How The Bulldogs Can Mend A Broken Heart
It all happened so quickly.
In less time than it takes to prepare a charcuterie board, the Demons walloped the Bulldogs into their post-season slumber in a way we’ve rarely seen on the biggest stage.
Bulldogs’ fans would be bitterly disappointed, as would the team, although the avalanche that proved fatal in 2021 came so swiftly that the acceptance faze passed quickly.
A terrible Grand Final result tends to lead teams in one of two directions, but the club’s stakeholders should hardly fear an Adelaide-style drop-off.
While it’s true that the Bulldogs’ team was one of the oldest Grand Finalists since 2015, the group’s core will be together for at least the next five seasons.
To fix the team, we simply mustn’t ignore the brilliant aspects of the club’s 2021 season.
After 20 rounds of the home-and-away season, the club was sitting atop the AFL ladder. Even after an horrific end to the season, forcing them to go the long way to reach the Grand Final, the team scratched and clawed their way through. Their preliminary final triumph was one of the Bulldogs’ best wins since the 2016 premiership.
The Bulldogs were the second-best offensive unit in the league, had the best stoppage clearance differential of any club, ranked third for score from opposition turnovers and first for scores per inside 50, while sitting second for marks inside 50 and fourth for tackles inside 50.
This is a team that conceded the second-fewest inside 50s per game, the third-fewest clearances and fourth-fewest metres gained.
Marcus Bontempelli finished second in the Brownlow Medal, Jack Macrae broke the disposals record, Josh Brucewas equal fourth in the Coleman Medal, Bailey Dale became an All-Australian half-back, Tom Liberatore was the competition’s clearance king and 21-year-old Aaron Naughton led the league for contested marks.
Clearly though, defensive integrity had been an issue on paper and ultimately, in reality when it counted.
All season, it felt as though the Bulldogs were just getting by defensively, the numbers proving that a mountain of work up the ground masked issues.
The midfield gained ascendancy in most situations and the overwhelming numbers coupled with the quality of run and guarding of space meant that the Bulldogs were able to defend a much higher line.
In terms of the actual defensive 50 setup at the ‘Dogs, work needs to be done.
Alex Keath was the defensive focal point, a new role for the 29-year-old and the Bulldogs only exposed him to 2.8 one-on-ones a game. His loss percentage of 20.8 was quite good, but clearly, he is more suited to a secondary role.
It was extremely strange that when push came to shove, Beveridge opted to go against the selection of Ryan Gardner, who was actually one of the competition’s best one-on-one key defenders, losing just 17.4% of his contests.
Zaine Cordy was a hard worker and the busiest of the key defenders at the Bulldogs, yet at times his slighter frame made it difficult to fully trust him to cover the beasts, even though he defended more one-on-ones than the other two.
It isn’t like the Bulldogs were strong aerially either, ranked 11th for intercepts. In fact, the team was one of the worst against mid-sized forwards, conceding multiple goals for most of the season and of course, 6 to Bayley Fritsch on Saturday.
Easton Wood was largely average and his heart and willingness to do anything for his team didn’t quite result in the ability to effectively close down the speedier types. The rest of the defensive makeup was trying to squeeze naturally offensive-minded players into important roles.
Bailey Williams is a penetrating user by foot but was manning Tom McDonald for large parts of the Grand Final. For his entire career, the Bulldogs have tried to avoid exposing Williams defensively, but that was thrown out the window.
Similarly, Taylor Duryea rightly earned universal praise for his work late against Charlie Cameron in the semi-final win against Brisbane, however he is a below average defender who has always been more of a neat user.
Of course, Bailey Dale and Caleb Daniel are elite rebounders and instigators behind plenty of attacking output.
Throughout the season, the Bulldogs tried Josh Schache in defence which offered them a nice intercepting option for a couple of weeks, something they are lacking in.
However, when the Demons got a 100-7 run on in the final 45 minutes of the Grand Final, the concerns around the Bulldogs came to fruition in a very real way that must be learned from.
If the midfield falls apart and they do not adopt a defensive wingman or a sweeper at the back of the stoppage, then the defence has to defend.
As simple as it sounds, that’s exactly what the Bulldogs don’t want to expose their defenders to very often.
So again, we ask, how does a club mend a broken heart?
Usually, a common adage is that aberrational performances like these should be ignored.
One would suspect, though, that an elite coach like Beveridge will analyse and dissect the final quarter and a half, leaving no stone unturned to fix the problems that caused such pain.
At their best, the Bulldogs are an offensive juggernaut and have Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Sam Darcy waiting in the wings in 2022.
Something must change defensively though, whether it’s by bringing in personnel, or reshaping.
It’s unlikely a quality key defender can join the club, but it’s almost more important to cover the intercepting game and the mid-sized defence.
By bolstering these two types of players, there would be an added layer of protection in defence that wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on the midfield’s defensive work.
Given the points needed to get Darcy, the team may need to look within.
Hayden Crozier and Buku Khamis can be regulars to cover the air and a shrewd move from state leagues as St Kilda did with Callum Wilkie may be needed in the preseason.
A left-field tactic that should be heavily considered is Tim English spending more time behind the ball, with his contested marking and reading of the play excellently suited to help the defence.
This is a Bulldogs team that will be learning how to cope with pain throughout the off-season, as many others have had to endure.
The immediacy of the result hurts, but the brightness of the future remains untouched.
If the attitude is all about learning and improving, then the obvious remedy for a broken heart is a very real possibility – the 2022 premiership cup.
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