Carlton Is Fighting (And Beating) The Winter Blues
If you want an insight into how truly bizarre this season has been, look no further than Carlton suddenly emerging as a legitimate Finals contender.
Yes, the same Blues whose cauldron has been bubbling furiously all year, constantly on the point of combustion, and the same Blues who’ve likely thought long and hard about kidnapping Alastair Clarkson and chaining him up within a dungeon at Princes Park.
While Carlton has spent just one week in the top-8 this season, and just two over the last 7 years, the smallest of windows has opened in 2021 thanks to their exceptional come-from-behind win against Collingwood on Sunday, coupled with a slew of other results falling their way in Round 17.
With five games to play the Stats Insider futures model has them as an 18.3% chance of booking a September place, and while that projection mightn’t cause wooziness, that number sat at just 10% last week.
Most importantly, Carlton couldn’t ask for a more generous run home with 4 of their final 5 games scheduled against teams not currently in a finals spot, and which should be of some relief to a team that's gone just 1-7 against the top-8 this year.
Now ordinarily we wouldn’t be talking about a team in 13th spot and one whom harbours the league’s 4th-worst defence as a team worthy of a place in September, yet there’s been nothing at all normal about this season, and should the Blues win 4 of their last 5 games a return ticket to the Finals for the first time since 2013 could well be theirs.
And when we look at how Carlton have got themselves back into the hunt it primarily boils down to their top-heavy list stepping up massively all season, particularly in the form of Sam Walsh, Jacob Weitering and Harry McKay.
In Walsh we’re talking about a player who in 2021 has leaped the invisible protective barrier separating himself from the league’s very best midfielders, seamlessly joining the likes of Marcus Bontempelli and Christian Petracca as the game's very best.
Walsh’s 25.4 possessions per game over his career are the most in Carlton history for anyone who’s played at least 50 games, while he’s the only player in the league this season averaging at least 30 touches and 6 marks per game speaking not only to his prolific ball-winning ability, but his furiously hard running as well.
As for Weitering, there hasn’t been a more consistently excellent key defender in the game this season. The 95 one-on-one contests he’s attended are the league’s best figure, while he’s lost a minuscule 22.1%of those duels. His 8.2 spoils per game rank 2nd in the league (behind St Kilda's Dougal Howard) and represent a big jump on the 6.3 he posted last year and which contributed to him making the provisional 40-man All-Australian squad.
And then there’s Harry McKay who’s a short-priced favourite to become the youngest Coleman Medal winner since a 21-year old Jack Riewoldt won in 2010. While McKay’s 52 goals are exhibit A when assessing his impact, it’s his absolute command inside-50, and at such a young age, which is sending a shiver through the league. McKay’s the only player in the AFL ranked top-3 for both contested marks and marks inside 50, and which has resulted in a massive 91 shots on goal. He's also seen his goal conversion jump from a frustrating 42.9% last season up to an outstanding 57.1% this year.
If Carlton are to grab an improbable Finals spot it’ll unquestionably have been due to the profound contributions of this trio of superstars, yet to stay in the race the Blues must hold their nerve and quit digging holes for themselves early on in games.
In 6 of their last 7 matches Carlton have found themselves down at quarter time and remain the league’s equal-worst team when it comes to first-quarter performance. They’ve won just 5 of their 17 opening stanzas this season and have not once kicked more than 30 points.
Clearly, getting behind the eight-ball so early isn’t ideal for a club with such little margin for error, though with that said there’s an equally strong argument that the Blues have benefitted from being able to toss aside a game-plan that’s clearly not working for them. Instead, it's as though Carlton have at times employed a kind of AFL improv which caters more to talent expression and less to what’s going on up in the coaches box.
Yet now isn’t the time for yet another referendum upon David Teague’s capacity to do his job, but rather these next five weeks are a chance for him and his club to create history.
The last team to be in 13th place on the ladder after 18 rounds and still make finals was…… nobody. It’s literally never been done in the AFL era, a fact which ought to speak loudly to a club who’ve had so little to celebrate in recent years.
Somehow, someway, this warped season has smiled its toothless grin upon the Blues and extended a grizzly hand for them to take.
The question is, are the Blues brave enough to grasp it?
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