Welcome to the fourth annual (with a year missing in the middle) Shinboner Finals Dossiers. For new readers, the aim is to comprehensively profile each of the top four teams. All the positives, along with potential negatives, and where it leaves them heading into this year’s finals series. After starting with the minor premiers, it makes sense to move onto their qualifying final opponent.
No team won more quarters in the home and away season than Melbourne, their 60 (plus two draws) leading Brisbane’s 56 (plus three draws) and Collingwood’s 54 (plus four draws).
No team conceded fewer scoring shots per inside 50 either, Melbourne’s 40.03 percent edging out St Kilda’s 40.2 percent and Sydney’s 40.5.
Of Melbourne’s seven losses, four were by single figures, and only one was by more than 15 points.
Yet for all those numbers, it feels like a common consensus Melbourne are, at best, in the pack with the other top four teams.
Perhaps it’s because of familiarity. In Collingwood’s Finals Dossier I explained how there were still unanswered questions to determine their premiership favouritism.
It’s not the case with Melbourne. Their strengths and weaknesses are clearly defined. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because it provides a clear area to work on. When those areas haven’t been fixed heading into September, it can also be a bad thing.
Given the length of time it takes to put these together, Patreon subscribers enjoy exclusive access for longer than normal. The release dates:
Collingwood’s Dossier: 31stth August for all Patrons, 4th September for the public
Melbourne’s Dossier: 1st September for all Patrons, 5th September for the public
Brisbane’s Dossier: 4th September for all Patrons, 7th September for the public
Port Adelaide’s Dossier: 5th September for all Patrons, 8th September for the public
A snapshot of Melbourne’s home & away season
All year Melbourne’s defence and midfield have been in solid shape at worst, or excellent shape at best. Justifiably so too, those two lines drive Melbourne and are what their style is based around.
There’s an extra column in there which didn’t make an appearance in Collingwood’s snapshot: Expected Score. It’ll be explored more in-depth as we go, but for Melbourne more so than any other top four team, it’s a vital point to understand in highlighting their forward half work this year.
But before we get to that, first let’s start with the clear positives.
Melbourne’s strengths: How they beat you
It’s not exactly new information at this point, but it’s defence first.
Teams are forced into more turnovers than against any other side when going inside 50 against the Demons, and across the whole field, no team has forced more turnovers than Melbourne this year.
A simple theory then: if teams can’t move the ball without turning it over, they won’t score. More sides should consider this revolutionary idea.
In all seriousness, where this strength comes into play most is the first phase of play after Melbourne’s opponents either gain possession (after a Demons turnover) or win possession (from a stoppage).
As far as I’m aware, there’s no possession chain data showing how many possessions teams have in a row before turning it over. If there was, the lowest number would probably come against Melbourne. When the Dees are on there is no time to breathe against them, let alone string together a number of stress-free possessions together.
It’s tricky to illustrate it as one big ‘aha!’ moment, because Melbourne’s team defence doesn’t operate like that. What it does do is work on a string, everyone executing their individual roles, resulting in opponents always under pressure.
How I’d like to highlight it is by going back to the King’s Birthday game and splicing together a handful of non-sequential contests. As you’re watching this, imagine being in Collingwood’s situation.
On face value, none of the above is incredible, ‘stop the presses’ type defence. But it happens again, and again, and again, 100 times, 200 times in a game. Imagine feeling this type of pressure every single time you have possession in open play, and how it would wear you down.
It’s a far cry from their early time under Simon Goodwin, when defensive inconsistencies were almost Melbourne’s signature. That feels like a distant memory now.
Yet for all of the love and praise for their defensive work, it still leaves another area of the game unexplored.
Melbourne’s weaknesses: How you beat them
Through nine rounds, Melbourne were the highest scoring team in the competition, but only 11th in scores per inside 50. Why? Accuracy. Otherworldly accuracy.
Although they weren’t creating a heap of chances, it was covered up by the type of kicking at goal which makes opposition fans throw things at walls.
According to Expected Score, Melbourne had kicked 130 more points than a team would normally kick from their shots at goal. One hundred and thirty points more than expected in just nine games.
It created a fairly straight forward portrait of their attacking half, with little margin for error if either their scores per inside 50 or accuracy at goal cooled off – which they both did.
Over their next seven games – Round 10-16 – their scores per inside 50 mark sunk to 17th, albeit with a couple in wet conditions. But the real key was their Expected Score: instead of it being well above average, it flipped on its head.
From +130 in the first nine games and best in the league, it turned to -94 over the next seven and worst in the league. When those slim margins evaporated, close games tempted fate. It wasn’t a coincidence those large early season winning margins turned into the wrong end of thrillers:
Round 10 v Port Adelaide: Four-point loss (11.10, +2 on Expected Score)
Round 11 v Fremantle: Seven-point loss (10.12, -12 on Expected Score)
Round 15 v Geelong: 15-point loss (8.15, -14 on Expected Score)
Round 16 v GWS: Two-point loss (5.15, -32 on Expected Score)
It’s taken until the last six weeks for accuracy to stabilise at normal levels – not historically good, also not worst in the league – and all the while their scores per inside 50 have hovered slightly below league average.
A flip side of the turnovers Melbourne create is they also cough the ball up plenty themselves. In fact, no team turns it over more than the Demons, in stark contrast with the remaining top four teams:
Turnovers per game in 2023 (ranked from most (1st) to least (18th)
Port Adelaide: 9th
At the start of the year when Melbourne started experimenting with their forward mix, they would have planned for it to be settled by now. The fact it hasn’t means there’s been little opportunity to build the forward-midfield connection that can only come with continuity. No continuity = unfamiliar movement patterns to each other = plenty of turnovers.
So while Melbourne have a defensive system that’s arguably the best in the league and allows them significantly more front half time than their opponent nearly every week, there’s also a misfiring offensive system, still yet to find their best personnel mix and prone to sharp fluctuations in front of goal.
It’s what keeps sides in games. To return to the King’s Birthday game once again as a point of reference, Melbourne utterly dominated from halfway through the first term until the final five minutes of the last term.
Yet it only yielded eight goals (and a metric ton of behinds) because their forward line wasn’t good enough to capitalise on it. Collingwood almost pinched what would have been the greatest steal in recent memory, all because of Melbourne’s offensive struggles with personnel.
If fellow top four sides can find a way to neutralise Melbourne’s midfield and work around their defence – easier said than done, to be sure – there’s every chance they’ll come out on top, unless…
The question: Will it all come down to forward line variance?
The regular changes in Melbourne’s forward line from week to week – in personnel and execution – makes it the only unpredictable part of their game.
In 13 of their 23 home and away games, they either overperformed or underperformed their expected score by double figures – five of them by 20+.
It’s been a rotating cast of characters as well. Consider the following list of events, in player alphabetical order for clarity:
– Ben Brown: Starts the season in the team, gets injured, comes back for four games of diminishing effectiveness, line seemingly through his name.
– Kade Chandler: Starts the season on fire, then kicks 1.9 in a seven-week period, gets dropped, comes back in, finishes the home and away season with 9.1 in his last six games.
– Bayley Fritsch: On track for a 50+ goal season until fracturing his foot, comes back for the last round, kicks five, but may have reinjured the same foot in the process.
– Brodie Grundy: There’s probably no need for more words on Grundy’s plight, but his 2023 seemingly ended after a scoreless game against Carlton in Round 22.
– Tom McDonald: Ankle surgery meant a long spell on the sidelines, but after three VFL games on return, the qualifying final may be his first AFL game since Round 11.
– Jake Melksham: Brought in from the cold for the last nine games, where he became a vital part of the forward line before cruelly rupturing an ACL in Round 24.
– Christian Petracca: Probably Melbourne’s best forward, and also capable of kicking 0.4 (Round 16) and 4.0 (Round 17) in back-to-back weeks.
– Harry Petty: Repurposed from a defender, Petty filled a need until a foot injury prematurely ended his year in Round 21.
– Joel Smith: This current stretch of 12 consecutive games (four of those as the starting substitute) is the longest of his career. A logical assumption is he’ll slide into Melksham’s defensive forward spot, but without the same offensive smarts Melksham possesses.
– Jacob van Rooyen: In his first season of regular AFL football, about to head into his first final as likely the main key position target.
I’m exhausted just typing that.
On face value, it feels like every chance they finish a final having kicked 9.10, not made the most of general play advantage, and everyone is bemoaning their lack of dangerous forwards.
But all it takes is one or two of those (non-injured, actually selected) players to pop in a final – maybe Petracca kicks straight, van Rooyen continues his excellent set shot record to finish with four or five – and Melbourne have the inside running.
We know their defence – both individual and team – is going to hold up every week, and their midfield rarely gets beaten.
It’s just a matter of whether Melbourne can scramble together a winning score with a makeshift forward line. It’s not the normal profile of a top four side and potential premiership winner, but nothing about this year has been normal.