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Mediocre midfield is at the root of all Essendon’s evils


Debutant Kobe Mutch was a rare bright light in another disappointing defeat for Essendon against Melbourne last Sunday. Photo: AFL MEDIA

Mediocre midfield is at the root of all Essendon’s evils

Rohan Connolly    

Sometimes during an AFL season you look back at what were the big talking points over the summer months and ask: “What was all the fuss about?”

Six rounds into the football year might be considered a little early to be doing that sort of reflecting, and yet, as far as Essendon is concerned, it’s already probably quite apt.

If there were a “biggest disappointments” ladder right now, the Bombers would be way out in front given the amount of hype and expectation that surrounded their 2018 prospects. That’s because on the only ladder that matters, they’re 14th with a 2-4 win-loss record and a miserable percentage of just 85.

Not everyone was sold on Essendon’s prospects this year despite the Dons reaching finals last season. But the influx of established senior talent which came via the trading in of Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad did seem to have plenty of upside and there was little evidence of an impending downturn.

So what’s gone wrong? Well, the very ordinary start to the season by spearhead and 2017 best and fairest winner Joe Daniher has been pivotal. Poor ruck performances from Tom Bellchambers and on Sunday against Melbourne Matthew Leuenberger haven’t helped. And the “Cale Hooker back or forward?” debate continues.

But Essendon’s biggest achilles heel for a number of years now has been its midfield. And there, at the source of it all, little has changed.

That’s despite the efforts of former GWS player Smith, who, were the Dons’ best and fairest counted now, would be very close to the lead. Somehow his performances seem only to have magnified the shortfall of the rest of Essendon’s midfield group.

Stringer trained all pre-season with the midfield group but didn’t have the impact desired when the business started. He’s looked a lot more comfortable and performed miles better since returned to his customary forward role. Saad does his best work off half-back.

Which leaves the midfield about where it was. Indeed, arguably worse off post the retirement of contested ball beast Jobe Watson and the delisting of another strong-bodied mid in Heath Hocking.

Essendon’s biggest weakness last year was the failure of its midfield to win enough contested ball and clearances, and its unwillingness to work hard enough defensively without the ball. Right now, it’s the same old story.

The Bombers are ranked in the lower half of the competition on differentials for both contested ball and stoppages, and have improved only marginally their propensity for conceding opponents inside 50 entries.

That lack of work rate is laid bare most starkly when the Dons are inside their defensive 50. In the two defeats to Collingwood on Anzac Day and Melbourne on Sunday, time and again there was a palpable lack of options for the backmen.

What inevitably followed was a pattern of chipping the ball around the back 50 until sloppy disposal combined with opposition pressure caused a turnover and often relatively easy goals for the Pies and Demons.

Most damningly, it’s the more experienced midfielders who aren’t coming to the party. Rather than be carried along by the examples of their footballing elders, recent debutants Matt Guelfi and on Sunday Kobe Mutch have had to often set that example.

Skipper Dyson Heppell is struggling with both his football and his leadership. Zach Merrett is thus far this season well below his best.

Rising Star winner Andrew McGrath was supposed to become a more pivotal influence in the midfield, but still looks better out of defence. Darcy Parish has effectively marked time since his impressive 2016 debut. And David Myers and Kyle Langford are in and out of the best 22, the latter seemingly out of favour despite also being carefully groomed last year for an on-going midfield role.

They’re not the only culprits, of course. Daniher is obviously struggling for confidence, mistiming his leaps at the ball, having issues with his kicking and generally looking a shadow of the player he was.

Orazio Fantasia’s injury issues have placed more pressure on small forward Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, and he, too, is struggling for form and impact. And Conor McKenna’s ill-timed suspension has placed plenty of pressure on a backline already absorbing too much heat.

Yet one statistic in the current pall of Essendon gloom might be more worrying than any other. It’s an easy call to say the Bombers simply aren’t good enough.

Essendon’s list contains no fewer than 10 players who originally came into the AFL system as single figure picks in the national draft.

Three – Brendon Goddard, Leuenberger and Stringer – have played the bulk of their careers elsewhere. But that still leaves Daniher, Aaron Francis, Heppell, Michael Hurley, McGrath, Myers and Parish.

It’s not as though the natural talent isn’t there. Injuries in some of those cases have been major impediments. For others, their current malaise could simply be a temporary lull. But whether Essendon has concentrated hard enough on quality, long-term midfield talent is right now a valid question.

For the Bombers’ midfield group remains well off the pace, figuratively and literally. And unless it either finds its mojo, or the likes of Geulfi, Mutch and perhaps yet-untried Dylan Clarke can fill the void quickly, much of Essendon’s other issues, and its clear status as this season’s biggest under-achiever, will stem from that inescapable fact.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS AUSTRALIA

1 Comment
  1. I am an Essendon supporter that has now completely given up on them this season. At 2 wins and 6 losses our season is clearly shot now. We are one of four teams that could conceivably win the wooden spoon (along with Carlton, Brisbane and St. Kilda). I am extremely disappointed in how the Essendon players have lost their fight (will to win), their confidence and seemingly they don’t care anymore. If they don’t want to work hard then not only do they not deserve to be in the senior team but they don’t deserve to be in the AFL. Clearly we over rated ourselves after last year’s performance was better than most AFL analysts and Essendon fans expected. This year it is clear that Essendon is going to have to start again as we don’t have the players who are willing to put the effort and hard work in to be a good team. Francis is a classic case in point. We picked him at number 6 in the AFL draft a few years ago and we were told he is an Essendon supporter and that he was desperate to get to Essendon only to find out after being at the club for a short time he couldn’t handle being away from his family and that he wanted to go back to South Australia to play for the Crows or Power. This is a player who is highly unlikely to be at Essendon long term as he doesn’t have the will to put in the effort to be a senior player. We shouldn’t waste our time picking players from interstate as the chances of them wanting to go home are too high. I think Essendon has to accept that we don’t have any A grade midfielders and that it will take us 5 years to rebuild to be any good. Since we can’t even beat Carlton, there is no hope for Essendon. The season is over. John Worsfold and his coaching group need to be held accountable for the pathetic football the senior side is producing. John Worsfold would be leading the ladder of AFL coaches for the most disappointing performances by an AFL team this season. Not only aren’t we any good at the moment but I don’t think Essendon could beat Subiaco in the WAFL. Essendon really have become a pathetic football team and I am embarrassed at their lack of interest, care or fight. They are a disgrace.

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