Look Back/Look Ahead: West Coast Eagles

Welcome to Look Back/Look Ahead, a series where every team is analysed in-depth, and their temperature taken. The plan here is to figure out where a team is at with their on-field style and overall list health before transitioning to their most pressing issue, and whether they can solve it over the off-season.

If there was a dictionary definition of ‘lost season’, West Coast’s 2022 would be Exhibit A.

Everything that could go wrong did up until the bye. Injuries, COVID, and general unavailability ravaged the squad, and they were the only team forced to dip into the top up pool.

It took that week off to recalibrate and from there they played respectable football and – most importantly – showed their planned style for 2023 and beyond.

Today we’re going to analyse that, along with the contract status and age demographic of the list, before finishing with a key list question to determine their short to medium term success.

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Look Back/Look Ahead will run during the weeks of September, taking us right up to Grand Final day and finishing with the top two shortly after.

$10 Patrons will have exclusive access to these posts for the first 24 hours after publishing and they’ll be free for all after that. The schedule for non-finalists (not including North Melbourne):

West CoastTodayGWSReadEssendonRead
AdelaideReadHawthornReadGold CoastRead
Port AdelaideReadSt KildaReadCarltonSep 13

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A style status update: Where does it sit?

At the start of February, Adam Simpson said this:

“We’ve changed a few things; we’re training on some different methods.”

“We’re tweaking a couple of things with the way we move the ball, the way we defend and our contest method as well.

“It’s all connected for us in terms of what we want to do, with the way we defend, the way we handle the contest, and it reflects on the way we move the ball.”

Then the next five months happened, and best laid plans flew out the window.

Finally, in the last third of the season, with players returning and a more settled squad, we got a glimpse of those pre-season plans.

In short: a shift away from ball retention to prioritise a higher contest style. When we think about West Coast’s play over the last few years, it was centred around picking teams apart with a kick-mark style and not as much focus on dominating the contested game. We saw how that worked when conditions were greasy and precision impossible.

Given the Eagles’ midfield worries (more on that later), it makes sense to clog the game up around contests and play a high stoppage game. It can paper over cracks and minimise weaknesses – especially while there’s still more than enough talent at either end of the ground.

An AFL.com.au piece helpfully detailed the stoppage increase to back up the eye test.

Before figuring out how this plan can work for West Coast in 2023, a detour to assess the list…

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Posts are coming thick and fast at the moment. If you’ve missed anything over the last week or so, here are links to catch up:

Friday 26th: North Melbourne’s end of season list analysis
Thursday 25th: 2022 Finals Dossier: Collingwood (4th, 16-6, 104.3%)
Wednesday 24th: 2022 Finals Dossier: Sydney (3rd, 16-6, 127.9%)
Tuesday 23rd: 2022 Finals Dossier: Melbourne (2nd, 16-6, 130.5%)
Monday 22nd: 2022 Finals Dossier: Geelong (1st, 18-4, 144.2%)

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If no image appears here, head to the List Management page for the most up-to-date graphic

Everything looks relatively settled for West Coast in the contract department. You’d expect most of this year’s out of contract players to be settled with a minimum of fuss except for Junior Rioli; rumours still swirling around his future.

For most teams, we can look at this and draw useful conclusions. When West Coast are forced into using 47 (!) players and availability is thrown for a loop week after week, effectiveness is lost.

To peruse team-by-team rankings in different age groups, head to the List Management page.

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As we head towards free agency and trade period, a reminder that the plan is to have a post for every move that involves a player:

For first access, head to Patreon to sign up.

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If no image appears here, head to the List Management page for the most up-to-date graphic

Looking at West Coast’s list demographic before the first wave of delistings, one question stands out:

How quickly can West Coast revamp their midfield?

Pending fitness, there’s enough at either end of the ground for West Coast to remain patient.

Down back Tom Barrass can continue to lead the way, Jeremy McGovern has multiple years left and Rhett Bazzo showed promising signs in a baptism of fire this year.

At the other end Jack Darling can lead the forward line while Oscar Allen settles back into AFL life and eventually takes the reins, while there are plenty of options at ground level.

The midfield though … that’s a different story.

Nic Naitanui, Luke Shuey and Jack Redden all turn 33 in 2023, and you can’t bank on 18+ games from the first two given their fitness struggles.

Meanwhile Andrew Gaff turns 31, with his skill set not suited to a more contested style where time and space is harder to come by.

Elliot Yeo turns 30 and has missed 34 of the last 51 games. In his last three appearances of 2022 he played off half-back – can his body stand up to sustained midfield minutes anymore?

The only medium term onballers who can be locked away are Dom Sheed and Tim Kelly. Beyond that there are a bunch of unknowns in the engine room.

Although they’re not identical players, Jai Culley’s start – highly contested with minimal influence elsewhere – reminded me of Jai Newcombe in 2021. The Hawk blossomed this year and naturally the hope will be for Culley to do the same in 2023.

But as a floor at AFL level, it appears Culley can be a pure inside midfielder doing the grunt work, marrying up nicely with big-picture plans. Connor West (first half of 2022) and Xavier O’Neill (last third of 2022) were the only other younger players to receive significant on-ball minutes with middling returns, although there was notable pressure provided by the latter.

The Eagles currently have pick two and two second rounders as early selections in this year’s National Draft. The logical move, pending trade period shenanigans, is to load up on best available midfielders to accelerate the regeneration.

Expecting West Coast to do a Collingwood in 2023 is a little unrealistic. But an acceptable injury run means they call on Barrass, McGovern, Allen and Darling for 18+ games as tentpoles at either end and have Sheed plus Kelly to shield the likes of Culley and draft arrivals. There’s no way it can be anywhere near as bad as 2022 … right?

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