It was a long build up. An off-season with talk of a rivalry, of hurt feelings, of disrespect. It was all put aside as the footy finally did the talking in Round One.

And Melbourne made the loudest statement.

The Demons began their defence of the premiership with a 26-point win against the Dogs in a game that ebbed and flowed like the tides.

There were points during this game that either side looked the better unit, with the Dees putting together two runs of blistering footy to bookend an eight-goal blast by the Dogs that saw them surge to the lead through the middle of the game.

Comparisons to the Grand Final were evident in many ways, as we’ll dive into soon, but in the end, we had a repeat performance from the Norm Smith Medallist and some incredible efforts from Melbourne’s running man to guide them home.

The headlines may all be about Luke Beveridge’s outburst at a Fox Footy journo, but the fallout, and the report should be about the Dees.

Let’s jump into the Mongrel’s Deep Dive, as we ask the Big Questions about the Dees’ win.

 

IS THERE A BETTER RUNNER IN THE GAME THAN ED LANGDON?

I know the headlines will be all about Christian Petracca, but I simply cannot go past the efforts of Ed Langdon in this game – he was superb.

It wasn’t just the fact that he collected 22 touches – it was more the way he collected them. Langdon put in the kind of hard yards that would normally see a player hunched over, gasping for breath. His coverage of the ground saw him involved in some plays at half-back, only to bob up around half-forward seconds later to give his teammates an option for the outlet handball and drive the ball inside 50.

And whilst he continued to do that all game, I didn’t even damn-well see him breathing heavily. He must have done a mountain of work over the last couple of seasons, as his tank is just about the best in the game, and when the heat was on in the third quarter and the Dees needed someone to stand up, Langdon produced some of the most effective gut-running you’ll see.

And he barely broke a sweat doing it.

What impressed me most in this was his contested work, which was a complete surprise – both to me and his highly-touted opponents. Both in the air and at ground level, Langdon won contests you would usually bet against him in. Playing as the fat side wingman, Josh Schache (who really had a stinker) had the perfect opportunity to capitalise on a mismatch forward with Langdon, but the Melbourne winger held his ground, won the footy and sprinted away from the bigger man.

Again, later in the game, midfield bull, Josh Dunkley had a one-on-one contest against  Langdon. Seriously, you’d back Dunkley to win the battle of strength and make the Dees pay for permitting the mismatch, but Langdon was up to the task again – beating Dunkley and leading the Dees on another attacking foray.

He did not break double figures for contested touches once in 2021 – he had 11 in this one. He stood up when the team needed him to.

Whether he gets in your votes or not, the impact of Ed Langdon at both ends of the ground, and all parts in between, should not be downplayed. When the Dees needed run, he gave it, and when they needed a little more grunt, he surprised the hell out of those trying to stop him. An excellent contribution.

 

WAS THIS CHRISTIAN PETRACCA’S WAY OF SAYING THE GRAND FINAL WAS NO FLUKE?

The stats are easy to compare, with one disposal more for Trac in the Grand Final as compared to the opener, but in many ways, this was the Melbourne star eyeballing one of the best midfields in the game and letting them know he can match it with them in any way they choose to come at him.

Petracca was a bull again in this one. With Marcus Bontempelli struggling through an ankle issue, the battle of the superstars really did not eventuate (Bont was really quiet in the second quarter prior to being hurt), but Petracca’s power in the contest and fierce attack on the loose ball saw him notch an impressive 38 touches to go with a couple of goals.

In what has become typical Petracca fashion, he peppered the forward fifty, notching 11 inside 50s, nine clearances and a whopping 13 score involvements. Yep, 13 of the 27 score involvements for the Dees saw Petracca involved. Every little thing he does is magic…

So, does this performance sound a warning to the competition? Is this Trac’s way of signalling that he could go to yet another level in 2022?

I am not too sure about that – given what we saw last year, how many more levels could he get to? What it does tell me is if there were any thoughts at all that Christian Petracca, coming off being the best player in the best team on the biggest stage in footy, would rest on his laurels… well, allow this to erase them. He is THE man.

 

AND IS TAGGING PETRACCA THE ONLY OPTION NOW FOR THE DOGS?

They’ve tried going head to head and failed.

Miserably.

It might be the only way forward, and if it is, who can do the job?

In many ways, it is like standing in front of a train and thinking you’re going to halt its momentum, such is the power that Christian Petracca possesses in the contest. He shakes those hips and shrugs the shoulders and suddenly, what looked like a good restricting tackle has two arms free and a handball being fired out to a teammate.

Could Josh Dunkley have done the job?

He is usually a pretty accountable midfielder, but seemed more content with chasing footy than he did manning up. With Bont hurt, the capacity to hurt Trac going the other way was diminished. Not that I am a coach, but with midfield talent to burn, could that have been the time Beveridge had Dunkley shift gears and attempt to limit the influence of the Melbourne star?

77 disposals and four goals over the last two games… if you’re going to permit that, then you deserve to lose. The Dogs have to come up with a different way of handling the raging bull in red and blue.

 

HOW MUCH OF A LUXURY IS IT TO HAVE TOM MCDONALD ON THIS TEAM?

When you lose a player the level of Jake Lever prior to the game, you could be forgiven for having a bit of a leaky defence for the night. When the second of your three defensive pillars go down in the first quarter, things could, and really, should get a little shaky.

Yet Simon Goodwin always had something up his sleeve to deploy down back, and that something has always been Tom McDonald.

One of the true swingmen of the game, McDonald is a highly-capable defender as well as a reliable power forward, but in 2021, Goodwin appeared to be bored with questions about whether McDonald would be sent into defence every time one of his talls had a sniffle, or an ingrown toenail, or their finger poked through the toilet paper and upset them.

He knew that using Tom McDonald in that capacity was a “break glass in emergency” only proposition.

Losing two of your three top defenders called for some glass to be shattered. Add to that the fact Michael Hibberd and Harrison Petty were also unavailable and you can see why the move was made.

McDonald is not going to give you Lever-like numbers. Whilst Lever traditionally capitalises on the mistakes of the opposition midfield, zoning off his own man to impact other contests, McDonald was much more akin to being a traditional key defender, using his big body to absorb contact and, without oversimplifying things, getting in the way and making life difficult for the Dogs up forward.

You’re not going to see a lot reflected in the stats when it comes to TMac’s game. He was subdued in that regard, but his presence at and inside defensive fifty made a huge difference to the Melbourne defence, particularly with Steven May completely engaged with Aaron Naughton.

 

COULD AARON NAUGHTON MAKE THE LEAP INTO THE SUPERSTAR REALM THIS SEASON?

Geez, he looked good in this one, attacking the footy in the air with a reckless abandon.

His duel with Steven May produced some cracking one-on-one encounters, with Naughton pulling in six marks and converting four goals, which would give him the nod in the duel, if we’re being fair.

And I’m fair.

May had his moments in the second half, but when the Dogs had their run, it was Naughton stepping up to the plate to ignite them. He is listed as having just one contested mark for the game, and the only reason I can think of is because he was able to do the hard yards early and get separation. I like to keep an eye on what I term “Get out of Jail” marks in a game. It’s when a player takes a big grab to ease the pressure on the defence who are desperately trying to clear the footy. So much is made of intercept marks, but you rarely hear anyone talk about these “GooJ” marks.

Probably because it’s something I made up, but anyway…

Naughton had two towering GooJ marks in the second quarter, giving the Dogs a huge lift as they began their surge. Knowing the May would drop off him once he led up past half-forward, Naughton was granted clear runs at the high ball and he made good on them. He would have had another in the third quarter, but a free-kick was called off the ball.

Over the journey, we have heard a few people make the Wayne Carey comparison with him. I’ve always thought it was a slight stretch – Carey was one in a million – but you can definitely see signs. With his headband in check and an attack on the ball that is almost ridiculous, he is a highlight package waiting to happen.

Can’t wait to see more from him this season.

 

WAS THERE A LITTLE TOO MUCH ILL-DISCIPLINE FROM THE DEES?

Perhaps… but there were a couple of shocking free kicks that didn’t help, as well.

Firstly, a 30-17 free kick count in favour of the Dogs shouldn’t surprise anyone who has watched footy over the last few years – they get a great rub from the umps, but you have to credit them for knowing how to work the system.

In this one, I found Max Gawn to be a little undisciplined, opting to simply hold or shove Tim English instead of working at establishing position, himself. That said, one instance saw Gawn jump into English, take clean possession and clear the footy – it was assessed as blocking. I have no idea how that can come about when his eyes are on the ball and he gets not one, but both hands on it in the ruck contest.

That’s ruck craft, right Max?

Clayton Oliver was also quite sloppy, giving away a few silly free-kicks for holding after the ball had been disposed of. They’re obviously not game-breaking types of incidents, but enough of them occurring in a game can be an issue. We saw a bit of that in this one – eight free kicks to Tim English, alone. That, to me, speaks of a premiership captain who wanted to rely a little more on manhandling his opponent than out-thinking and out-playing him.

As for the free-kick to Cody Weightman, which gave the Dogs a late first-quarter goal… that umpire should be embarrassed that he paid that. It was a guess, and I bloody well hate when umpires guess.

 

WHO WERE THE THREE BIG NON-CONTRIBUTORS FOR THE DOGS?

Bailey Williams was really ordinary. Dropping marks, missing targets, and causing turnovers by trusting his skills when it was painfully apparent that his skills were not to be trusted in this game. Seven of his 16 touches resulted in turnovers, and one late in the game put the contest out of reach for the Dogs, resulting in a goal to James Harmes.

Cody Weightman was abysmal. I genuinely think he could become a fantastic small forward, but he has to be more than just a free-kick extractor. His only shot at goal came from the horrid no-contact/front on contact free-kick to end the first quarter, and for the rest of the contest, it seemed as though he was content flopping around in a vain attempt to milk another free-kick.

I was quite happy to see Steven May just get rid of him like yesterday’s garbage in a marking contest at one stage. It looked as though the umpires realised they’d been burnt by Weightman earlier in the game, so anything that was a 50/50 decision was going to go against him at that stage. Rightly so, too.

And Josh Schache will not enjoy watching this game back. He made errors that were directly responsible for two goals and had the urgency of an eighty-year-old in the right-hand lane when it came to contests. His dropped uncontested mark inside defensive 50 led to a Demon goal, and his decision to play on after taking a mark inside 50 was almost Nick Riewoldt/Matt Taberner levels of poor decision making.

This was supposed to be the season Schache made good on his 2021 resurgence. He has not got off to the best start.

 

WAS THIS THE STEP TIM ENGLISH NEEDED TO TAKE?

I’m not sure whether English made the step, or he was pushed into it by Gawn.

I mean, he did the hard work in this one. He established good position, he worked to nullify Gawn’s impact around the ground, he got back in defence, and generally did about as well anyone could have expected.

Yet, I want to see more from him.

He is surrounded by such talent in the midfield that blokes like Macrae, Dunkley, Bont, and Treloar win clearances irrespective of whether English gets his hand to the footy first or not – and he generally does not get his hand to the footy first.

The Dees won the hit-outs 44-20, but the work of the mids saw a 40-30 clearance advantage for the Dogs. Was this due to English hampering Gawn? Or was it more down to the Dogs’ onballers ramping it up at ground level?

At the end of the day, English held his own against the competition’s premier big man. If that is because of English’s workrate, then great, but if it is due to Gawn perhaps underestimating him a little, it’ll be interesting to see how the two face off later in the year.

This may have been a bit of a wake-up call for the Demon captain.

 

CAN TOM LIBERATORE BE EFFECTIVE IF HE IS NOT IN THE GUTS?

There are a few teams where the midfield squeeze is real. Essendon is one and the Dogs are definitely another. I have to admit, though, I did not see Tom Liberatore being the player squeezed out of the rotation.

Rewind just on 12 months and the Dogs were seeing Libba dominate clearances, feeding the ball to the running Bont, Macrae and Bailey Smith, yet here we are now and he is stuck playing a pretty ineffective role across half-forward. I’m not sure many saw this coming.

I’ve often thought that having this vast array of midfield talent was a good problem to have, but in recent years we’ve seen Josh Dunkley looking elsewhere for opportunity and now you’ve got Libba plonked in the role that made Dunkley an unhappy camper.

Is it really a good problem to have, or just another bloody problem?

Libba had 14 touches in this one – perhaps the Dogs are looking for him to give some real tackling grunt to their forward setup this season, but looking at what he was doing in the first half of 2021, I find it staggering to think that he can go from averaging close to nine clearances per game over the first ten games last season to not being in the midfield mix this season.

I hope we see him back in the guts soon.

 

COULD THIS VERSION OF BEN BROWN BE THE BEST FULL-FORWARD IN THE GAME… AGAIN?

You could see something wonderful in Ben Brown in this game – his leap at the footy, and the ability to take the ball at its highest point were back and they were providing all sorts of headaches for Alex Keath.

I am a bit of an Alex Keath fan, but he looked lost defending Ben Brown in this game, with the spearhead launching at the footy well and working hard at ground level as well. Brown may have finished with just three goals, but if you cannot see the potential for some big bags in the way he attacked the game, you’re watching footy with your eyes closed.

Last season, we witnessed Ben Brown find confidence in his game again. He started to compete really well in the air – something that had been missing at times in his final days at North- and though he was seemingly content with bringing the ball to ground for his smalls, he was putting in the work and getting back into the right shape. Things really started coming together late in the season and just like that, he became a premiership player.

The Ben Brown that played in this game looked like the type of player that realises he is far from a spent force in this game. He has his legs under him, is able to launch at the footy, is not being knocked off the spot by a little body pressure, and probably should have ended up with five goals in this one.

With the Dees expected to pick up some decent wins this season, could Brown get back to that 60-goal mark he hit for three straight years at North Melbourne?

If so, he may finally add the Coleman Medal to his trophy cabinet after being the most consistent goalkicker in the game from 2017-19.

 

HOW ABOUT SOME UNSUNG HEROES IN THIS GAME?

Oh, easy.

After a really slow start, Bailey Smith worked into the game beautifully for the Dogs. Whilst he still seems to lack composure with the footy, his non-stop run and combative nature ensured that the Dogs had someone willing to make contests at ground level more often than not.

Of course, Jack Macrae had 39 touches and was tireless when it came to repeat contests. He truly is one of the best accumulators I’ve seen. If he hit the scoreboard more, people would speak of him as though he was a generational talent.

James Jordon is a man with something to prove this season, after picking up a premiership medal without playing a minute of gametime in the Grand Final. A wise man would use that as the driver to ensure that if/when the Dees get back to the last Saturday in September, he’ll be in the starting 22, not reliant on someone getting hurt.

A really combative, F-U type of performance from Jack Viney in this one. I’ve often found that he and Clayton Oliver get in each other’s way at times, but they did a good job at holding their own space in this one and working off each other.

I know I heaped praise on Langdon in a section above, but Angus Brayshaw continued his mature style of footy in this game, once again stretching the Bulldog wingmen and keeping them accountable. His 23 touches and seven intercepts saw him form part of the Melbourne wall to trap the Dogs in their own defensive 50 for long periods. Such a disciplined footballer and his selfless acts to get back and give the Dees +1 in defence did not go unnoticed.

Ed Richards gave the Dogs an element of hardness at the contest in defence. He won some hard footy and his delivery was pretty difficult to fault. I’d have him right up there in terms of the Dogs’ best. Sometimes, a heap of disposals does not mean you were the best. He did plenty with his 14 touches.

 

WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE DOGS AND TOM MORRIS?

If you missed Luke Beveridge’s press conference, perhaps you should have a bit of a look.

Bevo went off at Tom Morris, basically accusing him of extracting info from within the club and running with stories or team changes without verifying it with the club. I guess it’s a bit of an unwritten rule that you have the courtesy to check in with the club you’re reporting on, but according to Bevo, Morris doesn’t do this.

He called the reporter “an embarrassment” as he ended the press conference prematurely, but there is a large part of me that believes the problem is not with Morris – it is with the Dogs and the fact that someone in their inner circle is leaking info to the man with a mouthful of teeth.

Not the worst way to distract from the loss… but far from the best.

 

https://www.afl.com.au/news/719314/-gutter-journalism-bevo-storms-out-after-extraordinary-outburst

 

HOW IMPORTANT ARE BLOKES LIKE JAMES HARMES AND ALEX NEAL-BULLEN TO THE DEES?

This kind of gives me a chance to look at team structure, because these two seem content to play the Melbourne way, and if the ball comes their way as a result, then great. If it doesn’t, but the team also wins, then great as well.

And then you look after at the Dogs, it seems like everyone needs their touches. Yeah, they get them – Dunkley had 29, Macrae had 39, Bailey Smith had 33, Treloar had 26… they can get the footy, but their roles are… well, they’re hazy. They tend to step on each other’s toes inasmuch as they’re all after the ball all the time.

In contrast, someone like ANB or Harmes doesn’t need the footy as much. They’re both okay with playing a role, making sure their piece of the Demon puzzle is ready to fit, and then, when it is their turn to go, they do so without hesitation. They’re prepared to play defensive roles if necessary, sacrifice their own games, and work as an individual toward a collective goal. That is what makes champion teams.

I get the feeling that the Dogs are more a team of champions at the moment, and they’ll need to address this if they want to beat a champion team.

 

And that might just do me for this one. A very solid win for the Dees as they start their quest of back-to-back flags. Great to see them playing good footy right off the bat, but there are definitely some improvements that can, and will be made.

As for the Dogs, too much was left to too few. You simply cannot carry passengers against a quality side like Melbourne. There will be a few players looking to redeem themselves next week… assuming they get the opportunity.

Massive thanks to those who support us – great to have footy back!

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