‘Under New Management’: The Bombers Are Still Lacking An Identity

In the sixth and final instalment of our 'Under New Management' series, we’re looking at a club who kind-of-sort-of meets the criteria: the Essendon Bombers.

Essendon are still coached by John Worsfold this season, but there’s no doubting the fact that Ben Rutten – who will take over as senior coach next year – has at least one hand on the reins.

As always, we’ll break down the stats over five key areas: how well they’re winning the ball, moving the ball, scoring, defending, and the demographics of the sides they’re putting on the field.

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Essendon have moved up the order in terms of their ability to win the ball in 2020. They’ve gone from the 12th-ranked clearance differential team in 2019 to seventh.

The Dons are averaging +2.23 clearances compared to their opponents this year, which are by no means world beating numbers, but an improvement on 2019 when they generally broke even.

Their ground ball gets differential has come in a little bit but remains in deficit. It was -2.43 versus their opposition in 2019 (13th), and now it’s -1.69 (11th).

Overall, their pressure numbers haven’t seen a significant change. They were ranked 10th for pressure acts per minute of opposition possession last year and so far in 2020 are 12th, dropping from 5.86 to 5.68.

Their tackles per minute of opposition percentage has stayed incredibly stable – 1.21 in 2019, 1.20 in 2020. Nothing to write home about there.

Overall, they’re forcing their opponents to cough up the ball every 44.16 seconds on average – which isn’t great, seeing them ranked 14th overall in the competition.

This is a decline from 2019, when they were ranked 11th with 42.81.

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In addition to announcing a succession plan for Rutten at the end of 2019, the Bombers also brought Blake Caracella across from Richmond as a ball movement specialist, and one could argue the numbers are showing the benefits of that.

After retaining the ball for only 39.91 seconds on average last year (ranked 15th), the Dons now keep possession for 41.80 seconds (10th). The job is by no means done, but they’ve taken a step forward.

Slowing their ball movement down has no doubt been part of this. In 2019 they were ranked second in the competition for metres gained per minute- in 2020 they’ve slid back to seventh.

Also notable is that they are 2020’s No.1 team for uncontested-to-contested possession ratio, averaging 1.63 to 1 during the season.

The end result is that Essendon have seen some improvement in their ability to get the ball inside-50, albeit with it still not being a strength.

They were 15th for inside-50 differential last year averaging -4.57 compared to their opponents. In 2020 they’re 12th, averaging -3.38.

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Putting points on the board has been a problem for Essendon in 2020. Their points scored per minute of possession has declined from 1.57 (11th) in 2019 to 1.42 (13th).

Their slower and more deliberate ball movement is likely a part of this – while they’re retaining possession for longer, it’s also taking them more time to move the ball forward.

When they do get it forward however, they’re generating better shots on goal. They’re going at 50% accuracy this year versus 46% in 2019, and recording a higher average expected score from their shots.

They are seventh in the league for goals from inside-50s this year at 21.51%, a solid effort given their two main targets in Joe Daniher and Jake Stringer have both missed most of the season.

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The Bombers’ defensive numbers in 2020 are broadly similar to what we saw from them in 2019. 

They’re conceding 1.58 points per minute of opposition percentage, though in a more defensive season this has seen them drop from 11th to 16thin this stat.

Opposition forwards are finding it a little easier to convert opportunities against the Bombers than they did last year – scoring goals from 21.7% of inside-50 entries (11th) and 47%of shots on goal (8th).

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Essendon’s 22s have been a little younger and less experienced in 2020 than they were last year.

In 2020, their side has been 25.3 years old on average, which sees them ranked 12th after coming in at 8th in 2019.

As for experience, they’re fielding an average of 1789 games per week, about 110 less than last year which has seen them drop from 11th to 13th.

The club has dealt with more than its fair share of injuries during the season, so they probably haven’t been able to put out as experienced a team as they’d like to from week to week.

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Two things in particular strike me about these numbers.

The first is that, broadly speaking, they haven’t changed much. We can see some improvements in ball movement, but they are more of a shuffle forwards than a significant stride.

The second is that it’s really hard to identify Essendon’s strengths. There aren’t many areas of the game where they’re anything other than mediocre.

Put together, these two observations suggest whatever impact Ben Rutten intends to have on this team, it hasn’t happened yet.

And, fair enough. The transition to his leadership is only partially complete, so it’s understandable that the Bombers have been a bit half-pregnant in 2020.

Add to that the difficulties of navigating one of the competition’s more damaging injury lists – not to mention a pandemic – and there’s a good argument for cutting Essendon a little slack.

But the Bombers are a side that could desperately use some character, or, if I dare to make use of such a buzzword, a ‘brand’.

We’ve seen when discussing sides like Fremantle last week for example that, even if they’re not among this year’s finals challengers, they have identifiable strengths that supporters can celebrate.

Fast-paced play has been a feature of Essendon’s football in recent years, but it isn’t really clear right now if that’s still what they’re trying to execute.

Another thorn in Ben Rutten’s side is uncertainty around the future of the list. Daniher, Orazio Fantasia and Conor McKenna have all been the subject of speculation.

Season 2021 is when Rutten’s tenure will start in earnest, and we’ll find out whether he can move the needle and help Essendon forge the kind of identity they’re currently lacking.

*Note: the statistics included in this article are calculated as per the end of Round 14.

Note: The stats on points from stoppages/possessions used in this article are recorded as they were published after each game in the Herald Sun.

For a small number of matches these stats were never published, and there is also known to be a small number of typographical errors in the original source data.

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Josh Elliott

Josh Elliott is an RMIT Data Science student and rusted-on North Melbourne fan who believes that a well-jittered scatter plot is the height of humanity's artistic achievement. He does not enjoy pie charts or donut charts but he does enjoy eating pies and eating donuts. Follow him on Twitter @JoshElliott_29

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