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Tale of the tape for your AFL team in 2018: Essendon

Essendon fans rise for exciting small forward Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, a critical part of a potent forward structure. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Tale of the tape for your AFL team in 2018: Essendon

Rohan Connolly    

2017 record: 12 wins, 11 losses (8th)

Devon Smith (GWS), Adam Saad (Gold Coast), Jake Stringer (Western Bulldogs), Jordan Houlahan (Sturt), Brandon Zerk-Thatcher (Sturt), Matt Guelfi (Claremont), Trent Mynott (Eastern Ranges), Luke Lavender (South Australia)

Craig Bird (delisted), Yestin Eades (retired), Heath Hocking (delisted), Ben Howlett (delisted), James Kelly (retred), Alex Morgan (delisted/North Melbourne), Brent Stanton (retired), Jobe Watson (retired)

There’s not much doubt where Essendon’s strong suit is these days, and that’s up forward, where the Bombers last season finished up the third highest-scoring team of 2017 at an average 97 points per game, Joe Daniher finishing fourth in the Coleman Medal, but Cale Hooker, Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti also all finishing with more than 30 goals. Jake Stringer, All-Australian only two seasons ago, is a huge addition to their ranks, fellow recruit Devon Smith is more than handy up forward, and James Stewart can be expected to keep improving as a key forward. It’s a potent blend, with a lot of scope for improvement should the Bombers’ midfield step up, as Essendon consistently booted decent scores despite ranking only 11th for inside 50 entries on the differential count in 2017. Pace is another area the Dons are looking a lot better these days, not just via the small forwards mentioned above but Conor McKenna off half-back and now Adam Saad from Gold Coast.

Midfield, midfield, midfield. It’s been a recurring theme at Essendon for a long time, and was underlined once again in its elimination final thrashing at the hands of Sydney, when the better, stronger Swans’ group brushed off the Bomber mids with ease, almost doubling the Dons for forward thrusts by half-time. Essendon finished 14th on the clearance differential count and only 10th for contested ball and had no player in the AFL’s top 20 for either stat. Now long-time midfield anchorman Jobe Watson is retired, there’s even more responsibility for the likes of skipper Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett, Brendon Goddard and co., with the input of the strong-bodied Stringer particularly and Smith crucial in the pivot, and perhaps even Saad’s pace as well. Essendon’s defence is also potentially problematic, though that could also be helped by the mids improving their contribution. Should Hooker, as expected, play forward, the Dons will need Michael Hartley playing a lot better than he did in 2017, and even Michael Hurley to do better as a one-on-one key defender as well as a rebounder.

You wouldn’t say Kyle Langford had set the world on fire in three seasons since being taken at No. 17 in the 2014 draft. Indeed, he’s played just 31 games and only six last season. But after being dropped for a final time after Essendon’s round 15 loss to Brisbane, Langford went back to the VFL and played some consistently solid football in the midfield, unlucky not to earn a recall. Now is his big opportunity with the on-ball stocks requiring replenishment, and the 21-year old with three seasons in the system under his belt. Has lacked urgency at times, but has good hands, is a decent kick and has the ability to provide the Bombers with a bigger-bodied midfield presence. Don’t be surprised if he makes ground quickly.

Langford’s emergence could indeed be at the expense of another big-bodied midfielder in David Myers, for whom the clock could be ticking. Injuries have been the constant bugbear for the Western Australian, who after the CAS suspensions effectively missed two years of football. It showed in 2017, when despite staying by his standards relatively injury-free, in 15 games never got close to his best. His strong frame and thumping left boot are still potential weapons, but at 28, the clock is ticking, and Myers, despite his tremendous leadership qualities, still doesn’t win enough of the football and at times last season lacked accuracy with his kicking. Myers has another two years to run on his contract, but it’s fair to say regardless he’s still on shaky ground as far as a spot in Essendon’s best side is concerned unless he can pull out a career-best season in 2018.

B: Martin Gleeson, Cale Hooker, Patrick Ambrose
HB: Adam Saad, Michael Hurley, Conor McKenna
C: Dyson Heppell, Andrew McGrath, David Zaharakis
HF: Devon Smith, James Stewart, Orazio Fantasia
F: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Joe Daniher, Jake Stringer
Foll: Tom Bellchambers, Brendon Goddard, Zach Merrett
Inter: Darcy Parish, Kyle Langford, Travis Colyer, Josh Begley
Emerg: David Myers, Aaron Francis, Jayden Laverde

A disclaimer here. John Worsfold has already stated his intent to keep Hooker forward, but I believe the (at times leaky) defence needs him more and that the Bomber forward line can function well enough without him. I think Brendon Goddard still has an important on-ball role to play, I’ve preferred the much-improved Martin Gleeson over veteran Mark Baguley (not sure both can play in that backline) and I thought Josh Begley showed enough late in 2017 to earn the starting not ahead of Jayden Laverde.

  1. If he starts playing anywhere near his talent, Francis should be displacing (probably) Ambrose and I’m sure they’ll be looking for Laverde to start stepping up too.

    It feels like Worsfold has said to Langford “Go work on your game in the VFL” for the rest of the year and now they reckon he’s pretty much ready to take the next step. They’ve been grooming him to take Myers’ spot… I hope it works.

    Baguley/Gleeson… upon consideration I think you’re right. Gleeson has gone past him; the second half of 2017 was Marty’s best footy so far.

    If they leave Hooker forward (and I’d send him back too), Stewart’s spot is the most under threat.

  2. Francis is the real wild card here.
    If he can cement a place in 22.
    Will add so much to the teams flexability to improve all over the ground.

  3. I too would love Hooker down back , but Neither Stewart or Stringer are better than 3rd tall forwards , Stewart had the opportunity in the final against the Swans but was matched by a better defender in Grundy he was also unable to engage Grundy enough to stop him being 3rd man up against Joe . Smith has to be a midfield mainstay

  4. I think Gleeson & Ambrose are the most over rated players on the list
    Gleeson gets most of his possessions playing kick to kick across half back, he avoids the hard ball like the plague, will NOT chase & if you watch him he rarely mans up when the opposition has the ball, WATCH him closely, when the game is tough & tight Gleesons stats are very, very low, when the game is over, won or lost, that’s when he starts getting soft touches
    Ambrose, and I totally agree with what Matty Lloyd said about him “is a great athlete but has very little footy skills”, jumps into packs but one on one is very ordinary

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