It’s an odd year. I really wasn’t sure where to place us preseason, and said with a little bit of optimism 6th to my Dad when doing preseason predictions. Overall, our best footy was very good, and our poorest football was very poor. We saw a reasonable amount of both. So a few thoughts below:
Returning players & cohesion
Something we all underestimated was the impact of the year off on the returning players. At the upper end of hopes was that they’d come back refreshed, that Stanton, Watson, Heppell, Colyer and Myers (and maybe Hocking) would immediately boost the midfield, while Hurley and Hooker would dominate the air. Outside of myself and a few others, most had few hopes for Belly. Worst case scenario was that a few would perform poorly, some good.
Reality was that every single one was worse off for the year off. In the cases of Watson, Stanton and Hocking this was catastrophically so. Even the best returners (Hurley, Belly, Hooker) all struggled at elements of their game, and also with consistency. Who really thought Stanton would go from a decade of being amongst our best players to barely VFL worthy?
Frustratingly, it was the midfield which was really hit hard. Both in terms of performers, but also in working together. Heppell, Watson, Colyer and Myers were the only consistently picked players, and all struggled for form. Many (including me) would argue that Colyer and Myers should have been dropped later in the season, and some would have said earlier. Across the ground, team cohesion was a big issue throughout the year. The only area which really clicked quickly was the forwards, and they were hit by injuries late in the year.
Fatigue, wear and tear
Another major issue in the start of the season was fatigue. We faded against a number of sides, with it sometimes costing us (Fremantle, Richmond), and sometimes not (Geelong). Hopefully this is something which will be fixed with another preseason.
Towards the end of the season we saw it impact some of the older players. Kelly and Goddard were two of our best players early doors, but neither was as impactful in the last third of the season. Some of the younger players also trailed off. I think Walla and Zerrett were poorer in the back half of the season, with some exceptions.
Generally, our injury run was pretty good. This is in some ways concerning and certainly meant our depth wasn’t particularly tested.
We had some real positives
Our best football was very good, and it looks like the forward line can be deadly. JD, Stewart, Fantasia, Walla, Hooker all performed brilliantly up forward making it one of the deadliest in the league. We had the third highest
McGrath looks good, Parish did some good work, McKenna came on, Zerrett was deservedly AA and Zaharakis had another really good year. For better or worse we did make the finals and with a lot of headwinds, performed better than 11 other clubs.
Our play to defeat West Coast, Geelong, Port Adelaide and to push Sydney to one point at the SCG was all fantastic. We also showed glimpses in other games. Our best football was very very good.
No so good
The midfield is the obvious issue here. Fundamentally, we don’t have enough talent here. In 2017 the main midfield was Belly, Zerrett, Zaharakis, Heppell, Parish, Goddard, Watson, Colyer and Myers. Those were the core players who spent the most time there, while some of the forwards and defenders had cameos. Of those only Zerrett, Zaharakis, Goddard could be said to have performed at a high standard, and for Goddard only for half the year. Heppell and Parish were up and down in terms of impact, Watson was barely a pass, and the less said on most of Colyer and Myer’s games the better. The next tier of depth was Howlett and Bird.
It’s a problem. Goddard probably has a year left. Watson is gone. The hope is that Heppell and Colyer rediscover their 2015 form, McGrath goes in, maybe Fantasia more in there, and then that a host of youngsters step up. It is possible the midfield will improve, but there is a lot of hope involved.
I can’t find stats, but I’d be willing to bet we were amongst the poorer sides in the league for D50 entries. We were seventh last in the league for points conceded, and second highest for rebound 50’s (the top 4 were Lions, Suns, Swans and us). That statistic indicates to me (and matches my observations) that the ball went down there a lot. In that context, it is a little hard to measure the defence. They were under the pump, and at times the ball moved in very quickly with little pressure.
I’d have said Hartley and Ambrose did not play as well as 2016. Gleeson was better, but I have my doubts (I know that is a less common view). McKenna was fantastic offensively, but is still a bit weak defensively. Kelly was strong early and then faded, Bags was scratchy very early/preseason and then solid. McGrath was good. I’d have said we have a problem in the air – our contested marking is a weakness. McGrath is small (and probably going to the midfield), McKenna still learning the spoiling art, and Hartley and Gleeson get beaten a lot one on one in marking contests. Hurley was great as third man, but had a dog of a year when playing tight. This is an area that must be improved, and the hope would be one (or both) of Francis and Ridley can assist.
I think there is a strong argument that a few good performers in 2016 did not perform at the same level in 2017. I’m thinking Ambrose, Hartley, Leuy, Laverde and Dea. Some of that was injuries, some was others in the same positions, but I do think a number of players had poorer (AFL) seasons. It is a little concerning.
Worsfold had a tough gig with the returning players, and most I think would say he blew it. At the start of the year you could split Blitz between those saying we should prioritise winning versus those prioritising development. But nobody thought keeping Myers and Colyer in the side helped either of those goals later in the season. Or Howlett as a forward. Sure, you could argue which of Bird or Langford should be in the side, but everyone agreed some guys had to come out.
His inability to react to bad periods of the game, our losses to poorer teams, create effective kick-out routines and the team selection are all areas of concern. I’d give him a pass this year because in many ways it was like coaching the side for the first time, and dealing with the returning players was hard.
But in my mind, he’s on notice.
What we learnt
- That our midfield has a problem. Duh.
- That we’ve got a problem with small defenders. I don’t rate Gleeson or Dea as above average. Bags is getting older, Kelly is gone, McGrath is probably midfield. Hartley, Ambrose and Brown did not perform at their 2016 levels, and for that focus has to go squarely onto the coaching panel. McKenna was great, and it’s vital we retain his services.
- That Hooker is incredibly important to our structure, and it is likely that JD is to. Although not a priority over midfielders, this is a concern if Francis can’t step up. I’d have personally liked to have seen Bellchambers in Hooker’s role versus Sydney, I still argue he’s the only one who could also do it on our current list.
- We have limited depth unless the youngsters come on fast
- We probably have a limited window with Hurley and Hooker, and that is a bit of a problem.
- That we need to have a game plan that can react to other team’s midfield dominance.
- How to fix the midfield? Duh.
- Will the returning players step up a level in 2018 with a second preseason under their belt?
- We need to know what turns good goal kickers into bad goal kickers when they come to Essendon. Stewart and Green’s accuracy fell away terribly across the year. What are we doing wrong?
- How do we build more depth in the defence?
- Which of the youngsters will be good enough to step up?
- Is the coach good enough?
For mine, the real key question is over whether or not this team can challenge in the next 2-3 years. Because if we go for it, and we can’t, we’re probably putting the club back 5-6 years.