From The Notebook: A worrying Western Bulldogs slump

Of all the times for a strength to turn in to a weakness, a fortnight out from finals is no-one’s choice.

Out of nowhere that’s where the Western Bulldogs find themselves after two losses in a row and three consecutive matches of being outpointed at centre bounces.

Through their first 18 games of the season, the Bulldogs were +60 when it came to centre clearances. That’s been flipped on its head the last three weeks to a -21 differential.

Centre ClearancesWestern BulldogsOppositionDifferential
Round 20 v Adelaide817-9
Round 21 v Essendon1218-6
Round 22 v Hawthorn410-6
Total2445-21

Even with these numbers, there are different ways to lose a clearance, each causing varying degrees of damage. How it’s happening to the Bulldogs right now is what’s of enormous concern heading into September.

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Firstly, a necessary preamble to put the Bulldogs’ recent struggles in important context:

In isolation, giving up a clearance to the opposition isn’t the end of the world. If teams are set up well they can even turn it into a chance to create turnovers and sweep forward on the break past a disorganised defence, i.e. Richmond over much of the last few seasons.

That has never been the Bulldogs’ main strength around the ball, and let’s be honest it’d be a waste of their midfielders’ skill sets to structure up in that way. Turning a largely ball-winning rotation into one designed to harass and counter would be a decision on par with defenders choosing to leave the corridor unmarked when Tom Hawkins has possession in the pocket. Honestly, he’s been going inboard for years, you’d think players would be awake to the threat by now.

Nevertheless, a key to the Bulldogs’ success this year has been doing just enough without the ball to cover their flaws, in turn allowing them to stay on the front foot, utilising their strengths to control games and spend large stretches of time in their forward half.

They are first in inside 50 differential in 2021, and even in their loss to Essendon they still won the count by more than 20. You could probably mount a case they still should have defeated the Bombers based on trends in general play.

But where it falls down for the Bulldogs is when they don’t continue to work without possession around the ball, those flaws suddenly become a chasm and it doesn’t take a lot of entries to slice through their defence and put up a winning score. Essendon’s 15.5 was from 39 inside 50s, while Hawthorn’s match winning run of six consecutive goals came across a 14-entry span.

To figure out how teams are exploiting the Bulldogs around the ball, we can zero in on three areas – the fine line between ball winning and ball watching, the ability to switch from offence to defence, and executing their defensive tasks when called on.

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If you’ve missed any previous editions of Monday’s Notebook, you can catch up by clicking here and scrolling through the season so far:

2021’s From The Notebook

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As an umpire bounces in the centre (and then calls it back to throw it up), the Bulldogs usually start with two players on the defensive side. This is all normal, and nothing out of the ordinary.

When it works well, it allows the starting midfielders to come up and through the ball, moving towards goal while being in a good position to flick into defensive mode if required.

It means a winning clearance creates momentum hard to defend, and if the opposition still wins the ball they’re forced into a rushed kick like this from Rory Sloane*, pressured from onrushing traffic:

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

(*the next phase of play broke down for the Bulldogs because no-one tracked Sloane as he got to where his kick landed, delivering an inside 50 which led to a goal. But that part is a different situation altogether)

Despite Adelaide’s seemingly huge 17-8 centre clearance edge in Round 20, much of that came in the final quarter – 8-1 – when the Bulldogs were experimenting with personnel and even then, there were very few clean exits. It means we can tick that game off and narrow the problems down to two.

Where the issues started to rear their head was Round 21 against Essendon.

For the most part, starting positions were standard issue. But they quickly fell apart when placed under stress by Essendon’s movement.

Being in the centre square requires constant communication and understanding between teammates, an umpire’s bounce having the power to force a quick change of responsibilities from offence to defence.

Take this from the first quarter as an example. As soon as the ball goes into the air, it’s clear Sam Draper has the lay of the land. The Bulldogs have to switch into defensive mode as quickly as possible. Instead, Bailey Smith is ball watching, Jack Macrae has worked into a dead spot while also ball watching, which means all that’s left is Josh Dunkley.

Against some opponents you can get away with it. When faced with Darcy Parish, Dylan Shiel and Jake Stringer? Not a chance.

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

Along with being able to adjust from offense to defence, the dial can’t be defaulted to an aggressive manner all the time. Especially when the opposition is running a clear as day set play, opting to play Russian Roulette at ground level isn’t advisable when your team has a ruck disadvantage.

This is essentially a training drill for Essendon as Shiel runs a set pattern knowing Draper has control in the air. Again Macrae has worked himself into a suboptimal spot, this time looking to win the ball and neglecting defensive responsibilities, and again Smith is caught ball watching with little awareness of what’s around him.

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

Speaking of set plays, Essendon ran the same one for Stringer in successive quarters, each time working to perfection as he was allowed to go straight out the front of the stoppage. While this Luke Beveridge quote came after the loss to Hawthorn, it’s not hard to draw a straight line from his words to these passages:

“The worst thing that can happen in those (centre bounce) situations is that teams just come out the front with no defensive layer there.”

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

Now we move down to Launceston and Saturday afternoon against Hawthorn. When the conditions are as they were – heavy, drizzly, and hard to move the ball quickly – clearances take on an added importance; not necessarily as a straight out scoring threat, but for the territory advantage it provides, pinning a team deep.

It’s where pressure and harassing come into play because clean disposals are like gold dust. Yet with the greatest of respect to Hawthorn, their midfield shouldn’t have given the Bulldogs much trouble compared to Essendon’s or even Adelaide’s first stringers for that matter.

And, while trying to avoid devolving into lazy cliches, perhaps that was the mentality the Bulldogs had coming into the game. Time and time again their defence around the ball was passive, sitting back and allowing Hawthorn to dictate proceedings.

Here it’s left to Lewis Young to double up after his ruck contest, sliding in to try and impact proceedings. All the while midfielders are sitting back timidly, not willing to push up on Hawks in space. Considering the Hawthorn numbers it wouldn’t have been an irresponsible act or over-committing, simply evening out play rather than hoping for the best. Unsurprisingly the end result is a clean Chad Wingard kick to clear the contest.

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

However it was in the second half – right after a three goal burst to earn an 11-point lead – when things really fell apart.

This centre bounce smacks of a side overcompensating for recent struggles. It’s clear Tom Mitchell will have clean possession, but the Dogs find themselves in no-man’s land.

Then to compound the mistake, no-one realises Liam Shiels is sitting in the corridor completely unmarked. He’s used and then finds a lead inside 50 where Mitch Lewis gives Hawthorn a lead they won’t relinquish.

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

The malaise crept around the ground as well. Wingard’s goal from a forward 50 stoppage was aided by no close checking and, again, a lot of ball watching instead.

Of all the Hawks to leave in space close to goal…

For those who can’t see the video, click here to watch

Ball watching, committing offensively when the situation doesn’t call for it, and a general lack of pressure allowing opponents to move the ball way too easily.

This is urgent for the Bulldogs. Assuming they have something left in the tank – and Beveridge’s post-Hawthorn comments of having worked on these issues all week only to see no response doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence – they’re at risk of throwing away all they worked to earn before this last fortnight.

If there’s a defeat at the hands of a Port Adelaide side rounding into form and sizing up a top two finish, and there’s every chance the Bulldogs are forced into an elimination final.

Against the same Essendon side which just showed how to make the most of their flaws.

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