Why Your Club Might Not Win The 2021 Premiership
This year’s four preliminary finalists are here for a damn good reason and which largely boils down to the fact they’re all exceptionally good at football.
Only the very best would be able to navigate yet another season of utter mayhem and distraction, which in Geelong and Port Adelaide’s case is the second straight year of staring directly into the eyes of Covid’s wickedness and refusing to let it get in the way of a premiership bid.
While all four flag aspirants are agonisingly close to getting their mitts on footy’s holiest grail, there’s still eight quarters of intense football to be played before they’ll have the chance to hoist the premiership cup into the Covid-free night sky of Perth.
Let’s check in on some of the potential banana skins that could still get in the way of glory.
While the Demons did require an after-the-siren Max Gawn goal to secure their first minor premiership in 57 years, there’s little doubt the honour was richly deserved. The best defence in football, five All-Australians, two of the league’s five Brownlow Medal favourites and just the third team in the last decade to go undefeated against the top-4 in the home and away season.
The Demons are premiership favourites for a good reason, though their path to what’d be a famous drought breaking flag is still littered with broken glass.
Throughout the regular season Melbourne sported the league’s 5th best attack and ranked just 12th for converting inside-50s into goals. While sure, the last 5-straight champions have won it all without requiring a top-4 attack, Melbourne’s forward line still contains a lot of moving parts.
While it wasn’t a problem against Brisbane in their Qualifying Final, kicking 93 points and registering a final’s high 28 scoring shots, those numbers were helped along by a massive +22 contested possession edge, as well as an extra 23 inside 50s which was Melbourne’s second best return of the season.
The Demons are the kind of team who requires a strong edge in this realm with an attack that’s not yet good enough to compensate when their midfield isn’t pulverising opponents. While they only lost 4 games all season, all 4 losses arrived when they failed to crack 56 inside-50s whereas they were unbeaten in the 9 matches they did surpass that number.
Interestingly, of the the three other teams still in contention, Geelong, the Bulldogs and Port ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd where preventing inside-50s were concerned, suggesting that if Melbourne is to break their famous drought, they’ll most certainly need to come out of their shell up forward.
While it mightn’t always make for a comfortable living arrangement, the fact is Geelong perpetually resides in September, qualifying for 16 of the last 18 Finals series and making it to at least a preliminary final in 11 of the last 15 seasons.
Geelong produced another largely excellent home and away season, however it unravelled late and had lost 3 of 4 before they brushed aside the Giants on Friday night in Perth.
Winning another two games and lifting their first premiership cup in 10 years however remains a massive task, and largely because of the absence of perhaps their most important player, Tom Stewart.
The 3-time All-Australian has been fundamental to a brilliant Geelong defence that conceded just 13 points more than Melbourne in the home and away season, but it’s his contribution to the team going forward which remains underestimated.
Stewart’s is a key cog within the poised, deliberate game the Cats prefer to employ, and without him the club has had to adjust mightily. And it’s here where Melbourne, a team custom-built to disrupt the likes of Geelong, comes roaring into the equation.
The Demons beat Geelong in both their encounters this season, with the Cats only able to muster a +24.5 uncontested possession edge over their two bouts, down sharply on the league-best +42.8 it managed on the season.
Geelong love to play the game on their terms, however Melbourne’s tenacity makes for a big problem, and whom are able to deal spectacularly well when the opposition is able to make ground. The Demons led the league with a +9.7 intercept disposal differential, while Geelong will also need to work out how to generate scoreboard pressure against them with Melbourne allowing a scoring shot on just 31.2% of opposition inside-50’s which was also, and quite easily, the game’s best return.
If the Cats are to avoid losing to Melbourne for a third-straight time, they’d have either Port or the Bulldogs waiting for them on Grand Final day. The Power have mauled Geelong in each of their last two Finals matches, while the Cats required an after-the-siren Gary Rohan goal to beat the Dogs in Round 14.
Yes, Port’s pronounced proclivity to lose against potential premiership prospects has been well publicised. Yet, what’s too often ignored is the club’s ability to routinely annihilate inferior opponents, the likes of which have put them in the driver’s seat to return to their first Grand Final in 14 years.
While this club has built an immense list, and indeed has been able to produce the occasional strong performance against a top team, recently demolishing Geelong by 43 points in the qualifying final, there’s some undeniable doubts as to whether this will be the year they add a second AFL premiership to the club’s glittering trophy cabinet.
They take a 7-game winning streak into their match with the Dogs, though the jury is still out on whether Port can go all the way without their key forwards getting on top when it matters.
While it’s become fashionable to sight the diminishing importance of key forwards in the modern game, the reality is precious few premierships are being won these days without serious impact from big players inside 50.
Since 2010, only 3 teams have been able to win it all without being ranked within the top-4 for marks inside-50 with Sydney (2012), the Bulldogs (2016) and West Coast (2018) the only exceptions.
This season, Port ranked just 8th in the league generating 11.7 marks inside 50 per game and were just 5-4 in games when they took less than 12 marks inside the arc. This is a serious concern for the club, the likes of which bit them in the finals last season when they managed a paltry 9 total marks inside-50 over their 2 games.
Finals pressure does ramp up substantially, and a big outlet up forward can be the difference between winning the flag or going home early. Which brings us to Charlie Dixon. His recent finals form has been alarming kicking just 2 goals in his last 3 matches while averaging a minuscule 3 marks per contest. His likely opponent this week, Alex Keath, has conceded just two goals to direct opponents over his last 4 matches and lost just 18.3% of his one-on-one duals during the home and away season which was the 6th best return in football.
While yes, Port are in their second consecutive preliminary thanks to their beastly midfield powered by Brownlow favourite Ollie Wines and Travis Boak, and thanks to an Aliir Aliir-led lights out defence that’s conceded just 58 points per game during its current 7 game winning streak. Their ability however to take another step or two might come down to whether Dixon can step up in the biggest moments.
Of the four remaining teams, the Western Bulldogs are the most recently minted premiership winner. Despite a spectacular collapse late in the season, becoming the first club in history to be leading the ladder after round 20 yet failing to secure a double chance, the Dogs have been able to dust themselves off with two brilliant finals wins which have earned them a preliminary final appointment.
They do however remain the rank outsider of the field, in large part due to the fact the Dogs will likely be without Marcus Bontempelli who might just be the very best player in the entire sport.
The 4-time All-Australian’s brilliance speaks for itself, however the Dogs have rarely had to contemplate life without him owing to his exceptional durability over his 8-season career. In fact, since being eligible to play since the start of 2014, he's missed just 11 games with the club losing 8 of those encounters.
The Bulldogs skipper has played 70 straight matches and been an instrumental leader within a team that’s now the league's best remaining attack. He led the club for inside 50’s and score involvements while generating 45 scoring shots himself which was the club’s 3rd highest return.
Port will revel in the fact they might not have to prepare for one of the league’s most destructive talents. In his career Bontempelli has produced 19 games where he’s collected at least 26 disposals and kicked multiple goals and the Dogs have saluted in 18 of those assignments. It’s the kind of performance he delivered the last time the Dogs played Port in South Australia and indeed won, and the kind of performance their progression might be halted by owing to their lack of access to this phenomenal resource.
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