Can Dylan Shiel Inspire the Bombers to Fly Up the Ladder?

There was a passage at the end of the first quarter of Essendon's strange, rousing win over Collingwood that highlighted everything right and wrong with Dylan Shiel.

From a centre bounce spillage, Shiel read and hit the tumbling ball faster than anyone else, gathering it at pace and accelerating powerfully into space. He then tried to handball to a teammate, missed him by five metres, and watched the ball drift into another contest. He dug in and powered to that next contest, gathered cleanly, and then boomed the ball in the direction of where it was supposed to have ended up 10 seconds earlier.

Shiel did all of this with his trademark style- and trademark lack of style. He looked impossibly smooth with the ball until the moment he had to give it to someone else.

It's his movement that's always made Shiel so persuasive. 

He runs like a compacted Cristiano Ronaldo, always impressively upright and balanced, with a centre of gravity that’s somehow both very low to the ground, but also centred at collarbone height.

His acceleration is special. He's always had the searing burst to get outside, exploding from stoppages into space with pattering feet and kicking long. 

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At Essendon, his explosive energy has shifted a little more to the inside. He still bursts into space, but now the acceleration is quicker. He moves powerfully in congestion, creating inches instead of metres to win the ball and find the split seconds to freely get rid of it.

He's almost immovable off his spot at stoppages, mastering the quick push-off just before the ball is about to be tapped to create room to attack its drop. It's this balance and strength in close that makes Shiel more impactful than any of his glorious running into space.

And Collingwood simply couldn’t handle it last Friday night. 

Shiel dominating clearances, inside 50s, score involvements, and gained 120 metres more than any player on the ground.

There is always however the Dylan Shiel caveat - how damaging, really, are his touches? 

One of his defining games was last year against the same opposition, on Anzac Day, when he had 34 disposals, 9 inside 50s, 7 clearances, 7 tackles and gained almost 200 metres more than any other player on the field. Yet the Bombers lost, and in some eyes, Shiel’s game was actually interpreted as a negative for his team. He butchered the ball that day, with a series of painful skill errors which burned into the memories of Essendon fans.

The error-ridden performance was made worse by running parallel to Scott Pendlebury

The Collingwood legend had one of his signature performances last Anzac day, starring with 38 touches, many of which were exquisite. 

Everything was rushed that day for Shiel, while everything, as it always does with Pendlebury, developed in half-speed. Shiel made instantaneous decisions, kicking to the first thing he saw while Pendlebury, if he wanted to, kicked to the sixth or seventh thing he saw. Shiel shanked kicks or delivered them to opponents he never saw, while Pendlebury saw everything and placed the ball exactly where it needed to go.

Their match-up last Friday night was not nearly so stark. 

Shiel was Essendon’s best and most influential midfielder on the ground. Pendlebury still had more composure and more class - that's never going to change - but Shiel's quick-twitch power in close, and fury around the ball, was more devastating on the night. 

Shiel also benefited from his lack of imagination. 

On Anzac Day he tried to do it all - overly ambitious in attempting to pinpoint passes. On Friday, he handballed and kicked straight and long, playing with impressive modesty.

Shiel's ball use will always prevent him from being an upper echelon superstar. 

Sometimes his handballs are excellent - like the quick-release under pressure that set up Essendon's first goal of the third quarter - but often they miss the mark. His measured kicks, even when they hit targets, often halt momentum, rarely placed to ultimate advantage.

But he's still a dominant player, and was the main reason behind Essendon overwhelming the then-premiership favourite. 

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The Bombers right now are trapped in an uncomfortable zone of respectable inertia, with much of the core already at its peak age- yet no proper challenge seemingly on the horizon. 

The list is littered with fine players, yet few game-breakers, and beyond a resolute defence, there’s little in the way of a brand or a clearly discernible style at this point.

They play hard, though, and that hardness broke an uneven Collingwood best summed up by the game's first play - Jordan De Goey breaking clear into space from the centre bounce, feeling comfortable and having plenty of time, then taking an inexplicable bounce and getting tackled, giving away a free kick.

All night Collingwood played dry football in the wet, over-handballing and playing beautiful games of triangles that went no further than the initial triangle.

Isolated fumbles and poor decisions were punished by a switched-on Essendon that capitalised on its chances. 

More than anything though, the Pies were overwhelmed in close, with Shiel fittingly the main protagonist in a game where hardness indeed, this time, trumped elegance.

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Jay Croucher

Based in Denver, Colorado, Jay splits time between worshiping Nikola Jokic and waking up at 3am to hazily watch AFL games. He has been writing about AFL, NBA and other US sports since 2014, and has suckered himself into thinking Port Adelaide was the real deal each year since.

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