The 28-point margin flattered the Western Bulldogs, as they were thoroughly outplayed by a hungry and determined Melbourne outfit in a clash pitting the top two teams of the season against each other.

In an empty Marvel Stadium (thanks to yet another Hotel Quarantine screw up… I won’t say anything else, I promise), the Dees were harder at the footy and the player, continually disrupting any flow the Bulldogs attempted to create. They covered each transfer of play, cut off the corridor and forced the slick Dogs into a stop-start style that placed additional emphasis on each kick coming out of defence.

It was a challenge the Dogs appeared to be nowhere near answering.

The normally potent defensive exits were cut off, as the Melbourne pressure saw turnovers in the most vulnerable area of the ground – inside 50, and their lack of cohesion through the middle saw the Dees pounce on the Bulldogs’ mistakes.

It was a wonderful answer from the Dees after losing their first game of the season to the Crows, and with the Dogs looking flat-footed and impotent against a side who simply wanted it more. It will be interesting to see how many clubs try to implement the same game style the Dees employed in this one… and how many have the personnel to do it.

Let’s jump into the Mongrel’s Good, Bad and Ugly.

 

THE GOOD

 

IN HARMES’ WAY

This will largely be the talking point of the game, and will once again shine a light on the value of a good, accountable midfielder to balance out the ball winners.

James Harmes did not play a tight tagging role on Tom Liberatore, despite what you may read. He was attentive to the Dogs’ in-and-under specialist at stoppages, preventing him from getting first hands on the footy, but once the stoppage was complete, and the ball released, Harmes largely ran his own race, doing all he could to ensure Liberatore did not impact the contest before impacting it, himself. His goal to open proceedings was a prime example of his willingness to gain separation if it meant collecting the footy, himself. Your run-of-the-mill tagger does not risk his opponent getting the footy.

His role was unlike, say… Matt de Boer, who occasionally doesn’t start in the middle, giving his opponent a chance to win the footy if he’s good enough. Harmes went head to head with Libba and not only matched him for intensity at the disputed ball, but beat him as well.

Harmes finished the game with 23 touches, five clearances, and seven tackles. More importantly, Libba was restricted to just 16 disposals and four clearances, which was under half of his average to that point.

Liberatore has been the grunt of the Dogs’ midfield this season, well-deserved receiving praise from those who are attentive to the game. His inside work has been unmatched…

… until today.

Harmes put the brakes on Libba in the third quarter, in particular, limiting him to just two disposals whilst picking up five of his own. Whilst not your classic lockdown, Harmes and his coaches identified where Libba does most of his damage, and took that aspect of the game away from him. Unable to win a heap of footy at the coal face, Libba started to look a little out of place and his frustration boiled over when he dumped Clayton Oliver leading to a downfield free kick and goal to Max Gawn.

Without Libba farming the ball out to the runners, the Dogs’ high-octane offence sputtered to a halt. Without Libba, there were no Bontempelli bursts from the centre, and when there is none of that, the Dogs look flat.

 

THE TACTIC NO ONE WILL TALK ABOUT

This was a really sneaky little move by Simon Goodwin and his coaching crew, and I hope that someone highlights it as part of their TV reviews. If you’ve got the game recorded, you can do it, yourself.

When the Dogs had the footy in their back half and were looking to switch it, I want you to concentrate on the Melbourne player given the responsibility to leave just enough space between him and the next defender in the line to tempt the switch.

That player was Kysaiah Pickett, and with his closing speed, all it took was one slightly wayward kick to create a pressure situation out of what would normally be a standard two kicks across the defensive fifty to open up the game.

Pickett managed to create a bit of havoc, forcing the next defender in the chain to kick hurriedly out of defence, often to a contest and rarely displaying any composure. The rest of the Demon forwards would press up to create congestion across half forward and the middle, leaving Pickett to work back and man the switch.

Poor Taylor Duryea found himself up a particular creek without a paddle, when an errant Bailey Williams kick missed him in =side defensive fifty and the ravenous wolf known as Pickett thought there was the chance of a kill. He descended on Duryea who had to throw the footy on his boot and hope for the best. A couple more steps… he was toast.

Teams will work out how to successfully bypass the Pickett pressure at half back, but it was something that troubled the Dogs greatly, and with Pickett causing mayhem the Demons down the line knew to play in front to mark the dump kick from the panicked defenders.

A great move by Goodwin – bloody intelligent.

 

LEVER-AGE

Jake Lever is playing freakish football inside defensive fifty.

Playing the role of both floating intercept defender, as well as taking responsibility for Josh Bruce in a number of contests, Lever went on his merry, intercepting way as he notched 13 of them in this game. He only had 16 touches of the footy, to further emphasise that when he gets the footy, it is earned the hard way.

No chip kicks across half back to pad the stats – 16 hard-earned touches of the footy and every one of them meaningful.

It seems that every time I review a Melbourne game, I end up singing the praises of Lever, and it does not look as though that will cease anytime soon. He seems completely comfortable in his role now, commanding the defence along with Steven May to the point where they looked impenetrable at times.

With 30 intercepts over the past two games, Lever is demanding that his role in this Melbourne team be recognised by All-Australian selectors.

The highest number of intercepts in a season is 237 by Alex Rance in 2018. That was at an average of 9.88 per game (he played two finals). As it stands, Lever is on target to break that record, with 123 coming from his first 11 games of 2021, at an average of 11.18.

It has taken Lever a couple of seasons to truly start trusting his reconstructed knee – some people never get over it – but he looks better than ever, right now. His tandem with Steven May is the best one-two punch in the game, and with

 

THE MIDFIELD TITLE UP FOR GRABS

You’ve gotta hand it to Jack Macrae – 11 straight games with 30 or more disposals to start the season is a feat nobody else has accomplished, and with two strong challengers to his Mongrel Punt Midfield Championship Belt competing for the title in this one, Macrae put in a very solid outing to keep that gold strap wrapped around his waist.

It was the fifth-straight defence for Macrae, who looks as close to unbeatable as anyone over the title’s five-year history.

Even with the Dees winning the game, Macrae was so good in the loss that it made it impossible to shift the title.

He finished with 36 touches to lead all players and went head to head with Clayton Oliver at stoppages, playing to a draw.

One of about six Dogs that could legitimately hold their head up high.

 

TMAC TIME

2020 may have had something good come out of it – it may have been the kick in the pants Tom McDonald required to reinvigorate his passion to play footy at the level we’re seeing right now.

Deemed expendable by the club during the trade period, McDonald is playing like a man on a mission in 2021 and his attack on the footy speaks of a player who knows he has been given a lifeline…

.. and is acutely aware that it could be the last one he gets.

McDonald had another fine outing in this one, snagging three goals as he helped the Dees reestablish  a handy second quarter lead following two on the trot from the Dogs . Unlike a couple of others who kicked goals in junk time or failed to do anything other than slot a few goals, McDonald worked tirelessly to give his team every chance to put the Dogs out of my misery in this one.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

There was plenty to like about the games of Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca, but you have expectations of these two going into games, right?

20-30 touches, a bunch of clearances, tackles… you know what you’re going to get for the most part. However, in this game I really started to notice how hard each of them worked to get back inside defensive fifty to help both clog up the space, and offer relief to the back six.

Good teams have selfless leaders and with these two controlling the midfield and being prepared to run both ways, the Dees are looking very well placed as we hit the halfway point of the season.

Sometimes it is nice to be surprised, and I was pleasantly surprised to see both Clarrie and Trac doing plenty of the hard stuff to support their teammates.

Do we give Oliver best on ground? Maybe not, considering the efforts of Harmes and Lever, but he isn’t too far away.

 

THE BAD

 

IF YOU’RE GONNA ACT TOUGH, BE TOUGH

I don’t know what to think of Bailey Smith at times.

I’m sure there will be people who liked his game, and he certainly knuckled down in the third quarter when the Dogs needed someone to lift…

… but he also shirked the issue when confronted with a collision with Angus Brayshaw on the wing in that very same quarter.

Smith had the chance to attack the contest with a bit of venom, and take a scalp with some physical pressure. He opted not to, instead, half-committing to the contest, which Brayshaw won for his team. Within 30 seconds, Bayley Fritsch was kicking a goal and Smith remained on the half forward flank trying to pinpoint where it all went wrong.

I know where it went wrong. Do you?

It was about his lack of commitment to the contest. When you do that, every teammate out there is aware of it. In the contest immediately following Smith’s weak effort, both Tom McDonald and Bailey Williams put their bodies on the line and collided in mid-air. Both men crashed to the ground with neither taking possession, but their eyes for the ball and courage should be lauded.

Smith… well, it is vision he won’t like seeing when the review rolls around. There was no such commitment from him moments earlier, and given that contest saw the Dees propel the footy forward, Smith should feel at least partially responsible for the scoring chance that eventuated..

It was around a month ago that Dermott Brereton called Smith out for being disrespectful to an opponent, stepping over him, in Allen Iverson fashion. It was viewed as insulting when Iverson did it to Tyronn Lue in the NBA Finals many years ago. With Smith, who had recently cited some mental health issues of his own, Brereton more or less called Smith a hypocrite for belittling an opposition player whilst advocating for mental health in general.

It was a point well made.

Either be the tough guy, or don’t. When your turn comes, you have to go, and you choose not to… well, you’re giving those who would have a shot at you a bit of free ammunition. If you’re gonna step over people, play the big shot and grandstand when you’re in front, you’d better be prepared to commit your body 100% when your time comes.

In this one, his time came, and 50% was about as good as it got.

 

EMPTINESS

I know some will spin it as a great way to hear the players interact with each other, and the smack of body on body clashes, however, watching the 2021 version of crowdless footy detracted so much from what this game should have been.

It should have been Demon fans rejoicing, hugging in the stands and screaming their lungs out for their team to dial up even more pressure on the wilting Dogs. It should have been the cries of “ball”, amplified with each tackle laid. And it should have been the biggest home and away clash of the season thus far played in front of adoring fans of two teams that have exceeded expectation to this point.

But it wasn’t. It was a great win, nonetheless. However, after having footy back following 2020, this just seemed a little… cruel.

 

THE UGLY

 

TARGET PRACTICE

What was up with the Dogs’ kicking from defence in this game? In particular, their first half was a complete mess, with Bailey Dale and even Caleb Daniel unable to find targets whether there was pressure on them or not. When Libba is turning the ball over kicking across goal, you know you’re in for a long evening. When Jack Macrae is doing it… you may as well kiss your chances goodnight.

Melbourne brought the heat early, and from that point on, it seemed as though the Dogs were having panic attacks every time the footy hit the deck inside 50.

The Dees set up perfectly for it, with Charlie Spargo the main beneficiary, finding himself in the right place at the right time on several occasions. Make no mistake – this was not dumb luck. The Dees set a trap and the Dogs stumbled into it time and time again. The quick hack kick to get the ball out of the danger zone saw it come back in with interest, with turnovers the main source of the Dees’ scoring opportunities.

By the time the Dogs settled and started to find their feet in defence, the horse had bolted, the Dees were up by four goals and the dye was cast for the rest of the contest.

 

 

SOME QUESTIONS

 

DID JACK MACRAE HURT WITH HIS 36 TOUCHES?

There are some nuffies on Twitter trying to appear as though they’re seeing things no one else did in this game. They’re profound, don’t you know?

They’ve seen that the coaches gave no votes to Jack Macrae last week (because the Dogs had a team stacked with huge contributors) and have decided this means that Macrae’s 36 touches weren’t damaging enough.

People, they’re the same imbeciles that trot out the rhetoric about Tom Mitchell and Lachie Neale as well, failing to understand a player’s role within the team structure. Did Macrae’s disposals hurt? He had six inside 50s to give his forwards a chance – an equal game-high, and matched it with the dominant Demon mids to register six clearances as well.

If he did these things in a win, people would be falling all over themselves to lavish praise on him, but in a loss… well, people need to feel heard, so they’ll say anything. Doesn’t mean you have to listen.

 

WHO WAS WORSE – WEIDEMAN OR BRUCE?

Bruce, by a fair way, too.

Oh, but he finished with three goals – surely that has to walllpaper over some cracks, right?

Nope, not cracks of this size. I’ll explain why.

Bruce is second in the competition in goals. He is 28 years old and a mature-body made to compete in the air. His record in 2021 speaks of a man who has found what is required to achieve success in the AFL…

… and he produces four touches in a game of footy, with two of them coming in junk time? He just gave his critic a bunch of ammunition.

At the other end, I will not pretend that Weideman was good – he definitely was not, and the two goals he kicked DO wallpaper over the cracks, but I found that Weed actually made the contests and competed. He had a touch of the Tim O’Briens about him, inasmuch as he got both hands to the footy on several occasions and did everything but reel it in.

Bruce was a ghost in comparison.

There may be some who had an early night because they were all covid-ed out or whatever, and they may get up, peruse the stats and think “oh, Bruce did okay from limited opportunities”. If any of them relay this info to you and try to pass it off as an informed opinion, please… slap them.

Bruce was terrible in this one – he was everything he was in games from 2020, and significantly less. He was destroyed by the Demon back six as they rotated Harrison Petty, Trent Rivers and Jake Lever onto him, and looked like a bloke that had no intention of making a physical impact on the game.

Was Weed poor? Hell yes, he was. Was Josh Bruce worse. Gimme another hell yeah.

 

HOW GOOD IS AARON NAUGHTON’S WORK RATE?

Guys, I love this aspect of his game.

On two occasions we saw Naughton working back into defensive fifty only to sprint forward to capitalise on the confusion of the Melbourne defenders to become a marking target.

It’s not often you see a young forward work like that, and then get back to position with a real sense of urgency – the King brothers should be watching and taking note of the way he worked.

Naughton finished with just the solitary goal, but his three contested marks indicated just how willing he was to attack the contest with everything he had. Interestingly, Steven May would rotate off Naughton whenever he ventured outside 50, which afforded Naughton plenty of freedom, but also tempted him away from the area he could do the most damage.

 

WHY NO ACCOUNTABLE MID ON PETRACCA OR OLIVER?

With James Harmes doing a bang up job on Libba, I couldn’t help but notice how the Dogs had not employed anything even remotely similar against the Dees’ prime movers?

I’d love to be able to offer an answer as to why, but there’s only one bloke who could give you that, and I missed his presser because I was writing this review.

Maybe Beveridge just wanted to back his guys in?

 

 

OTHER BITS

 

What was going on with some of the Dogs’ defensive match ups? Hayden Crozier on Sam Weideman at once stage… it was as though they were daring the Dees to kick it to that contest. They did. They should not have dared them.

23 touches for Pat Lipinski probably glosses over just how poor some of his work was. He looked pretty slow in this one – cumbersome. And the dropped overhead mark that lead to Kysaiah Pickett kicking a goal… well, it was indicative of the evening the Dogs were having.

Loved the defensive work of Charlie Spargo, who continually applied the heat inside 50 to match that of Pickett.

Up until his horrible last disposal of the night, I did not mind the work of Roarke Smith in this game. He was one of the few players who managed to lower his eyes when heading inside 50, and kick the ball to space for the forwards.

Pretty nice outing for Lachie Hunter, who didn’t do a hell of a lot wrong. Two direct goal assists were probably a just reward for his composure with the ball in hand.

Bont’s 30 touches… maybe the most subdued 30 I have seen him have. Plenty of it came drifting around half back, but we didn’t see much of that trademark Bont loping run and carry.

Nice return from Tim English. I was starting to worry about his concussion, given he took several weeks to get back. Glad he is okay.

Ed Langdon going down with a head knock… it’s been listed as concussion, so there goes next Friday night.

Was good to see Angus Brayshaw really throwing himself in against Bontempelli on a couple of occasions.  Lot of talk about him “accepting a role” on the team and perhaps making it all worth it around the end of September. Do you think it’s selfless or silly to step into a lesser role? In truth, I have a foot in both camps – I reckon he has a heap more to offer.

In the end, the Dogs were outplayed and outcoached pretty significantly. They were unable to get any run, and still, the margin was under five goals. Maybe there is something they can take from that?

 

Next week, the Dees get the Lions is another belter, whilst the head over to Perth (apparently) to play the Dockers in the Graveyard Shift. A wonderful, powerful win by the Dees. Finals… yes, finals (plural) are beckoning.

 

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