It was a bit of a scary thought as I sat down and started to list topics to write about for each team in 2022. No, I wasn’t afraid of the task – it’s what I do, but as I flipped to the page with my notes on Melbourne, there was a bit of a stark realisation.
They could get quite a bit better in 2022.
Given the way they excelled when it mattered most in 2021, that should be a huge concern. Not you, or for me, for that matter – but for those hoping to contend next season.
As I flipped through my notes for each team, complete with both positive and negative aspects that will feed into our team-by-team rundowns of expectations heading into the 2022 season, the section listing the positives for the Dees started to overflow into the negatives section. I had to start making room elsewhere to jot down the areas they could improve on.
Whilst more will be added for each team as the off-season progresses, Melbourne was the only team I had to do that for at this stage.
So, looking at this team that destroyed the Cats and Dogs, whilst handling the Lions as well in September, I quickly came to the realisation that I’d end up having to write ten thousand words to accurately cover the Dees heading into 2022. Given their list, age profile and options available, it was too bloody much to fit into one article.
So you guys will get two – one regular season preview in about six or seven weeks and this one, with a few of the little things that probably won’t make the cut, but have a level of importance heading into 2022 that should not be ignored.
Let’s go with an entree for Dees fans looking forward, or a dessert for those who are basking in the glory of 2021.
Melbourne – The Little Things.
PRESSURE FOR A SPOT
Right off the bat, there is a huge positive with Luke Dunstan signing on with the Dees. At face value, I would not have him slotting straight into the best-22, but it is more what he does for the club just by being involved that could drive the performance of the other midfielders in the team to a new level.
In successful teams, there is always someone knocking on the door, and with Dunstan’s move from St Kilda to the premiers, he has made no bones about the fact that he wants to prove himself and make his way into this rotation. It puts the others on notice – step it up, or step out of the way.
Now, I don’t think this applies to stars of the game, such as Clayton Oliver or Christian Petracca, but what it does, is it pricks up the ears of Jack Viney, James Harmes, James Jordon, and even young stars like Tom Sparrow as they realise that it just became that much more difficult to secure your place in the Melbourne side.
Injuries always play a part and open doors for players trying to push their way into the senior side, but as we saw in the finals, once you’re in, it is your spot to lose.
Luke Dunstan has openly stated that Brett Ratten didn’t rate him at St Kilda. He’ll get his chance at Melbourne to get his foot in the door. Having had that door slammed on him in the past, once he gets a look in, he might be pretty difficult to displace from the side.
The Dees now bat pretty deep in just about every position. There are blokes on the list hungry for an opportunity. If there is one problem the club has entering 2022 it’s that they have a heap of players that could play every week, but only 23 spots available.
What a great problem to have.
MIDS THAT WILL SACRIFICE
There are times that you look at a midfield and you see big names – it can be a little deceiving.
Collingwood in 2019 is a prime example. Pendlebury, Treloar, Sidebottom, de Goey, Adams, Beams… this collective were supposed to be one of the greatest midfields of all time. Remember that? How did it play out?
How about Shuey, Yeo, Kelly, Sheed, Redden and Gaff at West Coast? Didn’t quite go to plan, did it?
Looking at those teams and those players, what’s missing? They’re all big names, right? Their best is right up there with THE best should all play to their potential, but where is the hierarchy in this bunch? Where is the discipline to play a role and be content? Where is the ability to put aside your personal role and do what is right for the team?
I cannot see it.
When I look at the Demon midfield, I see a combination that has designated roles – not a mish-mash of players that are interchangeable and therefore, easily deterred from the job at hand.
At Melbourne, it is the job of Ed Langdon and Angus Brayshaw to play the outside role. They are to stick to the wing and make their opponents accountable. I don’t see that with the other teams – at West Coast, Gaff is too often drawn into the contest, and with him comes his opponent, creating congestion for a team that relies on precision ball use. It makes no sense. Ditto for Sidebottom at Collingwood, and Treloar while he was there, as well. They just cocked their roles up trying to be too cute.
The role of Jack Viney, as a defensive-oriented midfielder who is still capable of collecting plenty of the footy rivals that of Yeo at West Coast in terms of his attack on the footy, however, Viney is fine if he gets touches numbering in the teens, as long as it is coupled with ten tackles. His role is steeped in pressure and is reflected in the opposition mids hacking the ball forward – often a part of Melbourne’s game prior to 2021.
And then there is James Harmes, who is the designated stopper on the team, but is only deployed when the need presents. He is no one-trick pony, but when the Dees require someone to tighten the screws on an opposition star, he has his name called and rarely lowers his colours. He has his role – his one wood – and when asked to use it, he clubs that ball out of sight!
Whilst a lot of the attention when talking about the Dees goes on the Petracca/Oliver combination, and rightfully so, however, the designated roles and the discipline to adhere to their allocated roles are an absolute strength of this Melbourne team that simply does not get the attention it deserves.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
Sam Weideman re-signed with the Dees this off-season, and Majak Daw also re-upped for a year.
This is what is called a complete and utter luxury for the Demons. Already equipped with Ben Brown and Tom McDonald as power forwards, having Luke Jackson play forward as the resting ruck, and Bayley Fritsch playing out of his skin gives them a potent forward set-up.
That Weideman, who would have had quite a few suitors had he made himself available this off-season, would re-sign with the Dees is a wonderful indication that he believes in the long-term prospects of this club. He is not chasing immediate game time, which would be the concern for most 24 year old developing key forwards – he is backing himself to crack this line-up and be a part of sustained success.
To have both him and Majak Daw as your backups should anything go wrong… the Dees would have to be thrilled with the way they have built this list to sustain an injury or two and still be able to provide quality depth in terms of who comes in.
THE DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
I was a little reluctant to state that Ben Brown was going to work out well at Melbourne. Coming into the 2021 season, if there was one aspect of the game I really thought Melbourne struggled with, it was hitting targets inside 50.
In the two years prior, the number of times we’d see Tom McDonald, Sam Weideman, or any number of players who played out of the goal square make a lead, only for the ball to sail wide, or over their heads, was staggering. The Dees were a “hit and hope” team when it came to forward fifty entries, and Ben Brown had slowly emerged as a player who needed good delivery to be effective.
It seemed like a match made in hell.
But whatever the Dees were doing to get Ben Brown in the right frame of mind, and whatever they were doing to get him to compete in the air like a true full forward again… things started working late in the season.
We saw how it ended. We saw how prominent Brown was in the second half of the season, but if we are being honest – and let’s face it, we’re amongst friends here – I was always going to give Ben 12 months to find his feet as part of this Melbourne team. He had to adjust to the team he was joining, he had to start reading the running patterns of his mids, how they delivered the footy, and where they preferred to kick the footy. He had to learn their strengths and weaknesses – I expected him to take the entire season to do so.
And he may have still been learning a bit about these blokes when the finals came around. But you wouldn’t have known it.
Brown became a part of the Melbourne Machine in 2021, but if anything, his exploits this season should be a tune-up for him to leap back into prominence in 2022. A man of his capabilities with a full year under his belt, renewed confidence, and a team that is willing and able to deliver the footy to him where he wants it – this coming year could see Big Ben Brown unleash the demon inside.
THE UNSUNG HEROES
How high on the list of your favourite players is Alex Neal-Bullen?
How about Ed Langdon?
Melbourne have done a tremendous job of nurturing or, in Langdon’s case, recruiting talent to fill specific positions. We all felt for Adam Tomlinson as tears streaked down his cheek following his ruptured ACL. After finally appearing to find his niche in defence, his body betrayed him, and it was supposed to leave a hole in the Demons’ defence. It was supposed to force one of Lever or May to play a different role.
But it didn’t. Harrison Petty stepped up and played a fantastic string of defensive games for the Dees as they made their way toward the flag.
ANB continued to fly under the radar of just about every team in the game as he bobbed up with a very handy second half of the season. Playing mainly half-forward, he had a knack of appearing at the right moment to make a difference, whether it was part of a scoring chain, or with his forward half pressure. And then there’s Langdon, continually making his opponents look lazy by outworking them time and time again.
You probably won’t see too many kids with these blokes’ numbers on their guernseys, but what you will hear are those who know footy singing their praises for what they do bring to this team every damn week.
Petty took on the biggest and best forwards in the game. Neal-Bullen refused to shrink in big moments. And Ed Langdon refused to be outworked on his wing. All these roles, little compared to those of the stars, combine to make the bigger picture look wonderful. These are the players that make clubs tick, and I only named three. The Dees have quite a few more. Rivers, Sparrow, Spargo… I could go on for quite a while.
COULDN’T GET A RUN – THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN
James Harmes tried his best. He wanted to get James Jordon onto the field for a run in the Grand Final, but couldn’t be convincing enough with any attempt at feigning an injury.
He should never have to do that again – Jordon won’t be in that position in the future. He is too good to be the sub in any game, going forward.
If you watched the Dees throughout the 2021 season, the emergence of Jordon, mostly playing wing and as an outside mid, was something that just had to catch your eye. Compared to Simon Black in year one (you don’t get much higher praise than that!), Jordon played 25 games in his rookie season and managed to establish himself as part of the Dees’ best 23 (feels strange to write Best 23) every week of the season.
In a team that goes on to win a flag, a rookie being able to pull that off is pretty damn special. When you consider he was an unfortunate non-contributor in the Grand Final, there would have to be a hunger burning inside him to never, ever be in that position again. It should fuel him this pre-season – push him to greater heights and keep a fire burning under him for a long time coming.
Sure, he received a premiership medal, just as everyone else did (I really think that any player who played a senior game for the year should get one), but I have heard a few blokes who have those medals (Cam Mooney, Darren Jarman) speak about it being a bit of a hollow honour, given their input in those winning teams was minimal. I am sure that, as lovely as it is to get a premiership medal, it will remain a factor that drives Jordon.
If he becomes a Melbourne great one day, it could be the part he played, or didn’t play, in the 2021 flag that makes him the player he is.
I feel sorry for teams that get themselves a young ruckman, nurture them, allow them to develop at their own pace… and then here comes a freak like Luke Jackson, who looks like everything those clubs wanted their rucks to be, in just his second season.
Jackson took home the Ron Evans Medal for the 2021 Rising Star (personally, I thought Tom Green was just as deserving) on the basis of two years of stellar work, but the way he has been able to impact contests this season and clunk marks has added a dimension to the Melbourne ruck division, and offers a fantastic “get out of jail” marking option coming out of defence as well.
In short, he is everything you want out of a young tall, and more.
With Max Gawn the premier ruckman in the game, irrespective of what Eagles fans state, Jackson is being afforded the time to develop at his own pace – it just seems that his pace is more rapid than all the other young rucks in the game, with perhaps the exception of Freo’s Sean Darcy.
Then again, Darcy has three years on Jackson and he was nowhere near doing the things Jackson was able to pull off this season at the same age.
If there is one thing I have, it’s a long memory and I can remember some people questioning why Melbourne would draft a young ruck when they had a great ruckman already in the ranks? I guess they now have their answer. Luke Jackson, injuries permitting, is set for a huge 2022. His athleticism at centre bounces and his ability to make an impact around the ground already put him above some of the first rucks on other teams. I have no idea what his ceiling can be, but with his mobility and agility, he will be a game-changer by the time all is said and done.
Whether the Dees can back up their fantastic 2021 run with another deep finals run is something we won’t know until around 11 and a half months from now, but what we do know is that they have set up to give themselves every opportunity to do so. Hell, I didn’t even get to the main points as part of our 2022 season preview yet – it is a bit early, but believe me, there is a heap.
If you’d like to read more Demon stuff, The Mongrel Punt e-book, capturing everything I wrote about the Dees in 2021 is available below. Six bucks, babies… it ain’t short on content.