Premiership Puzzle: Can The Dogs Find Their Missing Piece?
The Western Bulldogs entered season 2021 packaged similarly to the previous year’s edition, which glowed with optimism and hype.
Last season’s trade period additions of book-ends Alex Keath and Josh Bruce to a squad that rattled home the season prior was expected to perhaps vault the Dogs into the top-four and into premiership contention.
Instead, they were blown to pieces by Collingwood in round one and played catch-up all year. While they did squeak into the finals, they were quickly dispatched in the elimination phase for a second straight season.
This year, expectations were emboldened, with the club landing Adam Treloar and retaining Josh Dunkley, but also through the savvy pick-up of Stefan Martin. The recruitment of the former Lion provides Luke Beveridge and his coaching staff with an opportunity to re-imagine and re-deploy a potentially more impactful Tim English in 2021 and beyond.
And instead of wilting under the bright lights, the Dogs got the chocolates on Friday night against Collingwood, reversing last year’s result and fuelling dreams that the club can indeed be a part of the premiership conversation all season.
The Bulldogs’ dismantling of Collingwood was one of the biggest statements of the weekend, with their celebrated midfield shellacking the Pies, amassing an extra 151 touches while dialling up 19 more inside-50s en route their first win over the club since 2017.
The Dogs’ calling card throughout 2021, and any potential ticket to September glory, lies in what’s a ridiculously good midfield that’s not only deep, but multi-faceted.
While the likes of Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae and now Treloar headline this division, it’s worth noting that Bailey Smith stole the show on Friday night, joined by no less than eight other Bulldogs who collected at least 25 touches. Collingwood’s captain Scott Pendlebury was the only Magpie to top 25 on the night.
Meanwhile the Martin-English ruck combo caused a collective lump in the throat of opposition coaching panels, with the duo combining for 29 disposals and a couple of goals.
Yet despite the Dogs’ dominance, despite all the gushing over a midfield which hijacked the weekend from a statistical point of view, the club’s eventual and rather underwhelming 16-point victory felt rather hollow.
To muster just 10 goals from a massive 465 disposals and 59 inside-50s is a highly alarming figure for a club which has just about everything, save for an even moderately functioning forward line.
While credit must go to the likes of Collingwood defenders Darcy Moore and Jeremy Howe for stifling so many Bulldog forays forward, concern ought to be high within the Whitten Oval considering how much meat this club routinely leaves on the bone.
Against Collingwood, the Dogs produced a scoring shot for every 24.4 disposals, which was easily the round’s worst return, while their paltry 11 marks inside 50 was a number bettered by nine other teams over the weekend.
Simply put, Luke Beveridge desperately needs to find a new path to the waterfall. He and his team need to fashion a plan that better utilises Josh Bruce, and which puts Aaron Naughton in more dangerous situations.
Last year’s No.1 draft pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan will likely play a major role in solving the puzzle, with the precociously-talented teen booting five goals in the reserves.
But until the Bulldogs can find a way to marry their midfield mastery with a threatening attack, they’ll remain premiership pretenders.
While their sheer level of talent (particularly clustered in midfield) will win them plenty of games, and likely propel them to another September appearance, they won’t be able to compensate for their attacking deficiencies against better-prepared and more ruthless opponents come finals time.
If this Doggie dilemma isn’t solved soon, and considering the calibre of the squad that’s been assembled, this has the makings of one massively missed opportunity.
* This article first appeared on Rohan Connolly's FOOTYOLOGY website
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