Look Back/Look Ahead: Western Bulldogs

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.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Western Bulldogs’ 2022 was a case of the whole being less than their individual parts.

The individual talent on their list demanded more than a middling season; never a winning streak more than three or losing streak more than two. They stumbled into finals, turned around to play arguably their best quarter of the season – and were promptly run down from 41 points in front.

The conundrum is how to get the best out of this playing list. At the moment it’s not happening.

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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. Now that we’re into the finalists, here’s the schedule for the top eight:

RichmondReadWestern BulldogsToday
MelbourneReadFremantleRead
BrisbaneReadCollingwoodRead
SydneyReadGeelongSeptember 27

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

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There are young players coming through, young stars already key parts of the team, prime movers as part of a quality core, and experienced veterans to cap it off.

It’s a well-balanced list which allows the Bulldogs multiple pivot options for their strategy. That’s probably part of the reason they felt comfortable offering Liam Jones a reported three-year deal (!) for a man who turns 32 in February and has been out of the AFL system for 12 months.

Regardless of whether the acquisition pays off – and there’s equal reason to be positive or sceptical, which we’ll get to in a minute – it’s not a move that will cause long-term damage.

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Posts continue to come thick and fast. If you’ve missed anything recently, here are links to catch up:

Wednesday 14th: Look Back/Ahead: Richmond
Tuesday 13th: Look Back/Ahead: Carlton (9th, 12-10, 108.3%)
Saturday 10th: Semi Final Analysis: Melbourne v Brisbane
Friday 9th: Look Back/Ahead: St Kilda (10th, 11-11, 99.8%)
Thursday 8th: Look Back/Ahead: Port Adelaide (11th, 10-12, 110.3%)

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Josh Dunkley is obviously the standout name on this list. By all reports it seems like a matter of time before he departs to Port Adelaide or Brisbane. The favoured club to secure his services depends entirely on which report you’d like to believe.

Now, I’m not about to suggest the Bulldogs will be made a better side by Dunkley leaving. However.

With a key spot in the 22 – and a large chunk of on-ball minutes – about to open up, it offers a chance to reshuffle midfield priorities.

Too often this year the Bulldogs were exposed by a method that was overly offensively minded. It has to change, and it can be done before a ball is bounced in 2023.

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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. To clarify, posts won’t start until free agency officially commences, despite the flurry of announcements recently.

With all these rumours going around it looks like there’ll be words on the hour, every hour:

For first access, head to Patreon to sign up.

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The Bulldogs’ most pressing issues

In the match analysis of Fremantle’s elimination final win, the theme was apparent: one team with talent, the other with talent and a consistent system.

To be exact, it was the defensive system of the Bulldogs which lacked all season. With their key defenders not at the level of other lines, they needed a disciplined system ahead of them to make up for the deficit.

Instead, they saw the complete opposite, all year.

The Bulldogs would win the ball often – third in contested possession differential. They’d control the ball well – fourth in uncontested possession differential. That led to a great territory advantage – third in inside 50 differential.

But the minute they didn’t have possession, it was too easy for opponents to score.

Bulldogs defence in 2022Points Conceded Per 100 Possession ChainsAFL Rank
Scores from stoppages85.813th
Scores from centre bounce110.416th
Scores from turnovers76.314th
Scores from forward half124.913th
Scores from defensive half49.915th

All those numbers meant the Bulldogs were ranked 14th for scores conceded per inside 50 – only ahead of Gold Coast, North Melbourne, Essendon and West Coast. Not exactly the profile of a side with designs on contending in September.

In theory it’s why the addition of Liam Jones makes sense. At the very least, if nothing ahead of him changes, he’s an excellent one-on-one defender who can mitigate some of the damage done by others.

But there’s also a natural query on whether he can recapture his best after 12 months out of the system at the back end of his career – not to mention the chance of PTSD given his experience with Carlton’s ‘defence’ in 2021. It feels like a genuine 50-50 bet which way it’ll go. In an ideal world it’s a Jones addition plus a renewed defensive focus.

There’s also the question of how to restructure the midfield. The finish to 2021 seemed to make it clear Bailey Smith’s best role was basically as a pseudo sixth forward rolling up to contests as an extra, minimising his defensive responsibilities while maximising those offensive gifts.

Moving Smith back to that role, with Dunkley on the way out as well, presents a gift-wrapped chance for a defensive minded midfielder in the rotations. If the coaching staff is unwilling to make wholesale changes to their method, this looks like the best compromise for that hypothetical player to carry part of the load.

But with the Dogs seemingly placing all their eggs into Rory Lobb’s basket, it’s hard to see how willing they are to change.

Playing as the third tall/second ruck – which Darcy was at times – seems like the best spot in the Bulldogs’ side for the youngster to ease into AFL life. But Lobb’s imminent arrival* creates a logjam in that area, and it’s hard to see a way forward with everyone in a spot to maximise their strengths.

(*Working under the assumption Fremantle’s public ‘he won’t go anywhere’ line is a safety net until a Luke Jackson trade goes through)

If Naughton goes back it robs the Bulldogs of their best forward, and if Darcy goes back suddenly a second year player is asked to lead the key defensive line. And if all of Naughton, Darcy, Lobb, Ugle-Hagan and Bruce are on the same position of the depth chart it’s not using resources optimally.

Much like the Dunkley example earlier, not having Lobb and investing elsewhere may actually be a better fit for the Bulldogs in the long run. Because in 2023 the Bulldogs will be a better team with Lobb playing instead of Ugle-Hagan and/or Darcy.

But the opportunity cost of that is great, and will reveal itself in time. There’s a looming shadow of all this talent not used in the best way, along with whether the defensive method will improve. It’s a fascinating off-season ahead.

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