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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Essendon

There is something about Essendon in 2019 that hasn’t been present for a while. There is an air of confidence about the team, and with that comes expectation.

The Bombers have done their recruiting, and drafted well. They have a mix of established stars and young players ready to blossom. After a tumultuous few years, their recruiting manager, Adrian Dodoro pulled off three big acquisitions at the conclusion of the 2017 season, and then landed his big fish in the 2018 trade period.

But will all these moving parts combine to make a smooth-moving winner? Or just a clunky assemblage of parts that ddon’t quite fit together? As with all teams, Essendon needs a lot to go right in order to contend in 2019, but the work to give them a chance has been done.

The pieces are in play and moving. With the right amount of luck, the Bombers could be the team to watch in 2019. But only if the “ifs” and “buts” go their way. Let’s have a look at a few.

IF…

… Joe Daniher gets his body right, the entire forward structure of Essendon is fixed instantly.

This is the big one, and I am sure I am preaching to the choir, but anyway…

Daniher’s career trajectory was set to go through the roof in 2018. After barely missing a game in four years, and seeing his goal-tally rise from 28, to 34, to 43, then 65, I expected 2018 to be the year he stamped his authority on the competition as the best forward in the game. That reach and marking ability is just so hard to combat.

But thanks to a bout of osteitis pubis (remember when this was the scourge of the AFL?), his games and numbers fell off a cliff instead.

Now, from the outside in, things should be all fine, right? They pulled the pin on his season and gave him ample time to rest, but word out of Essendon prior to the Xmas break was that Joe was still not right, and was not yet training with the group. For mine, this is huge cause for concern.

Yes, the club may just be extremely cautious with the player who is arguably their most important commodity, but it’s the need to be so cautious that worries me. We’re not talking about a straw man here  - he is a player that racked up 21+ games in each season from 2014-17.

The Bombers plugged holes in the absence of Daniher in 2018. They threw Mitch Brown, Shaun McKernan and James Stewart at the problem of not having a marking forward target, and between them, they finished with 49 goals. Not a bad return on face value, but they did amass 35 games between them for the year. Even combined, they are no Joe Daniher.

If you throw Daniher into that forward line, it takes the heat of 2018 leading goal kicker, Jake Stringer (30 goals) and opens up opportunities for smalls such as Fantasia and McDonald-Tipungwuti at ground level. The Bombers have the making of one of the best forward set ups in the game, but so much rests on the shoulders (and groin area) of Joe Daniher. If he is healthy, the Bombers are set for a huge year.

… Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker play true defensive roles, they can stop any 1-2 punch in the game.

People jumped off Michael Hurley in the first half of 2018. I can see why, as both he and Brendon Goddard seemingly waxed across half back, picking up easy disposals and playing a similar, superfluous role. The amount of times I saw the pair receive backward kicks, and rack up good numbers as a result, were way too high. It took until Round 19 to restore the faith that Hurley, when played as a legitimate defender, is one of the best in the game.

In that game, Hurley stood next to Lance Franklin, and stood over him, jumped over him, out-muscled him and played his best game of the season. The Bombers stood tall, dropping the swans, and Hurley held Franklin to just seven touches and two marks for the game. He had only 12 touches himself, but what he did was nullify the most dangerous player on the ground. In one game, Hurley reminded the league that he is a defensive force to be reckoned with.

Hooker remains one of the best one-on-one marks in the competition, often reading the ball better in flight than his opponent, and often virtually impossible to move of the spot when he gets there first.

With the Bombers way out of sorts early in the season, Hooker appeared to some to have been less effective in his role, but the reality was the team as a whole was less effective. If malaise was a disease, Hooker was infected due to proximity. In truth, his numbers bounced back in 2018. He was +3.41 disposals per game better than 2017, and went over seven marks per game for the third time in his career.

If these two allow the accumulation of disposals to fall to others, and concentrate on what they’re good at – beating some of the best forwards in the game, there are not too many tall combinations that will beat them. And if they can shut down those avenues to goal, the Bombers will rip teams apart on the rebound.

… Andy McGrath adopts the Brendon Goddard role, the ball is in safe hands.

The previous point leads me here. With Goddard gone, an opportunity has opened up, and I reckon Andy McGrath is the perfect player to guide the Bombers out of the back half with Andy McGrath having had a taste of it in 2018.

There was a point last season where I was watching McGrath rack up big numbers in the first half, and completely fade in the second., but in just his second AFL season, I don’t know why I expected anything else. Many kids, especially those expected to get a lot of miles into the legs, falter in the second half of games. I actually remember thinking Dustin Martin may never make a good midfielder because he couldn’t run games out. Turns out… he was just young, and so is McGrath.

The 2017 Rising Star winner played a little off half back last season, and when I saw him, his decision-making and poise with the ball were exactly the qualities you want in someone back there. If you get a chance, have a look at some of his defensive 50 exits – he is not at all afraid to back his skills to hit a target on a 45 degree angle – he knows he is more than capable.

He can at 63% by foot last season, down a little from the 70% rate he ran at in his rookie year, but some of that is due to time spent at stoppages, and being required to do some more of the heavy lifting in terms of contested ball. If he gets time and space, he has the capacity to kill teams.

The addition of Dylan Shiel gives the Bombers the luxury of not having to rush McGrath into the midfield rotation. Having him peeling off half back would go a long way to starting the Bombers running from the defensive 50.

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… Dylan Shiel can arrest his slide in kicking efficiency, the Bombers’ forwards will be licking their lips.

I’m really seguing from point to point quite well here. Feel free to compliment me.

Shiel has almost all the attributes you want in a modern midfielder. He bursts from packs, shrugs tackles, runs his backside off, and is consistent as you can get – he had one game in 2018 where he delivered less than 20 touches (R10 v Essendon).

But here’s the thing – almost isn’t good enough. Not when you’re aiming to have a tilt at top four. Shiel kicks the ball at just 55% and really needs to tidy up his kicking. It was a glaring weakness in his game in the Giants’ last game of 2018 (he ran at 44% that day) and something that halts the momentum of his team. On a couple of occasions in that Semi-final loss to Collingwood, Shiel just completely missed teammates and allowed Collingwood to rebound inside 50. For the Bombers to be successful, it’s a part of his game he has to eradicate.

The other part is his kicking for goal. When you factor in the times he missed everything in 2018, Shiel’s accuracy when having a shot is just 20.7%. And that actually marginally increased late in the season, which should give you an indication as to how poor he was when in range earlier in the season.

Look, I think the addition of Shiel was a wonderful move by the Bombers, and I fully understand that every player has weaknesses in his game, but these two are weaknesses that can really bring a team undone. I hope, for Essendon’s sake, that Shiel has put the work in this summer, and in a different system, the areas he falls down will be addressed. It might be the difference in a game here and there, and in a close season, a game or two might mean the difference between top four and missing the eight.

… the big three 2018 recruits step it up, the Bombers will be red hot.

It’s not often you see a team top up with several big names, and everything clicks immediately, and 2018 rammed this home. Both Essendon and Port Adelaide were thought to have made the necessary off-season moves to elevate them into contention.

And both teams missed the finals.

Yes, there are a lot of factors that contributed to the Bombers slide in 2018, but chemistry has to be mentioned. It takes time to develop – knowing where someone will lead, which way they like to instinctively turn, their leading patterns, etc… teammates take time to adjust to the nuances of each other’s’ games. But a lot of people thought the acquisitions of Devon Smith, Adam Saad and Jake Stringer would automatically catapult Essendon into the premiership window.

Well, it may have, but like a confused bird, they didn’t realise the window was still partially closed, and they flew right into the pane of glass. But with a year under their belts, and a whole lot more knowledge of how Saad, Smith and Stringer ply their respective trades, the Essendon team should be better-positioned to capitalise.

As with most teams, a lot of things have to go right in order to contend, but familiarity is something that isn’t that’s reliant on luck or circumstance – this is something that only time can aid, and with a year now to familiarise themselves with each other, this group will be better off for it.

Smith’s 8.5 tackles per game, Saad’s running bounces off half back, and Stringer’s 30 goals – expecting a higher output from any of them is dangerous, but it I cannot see them being worse this year at all.

 

BUT IF…

… David Myers is in at centre bounces because Essendon need big bodies, something has to change.

OK, I know he’s a big body, and I know Essendon have persevered with him since he was drafted in 2007… what? 2007?!?! He’s been around forever!

The fact that he was equal leader in clearances (4.9 per game) is a bit of an indictment on the midfield. No one from Essendon could crack the league’s top 30 clearance players. Simply put, Myers is not a midfielder. He is in there doing what he does because Essendon had no one else capable, and looking at the list right now, who is going to take his place in there?

Kyle Langford is the one who stands out. Thanks for keeping the spot warm, David, but it might be time for you to head back to half back to play out your 11th year in the system. Whilst Langford has less than half the clearances per game than Myers (2.3 in 2018), he is obviously a better long-term bet, and will grow into the role.

The player tied with Myers is club captain, Dyson Heppell, who fights on manfully at stoppages, but is playing a role he’s not suited for. Heppell is built to run, receive and hand off to a player with excellent foot skills (I don’t care what stats say; he misses way too many targets by foot when you discount backward kicks). He is doing the hard yards at the moment, and putting his body on the line in a position the Bombers haven’t been able to fill since Jobe Watson retired.

It’s a decent amount of pressure to place on a kid like Langford, I know, but headed into his fifth year he is starting to look like he can handle the heat of the AFL stoppage game. If Shiel brings his four clearances per game to town, Langford raises his tally to around the same mark, Darcy Parish chimes in, and Myers occasionally wanders in for a couple of take-aways as well, the Bombers will start to resemble a midfield that can not only kill teams on the outside, but match them at the coalface as well.

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… Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti doesn’t move into the ‘elite’ range for tackles inside 50, the Bombers will suffer.

When it comes to ‘Walla’, if you know what he brings to the table, no explanation is necessary, but if you don’t, no explanation could justify it to you.

There are times in a game that he seems to go missing for loooong stretches, and there were games in 2018 where he was so slow to start games, I wondered if he’d been benched due to injury, but when he does impact a game, he does it emphatically.

Ignoring the obvious indigenous similarities, many Bomber fans I know liken his impact on a game to the way Cyril Rioli used to hit and run. He might not be the best four quarter performer the Bombers have, but in fits and starts, he can perform three or four acts that have a significant impact.

And like Cyril, people just want to see it happen more. You think about it – what was the biggest criticism of Rioli? That he wasn’t involved enough? That his numbers didn’t reflect a four quarter performance? That he went missing? They’re the same things we hear about Walla, but not usually from Essendon supporters.

They see his run without the ball. They see the implied pressure and the work off the ball that allows for his teammates to reap the rewards. They may want to see more of it, but they appreciate what he does do. I have him in this section because I can fall into wondering what else he can do, as well. I look at his 4.5 tackles per game and wonder just how much of an impact he’d have if more than 1.4 of them were inside attacking 50. Imagine he lifts that to two per game? There’d be a lot of defenders looking over their shoulders, and sometimes, that’s all you need to swing the momentum your way.

Walla is entering his fourth year in the system. His tackle count has increased every year thus far. If it makes a jump this season, Walla could form one of the most feared offensive/defensive small-forward combinations in the game with Orazio Fantasia. Their pairing, if operating at a high level, could go a long way to determining just how potent the Bombers attack is in 2019.

 

OTHER STUFF…

 

The end to 2018, and the development of Aaron Francis had to warm the hearts of Bomber supporters. His towering mark over Paddy Ryder and Adam Saad was an absolute ripper – how it didn’t get short-listed for mark of the year, I do not know. Francis didn’t stop there, averaging 6.4 marks per game in his five games. With his head on straight, and having stated he’s committed to the club, Francis may be ready to repay the Essendon faith in 2019.

I wrote a bit about those inside mids above, but the outside runners is where the Bombers have a heap of talent, and leading that talent is Zach Merrett. Whilst his 2018 fell short of the lofty standards he set in 2017 (he was -3.2 disposals per game), Merrett looks to be the biggest beneficiary of having Dylan Shiel on the books. He was the first one tagged at Essendon to stop their run – that honour, at least some of the time, will now fall to Shiel. When the Bombers get and go, teams will be hard pressed stopping their run.

I reckon the forgotten man of the Bomber midfield is David Zaharakis. Seriously, whilst other’s performances have fluctuated wildly, he has produced three straight seasons where his average disposal count has been between24.86 and 25.65. There’s a lot that can be said for knowing what you’re gonna get from a player.

Seems I only really covered stars in the sections above, but where does the organic improvement come from at Windy… err, Tullamarine (doesn’t have the same ring to it)? Matt Guelfi showed plenty in 2018, and even though it looks as though he wears eye shadow whilst playing (just for you, Jimmy Ayres), I think a big 2019 could be in store. Kobe Mutch and Jake Long could add to their handful of games, whilst many will be keeping an eye on Irving Mosquito to see whether he was worth the gamble. Darcy Parish has produced almost identical stats in all his three years in the game. Year four needs to be the year he takes the next step.

The Bombers don’t have an easy run in terms of who they play twice, with Freo the only bottom team they encounter twice. Of course one of them will involve a killer road trip, so it doesn’t make it an easy game at all. They get the Roos, Pies, Giants and Swans twice as well, all of whom offer zero relief. They also have six interstate trips in 2019 – the most of any team we’ve reviewed thus far. If they’re gonna be a top four side, they’re going to have to earn it the hard way.

Leading into the Anzac Day clash against the Pies, Essendon are a more than fair chance to sit at 3-2. If they manage a 4-1 record by then, the stage is set for an Anzac Day classic. By this stage of the season we should have a gauge on where Essendon sits. For mine, they are a legitimate threat, dependant on the health of Joe Daniher. There are not many players in the game as important to their team as Daniher is to Essendon. Track watchers will be keeping a close eye on the big fella over the next few weeks. The sooner he joins in with teammates, the easier Bomber fans will breathe.

 

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