Does Fremantle Have The Best Young Midfield In The AFL?
The Derby wasn’t only a changing of the guard in Western Australian football, but a reminder that the Fremantle Dockers possess the best young midfield in the AFL.
A scintillating start was exciting, but the gritty determination and ability to wrestle back momentum in the final quarter was the sort of thing a supporter base loves to see.
Fremantle have been decimated by injury throughout the season, predominately defensively, though picture a world where West Coast operate with a near full-strength midfield in a do-or-die clash for both sides, while the Dockers miss Nat Fyfe, Andrew Brayshaw and Michael Walters.
Now, imagine them winning.
The truth of the matter is that no young midfield group in the competition matches that dynamism and variance of the Dockers.
Andrew Brayshaw will captain the club in the near future, we know of Sean Darcy’s superman-like exploits, Adam Cerra is still a Docker as thing stand and the classiest young player in the competition, while Caleb Serong is fresh off winning his first Glendinning-Allan medal, after winning the Rising Star award in 2020.
David Mundy seemingly has another decade of footy left in him.
Each part of Fremantle’s midfield provides something different.
In Brayshaw, the Dockers have a player with the innate quality to lead by example, encouraging his side to be up for the fight. In a true breakout season, the 22-year-old is averaging 28.4 disposals, 5.2 marks, 4.6 tackles and 6 score involvements, using the ball at an elite 77.4% disposal efficiency.
Brayshaw is ranked in the top 10 for uncontested possessions and effective disposals across the entire league, thriving just outside the contest offensively with his ability to run and spread, while his defensive determination is inspiring.
In his second season, Caleb Serong has already become a key member of the midfield group yet flies under the radar for his hard work despite already receiving two major awards.
He isn’t the cleanest by foot, but that’s not his role in the team. Serong is ranked fourth at the club for clearances, behind Fyfe, Mundy and Darcy, but averages 4.6 per game to go along with his impressive 5.1 score involvements and 22.3 disposals per game.
The 20-year-old has had below 18 disposals just once in 2021 and finished the Derby with 31 disposals, 6 clearances, 5 tackles, 2 goals and a goal assist. Clearly, he is developing into the team’s chief clearance player due to his fantastic ability in close, using his body in stoppages to protect the ball, and his great understanding of space. Despite his stature, don’t be shocked to see his forward craft become more evident as time goes on.
Adam Cerra is well-known and his future is up in the air, but he is such a perfect fit in this incredibly impressive young group for his inside-outside mix, the class he provides and his unmatched versatility at the club.
It’s a natural byproduct of public contract negotiations and player movement that many become immediately dismissive of a player’s talents, particularly when dollar figures are involved, but Cerra has the potential to be a top-five midfielder in the competition. He’s averaging 23.1 disposals, 5.2 marks and 5 inside 50s a game this season, with 5 goals and 10 behinds to go with his 15 goals assists.
Offensively, Cerra is as smooth as they come and has a lot of time on his hands to do what he pleases – he’s third at the club for metres gained, first for inside 50s, first for goal assists and second for uncontested possessions. Some say he’s Pendlebury-like, there’s also a bit of Nigel Lappin in output and potential.
Sean Darcy has already staked a claim to being the competition’s best ruckman in an extraordinary breakout season. With his movement away from the contest and ability to act as an extra midfield with both his spread and contested work has inevitably freed up space for his much-heralded counterparts to build the reputations they have carved out for themselves.
Of course, the influence of Mundy and Fyfe cannot be underestimated, both on the field and off-field. Both players are ranked in the top 15 in the league for score involvements and top 20 for clearances and contested possessions per game, with their midfield work acting as a shield of sorts for true breakout seasons to be experienced- without the overwhelming exposure of opposition attention.
This sort of mix that has allowed veterans and youth to play side-by-side and has put Fremantle in an unlikely position of potentially making the top eight, if things go very well, despite missing key players for large portions of the season.
As a whole, they’re a middling club in clearance situations and don’t get enough of the ball, let alone enough of it inside 50 to have a truly impactful offensive game as yet. These things are teachable and tend to be done when the players are comfortable in their roles.
What the Dockers do have going for them however, is a clear connection between midfield and attack, a delightful rotation and creation of space that allows the club to have the second best percentage of goal assists-to-goals, with 74.23% of their goals coming directly from an assist.
Only North Melbourne has a better percentage, largely due to the switch in their game-plan that has them pushing through the corridor. Indeed, it appears these are the two teams that are reliant on their young midfield core at an early stage in their careers, to lead them into the future.
The defensive-mindedness and contested style of Nathan O’Driscoll will surely partner well with Serong and let Brayshaw to continue to run loose, while Luke Valente was drafted with plenty of talent, all things being equal, he’d be an excellent contributor.
Hayden Young may become the best half-back in the competition soon, but his ball use as an outside midfielder would be tempting to use.
With most of their core midfield under 23 years of age, it’s certainly an exciting time to be a Dockers supporter.
There’s enough depth and versatility in this squad to cover absences, whether they be temporary or permanent, and the rotational ability across this well-grounded group has Fremantle at the top of the midfield charts heading into the future.
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