How the Western Bulldogs turned it around

“We knew we had to be stronger around the ball. We were dominant throughout the year because we had a dominant midfield. They took it upon themselves after those three (losses) to go away and work and know that we needed to be unbelievably strong in there, and we’ve just built and built.” – Easton Wood

Three weeks ago the Western Bulldogs were in trouble. Big trouble. A midfield, supposed to be their edge over the competition, was falling apart and much of their hard work earlier in the season had been squandered, giving away a prized double chance.

At the time I wrote about it, exploring the areas where they were struggling and how teams were exploiting their weaknesses.

Since then it’s turned all the way round and now the Bulldogs are off to a Grand Final. So, given I highlighted what was going wrong, it seems only fair to have the same process when things are right.

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There are a number of aspects to tackle, so let’s break it down bit by bit and jump around a little:

Bailey Smith

It’s almost as if Round 21-23 Bailey Smith and Finals Bailey Smith are different people, such is the difference in output.

To start, Smith has moved away from an on-ball role to more of a high half-forward/wing hybrid, reflected in his centre bounce attendances:

Bailey SmithCentre Bounce Attendances
Round 15 v West Coast17
Round 16 v North Melbourne21
Round 17 v Sydney9
Round 18 v Gold Coast19
Round 19 v Melbourne19
Round 20 v Adelaide22
Round 21 v Essendon10
Round 22 v Hawthorn7
Round 23 v Port Adelaide9
EF v Essendon2
SF v Brisbane3
PF v Port Adelaide0

That spot in a rotation tends to be used to accentuate the offensive strengths of a player who either lacks a touch defensively, or when a team doesn’t want to burden him with too much defensive responsibility.

For example, when Gary Ablett returned to Kardinia Park, Geelong often used him in a similar fashion, coming into play from an offensive position and then having the freedom to work back towards goal in a way which lost defenders in traffic.

Just to be crystal clear so no-one misinterprets – I am not comparing Bailey Smith to Gary Ablett. Smith still has hair, for one. Rather it’s a comparison in roles. In the post a month ago, Smith was noticeable in many of the errors, caught ball watching or positioning himself incorrectly.

Now playing in this role during the finals, his role is simplified. Start outside, come up towards the ball and focus on hurting the opposition offensively as teammates take care of most the dirty work.

For an admittedly extreme example of it playing out, take this passage of play from the first quarter against Port Adelaide.

Watch as Smith is working up at the ball and then freewheels back to goal. He understands the assignment:

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

Then there are smaller examples of knowing his role as an outlet, not getting sucked into contests and holding shape like so:

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

It’s a role playing to Smith’s strengths, and to say he’s making the most of it is an understatement.

The Elimination Final

Forgive me for a moment, because this part is half opinion rather than full analysis and impossible to prove right or wrong either way. However, the combination of heavy rain + a skinny Essendon midfield made a perfect chance for the Bulldogs to reset and get back to basics.

The Bulldogs’ first half, before conditions really set in, was shaky at best and against any other finals side they would have been in the rooms at the break staring at a deficit. Essendon were earning plenty of half chances, getting into dangerous areas and looking threatening whenever the ball was at ground level inside 50.

Consider the Bombers’ seven behinds from the first half. On another day most of these sail through and the game looks a lot different:

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

The second half was far from a classic, but the Bulldogs were able to wear Essendon down and, to use this word again, simplify things with a helping hand from the weather.

In the rain it becomes a basic game. Straight line football, win possession, gain territory by any means necessary and work from contest to contest. There aren’t any opportunities for slick ball movement when you have it, and, just as importantly in this case, for the opposition either.

The Bulldogs sacrificed a little forward structure by dropping extra numbers into defensive 50 when needed. That move neutralised Essendon’s scoring chances – 23 second half inside 50s for five behinds – and with no chance of the game being played on the outside, the Bulldogs then reaped the reward with every contest, grinding forward until Essendon had nothing left:

Contested Possessions1st Half2nd Half
Western Bulldogs68102
Essendon8068
Differential-12+34

Wondering whether things would have been different in the dry is a fun ‘what if’. But what’s without debate is how the Bulldogs adjusted to the conditions, reset, and went back to basics to progress to week two.

The Ruck

This shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Lewis Young, who did everything he could in the ruck despite it being far from his optimal position.

But in the semi-final against Brisbane, Beveridge clearly decided they couldn’t go any further down that route and changed course at half time.

Semi Final v Brisbane1st Half Ruck Contests2nd Half Ruck Contests
Lewis Young2710
Tim English2145

After squeaking past the Lions, there was a clear recognition the ruck setup had to change. Which meant Stefan Martin went from being assessed as this by Beveridge after the Elimination Final win:

“He is probably that player at the moment that is an emergency break glass if we lost all our bigs and we had no one else to turn up to the stoppage and ruck, and we would bring him in. He has just missed so much footy and is not quite himself physically, so it would put too much pressure on the team.”

To a starter against Port Adelaide.

Although Martin seemed like he was barely capable of jumping over the centre circle line on Saturday night, that part of his game was largely irrelevant. The importance he has on the Bulldogs’ stoppage structure can’t be understated, preventing the opposition ruck having his own way and dictating proceedings.

So we have a significant role change with Bailey Smith, a personnel change with Martin, and a team which had rediscovered the basics around the ball. There was still one more box to tick to get all the way back to their form from earlier in the season – handily for the Bulldogs, Port Adelaide were the ideal opponents.

The Preliminary Final

In Round 23, the Bulldogs were caught in a state of flux. After a poor fortnight defensively against Essendon and Hawthorn, in an attempt to rectify that against the Power they overcompensated.

By retreating as far as they did after their initial burst, it meant when the Bulldogs did have possession they struggled to consistently create scoring opportunities. Port were able to dictate and work their way into the game a little too easily.

Flash forward to the preliminary final and the Bulldogs knew they had to win more of the ball and then move it in a way which put Port’s defence under stress. Not exactly a revelation worthy of dramatic music, but something they failed to do last time all the same.   

Here’s an example of forcing a turnover, winning possession and then moving at speed using the full ground to do so. This was what had been missing in Round 23:

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

Then there was also the issue of holding shape around contests, not allowing an easy out. Essendon, Hawthorn and Port in Round 23 were able to get out too easily. Not so at Adelaide Oval.

On first glance this passage of play looks like any other regulation scrap as players battle for possession. And then if you look closer, you see the Bulldogs are remarkably well drilled in their positioning and where they have to be – almost like a different side to the last three weeks of the home and away season.

If you can’t see the video, click here to watch

This type of structure and movement wasn’t happening for the Bulldogs heading into the finals. It’s been a process to get it back but in the nick of time they put it all together, setting up what should be an incredibly fun Grand Final v Melbourne.

Hopefully I’ll have some type of preview post for the game next week. What format it takes is TBD at this stage, but something will pop up.

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