Can The Wounded Magpies Save Their Season?

When Angus Brayshaw boomed a goal from outside 50 in the first quarter, and followed up with an abbreviated golf swing as his celebration, it became clear that it was going to be one of those days for Collingwood.

Everything has been hard for the Magpies the past month, but, for the most part, hard for their opponents too. 

Something had to give, and the dam finally broke the wrong way for Collingwood on the weekend, with everything coming easily for the Demons.

Outside of the loss to West Coast a few weeks ago, where Collingwood put the cue in the rack in the third quarter, no team had scored more than 66 points against the Pies since Richmond did in round 19 last year. Melbourne put up 100 on them, with the most miserly defence in the league totally absent. 

For all their big midfield names, Collingwood's greatest strength the past year has been the connectivity and toughness of its back six. 

That disappeared against the Demons, with Melbourne repeatedly finding space behind a disjointed and unrecognisable Magpie defence. The drop in quality from Jeremy Howe and Jordan Roughead to Lynden Dunn and Jack Madgen is significant, and was felt on the weekend. Sam Weideman and Tom McDonald controlled the air while Jake Melksham and Charlie Sparko poached easy goals at ground level, channeling Gonzalo Higuain

On Queen's Birthday last year, these teams played out a bizarre game and one that felt seminal for Melbourne. 

The Dees annihilated Collingwood in contested ball (+27) and clearances (+17) and won the territory battle, but somehow conspired to lose the match by 41 points. Melbourne played like headless chickens that day, playing much too fast while at the same time overthinking everything. They smashed the ball high and long to no one, and comical skill errors and turnovers were a disease. Collingwood just stood back and waited for Melbourne to implode, and then used the ball quickly and cleanly on the counter, walking into the simplest of goals. 

The roles reversed on the weekend, with Collingwood edging Melbourne in contested ball, clearances and territory, while getting destroyed on the counter and on the scoreboard. 

The Demons kicked goals from 40% of their inside-50 entries (the league average is 23%). Collingwood kicked goals from just 14.6% of their entries, a crippling inefficiency that has become a defining issue for the Pies dating back to the middle of last year.

Off a four-day break, playing their fourth game in 14 days, and missing key players, Collingwood had nothing against the Demons. They had no run and no structure and sneaking problems became loud disasters.

Collingwood have broken 100 points twice in their past 27 games, and not once in their past 15. 

The powerful counter-attacking offence of 2018 and early 2019 is gone, and now everything for Collingwood is difficult. Their games, even their wins, are dissertations on struggle. Everything is hard and tough and slow, and goals seem miraculous, chances to finally breathe. 

Much of this has been inflicted on Collingwood by injuries.

Everything is less of a struggle when Jordan De Goey is kicking five goals out of the goal square

There's been no continuity. Of Collingwood's six best players (Scott Pendlebury, Adam Treloar, Jeremy Howe, Steele Sidebottom, De Goey and Brodie Grundy), only Grundy hasn't missed 4+ games this season.

The forward line, which has long been a nagging issue, finally became completely unbearable on the weekend. 

Brody Mihocek and Ben Reid going down exacerbated the problem to something untenable- but even before then the attack was impotent. The Pies are at their attacking best when the forward line is small and quick, with pressure around the ball generating turnovers and calm but rapid ball movement finding smalls inside-50 with space to dart into. The best that this iteration of Collingwood has looked going forward has been with De Goey as the 'tall', Jaidyn Stephenson, Will Hoskin-Elliott and Josh Thomas leaking into paddocks, and Mihocek as the secondary marking target. Playing Reid, Mihocek and Darcy Cameronall in the same team made Collingwood far too tall and immobile in attack.

If De Goey doesn't come back, it's hard to see Collingwood's avenue to kicking winning scores against the best teams. His season is not lost, though, and neither is Howe or Treloar's

In a year where finishing seventh or eighth is probably less of a death sentence than it’s ever been, Collingwood just needs to get into the dance, and give their stars a chance to come back.

Somewhere in this team, who's suddenly on the precipice of a catastrophe, there is a premiership run. 

When whole, the talent and grit is premiership-calibre. Only a month ago, the Pies devoured a Geelong team that now looks like a juggernaut. In early season demolitions of the Bulldogs and St. Kilda the offence was there, with manic pressure and tackling weaponised by searing pace and clean, decisive ball use. 

The pace and decisiveness is gone now, having disappeared somewhere towards the end of the first quarter against West Coast. 

Mid-way through that first quarter, when the Pies were handling the Eagles, playing sumptuous football and edging to a 20-point lead, they were the best team in the competition. That game quickly fell off a cliff, and the three games that followed were dour struggles, before finally the Melbourne demolition.

Chaos around availability, continuity and rest seemed to crest in the Melbourne game, with Collingwood playing like a wounded, unfamiliar team limping to bed to finally get some sleep. 

Against lowly North Melbourne, after a nine-day break, they will need to wake up a new team again to save their season.

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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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