On paper, few teams should be more exciting than the Bombers.
If football is a stylistic endeavour, then Essendon have some of its finest exponents.
From the attacking half back run of Adam Saad and Conor McKenna to the irrepressible Jake Stringer and Orazio Fantasia up forward, the Bombers’ 2020 list was rich with watchable gamebreakers across the ground.
That’s not to mention the sheer joy of watching Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti playing footy.
After a hot start, the Bombers might have misplaced their strike on the finals.
Injuries and availability have taken their toll. What could have been the continued rise of another team from the edge of finals to the elite of the league is now looking more like a case of just what could have been.
Most good teams often have a singular solid group at the core of their footballing identity. For West Coast, it is their dynamic forward line, for GWS, their star-studded midfield core winning hard ball.
For Essendon, this year’s hope was in their backline.
Led by former All Australian key position defenders in Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley, Essendon were positioned to soak up opposition attack after opposition attack, grinding sides into submission. With attacking options like Saad, McKenna and Andrew McGrath leading the counter, the Bombers were ideally positioned to turn the counterattack into points on the board.
Unfortunately, none of those things have eventuated.
Two years ago, the Bombers were in the top six for intercept marks per game. This year, the Bombers have slipped to the bottom four in the league.
Intercept marking is often key to setting up effective and measured rebounds — without clean ball when regaining possession, a cycle of chaos ensues.
Despite their reputation, the Bombers’ defence has been only middling in recent years — not top tier.
This year, opponents regularly hit the scoreboard when they get inside 50, with Essendon sitting 16th for points conceded per inside 50 entry. It’s a recipe for disaster when coupled with the fact they see more opposition entries than they create.
Balancing the right amount of attack and drive out of defence with actual defence is a constant challenge in modern footy.
This year the balance has fallen the wrong way, with Essendon regularly beaten in both contested and uncontested situations inside 50.
One reason for this is an interesting tactical choice.
While many teams routinely throw an extra number behind the ball, Essendon likes to run an extra (or multiple extras) at stoppages.
Often the spare will start at the defensive side of the contest, providing an outlet, or a defensive pressure valve, when the opposition get their hands on the ball first.
Kyle Langford, the sweeper at the stoppage, rushes through and ends up with the shot on goal.
When the extra number works, it looks good. But when it doesn’t, it can leave the defence exposed.
Despite extra numbers, the Bombers just break even at stoppages.
Even won clearances often look haphazard, with either over-handballing leading to a turnover or a rushed kick often the end result.
Without a solid tall target up forward for most of the year, rushed bombs into the 50 are possibly the worst outcome for a Bombers side whose forward line leans small. The Dons sit last in the league for contested marks per game, and finding players on leads or one-out is preferable to pack contests.
The Bombers have been one of the most handball-heavy sides in the competition, aiming to use hand and foot speed to break down opponents. On the defensive side, they have allowed teams to be able to use the ball by foot.
There’s no one right way to play the game.
Some good teams prefer a kick-mark possession-type game, others drill movement using waves of runners and forward pressure.
A variety of styles can win games, but it’s clear the style employed by the Dons right now isn’t working.
The redeeming features
Truth be told, some hot starts are destined to be extinguished early.
While the Bombers started the year five to two, four of those five wins came against sides in the bottom five on the ladder right now.
While the last few weeks have been hard to watch for Bomber fans, there are some building blocks for future years already there.
As already mentioned, McDonald-Tipungwuti is an awe-inspiring player, who opens up so much of the game. Over the past few years the Bombers have used Walla practically everywhere around the ground as a small utility type.
Up forward, he is particularly damaging considering his stature.
Moving into the future, Essendon may wish to use him in a more limited goal-square/centre-square role, maximising his opportunities to beat opponents one on one.
Jordan Ridley has been forced to do much of the heavy lifting down back this year, and started to fulfil his promise from his draft year. He has the ability to fill a defensive post going forward and may be a backline cornerstone for future years.
The Bombers midfield has the attacking ability to hurt other teams. Dylan Shiel, Dyson Heppell, Andrew McGrath, Darcy Parish and Zach Merrett are at worst a serviceable midfield rotation — and one that probably doesn’t need extra numbers around stoppages.
Moving that extra number to a more defensive position may allow for the Bombers to capitalise on their own clearances a bit more, and provide a better defence for when things go poorly.
The handover between John Worsfold and Ben Rutten will be important in that respect, as will how many ideas and staff carry over from this year.
The elephant in the room is the future of Joe Daniher, who is due to make a decision on his future at the end of the season. If he stays, the Bombers may be placed to try to top up with established older talent and make a big charge for finals next year.
If he leaves, all bets might be off.