It’s time to slow down the Bombers


There is still plenty to be positive about at Essendon.

Did they disappoint this season? Absolute.

But Essendon’s roster was never built to be a finals team in 2021, let alone 2022.

More than a few pundits had the Bombers as a top eight team this season. Only Essendon fans would feel more let down than these folks in their current position, as did a certain former coach who tipped them for the flag.

However, the truth is that in 2021 Essendon completely over-performed to make it to the final that they had very little entitlement to.

They played offensive footy with little regard for the defensive side of the game, which blew bad teams out of the water and generally watered down to real mediocrity against the good teams.

The forward mix had experience, budding talent and good play on the ground.

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (34 goals) and Cale Hooker (33) were among them, demanding more defensive attention and bringing Essendon Harrison Jones into the team.

Jake Stringer had some continuity in his play, Peter Wright tapped through while the forward pressure from Will Snelling and Devon Smith was a key factor in keeping the ball in.

The shock that James Stewart and Jayden Laverde became the established main defenders of the group at least gave the Bombers a bit of an unfamiliar x-factor, with Jordan Ridley starring as the interceptor and Nick Hind breaking out.

Midfielders posted big individual numbers as Darcy Parish became an above average player and there was a youthful enthusiasm in the group.

Darcy Parish

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

But they over-performed and those are not the standards the Bombers should adhere to.

While it is regrettable to have three wins from 14 games, in hindsight perhaps we could have tempered our expectations and enabled a young coach to continue developing a young squad.

The problem with making the finale and creating such an expectation is that the external timeline shifts, meaning the board timeline shifts.

Ben Rutten is caught between a rock and a hard place, as he has a list that is working on a timeline he had in mind when he started, but has changed in the eyes of others.

Simply put, you don’t actively search and then take three first round picks in one draft and think you’re a contender.

They let Joe Daniher go, Adam Saad was traded and Orazio Fantasia was allowed to leave. Wright and Hind were cheap, risk-free selections to try and give the Bombers some structure.

Of course, Michael Hurley’s absence was unexpected, but the Bombers chose to put two attackers on the defensive and develop the attack further, with Hooker’s help. That was a conscious choice for the long-term well-being of the club.

We live in an AFL world where patience is almost nonexistent and poor results at big clubs are unbearable.

We don’t handle apologies very well, nor do we give passes to struggling teams, even when they’re deserved.

Also internally it would have been a shock for the board, but also for first-year trainer Ben Rutten, to be so successful immediately and it has shot them all in the foot.

Of course, none of this is really an excuse for how poor the Bombers have been. The numbers make for ugly reading.

The Bombers were terrible defensively, taking the fourth most points in the league, while scoring the third fewest offensively. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Dylan Shiel leaves the SCG with his Essendon teammates.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

That’s a jump from 81.36 points against per game to 94.79.

It’s a drop in scoring from 88.77 points per game to 74.5.

Specific stats are perhaps even more damning.

They average more than nine tackles less per game, have dropped from seventh to sixteenth in yards won, their 50-inside pressure is one of the worst in the league and they are losing possession.

Many won’t want excuses, but the list is hardly a finished product with obvious, gaping holes, and the injuries didn’t help.

Players who have missed key minutes this season include Stringer, Snelling, Nik Cox and Kyle Langford. Hooker and McDonald-Tipungwuti retired, Hurley is still nowhere to be seen and at least one of Parish, Zach Merrett, Andrew McGrath and Dylan Shiel has been absent from most matches.

Since Essendon’s game was completely offensive and relied on getting the ball forward, tackling and scoring the scoreboard, these are incredibly important players to be absent.

In 2021 there was almost a shock value for Essendon. The data experts don’t abhor a word more than momentum, but the youthful exuberance of this group produced some rather illogical results, most notably a top eight finish.

The season was really about getting games in kids, as has been the case this season. The difference between the two is that the more experienced players performed exceptionally well last year. This year they have all taken a step backwards.

When you look at Essendon’s list, you realize that context is important and that competing was hardly an end goal.

Twitter user @SgtButane posted some numbers showing how inexperienced the Bombers are.

They averaged the second fewest games per player overall and of their 14 games they are the least experienced on each occasion with an average of 30 games.

In addition to a young list, they have gaps that still need to be filled.

Zach Reid is arguably the best of the three first-round picks in the 2020 draft and he is the most important long-term defender. He’s had some playing time this season but had to overcome some serious injuries and illness to get on the pitch and he’s going to need time.

The rest of the main defensive options are almost non-existent. Stewart has always been seen as a deep player, Laverde purely fulfills a role that is needed on an AFL pitch, while the younger Brandon Zerk-Thatcher doesn’t quite come up.

Realistically, they’re looking for a position with an opposition player via free agency or trade – a second-round pick for Jeremy McGovern certainly wouldn’t hurt them.

While Wright has had a breakout season, the lack of assistance on other goals has hurt. Harrison Jones and Kaine Baldwin have taken the spot as second heads and have been given too much defensive focus to handle – Rutten has tried to rectify that with the roster of two ruckmen on the team.

The overall numbers as a group were terrible, but after seeing the day the available names get better in quality. And while the immediate reaction to a loss to West Coast has been one of criticism, the offensive side of things has been picked up.

Since the bye, tackling has improved dramatically, the directness to send the ball to 50 has increased and the gaps have improved. They have shown a better ability to win a contentious ball and at least the ball protection has taken a step forward.

Unfortunately for the Bombers, there is no defensive quick fix for the sieve that their back is 50. They will remain substandard and ill-equipped to handle one-on-one matches.

Andrew McGrath and his Bombers teammates look dejected after losing to the Western Bulldogs.

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It’s up to midfield to tackle better in the defensive half – at the very least make sure the opponent relies on disputed markings.

In general, context is important when judging Essendon and it might be worth focusing on what excited fans, rather than trying to kick out a sophomore coach.

The recruitment of Nic Martin has been fantastic, Mason Redman has finally started to reach his potential and Wright is in excellent shape. The mid-season signings of Massimo D’Ambrosio and Jye Menzie simply add to the pool of young talent given time to develop at AFL level.

Let’s not forget Ben Hobbs or Archie Perkins’ midfield time.

If this were a team that finished in the bottom six last year we would see Essendon in a disappointing position, but we clearly commend the rapid development of so many players under the age of 25 who were, at the very top, least reliable contributors earlier in their career. career than most.

Given where the list is and the fact that the Bombers have a salary cap, it’s not hard to imagine that the timeline to being a true finalist would always be in 2023 or ’24.

They can chase a free agent, although throwing too much money at Daniel McStay would be a huge red flag while still having room to develop their youth.

A top pick in this upcoming draft could add elite midfielders George Wardlaw or Elijah Tsatas, or even key defender Jedd Busslinger and their defensive duo for the next decade.

It’s easy to kick a team when they’re down, criticize the coach and call for massive changes, as almost everyone in the media and AFL environment has done.

And while many Essendon fans will be discouraged, and a little outraged, context matters and supporting an extremely young group that wants to grow is an important step in fandom.

2022 was without a doubt an extremely disappointing season for Essendon Football Club, but the future still looks bright and there is plenty to be excited about.