Melbourne's Best Brownlow Prospect Mightn't Be Who You Think

The Brownlow Medal is an award for the midfielders, and two of this season's strongest premiership contenders have multiple players in contention.

Over the past 3 Brownlow counts, 6 clubs have been represented twice in the top-10, with Melbourne in 2018 and Geelong in 2019 even celebrating having two players in the top-5. 

Traditionally, it's been difficult for players to win the Brownlow while competing with their teammates, however in a season where Sam Walsh is the only player in the competition who's head-and-shoulders above his teammates, we really could be in for something new. 

So far, plenty of justifiable attention has been lavished upon Melbourne's Brownlow favourite Christian Petracca, owing to his standout nature as an explosive, offensive juggernaut from the midfield.

Petracca finished equal-third in last year's count dialling up 20 votes, while he may indeed be best placed to go a couple of steps further this season.

Yet his biggest competition might actually come from within his own club, with teammate Clayton Oliver putting together the kind of campaign which looks eerily similar to that of Brownlow medal winners of the recent past. 

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Through Melbourne's blistering 8-0 start, Oliver's averaged 31.9 disposals, 5.2 tackles, 5.2 inside-50s, 6.9 clearances and 7.2 score involvements a game in addition to 411.9 metres gained each match.

After eight rounds, the 23-year-old is ranked #1 in the competition for contested possessions and stoppage clearances, 3rd for total disposals and 7th for effective disposals.

Jackson Macrae, one of two Bulldogs firmly eyeing off the club's first Brownlow in 13 years is performing to a similar, elite level with the only small difference being Macrae's ability to generate uncontested football, with the premiership winning, 2-time All-Australian ranked first in this stat, as opposed to Oliver's rank of 54.  

And while Oliver and Macrae are the driving midfield force anchoring exceptional seasons for their respective clubs, the pair have combined for just 4 goals on the season which many are indicating is a strong reason why the likes of Petracca, Marcus Bontempelli and Dustin Martin are better positioned to take home 'Charlie' in late September.

Yet what's perhaps not entirely understood is that goals haven't been a defining factor is crowning Brownlow medal winners in recent times, while we haven't had a player since Dustin Martin in 2017 win averaging more than a goal a game. 

In fact, only 3 of the last 12 Brownlow winners (Dane Swan in 2011, Gary Ablett Jnr in 2013 and Martin in 2017) have kicked over a goal a game during their signature seasons.

Indeed, Oliver has transformed his game in a similar fashion to both Tom Mitchell in 2018 and Lachie Neale in 2020, adding extra strings to his exceptional work ethic that are perhaps eye-catching enough to not necessarily be complimented by scoreboard impact. 

When Mitchell won his 2018 Brownlow medal his total scoring shots per game actually dropped from 1 to 0.8, yet his metres gained per match sky-rocketed from 308 to 436

And it was a similar story with Lachie Neal last season, with the Lion's goal tally jumping modestly from 12 to 14, yet what was much more striking was his metres gained per match surge which exploded from 317to 371 in his Brownlow year. 

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Which brings us back to Oliver whose goals per game are at a career-low, yet has jumped from 311 to 412 metres gained per match, which represents a massive 32% jump. 

And while Oliver has added a much more expansive, penetrative aspect to his game this season, much like Mitchell and Neale successfully did in their Brownlow seasons, Oliver's also incorporated a more pronounced defensive component to his game as well, the likes of which might have more of an impact on Brownlow night than goals. 

In 2021, the former #4 overall pick has upped his rebound-50's to 2.6 per game which is a truly elite number for such an industrious, prolific ball winner. 

In their Brownlow seasons, Mitchell and Neale averaged 2.1 and 1.5 respectively. 

In fact, since rebound-50s were recorded as a statistic in 1998, only Dustin Martin in 2017 and Nat Fyfe in 2019 have managed to win a Brownlow while averaging less than 1.2 rebounds per game.

The significance of rebound 50s as a metric relates directly to the work ethic of the players, as well as their ability to offer an outlet in defensive stoppages or as a free man to take marks.

Clearly, the umpires notice the explosive, contested players who are able to push back and help out.

The strength in the Mitchell and Neale successes were their ability to be league leaders in disposals and clearances, while still accumulating enough of the ball in an uncontested manner and sending it forward.

Oliver’s career highs in rebounds and metres gained have resulted in a career-high total for inside 50s himself, even with Petracca ranked first in the competition alongside him.

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What separates the best players is their all-round ability to have an impact for their team, and as things stand, Oliver is standing out more than the fan-favourite he plays with.

Overall, the statistics tend to show that Clayton Oliver has taken strides forward in his game that have been vote-friendly in the past and are entirely comparable with recent winners.

Melbourne’s best Brownlow hopes may sit with Oliver and not the current betting favourite, while we should expect to hear his name read out plenty of times on footy's night of nights. 

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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