Look Back/Look Ahead: Essendon Bombers

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.

Where to start with Essendon’s year?

Instead of retreading old ground, let’s try to look to the future as much as possible because this summer is a fork in the road for the Bombers.

The only line on Ben Rutten: deciding to move on was understandable given the defensive issues all year, how the club handled it was shambolic, and none of this sentence was news to anybody.

On to what’s next.

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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 CoastReadGWSReadEssendonToday
AdelaideReadHawthornReadGold CoastRead
Port AdelaideReadSt KildaReadCarltonSep 13

Here are all the Patreon details and how to sign up.

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The midfield conundrum

During the year, I kept circling back to Essendon’s midfield and how to assess it. A Notebook entry here, a tweet there, and after way too many hours I think I’ve figured it out.

There are too many pure ball winners in the best 22, and too few midfielders on the list at large. Sounds confusing, but let me explain.

Zach Merrett, Dylan Shiel and Darcy Parish are at their best hunting the ball. When playing elsewhere their value is minimised, so you have to play them on-ball for maximum return.

Look around the league and it’s impossible to find another team playing with three offensive minded midfielders in the same rotation. It creates the highest of high-risk approaches.

When it works, Essendon look like a million dollars – actually leading the league in points per stoppage win. When it goes wrong, it looks sub-standard, conceding the third most points per stoppage loss, better than only West Coast and North Melbourne.

Points Per 100 StoppagesOffenceDefence
Essendon in 202293.990.9
AFL Rank1st16th

This can only hold up if a team has a significantly positive clearance differential; one Essendon does not have. Then, the flow on effect of an overly offensive midfield is team structure without the ball, i.e. defending after turnovers.

As covered in this year’s Finals Dossiers, defending from turnovers is the foundation of an elite team. To state it as plainly as possible: If a team can’t do that well they’re spending most, if not all of September watching from the couch.

Essendon’s ball winning mindset led to full ground breakdown after full ground breakdown without possession. There’s no need to revisit specific moments; everyone reading this can probably remember half a dozen off the top of their head.

What made it even more glaring is Essendon didn’t actually cough up the ball that often. Only GWS, the Bulldogs and Adelaide had fewer turnovers in 2022.

But from those Essendon turnovers, opposition feasted:

2022 H&A SeasonTotal TurnoversTotal Points Conceded From Turnovers
Essendon4th fewest3rd most

This imbalance all stems from the source, and it’s the most pressing issue to fix. To do so, one of two things needs to happen:

1. If Merrett, Parish and Shiel continue as the main midfielders, one of them has to adopt a different mentality
2. One of the trio has to move out of the first-string rotations

I am partial to option two, because it forces Essendon to create a deeper rotation and give time to the likes of Ben Hobbs, Archie Perkins, and new arrivals via draft and trade. At the moment there just isn’t the quantity of midfielders on the list.

The best teams don’t run entire games with only four midfielders (these three + Jye Caldwell) as Essendon did in the last fortnight against Port Adelaide and Richmond.

But then you run head-first into another dilemma: if one of Merrett, Parish or Shiel see their midfield minutes decrease, where can they play to maximise their impact?

Suddenly you’re back at the initial issue: too many pure ball-winners, not enough total midfielders. It’s a list management task that is going to take time and tough conversations to fix.

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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:

Wednesday 31st: Look Back/Ahead: GWS (16th, 6-16, 84.6%)
Tuesday 30th: Look Back/Ahead: West Coast (17th, 2-20, 59.8%)
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%)

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

There are intriguing decisions coming up for Essendon.

A new coach will change personnel and expectations, which will create a shifting landscape and collateral damage.

The 2023 column is full of players that opposing clubs will sniff around. From the ruck (Sam Draper) to key forward (Jones), and midfield (Parish, Hobbs), to half back (Mason Redman) and key defence (Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, particularly if he continues to improve as he did to finish 2022).

By the end of the new coach’s first year, there should be a clear idea of how to move forward – which players are vital and those who are surplus to requirements. That won’t be the case this year, assuming the appointment is made before the beginning of trade period.

Given 2022 looks relatively low key, 2023 should be the year to target for a list reshape – if there’s enough patience to do so. More on that topic in a second, but first:

There’s Essendon, dead last at just 11 percent.

To add to the narrative, Essendon was the only team this year to start every match with a less experienced line-up than their opponent (h/t Twitter).

In an ideal world there’d have been more than 420 minutes from Nik Cox (2021: 1,980 mins) and 980 minutes from Jones (2021: 1,550 mins) as well.

Once National and Rookie Draft selections arrive, roughly half the list will be 22 or under in 2023.

If these players are to be given the best chance to succeed, they need time and patience.

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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

Will Essendon be patient?

An already young list will be even younger again in 2023 with the departures of Michael Hurley, Devon Smith and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. It’s why I can’t picture any situation where Dyson Heppell departs, simply because of the leadership vacuum left in his place.

Despite the mess of a year, there are undoubtedly bright spots and talent on the list. But consider the following:

– Zach Reid took a step forward but is likely another 12 months away from being able to contribute regularly down back.
– Harry Jones endured an injury interrupted season and has played a grand total of 26 games as a key forward, with plenty more development to come
– 2022 was the first year Sam Draper played more than 13 games in a season, let alone every match
– 20-year-old Nik Cox, in his second year, played just four full games before he was substituted out in Round 7 and missed the rest of the season
– Archie Perkins only had his first sustained taste of midfield minutes in a one-month block during the middle of the season
– Massimo D’Ambrosio instantly looked a player, but naturally he was a few months behind in development because of the whole ‘arriving via a mid-season draft’ thing; a fairly big deal

To repeat myself, the best way for the above to resolve itself, allowing those players to be the best version of themselves, is with patience, strong leaders, and stability.

Implementing all that takes time. With the way Essendon’s top dogs have been acting over the last month, ‘long-term thinking’ doesn’t appear to be a phrase in their vocabulary.

Those with an emotional investment in the club have covered this topic much more in-depth than I; the Lunchtime Catch Up and Don The Stat podcasts are two recommended listens.

Personal view: Appointing Essendon’s next coach is the admin’s most important decision since the supplement saga. To move past the last decade of nothingness, they need to nail it, ensure the entire coaching group is settled and then, most importantly, get out of the way and let them build a foundation.

It’s the only way to move past the dated ‘we are a big club’ personality trait that has held them back.

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