essendon, and it’s high time we did. I thought he was pretty damn good in 2019, personally, but this was not reflected in the Crichton Medal count where he couldn’t even crack the top ten.

Is this the foot in the arse Stringer needs to take his game to the levels we all expected when he was a young Bulldog?

Stringer had to wear many hats for the Bombers in 2019, moving into the midfield to become a direly needed clearance player when the going got tough, and I have to say, he did a pretty bloody good job of extracting the footy when he got the opportunity. His strength, and willingness to fight through tackles served the Bombers well in the middle, but his tank didn’t allow him to do more than make cameos in the middle.

Will 2020 be different?

What does “almost flying”  mean in terms of Stringer’s fitness? If he can add some endurance to his game, he has the potential to play the Robbie Gray/Michael Walters true forward/mid combination with the added bonus of being able to knock a few people flat on their backsides in the process.

It’s a big if, particularly considering how it is looking more than likely that Essendon will need him as a pseudo key forward target again, but the possibility of Stringer barging through the centre, stiff-arming an opponent and delivering inside 50 is a little mouth-watering, particularly if some of the other forwards (or defenders being trialled forward) can clunk a mark and ease the reliance on Stringer up forward.

No pressure, but this is the season for Jake Stringer. He has been given the superstar treatment for a few years now. Time to earn it.

 

HELP FOR THE BELCHER

Hands up who was happy having Zac Clarke as the only back-up ruck in the team in 2019? I know Shaun McKernan was around as well, but in terms of rucks who could compete with the big boys, Clarke was the best option the Bombers had in the absence of Tom Bellchambers.

And that was pretty sad.

The arrival of Andrew Phillips from Carlton gives the Bombers a little insurance should Tom Bellchambers suffer any sort of injury and Bomber fans would be breathing a sigh of relief. Really, anything is better than Clarke automatically being the bloke who steps in.

But we’ll still have the memories, won’t we?

Waving away teammates as they ran into an open goal to go back and have a shot himself. And missing a sitter…

Blaming teammates when he didn’t bother competing for a mark in defence…

Ah yes, the memories…

The Bombers have also been patient with Sam Draper, who will hopefully be fit this season and provide a glimpse as to why both the Bombers and the Saints rated him so highly. It’s difficult to mention much about him, having not really seen him ply his trade, but if his ability goes any way to matching his physical stature (203 centimetres and 103 kegs) the Bombers may have found the next generation of ruckmen at their club. Fingers crossed he can stay healthy.

Zac Clarke is gone. There has been much rejoicing. Let’s hope Bellchambers, Phillips, Draper and the Bombers, in general, can help us forget about the Zac Clarke ruck experiment in 2019. I’m sure you’d all like to, as well.

 

THE BAD

 

BROWN OUT

So Mitch Brown will play at Melbourne in 2020 after being told his services were no longer required at Essendon in a move that probably shocked plenty.

I wasn’t shocked initially – players are shown the door all the time, but after looking a little more deeply at the situation, I have to admit I wondered why the Bombers chose now to move him on?

Brown was coming off a pretty good year. With 1.31 goals per game and 3+ goals on four occasions, the news that he’d been allowed to wander out the door was a little bemusing.

Here’s a nice stat – when Mitch Brown kicked multiple goals in 2019, Essendon’s record was 6-0. When he was held to one goal or less, they were 2-8.

Brown is 29 years old, and when you look at the others in the Essendon forward line, I think you could safely assume that if they’re building toward their next premiership, he wasn’t really going to be a part of it. You have Shaun McKernan up there, Jayden Laverde and Jake Stringer – something had to give, and that something was Mitch Brown.

Still, I felt he was valuable in 2019, and will probably have moments at Melbourne in 2020 that make Bombers fans wish he was still wearing red and black.

 

DANIHER

Look, I don’t want to bang on about this – I am sure Bomber fans are sick to death of this saga already.

The groin issue, the attempted move to Sydney, his inability to get on the park this pre-season, and now his removal from the leadership… it all looks to be pointing toward a season of discontent for both Essendon and Joe.

And it’s a bloody shame.

Daniher was one of those players where the potential was absolutely undeniable, but he is quickly transforming into the kind of player where potential stops being a good thing, and starts to become a dirty word.

I hope he gets on the park. I hope he plays well while he is on there, and I hope at some point he realises his love for the game and this footy club.

But while I hope for the best, I fully expect the worst, and I expect that this may be another year just like last year for Joe Daniher.

And it’s a god damn waste.

I’m annoyed about it and I am not an Essendon supporter. I can only imagine how you guys must feel.

 

THE “ION” PLAN

So, a succession plan, huh? Remember the last team to have one of these?

It took years for the “success” part of the plan to come to fruition, if you consider a Grand Final loss to be success, and it also took years of weeding out those who held a very soft spot for Malthouse.

But John Worsfold is not Michael Malthouse, and Ben Rutten is not Nathan Buckley. I doubt Worsfold has loyalists in the club the way Malthouse did at Collingwood, and the Bombers aren’t coming off a period of success, either. If Essendon has learnt the lessons from the debacle at Collingwood, perhaps having two willing parties in the plan is a good start, and both Worsfold and Rutten have said all the right things thus far.

Things seem quiet…

… but not eerily quiet.

Not yet, anyway.

Question – if the Bombers have a losing record as we hit the bye, does Worsfold step aside and allow Rutten to take the reins for the remainder of the season? Or does Rutten just start doing more of the coaching whilst Worsfold appears to be sitting in the driver’s seat?

 

 

THE UGLY

 

STUBBORNESS AROUND MIDFIELD GRUNT

So, at points in the 2019 season, the person inserted into the middle of the ground to provide a big body at the stoppages was Mr David Myers. At other times, it was the man known as Jake Stringer. Between them, they offered Essendon a bit of strength around the clinches and were in there to hustle and bustle and hopefully win a clearance.

But can we see the problem with this, children? Hands up if you do.

If you said the answer is two-fold, you get a partial credit.

Firstly, if you’re relying on David Myers to be your clearance player, that, in itself is an admission that there is an issue with the midfield. Yes, Myers was a bigger body, but his best football was at half back, and he has never been a midfielder, or at least a midfielder of note. He was a stop-gap on a team that needed something a little more permanent.

Plus, he was pretty ordinary. I know he was just doing as he was asked, but he was a square peg in a round hole in that Essendon midfield. The problem was, they had a lot of square pegs.

But then they could throw Jake Stringer into the mix, and when they did, he actually looked pretty damn good. He would actually win clearances when he went in there, and had that core strength and enough mongrel in him to fight his way through traffic and kick the ball…

… right to the area he would usually be playing.

Without Joe Daniher in the line-up, Stringer is the most potent weapon the Bombers have up forward. Inserting him into the middle solves one issue, but creates another simultaneously.

So, you’d think they would address the issue in the trade period, right? There were a couple of players who were available if the Bombers had an interest – Cam Ellis-Yolmen would have been a great addition, adding a mature player capable of crashing and bashing in the middle – but as we start the 2020 season, Essendon are in the same position they were in to start 2019 with a great fleet of elite running mids and bugger all in terms of true inside grunt.

Really, I don’t want to hear that Darcy Parish is the answer in there – he isn’t. Nor is Kyle Langford. If those two are your answers, I reckon you’re asking the wrong question.

Is Tom Cutler what they’ve been looking for? Look, he is something, I guess, and at 24, could turn out to be more than a band-aid for this midfield, but it wasn’t the acquisition that made me jump up and down in excitement. He’ll get time in there, but he is no Jobe Watson. No one has been close to that since the departure of a tired Jobe Watson.

There will be points this season where the Essendon midfield is up and running. They’ll look like a million bucks as they combine through the centre of the park in a wave. Merrett, Heppell, Smith, Shiel… but there will also be times when the going gets tough and the big bodies of the opposition don’t get any smaller. Myers is gone, and Stringer can only pinch-hit in the middle.

A lot of faith must be in the return of Devon Smith to play an inside role in 2020, or Tom Cutler to fill the need. They’ll have to, or it could get messy.

And that mess should have been avoided.

 

 

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