2022 Finals Dossier: Melbourne Demons

After a one-year break, Finals Dossiers return for 2022. With one piece for each of the top four teams, the aim is to provide a comprehensive analysis of how a team plays and cover all angles. Today it’s time for the reigning premiers.

At 10-0 and two games clear on top, it felt like ‘how far Melbourne?’ in 2022.

While it’s an exaggeration to say the wheels have come off since then, there have been creaks in the floor.

That 10-0 start gave way to a 6-6 finish, and it took a thumping win against an outmatched Brisbane outfit to earn a top-two spot.

This intro feels like it’s leaning too far into doom-and-gloom, but it’s far from all bad for Melbourne.

Their style is established, when it’s on few can handle it, and they’re heading into a month with many happy memories.

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What statistics tell us about Melbourne’s style

On face value, this all looks relatively standard and roughly in line with the Melbourne profile we’re conditioned to see:

It doesn’t tell us the full story of Melbourne’s season though. In the intro, I touched on a 10-0 start before a 6-6 finish.

If we split the season along those lines, a different story emerges:

For me that speaks to two things:

1. With 18 months of exposure to Melbourne’s method, the competition has discovered avenues to success against that method; time and exposure allowing opponents more data to play with.

2. It was an exceedingly tough draw for Melbourne in the last 12 matches. Consider the following:

Games against top-nine* teams: R11-23

Melbourne: 10
Geelong: 5
Sydney: 5
Collingwood: 5
*given there was a clear gap between Carlton in 9th and the rest of the league

From a big-picture point of view, little has changed with Melbourne’s base style. What it comes down to is whether they can do it for long enough, which is an excellently written segue into the next point…

Should Melbourne’s losses be viewed with optimism or pessimism?

In five of Melbourne’s six losses this year, they’ve had a lead of 20+ points:

Leads given up in Melbourne’s 2022 losses:

Round 11 v Fremantle: 30-point lead (2:30 remaining, Q2)
Round 12 v Sydney: 26-point lead (17:00 remaining, Q2)
Round 13 v Collingwood: 20-point lead (13:00 remaining, Q3)
Round 19 v Western Bulldogs: 27-point lead (6:00 remaining, Q2)
Round 21 v Collingwood: 22-point lead (1:00 remaining, Q2)

I’ve flip flopped daily on whether to view this positively (they’re still earning leads) or negatively (not as solid across four quarters compared to 2021).

As I write this, I’m leaning towards optimism. When I read it back after publishing it’ll probably change again, but for the sake of this let’s trend positive.

The reason is because most of those leads were given up due to the defence buckling. Lest we forget the first three losses were in the absence of Steven May after an early concussion against Fremantle plus the club-imposed suspension.

The Bulldogs committed to a shootout style that I don’t see any other premiership contender attempting to replicate, and for all intents and purposes the second loss to Collingwood should have been wrapped up by half-time.

It was obviously concerning to lose in the way they did, but for me nothing in there screamed ‘red flag, defensive setup alert, things have to change’.

Then again, it’s also understandable to look at those games through different eyes and conclude Melbourne are vulnerable against teams committed (and capable enough) to moving the ball with speed from start to finish.

Ultimately my positivity boils down to faith in Melbourne’s full-strength defensive unit holding up for four quarters in September with higher stakes. There probably isn’t a clear right or wrong answer for the topic though, which makes it fun to discuss.

Can Melbourne’s ball movement stand up for long enough?

In the second half of the year, Melbourne’s ball movement has fluctuated between impressive, and ‘long bombs to anyone’.

The absence of Tom McDonald has robbed the Demons of a valuable linkman; no-one else on the list capable of filling that hole.

McDonald’s last game was in Round 10. After flirting with Sam Weideman (R11, 15) and Mitch Brown (R12, 13, 16), Melbourne decided to abandon their three tall setup to go with Ben Brown when fit, and the second ruckman.

Jake Melksham has played the last six games and while he’s fared well, he’s obviously not a like-for-like McDonald replacement.

Without a marking linkman roaming higher up the field to help the forward connection with other lines, there is a vulnerability when teams can press successfully on Demons in possession.

The second loss against Collingwood was arguably where McDonald’s absence was most keenly felt.

Too often there were Demons succumbing to taking territory blindly – either because the options were all parked deep, or too few options presenting at the ball – and it meant Melbourne weren’t able to take full advantage of their remarkable general play domination in the first half.

Having a marking forward higher up the ground allows options for the ball carrier. Even if that forward isn’t used, his leading patterns and movement create room for others.

Without that role, it makes Melbourne’s forwards much easier to contain for a simple reason: defenders don’t have to cover as much space to neutralise all dangerous options.

Think of a defence like a rubber band. A rubber band can hold in items over a certain amount of space.

The more it has to stretch, the less effective it becomes. If it has to stretch too much, it breaks.

When Melbourne don’t have McDonald in the team, they’re playing without a tool to stretch that rubber band.

It lessens their margin for error, especially against the elite teams. More pressure is placed on the midfield to gain max value from their contest wins, along with the ground level forwards to do their job without possession and create turnovers.

At time of writing, it’s unclear whether McDonald will be unavailable for selection against Sydney or if Melbourne risk rushing him back.

Against a Swans team with the McCartin brothers and Dane Rampe patrolling, if McDonald is fit it’s worth the risk.

How Melbourne beat you

1: Defence
2: Midfield establishing territory

Nowhere was point one more evident than last Friday night against Brisbane.

The Lions, evidently spooked by past defeats, went all-in on moving the ball through riskier areas than normal and were taught a lesson.

If a team’s ball use isn’t spot on against Melbourne, they will pay. The Dees’ defence is elite at closing down open space – particularly in the forward half – with the security blanket of May, Jake Lever and Harry Petty behind them.

Take this passage of play as an example for forward half defending. Nothing is easy for Brisbane, and eventually they’re forced into a turnover in a terrible position:

If the clip won’t play for you, click here to view

Then when teams give up on risk taking, they can’t find joy with long balls because of May, Lever and Petty.

I’ll skip those video highlights because it’s not hugely exciting to watch spoil after spoil fly over the boundary. Nevertheless, when both facets are on song it can feel impossible to score against Melbourne with any type of regularity.

Then there’s the much talked about midfield. Barring a strange three-week blip from Round 17-19 when Melbourne conceded points from stoppages at literally a league-worst rate, it’s so tough for teams to get on top of Oliver, Petracca, Viney and co from start to finish.

In terms of raw clearance differential, Melbourne only sit mid-table. But when their team setups are on, they get value – and territory – out of their wins. Opponents achieve … well, turnovers. Lots of them. Only Collingwood have forced more turnovers than Melbourne this year.

Behind all of this, it means Melbourne’s forward setup doesn’t have to kick the lights out to win matches. Defence leads the way.

How you beat Melbourne

Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece detailing ways to beat Melbourne.

While some parts have aged horrifically – i.e. having faith in Brisbane – others have held up well and can be held up alongside this year’s losses.

Multiple forward marking options: Fremantle took this to a new level by rehoming Griffin Logue as a defensive forward in Round 11, and others took note. By separating May, Lever and Petty it allows teams to spread the forward line out and target individuals with less fear. Example: Jamarra Ugle-Hagan kicking five goals in a win where Josh Bruce had two disposals and Aaron Naughton four kicks.

Neutralise Melbourne’s forward half game: During the home and away season, only Gold Coast created more forward half possession chains than Melbourne.

But in Melbourne’s losses, teams managed to stop the Demons from starting in their forward half as often.

On average, Melbourne create 42 forward half possession chainsper win. That decreases to 31 per loss, because…

Aggressive ball movement: If there are multiple options ahead of the ball, and a team has confidence in their ball use, Melbourne can be susceptible to a team continually pushing the tempo (as I debated with myself earlier).

It’s easier said than done, and Brisbane’s attempt last week shows the consequence of getting it wrong, but in particular the losses to Collingwood (R21) and the Bulldogs shows what happens when a team gets it right.

In other words, all a team has to do to beat Melbourne is move the ball extremely well, avoid their forward half pressure, have multiple options ahead of the ball, and figure out a way to minimise the influence of Oliver, Petracca and co. Simple.

While Melbourne haven’t yet shown the same level as 2021, they’re still a genuine premiership contender.

Working on the assumption Geelong win their qualifying final against Collingwood, Melbourne’s clash with Sydney is vital: win and avoid the Cats until a potential Grand Final.

Lose and the road to back-to-back becomes exponentially tougher.

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