Essendon v Gold Coast – The Mongrel Review

 

Are Essendon finding their feet or did Gold Coast lose their nerve?

That’s the question that will be asked in the offices of many football publications after this match. Essendon leapt out of the blocks at the start of the match, only for their margin to be brought back to nothing by a Gold Coast team looking to make 2022 a season to remember for their franchise only to be simply out-played by a Bombers side that showed remarkable self-belief to go with a level of grit, class and x-factor capability that will make for some very nervous discussions amongst the coaching staff of their remaining opponents for 2022.

While some credit must go for the continual effort that Gold Coast put into the match, including a late push in the final quarter after the game was decided, it was certainly Essendon’s day as they put their opponent to the sword and managed to look good doing it.

 

The lead-up

Sitting just a game and a bit of percentage outside the eight, Gold Coast entered the match looking forward to taking another step towards their maiden finals campaign with a potential percentage booster against an Essendon side that languishes at 16th on the ladder.

However, Essendon had been in red hot form recently, winning three out of the last four matches with victories against St Kilda, as well as finals-bound teams in Sydney and Brisbane. While their recent results do include an eye-opening loss to West Coast over in Perth, the Dons’ best has been shown to be good enough to worry just about any side in the comp.

Gold Coast were also coming off a recent win over Richmond, that came after locking in Stuart Dew for two more years they may have felt that they were building towards improving on their best ever season finish of 12th.

 

Ins and outs

Gold Coast were justifiably jubilant to welcome Izak Rankine and Oleg Markov back into the side after health and safety protocols had them out of last week’s win against the Tigers, while Sharp was omitted and Mal Rosas is out due to a hamstring injury picked up last week. Rankine has been in amazing form this season, and when he’s on his game, Gold Coast look like a very dangerous side.

Essendon’s defensive stocks were boosted with the inclusion of Mason Redman while rising stare Massimo D’Ambrosio got a rest. While Rankine’s inclusion for the Suns was cause for positivity, Redman coming in would have had Essendon fans filled with a sense of jubilation. Redman looks likely to feature in the Essendon B&F list this year, possibly taking the Crichton Medal home at the end of the season. His work off half-back has generated a lot of Essendon’s forward plays, and if opposing teams aren’t putting time into countering him yet, they will be soon enough.

 

A quick start

Many say that a game of footy is a marathon, not a sprint, but neither team seemed to subscribe to that mantra in the opening quarter. Everywhere the ball was, players on both sides could be seen sprinting to make space or put pressure on the ball carrier. The opening ten minutes were all Essendon with a four goal burst, then Gold Coast hit back with four of their own through spearheads Chol and Casboult in half that amount of time.

With both teams realising that a game played at that pace would likely cause everyone on the match (including the umpires) to suffer a coronary infarction, the raw pace of the game slowed down a touch, but Essendon managed to maintain the intensity despite this.

 

Where the game was won

Modern football often relies on having your inside mid win a ball in dispute, handball to an outside mid that is a few metres away who then moves the ball to a player in a more advantageous position or if no one is free, kicks long toward goal.

The former option is heavily preferred, but it’s that moment between committing to handball to a teammate and recognising that the next link in the chain is under pressure where so many teams come unstuck. A player can go through with the handball, risking an interception or having the play shut down, they can decide to try and break the line themselves or they can kick away quickly.

All are valid options, but it’s the hesitation that causes teams to falter in their play.

This is where Essendon beat Gold Coast.

Imagine you’re a link-up midfielder like Swallow or Anderson. You get the ball from Miller on the inside, but when you try to find the next teammate, your handpass is intercepted. Next time, your kick goes long, but Redman takes the mark. And at yet another stoppage, as you try and figure out which option is the best, you’re planted in a tackle by Merrett. You’d suddenly be second-guessing your instincts, which kills the efficiency of a midfield.

That’s no knock on Gold Coast, but recognition of the intensity that Essendon brought to the contest. They were able to sew confusion in a group that can be a little brittle on occasion.

 

Red letter Redman

I’ve already given this bloke a bit of a polish earlier in the piece, but seriously, how good is he? His attack on the ball is a joy to watch, and was epitomised by a teeth-rattling tackle on the very dangerous Ben Ainsworth late in the third quarter when GC were trying to work their way back into the game.

Thirty-four touches, 10 marks, 11 intercepts, nine score involvements and five inside 50s while playing much of the game at half-back is nothing short of brilliant for the lad. He spent so much time going deep up the guts from down back that his nickname may as well have been “the suppository”.

 

Forward options

I am a big fan of the Chol, Casboult and Rankine forward line combination. It has almost every weapon you could want with strong marks, ground work and ability to make the most of those half chances. But after the first ten minutes of the match, it failed to fire. Now, much of that is due to poor delivery, but there were also several chances that went begging.

At the other end, Two-Metre-Peter looked like a threatening stay-at-home full forward, with Stringer and Martin ready to play the mobile role, but it was the support he received from other talls Draper, Jones and Phillips that made all the difference. The Suns’ defence had too many options to cover, and with the ball coming in quickly, so, so often there was an open forward just meandering into space to take an easy mark.

Admittedly, adding King to the squad next year will likely give Gold Coast a lot more flexibility, but it’d be nice to see them show their adaptable nature now, and get a bit more out of their mid-sized forwards when the chaos ball comes into their attack.

 

Ruck battle

I love a good ruck battle, especially when it’s the old dog vs the young pup. Jarrod Witts has had a coming-of-age season for the Gold Coast, while Sam Draper has thrived when given primary tap responsibilities. On that note, who else watched Sam Draper’s goal of the year contender and just said “Get Fked” out loud? It was nearly criminal how he tapped to himself, glided forward for the 1-2, stepped, stuck a palm out and then finished as clean as you like.

Witts had 71 ruck contests, getting 34 hitouts with 11 of those to advantage for his mids. Draper managed 52 contests for 23 taps and 7 going to his own little men. It’s hard to claim a clear winner here, because while Witts had the greater raw numbers from a longer time on ground, Draper managed more clearances and metres gained to go with his two goals.

Witts did his job as a ruckman well enough, but Draper’s ability to play his own taps made it difficult for the Gold Coast mids to shark his ruck work, while Essendon had no such difficulty, frequently reading Witt’s ruck work and moving the ball away cleanly.

I have to give the nod to Draper here, but not by as much as some people might prefer. Witts worked hard all day, and played his role well enough, it’s just that Draper’s speed and guile countered a lot of the older ruckman’s style.

 

Dew vs Rutten

With the scoreline being what it is, many would say Rutten deserves the coaching plaudits, but is that really the case?

Well, yes. Of course it is. While Dew did well to marshall his troops to counter Essendon’s quick start, he was thoroughly out-coached when Essendon managed to shut down the link-up plays that make Gold Coast so dangerous, while also putting a mountain of pressure around the Suns’ half-forward line, making them rely very heavily on the marking ability of Chol and Casboult. Some days that pays off, as those two are some of the best contested marks in the game, and covering their lanes while keeping an eye on Rankine is a difficult job, but by holding up the quick movement inside 50 and causing the forwards to put in six and seven leads per delivery, they quickly shut down the easy options and caused the sort of forward 50 turnovers that had Dew swearing into his palm for much of the night.

 

The stats that matter

Essendon won practically all the stats over the course of the game, but the three that stand out as most significant are turnovers, efficiency inside 50 and points scored from defensive half chains.

Gold Coast had 74 turnovers compared to Essendon’s 52. Much of that was driven by the pressure Essendon brought to the contest while Gold Coast struggled to find open space (the 265-164 uncontested possessions and 18 bounces to 8  bear that out as well). The commitment of the Essendon players to chase and hassle was excellent for a majority of the match, especially when shutting down the handball chains. Touk Miller had a strong game, as did Anderson for the most part, but Rowell and Swallow were kept to minimal influence for much of the match.

Efficiency inside 50 heavily favoured Essendon, registering 61.7% to 33.3%. That is a whole world of difference in the modern game where forward 50 entries are the difference between a plum set shot and a sneaky forward trying to pull something out of their posterior.

The fact Essendon scored just over half of their total from defensive half chains (52-14) shows just how effective they were in catching the Suns on the fastbreak. Their link-up through the wide corridor was brilliant, shifting the ball between open players at will. They dominated handball receives 135-69 to show just how easily they were able to find each other in space and gain precious metres.

 

Next up

It’s season-on-the-line time for the Suns as they head into the latest Q-Clash to take on the third-placed Brisbane Lions.

While the Lions’ recent form has included losses to Essendon and Melbourne, they look to be building towards a genuine premiership tilt this year and will go into the game as favourites.

Gold Coast will need to put this game behind them quickly if they’re to avoid another big loss in this match. I’m hoping they can get some of the game on their own terms, but it’s hard to tip them against a Brisbane side that is starting to get some players back from injury and is likely to also include McInerney back from H&S protocols.

Lions by 18.

Essendon will take on old rivals Collingwood in a game that could prove to be match of the round. Essendon will bring everything they have into the match against the pies, and with nothing to lose could cause a lot of problems for Collingwood, despite the disparity in their seasons so far.

Collingwood have been in blistering form recently though, coming into the match on the back of an eight-game winning streak that includes a stunning victory over Melbourne. A major factor in this game will be how much priority Collingwood places on beating the old enemy versus how much mileage they want to put on their legs before September.

Make no mistake, Collingwood will want to put Essendon to the sword, but if doing so causes a couple of key players to develop some niggling injuries (or worse) it will be a net loss to a team that will be daring to dream of September success.

If Collingwood put everything into this game, they win it. If they take the “smarter” option of keeping an eye on finals, then Essendon’s total commitment could cause an upset. Which way will it go? I’m leaning towards Collingwood getting jumped early, only to overrun Essendon as they get caught up in the match. It’ll be a bruising affair, but Collingwood have too many natural competitors to accept anything less than their best effort, regardless of how it might play out afterwards.

Collingwood by 15.

 

Final thoughts

The football fan in me wants to see Gold Coast succeed, but on the back of this game, it’s fairly obvious that they have some work to do. That doesn’t take away from an Essendon side that showed a bit of everything in this match. They played an effective version of burst football at the start, followed by the better part of three quarters of crushing tempo football interspersed with moments of individual brilliance that will have opposing teams sitting up and taking notice.

It’s going to be tough for Gold Coast to push for a September berth if they can’t address some inconsistencies of form from their team leaders, while Essendon have the freedom to experiment and play with abandon that only comes from the mathematical impossibility of playing in the post-season matches.

The thing that stood out most to me was that Essendon are starting to show that bit of menace that marked their early 2000s success. The sort of confidence that bled into their game style that got into opposition heads, not just causing them to be concerned about losing one-on-one contests, but being made to look stupid while doing it.

 

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