The Alex Docherty Column – Unpacking Bailey Smith: Football’s Biggest Enigma

Oxford Dictionary’s definition of an enigma is ‘a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand.’

If we are to talk enigmas of the AFL, I’m sure there are plenty; the umpiring department would be up there, Gillon’s pretty weird – I’d classify him as enigmatic, and I imagine that every club’s supporter base has a player that one could consider an enigma, as well.

Bailey Smith is the definition of an enigma. He’s got the body of a god, a personality of a rockstar; women would be chomping at the bit to be with him, and a lot of men would kill to be even half as popular as he is.

Even when he was drafted and walked into the club in the 2018 post-season, he carried around with him the kind of swagger that you don’t often see with teenagers and adjusted himself accordingly in an AFL system.

Up until a few weeks ago, when he missed the Carlton game, Bailey Smith hadn’t missed a game, which is unreal considering how hard it is for the first-to-fourth year players to really find continuity in their game.

In fairness, Smith has played in several roles over the first few years – tossed around at half-forward, halfback, wing and in the middle. However, where he is best stationed remains a mystery.

There are many enigmas at the Bulldogs. I still try to fathom what sort of thoughts get processed in Luke Beveridge’s head on a constant basis, especially during selection, and it seems that a few of the players have their own mysterious auras about them.

But Bailey Smith is a guy that I have a hard time trying to figure out on the field. I couldn’t care less about his off-field stuff. Beveridge said in the post-game presser on Friday that he’s got that great balance of humility and personality.

There has also been stuff reported about his mental health; he took a small break just before the new year, but I won’t delve into that – that’s his business and his business only.

I was at the Good Friday clash at Docklands on Friday evening – just how good is it to be back at the footy and back cheering and shouting (sometimes not positive) whenever something happens in footy; it’s part of why I fell in love with the game in the first place.

As I often do, I had the radio on as the game was unfolding – I like hearing some insight at the ground, that’s just in my nature; I was very intrigued by Jason Dunstall’s comments about Bailey Smith’s 43-disposal game, hinting that whilst achieving a personal best is nothing to sneeze at, there might not have been as much of an impact as the stats indicate.

Since then, I’ve slept on it, argued with some yobbo on social media, talked about it with fellow writers and colleagues and I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t a game that was as good as the statistics indicated.

Nobody asked me, but if I was to rank the Bulldogs who made the most impact on Good Friday, I’d go the following: Aaron Naughton first, followed by Tim English, Jack Macrae, Bailey Smith and then Cody Weightman.

Most men who put up 40+ disposals tend to get the best on ground honours, and it wouldn’t surprise me the slightest to see him get the three votes on Brownlow night, but despite the hard running and terrific link-up work – those ranked above him did more with their footy than he did.

Before anyone starts to arc up about this, it’s not a hit piece on Bailey Smith. Overall, he brings and adds so much to the Bulldogs’ line-up and there would be 17 sets of supporters I imagine that would take him on their team in a heartbeat.

Despite my criticisms of him kicking the ball like a schmuck and being a turnover merchant, he’s averaging career-high numbers at the Bulldogs so far this season, but I’ll break down those numbers a little later down the piece.

There’s plenty to like about his game as an individual and I mentioned one of them before – that’s his versatility. In Round One against Collingwood last year at the MCG he was playing predominantly as a wingman – something I’d argue as being a victim of circumstance, given that the Dogs were still trying to integrate Adam Treloar into what was, and still is, a stacked midfield brigade.

Aside from that game, the wing experiment felt like it was a bit of a hit and miss, but it did show that he could do a serviceable job in the role. From rounds nine up until 20, he started playing more of a midfield-centric role, starting in centre bounces more often than not.

In the shortened 2020 season, he was one of the main guys who attended the centre bounces, alongside the usual suspects in Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore and Marcus Bontempelli, there were only four games that year in which he attended less than 50 percent of centre bounces.

His move towards a higher half-forward option paid off massive dividends late in the season last year, particularly in the Finals, with centre bounce attendance percentages as follows; 10 in the Qualifying Final, 12 in the Semi-Final, zero in the Preliminary Final and 12 in the Grand Final.

The three and four-goal bags against Brisbane and Port Adelaide respectively demonstrate that despite his flaws in kicking the ball and picking out the right options, he is most certainly capable of rising to the occasion, and who doesn’t love a little ‘ice in the veins’ celebration too, hey?

So, that now leads me to this year. There looks like there’s a good balance of splitting his time between the midfield and playing in the forward half. On Friday against North Melbourne, he attended 61 percent of centre bounce attendances – the most of any Bulldogs midfielder.

However, the career-high numbers see a massive spike in the uncontested ball. In 2021, he averaged 16.1 uncontested possessions per game, that number has risen sharply, averaging 26 per game across his first four games this year.

Before anyone accuses me of saying he’s weak as piss, his clearance numbers are bordering on personal-best levels, whilst he’s averaging 10.5 contested possessions per game so far this year, up on the 7.4 he averaged last year.

So, what’s the deal? Is he winning it on the outside too much I hear you ask? I’m sure some of you are already sharpening up the Tom Mitchell comparison as well, – I heard it once or twice already over the Easter weekend.

It’s not entirely out of order to compare them. They both have extraordinary endurance bases, as Friday night demonstrated. Bailey Smith knows the right spots to receive the ball in general play, Mitchell has done that for many years, both at Sydney and at Hawthorn and this makes them possession accumulators.

Of course, like any comparison, there are the small nuances that separate them; Smith has that great burst of speed once he receives the ball and backs himself in against the chase of the opposition, whereas Mitchell has been a proven contested ball winner and clearance extractor, something Smith has not yet mastered entirely.

But there’s every chance as the season unfolds that Bailey Smith can be the number one midfielder at the Bulldogs, just like his counterpart from the 2018 AFL Draft, Sam Walsh assumed his place as Carlton’s number one midfielder last season.

That’s no disrespect to the likes of Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore, stalwarts in comparison to young Bailey, and with Luke Beveridge saying post-match that there is potential to play captain Marcus Bontempelli to play more as a permanent forward than a midfield ace.

Bont’s work in the midfield is undeniable; a great clearance winner, a beautiful distributor by hand or foot and as a forward, he’s time and time again come up with the clutch moments when the Dogs have needed him to.

If what has been said is true and Bontempelli spends more time forward, it opens a position for a player like Bailey Smith to shoulder more of a workload through the middle. On Good Friday, there was a good even spread of midfielders who attended the centre bounces.

Josh Dunkley – 56%
Adam Treloar – 53%
Jack Macrae – 53%
Tom Liberatore – 50%

It’s a little concerning that Liberatore is only attending 50 percent of stoppages when all of us here know that he is a premier clearance winner and around the stoppages too. Prior to that game, his attendance at centre bounces has been quite minimal.

However, the move forward for Bontempelli – not only alleviates pressure off the talls down there, but it gives more of a chance for the other midfielders to go to work. Smith was shanghaied in other positions last year, you can’t fit him, Bont and the four players mentioned above in a centre bounce.

Treloar has seen time forward, and has worked on the odd occasion, I don’t like Dunkley anywhere near the forward 50 and I’m not sure about Liberatore down forward either, but he does come up with some big goals every now and then. Still, he’s a much better player on the ball.

They all are better in the middle, but the reality is that they can’t all be in there 100 percent of the time, which makes Beveridge’s job of splitting the midfield minutes all the more difficult.

The one element of Bailey Smith’s game, that nobody is talking about right now is his defensive pressure. It’s all well and good to get the footy 30-40 times in a game, but today’s football is just as much about applying the defensive pressure as it is winning clearances and kicking a winning score.

To be truthful, I’m more impressed with his defensive pressure this year than his abilities to find the football. This year he’s taking his tackling averages have gone up from 3.3 per game last season to 5.2, which is a career-high average.

There were times over the past couple of seasons where he looked a bit hesitant to get his hands dirty with the defensive stuff – one of my fellow Mongrels referred to him as a crème puff as we chatted about the game, due to his lack of hunger on the defensive end – I promise it wasn’t me, but I didn’t think he was wrong in the assessment either.

There’s nothing this year to suggest that we’re going to get Bailey Smith as a marshmallow footballer. I loved his tackle on Jason Horne-Francis on Friday, and thought it was a clear example of him going to work defensively in a contested situation.

I’m also very big on the pressure acts. Everyone who’s played knows that you may not be able to apply the tackle every time, but you can still do something by forcing yourself to press up and forcing your opposition to promptly make a decision, right or wrong.

On Friday, Smith had 20 pressure acts, fourth-most of any Bulldog. The highest-ranked player had 23 so he wasn’t far off the pace at all.

Smith averages just under 23 pressure acts per game; had 31 in Round One against Melbourne, where he also had 11 tackles, 14 against Sydney in Round Three and 26 against the Tigers in Round Four.

Whilst it is true that Dunkley and Liberatore average more pressure acts than he does at the club, it’s also easy to forget that Smith, compared to both, is still very young in the AFL landscape, just in his fourth season.

I’ll admit it, sometimes I forget that he’s yet to reach the prime years of his career, such is his influence on games – Friday was just the 71st game of his career. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d wager we’re yet to see what he’s well and truly capable of.

The casual supporters love the disposals and think they make the player, but those who know will find his kicking and his decision making has been incredibly erratic. It’s what separates the very good from the elites and we can all establish that Bailey Smith is a very good player.

Smith averages six clangers per game so far this year, only a small portion of players who’ve played four games or more average more. Kicking the ball at 61 percent on the weekend also raises some questions.

I understand that he had the most kicks of anyone out there, so there’s an increased chance he makes more mistakes and I also understand that he plays a different role to someone like a Taylor Duryea (second for kicks and went at 84 percent on Friday).

The elites are good with their kicking, Bont’s a great kick, Macrae is reliable and even Liberatore can spot up a target and lower his vision in general play. For Bailey, there’s still work to be done. There were a few howlers in the defensive half that cost his team goals in the second quarter – composure with the ball in his hand remains the one thing that is keeping him from reaching for the stars.

One thing I will say is that if his inside 50 entries are long and deep, it helps the team and makes the opposition defence a little more nervous a much easier task, but the forwards need to stick their end of the bargain as well and present themselves.

I’m not saying he can’t or won’t get there, the young man is only 21 years of age, and time is well and truly on his side.

What I am saying is that until he can find a consistency with his decision making and his use of the ball by foot, as good of a footballer as he is currently, his reputation on social media will continue to precede whatever he’s doing on the park.

And I like to think I speak for a lot of us football fanatics when I say that we would like to remember Bailey best for his football… and that mullet.

 

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