The Curious Case of Marcus Bontempelli

When talking about Marcus Bontempelli; a young man who was the catalyst for Bulldogs' glorious 2016 season, one thinks of a man many have hailed as the future best player of his generation.

It’s quite a title to bestow on someone – “future great”. It stems from that dirty word – potential; a word which becomes even dirtier over time when there is another word prefacing it – unfulfilled.

How many of us would’ve put money on the career of Marcus Bontempelli skyrocketing by this stage? He had the world at his feet in 2016. He was the best player on the best team. All this at just 20 years old.

As much as his supporters don’t want to admit it, unfulfilled potential fits Bontempelli perfectly at the moment. At 22 years old, he has not progressed past the lofty standards he set for himself. He has stagnated, and his team has suffered for it.

The skill of Bontempelli cannot be denied. Standing at 193 centimetres (almost 6’ 4” for us oldies), with a long, loping stride and tremendous vision, he is the prototypical modern midfielder. As the Bulldogs ascended to the 2016 premiership, his standing at the top of the game for the next ten years seemed a mere formality. With 24.3 touches per game, seven score involvements, 11 contested possessions, and a goal per game, Bontempelli took the football world by storm.

But storms pass. The football world bunkered down and rode out the initial onslaught, only to emerge determined to rebuild. And rebuild they did. Teams unleashed storms of their own and two years after the red, white and blue tsunami ripped through the competition in September, it is the Bulldogs that lie in ruin.

Whilst the game, and his peers have continued to grow and develop, it’s difficult to argue the same for Bont and his club.

The fall from grace of the Western Bulldogs has been as dramatic a change in the footballing landscape as I can remember. We witnessed the 2009 Hawks miss the finals, only to watch them slowly build on the unexpected success of 2008. Through the lean years, there was always a clarity in the direction to the Hawks. There was a progression – an ascension after the fall. With grand final appearances from 2012 to 2015, they added three premierships to the trophy cabinet in the process. They too were a young team with a budding superstar. They lost seasoned soldiers such as Shane Crawford and Trent Croad, but after the disappointment of 2009 – a season plagued with injury and a distinct lack of satisfactory preparation, they were able to recover. The Hawks refused to go quietly into the night.

The same cannot be said of the current Western Bulldogs team. There is a saying, it’s always darkest just before the dawn, but looking at the current Bulldogs’ list, the night remains dark and full of terrors.

They’re now going to miss the finals for the second year in a row and are a shadow of the team that put together an astonishingly good month of football in 2016. There is little to no chance of a fast recovery for this club. They’ve remained still whilst those they disposed on en route to their premiership moved onwards and upwards, which creates the illusion of a team going backwards.

I don’t think anyone can realistically look at the Bulldogs and rationalise that they are in any position to engage in the kind of renaissance Hawthorn experienced after their disastrous 2009, but even the lowly teams in the AFL find bright spots to satisfy fans along the way. Whether it is spirited displays against top teams or the development of a young star, supporters have a way of finding something to hold onto.

The Bulldogs have seen only a few signs from the overall team this season – their win against Geelong in Round 15 was arguably their high water mark, and even that was reliant on Harry Taylor missing a shot at goal after the siren. Their other victories have come against fellow cellar-dwellers, the likes of Brisbane, Gold Coast and Carlton. Their record speaks of a team that plays well against the poor teams and falls over against the better ones. They’re not flat track bullies – they’re a middling team – stuck in a position above the bottom four, yet miles away from the top eight.

They have emerging talent in players like Aaron Naughton and Ed Richards, who has a 2018 Rising Star nomination to his name. Tim English showed glimpses of the kind of player he may become as well, but for every positive supporters can take out of this season, there’s been two negatives.

They’ve had to deal with injuries – they are inevitable. Few teams get to run through the season like the 2017 Tigers, without significant injuries to key players. The loss of Tom Liberatore to a season-ending knee injury was exactly the start the Dogs didn’t need – he was the grunt-worker in and under packs. Further calamities ensued, with Dale Morris, Easton Wood, Jack Macrae and Liam Picken all spending extended periods on the sidelines. The depth of the injuries at the Whitten Oval was highlighted with the announcement that Clay Smith, a hero in the 2016 Preliminary Final win over Greater Western Sydney, was hanging up the boots due to a knee injury that has continued to plague him. He is just 24 years old.

They’ve lost players. Jake Stringer is now waving his arms around and appealing for free kicks in red and black, and Matthew Boyd hung up the boots after an illustrious, and highly underrated career. They also saw their captain call it a day, with Bob Murphy now being forced down the collective throats of AFL fans in every form of football media.

However, it is the stagnation of the stars of the startling 2016 victory that is hurting the most. Norm Smith medallist, Jason Johannisen came in for significant attention following his big game, and has demonstrated a propensity to disappear when opposition teams pay him close attention. Tom Boyd, who was probably one more contested mark away from the Norm Smith medal,  took time away from the team to deal with personal issues. Upon his return has made what can only be termed as average contributions. But the question of whether the Western Bulldogs stars have taken the next step in improving their game begins and ends with Marcus Bontempelli.

Bont’s game against Hawthorn in Round 16 has become a little too familiar for the Bulldogs in 2018. Completely blanketed by Daniel Howe, he was restricted to just 12 disposals through the first three quarters. Moreover, it was the ease with which Howe managed to curtail him that should set alarm bells ringing for the Bulldogs.  It is one thing to slow a great player down. It’s another entirely to put the brakes on him so significantly that he becomes a bystander to the game taking place around him.

It was only once Howe retreated to the bench at the beginning of the final quarter that Bont was able to have an influence. It was what should be termed ‘influential redundancy’.

His 11 disposals in the last quarter were the epitome of junk time stats. Clearances, goal assists… they’ll look good on the stat sheet at the end of the day, but the game was well and truly over when he stepped to the fore. When his team required his help, he was second to the ball, half-chasing tail and a non-factor at the coalface. He was a spectator in a game where he should’ve been the focus.

The last quarter against Hawthorn was stat-padding at its best, but it’s not the first time he’s had little influence in 2018, and used what is ostensibly a dead rubber to round out his statistical output. The game against Port Adelaide in Round 13 saw the Power establish a commanding 34 point lead at quarter time, holding the Bulldogs to just a single behind. In our weekly good, bad and ugly review of the game, we were critical of Bontempelli, much to the displeasure of several Dogs supporters.

Once again, on paper it looks like he had a decent game. 23 touches and two goals is a nice result for anyone, but in order to understand the criticism, you have to look at his stats when the game was there to be won – the first quarter. While the Power turned it on, Bontempelli was completely shut down, collecting just a pair of disposals. Again, when his team needed him to stand up, he was nowhere to be found.

So where is Bontempelli going wrong?

Is it fitness?

Rumours have been floating around for months that he is carrying either a groin or hip injury. He doesn’t seem to be able to impose himself on a game as we’ve seen him do previously, and lacks any semblance of the explosiveness that saw him burst to the fore in his second year. With the Bulldogs’ season all but done, if he is carrying an injury, what is the sense in having him out there if he isn’t able to perform at 100%? Would an injury at this stage of the season – an injury of more significance, be more detrimental to the Dogs’ 2019 campaign than anything they can gain this season by having him out there?

Is it that he peaked earlier than anyone expected?

This is a bit left field, but it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. Remember the kid in Under 12s who was just bigger and better than everyone else? I’m sure we’ve all run into a player like that at some stage – they’ve got biceps and stubble while you’re still playing with He-Man dolls when you get home… (I should really stop giving things away about myself). Is it possible that Bont is the AFL version of that bicep-ed and stubbled kid? Was he so advanced at 20 that the others just caught up, and in the case of someone like Patrick Cripps, Josh Kelly or Matt Crouch, went past him?

Is it a reflection of where his team is at?

It's hard to fly like an eagle when you're surrounded by turkeys. OK, that's harsh on the rest of the team, but it must be incredibly disheartening to watch the core of your premiership team either gone or unable to get on the park. Perhaps Bont's form is just reflective of how the team is travelling? It's not unreasonable to think that as goes the team, so goes the player, is it?

Or is it desire?

Now we dive into murky waters. He was on top of the mountain so early in his career – could he be forgiven for thinking that after achieving what many players never do in their entire career, that it would all happen again organically? Did he fool himself into thinking the Western Bulldogs were about to enter a golden age? If he did think that, surely the last two years would be enough to shake him from that malaise? Now that the Dogs have fallen way back to the rear of the pack, could there be a little less investment from their number one talent?

Irrespective of the reason, Bont needs to shed whatever it is that is anchoring him to the spot. A champion of the game does not rest on his laurels. He works harder, gets better and adds to his game. He grows his trophy case and becomes the player that the club grows around. Champions of the game do not perform cameos in the story of their team’s season – they take centre stage and compel people to watch. That is the sort of player Marcus Bontempelli is, or at least the kind of player he could still be.

Statistically, Bont is headed downwards. This is not a direction that can continue for longer than this season, lest he be relegated to an afterthought when others discuss the best players from that 2013 draft. People often play the game of redrafting previous drafts. As recently as last year, people had Bont at number one, but what about now? Is he still above Patrick Cripps? Josh Kelly? Matt Crouch? Zach Merrett? How about guys who took a while to come on? James Sicily and Rory Laird were all taken later in that draft. Their stats are all on an upward incline. We won't even factor in the development of Jeremy McGovern and Ben Brown, also from that draft.

Bont v peers 2018 disposals

In his early years, Bont was compared to Collingwood captain, Scott Pendlebury. Bulldogs fans salivated over the possibility of their own Rolls Royce permanently parked at the Whitten Oval. However, over Pendlebury’s first five years, his output increased every season. He didn’t start as a Rolls Royce, but he had his engine running pretty smoothly right from the outset. Bontempelli is starting to look like he needs a jump start as his numbers have decreased from 2016.

Bont v Pendles first five years

So where to from here for the Bulldogs’ star? How does he arrest this slide and become the player he was destined to be? Where does the change occur? The fact that he’s been able to run out full games and even excel late in games rules out a general fitness issue. He’s running games out and picking up stats late.

For me, it comes down to desire. When confronted with a peer this season, Bont has risen to the occasion. His battle with Cripps in Round 6 provided his best performance of the year, topping 30 disposals for the only time this season as he and Cripps duelled at stoppages in the centre and around the ground, but getting up for one game against a peer doesn't cut it, particularly when that peer is bringing his best each and every game.

You'll never hear me question his ability - not many players can do the things Bontempelli does. Many would like to have the ability he possesses. But what I do question is whether his heart is in this season.

NBA star, Kevin Durant has uses the phrase 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.' It's a saying that rings true in most sports. Bont has all the talent in the world, but without the hard work, the dirty work, the sacrifice, all the talent in the world will only take him so far. If he is content with his standing in the game, and being a one-time premiership star, you can’t begrudge him that – many would give an arm and a leg to have a premiership medallion. However, if he aspires to more, both for himself and his team, Bontempelli needs to do more, and needs to be more.

For the Western Bulldogs to be a force again, Marcus Bontempelli doesn't need to be what he was in 2016 - he needs to be better. He doesn't need to average 24 touches per game - he needs to average more, and the Western Bulldogs need him to average more. There comes a time when a leader stands up, saying "enough" and starts making a difference. He must become the positive that counter-balances the negative. He must be the harbinger of dawn when the night is at its darkest.

Marcus Bontempelli needs to become the solution for the Western Bulldogs. Until he does, he remains a big part of the problem and the Bulldogs will not get close to matching that spectacular month of football in 2016. Their fans deserve more than one year in the sunlight after so long in the dark.

Bontempelli can light the way for the Dogs, but he has to want it. Surely he can’t want what he’s currently got.

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