It was supposed to be getting better.
Four off-seasons with Stephen Silvagni overseeing the rejuvenation of the list. Brendon Bolton in his fourth season as senior coach.
Instead Bolton was sacked on Monday after just one win in 2019, and three heavy losses in the last five weeks seemingly hastening his fate.
But to understand how Carlton got here, stuck in what feels like an endless rebuild, it’s important to go right back to Silvagni’s arrival.
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In 2015, Carlton made the decision to essentially start again, beginning a list purge never seen before from a non-expansion club.
It meant deep cuts to the playing list, and anyone not deemed part of the long-term future was quickly ushered to the exit.
Silvagni’s first key plank of the list strategy became clear almost immediately. In opting to start again, it was naturally going to leave holes on the list for mature talent.
Instead of using some of the mid-tier players already on the list to protect youth coming through via the draft, Silvagni and Carlton opted to go full scorched earth.
Players From Other Clubs Brought In Under Silvagni – National Draft Excluded
Tomas Bugg, Alex Fasolo, Hugh Goddard, Daniel Gorringe, Matthew Kennedy, Sam Kerridge, Jed Lamb, Darcy Lang, Matthew Lobbe, Caleb Marchbank, Mitch McGovern, Aaron Mullett, Nic Newman, Cameron O’Shea, Rhys Palmer, Jarrod Pickett, Andrew Phillips, Lachie Plowman, Will Setterfield, Alex Silvagni, Matt Shaw, Billie Smedts, Liam Sumner, Matthew Wright
24 players have been brought in from other clubs since Silvagni’s arrival, and it’s slim pickings to find those who have made a tangible impact.
While a couple are obviously too early to call, only Wright and Plowman could be considered undisputed successes at this stage, and it’s just a matter of time for Marchbank.
24 list positions, and most have gone to waste. Even if it was just a slightly higher success rate, much of Carlton’s problems over the last two seasons could have been avoided.
The Plan™ was clearly for a lot of these selections from other clubs to guide the youngsters through their early time at AFL level.
Then once the likes of Kerridge, Lamb, O’Shea, Palmer and co departed, the draft picks would have sufficient experience and development to step up and take a more significant role.
It’s a common fallacy to say the best way to rebuild a side is by trading away anything of value for draft picks.
In reality, an overly young list often means players getting games in roles they’re not ready for. It can create lasting long-term damage for their development; Collingwood’s targeting of Jack Watts on Queen’s Birthday in 2009 the most infamous example.
Ask almost any senior coach, and they’ll preach about finding the right balance between older players to shoulder the load, and younger players to ease into AFL life.
The more unsuccessful list changes Silvagni made, the less Bolton had that luxury.
It’s incredibly easy to forget Patrick Cripps is only 24. He’s had minimal experienced midfield help since establishing himself as a star of the competition.
Charlie Curnow was 21 years old at the start of 2018 – he was entrusted with the responsibility of leading Carlton’s forward line.
Petrevski-Seton has played 53 out of a possible 55 games, Fisher 45 out of 55; a number which would have been higher if not for his 2018 being prematurely ended by injury. For Dow it’s 31 out of 33.
There simply haven’t been any other options to allow the youngsters to ease into life at AFL level. It meant Carlton’s side on the weekend had 11 players with 50 games or under.
Here’s a quote from Brad Scott (wink) on what happens when too many youngsters are in a side at once:
“You’ve got to get quality games into young players and when you expose young players before they’re ready, it can be really detrimental.”
So once the mistakes of the previous regime (horrendous drafting and trading) were combined with the mistakes of the current regime (failing to select the correct recycled/mature age players from other clubs), Carlton was left with a lot riding on how a very young side stood up to pressure they shouldn’t have had to shoulder the brunt of.
The Game Plan
Bolton’s first two seasons on the job were promising. There were signs of a clear game style being implemented, largely based around a defence-first mentality.
After conceding the most points against in 2015, Bolton’s first two seasons saw that number improve to 10th (2016) and 13th (2017).
In a time of such high list turnover, it made perfect sense for Bolton to start with the basics, then slowly branch the style out into one which would consistently result in winning scores.
It appeared that time would be 2018. All the pre-season chat was about the new attacking Blues, and the signs looked good through the JLT Series – right up until the 10-minute mark of Round 1.
But ultimately it was this attempted shift in game style where everything changed.
The tweaks to give Carlton more of a chance at kicking a winning score – faster ball movement, playing on more often, slightly more handballing – came at the expense of the defensive foundation built over the last two years.
And the natural growing pains which stem from testing out a more attacking mindset came at literally the worst possible time for Carlton, because it was at the exact same stage the competition started to punish turnovers with increasing regularity.
Therefore when Carlton dipped their toes into the new attacking style, they didn’t feel clear blue water. It was quicksand.
After the Round 1, 2018 loss to Richmond, Carlton conceded 101 points to Gold Coast the following week. Not only was that the Suns’ highest score of the season, it’s still their highest score since Round 15, 2017. Carlton conceded the most points in the league in 2018, and are only a couple of goals from being in the same position this year.
When players look to their coaches for direction, follow those directions, and then see those directions brutally ripped apart by an opposition – why should they have any confidence in continuing to follow them?
In the last six weeks in particular, that lack of confidence has manifested on-field. The first quarter against GWS provided the perfect example of a deadly combination – no confidence and structural holes.
The following Twitter thread contains five clips to illustrate just how bad it had become on-field:
The culmination of four years of mismanagement from the football department came home to roost.
While the players selected through the National Draft ranged from solid, to good, to very good, the inability to hit on mature age recruits and recycled players left a void of experience on-field.
Then the inability to implement a clear, well-drilled style to cover for those holes as best as possible meant all Carlton’s failures were exposed in the worst possible way.
Where To Next
Despite all the above, Carlton’s playing list isn’t in horrendous shape.
The 2015 draft picks – Weitering, McKay and Curnow – should make up much of Carlton’s spine for the next decade.
Assuming Cripps’ shoulders don’t fall off from the weight he’s had to carry, he’ll also be a mainstay in the midfield. Petrevski-Seton has taken a step forward in his third season, as has Fisher to show the budding outline of a group which can have a larger influence on games.
While Dow’s disposal is suspect at times, as he continues to develop, the extra maturity around the ball should rectify some of those issues. And Walsh has been the player everyone expected him to be, looking mature beyond his years during his first campaign.
There are undoubtedly building blocks to work with. As stated during Bolton’s final press conference on Monday, the next step is for the list management group to get mature bodies around the group to help the younger players grow.
Whether Carlton can find the right players to perform that role is the greatest issue. For the last four years there has been no sign they can.