It’s not every season we get a rematch of the showdown between the first and second-placed teams, but thank heavens we did.

Cast your mind back to Round 11 – it was Melbourne who exerted their strength around the contest and suffocated the Bulldogs. They played their style, their way, and moved the footy quickly from the strengths of their aerial intercepting defenders. The Demons were by a mile the better the side that night and it left the Bulldogs searching for answers.

Fast track to now. Losses to both Geelong and Sydney have opened up this narrative that the Bulldogs could not beat a top six team, and to a degree I think it was warranted. Aside from these three, the only team they lost to was Richmond and, despite where they stand on the ladder, they are a side that shouldn’t be slept on – in any given game day.

Against a Melbourne side who have started to slip a bit in recent weeks, the Dogs could smell blood in the water. In fact, the Dees have only won just two games from their last six starts, and last week’s draw with Hawthorn was something that they simply couldn’t afford to happen in the context of top two, and possibly even the top four. Given what was happening with both the Bulldogs and Geelong snapping at their heels, with Port Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane not too far behind either, and now even West Coast re-entering the fray, their draw against the Hawks opened quite a few doors.

This week, the Dogs barged on in.

Whilst this is a Bulldogs supporter writing the review this week, I can safely say this has been the club’s best win this season – yes even better than the 100-point smashings and even better than that incredible game at the start of the year against West Coast.

On a rain-sodden Melbourne Cricket Ground, the intensity was always going to be up from the outset and that meant that it was going to be a game of induced chaos. And then the injury to Alex Keath – who has been arguably the Dogs’ best defender all year – complicated matters. He was subbed out in the first 15 minutes of the game with a hamstring injury. How severe it is? I’m not sure at the time of writing, but fingers crossed it’s not a serious one – that could be season-ending, which would both leave an enormous hole in the Dogs’ back six and open up an opportunity for someone else to prove their worth.

They also managed to lose a rotation midway through the third term with Ed Richards a victim of concussion when an innocuous clash with Kysaiah Pickett left him seeing stars. With this, you had the feeling that the Dees sensed they could overrun the Dogs in the last quarter, and they were not too far away – they did get to within a kick. But the Bulldogs, god damn it – this win had 2016-levels of batting deep to win a big one. The Dogs buckled down, took the Dees best shot and were able to punch back. That’s how you judge a good team. That’s how you prove your finals credentials, and that’s how you stake your claim as a legitimate contender.

It’s the weekend, which means it’s time to write down a massive autopsy on what was a huge top of the table clash.

 

The Decision To Walk A Little Taller

Well, we’ve already talked about Alex Keath, so we’ll delve into this matter a little further.

It’s not a weekend of confusion for us Bulldog supporters without something from the selectors to cause much head-scratching. Picking what sort of team Luke Beveridge is going to go with heading into a game is a bit like me trying to pick winners in the tipping competition; it just doesn’t bloody work and it takes forever to try and wrap your head around.

This week was the decision to bring in Josh Schache to a line-up that already consisted of Aaron Naughton, Josh Bruce and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan after kicking three on the Gold Coast last week – caused a lot of eyebrows to furrow. The reasoning on this was explained by Beveridge himself – to stretch the defence of Melbourne.

Also, it should also be worth pointing out a few things. The first is that Schache hadn’t been seen since the game against Richmond, where he metaphorically had his pants pulled down and his ass handed to him by Dylan Grimes. The second has been that he has spent a little bit more time in the defensive half in the VFL. I watched him against Sydney a few weeks back and I thought to myself that there was no way he was coming back into the side, even a positional change was too late.

Maybe I was wrong. Actually, this game proves I was absolutely incorrect. Hindsight is a wonderful thing in football and the decision to bring him in was a great call. The next month is going to be huge for Schache, as Ryan Gardner is still a bit away and Keath will probably miss the next three to four weeks as well. If tonight was any indicator, he could provide a handy stop-gap in defence.

His positioning in defence was great, he came up with a couple of intercept marks and finished with seven intercept possessions – the equal-second most of any Bulldog on the ground. He had 17 disposals and six marks all up, but also had four tackles, which has been somewhat of a key weakness in his game

He did also play ruck relief as well to Tim English – to allow both Josh Bruce and Aaron Naughton to focus on playing solely forward and look, he’s not a ruckman so I won’t judge him too harshly there, but it achieved what it set out and I thought despite the conditions, Naughton and Bruce were very handy contributors.

 

Lever Fever

Well, the plan to try and stretch the Melbourne defence… look, the Dogs won, but it didn’t necessarily mean that they nullified Jake Lever, did they? I mean, I was still found a bit frustrated by the way the Dogs, at times, just hacked kicks forward and positioned perfectly t0 disrupt things was this man. He’s going to be All-Australian and deservedly so.

I talked about Jake Lever last week when I reviewed the draw, so I don’t need to go into too much detail about this one. The stats will once again tell the story that he was amongst one of Melbourne’s best players – equal leader of anyone on the ground for intercept marks with four, as well as leading everyone for intercept possessions with 15 for the game.

But, it did catch my attention that both Naughton and Bruce were working to make both him and Steven May accountable. Especially in the second half, when the Bulldogs began to repel whatever challenge Melbourne were throwing down. The pair of Bulldogs’ forwards were working to either spoil, or have Lever in a one-on-one situation.

A couple of times Naughton did out-mark him and they resulted in scoring opportunities and a few times both of them came from out of nowhere to cause the spoil before the intercept mark could be completed – it allows the smaller types to still get involved in the play and whilst guys such as Cody Weightman and Riley Garcia didn’t go off for big games, they still had vital moments in the match.

 

The Bont and The Oliver

There’s a bit to like about the midfield battle in this one, and I fear this won’t be the last time the Dogs and Melbourne lock horns this season, which has me quite excited to say the least, because it always gives me an entertaining battle.

Not surprisingly, the Demons were looking at running James Harmes with Tom Liberatore again, but I liked that the Bulldogs were well aware of what happened last time and worked hard to interfere with his negating tactics. It must’ve worked, because Liberatore was matched up on different midfielders across several stoppages.

We can talk about how Jack Macrae responded to both a quiet game and being dropped from Matt Oman’s Rolling All-Australian team (Eyes peeled for next week’s edition, Matt) with a resounding midfield game and I thought Christian Petracca played a strong game as well.

But for mine at least, we had a real main-event, box-office worthy showdown in Bont against Oliver. Two men who I maintain are amongst the very best in the competition when it comes to wet weather football, albeit for different reasons. Clayton Oliver is a contested possession machine at the best of times, and Marcus Bontempelli couldn’t have cared less if they were playing in a monsoon, he’d still have the class and composure to pick up the footy and hit his mates on the chest.

I just really love how Oliver goes about his footy. He’s an accumulator, but he also digs in hard for the footy and in a crunch-time game such as this one, he was one in his element. It was mentioned on commentary at one point that he continues to play the game like the ball is dry when everyone else struggles to control it. That was the case again in this game. He finished with 38 disposals for the game, but 25 of those were contested – the next best was Liberatore with 19. He also had eight clearances, eight inside 50s and five tackles.

But this will be what separates the two in this game – and most likely the season: Scoreboard impact.

The Bont is on another planet right now, most weeks he’ll be racking up close to 30 disposals, but he seems to be always doing something with it. Whether it’s trying to manoeuvre his way through a stoppage, hitting Jamarra on the chest in the closing stages or even closing off games such as this one (A nice trip down memory lane for you Demons fans I’m sure), the Bont, like most of the modern-day superstars, finds a way to make the game his own.

He led all comers for clearances with ten for the match, gained the most metres of anyone with 755 and was second only to Jack Macrae in score involvements with eight – Macrae had the nine and of course, the two goals. Ironically enough, they were practically the same situation – the ball lodged inside attacking 50 for the Dogs and the Dees failed to put any significant contact on.

These are the games that the Bont just straight-up owns in football this year – mark him down for another three Brownlow votes.

 

And Then There’s Caleb Daniel…

Ha! You didn’t think I was going to leave this guy out, did you?

Caleb Daniel’s 2021 has been odd, to say the least. He was an All-Australian half back flanker last season, and after a patchy start to the year, it’s become more noticeable that he’s playing a bit further upfield – up around half forward, and in amongst the centre bounces at times. He’s even started on the wing at times in recent weeks. It’s been a pretty good move, as it has removed that possibility that he could get outmatched as a defender in a one-on-one scenario – and it has happened too often!

It was just an all-around terrific performance by Daniel in this one – I think the best game he’s played so far this season. But what made this one stand out all the more is that for the number of contested possessions he had (16 from 34 touches), he still was able to both pick up the ball so cleanly with a wet and slippery ball, and then find time and space and to be able to hit a target by foot often, going at just over 70 per cent kicking efficiency.

The goal he kicked in the first quarter was just brilliant composure – he knows he doesn’t need to rush himself and I think he’s become such an important piece to this Bulldogs’ side – a few of the midfielders do like to run and kick the footy as far as they can in hopes to gain meterage (looking at you Bailey Smith), so someone like Daniel, who’s quite measured and articulate in his approach to a situation is always a refreshing thought.

He also helped himself to five clearances and six score involvements. Daniel was also doing a lot on the defensive end as well, leading all Dogs for intercept possessions with nine for the match, and also laid four tackles as well.

It’ll be interesting to see where he fits in the grand scheme of things once Josh Dunkley and Adam Treloar both come back into the side, but one thing is for certain, Caleb Daniel is finding form at the right time of the year.

 

I Have Some Questions About The Dees…

How do we assess Max Gawn’s game? In the ruck contests, he absolutely dominated Tim English for large parts – he had 16 of his 56 hitouts go to the advantage of his teammates. He was also pretty good at using his strength and physicality to snatch the ball out of stoppages and finished with six clearances for the game, including three from centre bounces.

But it felt like English was offering a lot more versatility up the ground, that snap kick in the first term was just absolutely insane, I mean that was a kick of a step from about 50 metres in the pouring rain and he just made that look effortless. I feel like Gawn deserves credit for his ruck craft to a degree, but he won’t be as big of a factor as the mainstream media would like it to be.

Where’s Ben Brown at with his footy? I thought he was actually quite solid in this one. His work rate, and his ability to provide leads and then double back were quite noticeable and it helped drag his direct opponent – whether that was Josh Schache or someone else – away from a zone defence that the Dogs often rely on.

He finished the night with 2.2 – I’d argue that a few years ago he should’ve had kicked four goals straight, but I think there is still a big problem with his goal kicking, whether or not that’s an issue internally – such as injury – or whether he just has lost confidence and his groove with his goal kicking, he missed a few shots that he would’ve normally kicked.

Last One – Was That Alex Neal-Bullen’s best game in his Melbourne career? Well, it comes close if it isn’t, because I thought it was one of the more underrated performances of the night. He had 17 contested possessions for the match and 25 overall, but also had seven tackles, seven clearances, 331 metres gained and 20 pressure acts.

He looked to be playing a little higher up the ground than in recent times, but with guys such as Bayley Fritsch, Charlie Spargo and Kysaiah Pickett all playing deeper as small or mid-sized forwards, he can go and play a role further afield. I was really impressed with his contested work in this one.

 

Other Observations

Whilst on Kozzie, I thought his pressure in this one from start to end was outstanding – finished with the 2.2 but also led all players for pressure acts with 33 and equal-second for tackles at Melbourne with eight for the match. He’s a player that I can see becoming a wet-weather specialist in a few years time.

With Keath going down early, Taylor Duryea’s influence in this one was enormous. Positioned himself in a lot of good spots to spoil and intercept, and there were a few occasions where he put his body on the line to cause the stoppage – that was a truly gutsy performance from him: 17 disposals, 13 kicks at 84 per cent efficiency, seven intercept possessions, including three intercept marks.

Mitch Hannan was back in the side and looked to have had the job for the most part of Steven May. Hannan’s been a hot and cold player this year, does a few nice things, but then disappears for the rest of it. That said, his role in this one was big. Loved the tackle on Brayshaw in the second term and the mark in the goal square in the last term to seal it was brilliant.

The more I think about it, the more I feel as if too much was left to too few for the Dees: Tom McDonald struggled – a bit of a cop-out in the wet I know, Ed Langdon only had the 15 disposals, I thought Salem left me a bit wanting at times with his disposal, and the Dees’ kids had a hard time: James Jordon, Trent Rivers, Harry Petty, Luke Jackson – all of them struggled to influence the game.

I’ve criticised Lachie Hunter before about his lack of toughness, but he was absolutely brilliant in this one – was forced to go in to win the footy and make the ball his, but also provided the gut-running that we’ve been accustomed to over the years – nine of his 26 disposals were contested, but also laid five tackles and six intercepts.

Bailey Smith’s game was very good as well. His kicking is still erratic and makes me want to tear what’s left of my hair out, but he looked as if he was another who was hungry to make a statement in this one – 26 disposals, nine tackles, four clearances, eight inside 50s and a nice goal in the last quarter to finish it all off.

I mentioned Jayden Hunt just briefly earlier, but along with his four intercept marks, he had 23 disposals, however, his kicking was only at 46 per cent. He also had nine intercept possessions and five score involvements. Despite the kicking, he tried very hard.

Can Cody Weightman’s mark win Mark of the Year? It should mount a good case, it was a wet footy, he climbed the shoulders of a man who is over two metres tall and then held it all the way down. It’s bloody brilliant, but it’ll be some stiff competition that’s for sure.

Surely Bayley Fritsch would have to be close to All Australian considerations? Another 2.1 from him in this one and sure, it wasn’t his best performance, but he did well to make the most of his opportunities all things considered.

Another small appreciation for Jack Viney’s game – didn’t win as many possessions as last week, but still had the nine tackles and came up with some strong moments where he came charging through – no Bulldog could even think about wrapping him up in a tackle.

I absolutely love Riley Garcia and Dogs fans should too, because this kid will become something to watch in the coming years. I love the pressure he brings when the Dogs don’t have the footy, but he also manages to have a very good skill set on him and often makes the right choices – did plenty right in this one.

And on that heartwarming note, I think that’s enough from me, I need to go get some sleep.

The Bulldogs are back on top of the ladder as we head to the conclusion of Round 19, unless Geelong win by some bizarre quadruple-figured margin. As of this stage they will take on Adelaide next Saturday night back at the MCG – it was a game initially scheduled for Ballarat before the season got thrown out of whack with the continuously evolving circumstances that is Covid, but I’m not complaining too much, I’d much rather sides play at the MCG more often.

As for Melbourne, well if Geelong get up over Richmond, then the Dees will slide back to third place and face some tough games ahead, including away games against West Coast and Geelong. However, it looks likely that they’ll take on the Gold Coast up in Queensland next week with a date and time still to be announced.

Nonetheless, it’s a danger game up there. The Suns, despite the loss to Brisbane, have displayed some strong signs over the past month and a half and they did give the Bulldogs a good run for their money last weekend – and especially with Melbourne’s form against bottom-six sides in recent memory, the Dees need to win to stay in touch with potentially getting a home double chance.

 

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