Bruce Almighty: How Josh Has Reinvigorated The Bulldog Forward Line
The resurgence of Josh Bruce has been quite remarkable in 2021.
Sitting equal second in the Coleman Medal after nine rounds with 27 goals next to his name, the key forward has enjoyed a far better second season at the Bulldogs, after kicking just 14 goals in 17 games last year.
The 28-year-old quickly established himself as a whipping boy after his underwhelming debut season at the club, perhaps due to the lengthy contract he signed, or the coaching staff’s persistence with him.
Yet season 2021 has seen the script flipped completely.
Of course, the irreplicable 10-goal performance in Round 3 against North Melbourne has set up Bruce quite nicely from a statistical point of view, however that game is an aberration only in final output, as the former Giant and Saint’s work ethic has been consistent all season.
Clearly, Bruce has been stunning in front of goal.
In nine games, he’s kicked 27 goals and 8 behinds, and at a scorching accuracy of 62.8%.
Impressively, Bruce has been the league’s best set-shot, kicking 23 goals and 5 behinds at an accuracy of 69.7%.
This is a far cry from his nightmarish 2020, where his paltry 30 shots on goal resulted in an accuracy of just 47% according to Stats Insider’s shot-charting.
Of course, the 198cm forward has been a huge beneficiary of the best offensive unit in the competition, with the Bulldogs ranked first for total score and second for inside-50s, while its generated a scoring-shot on 48.2% of its inside 50s which is a number only West Coast are performing better in.
The Bulldogs are also ranked first for goal assists, averaging 10.3 per game, highlighting their ability to find teammates in good situations within 50, allowing the 8-1 club to have both Aaron Naughton (third) and Bruce (fifth) ranked in the top-5 for marks inside 50.
Bruce’s 4.78 shots per game also represent a career-high but most importantly, he is making the most of his chances, which has been lacking at times in his career.
A true confidence player, the inaugural Giant clearly adopted a positive mindset early and is playing some of his best ever footy.
With a career-highs in kicks, disposals, marks, contested marks, score involvements and metres gained, Bruce is proving to be far more active in this edition of the Bulldogs’ forward line, and has finally clicked in his new role.
Towards the end of his time at St Kilda, Bruce was the focal point of that attack and found it difficult to remain a consistent threat.
Truthfully, despite kicking 36 goals in 2019, Bruce struggled to recapture any high-quality footy since the pre-injury, back-end of 2017, when he responded to being dropped by averaging 3.5 scoring shots a game.
Rather than being the main man, Bruce’s best season came when he was supported and had an aggressive, follow-up mindset.
His 50-goal season in 2015 also saw him rank 6th for marks inside 50 while also averaging 2.5 tackles a game.
That 2019 season saw a necessity to work harder to get more of the ball, and Bruce still kicked 36 goals and had 10 goal assists for the season, however he was often caught out of position and inconsistent. That season, Bruce finished goalless on 5 occasions and had 2 or less scoring shots in 11 of his 22 matches.
Crucially, it is important to recognise that Bruce’s peak in 2015 and 2016 came when Nick Riewoldt was still demanding close attention, and when Tim Membrey was in full flight.
All of this ultimately begs the question, what's changed for Bruce and how has he unlocked a career-best, potentially Coleman Medal winning season at 28 years of age and off the back of such a lacklustre 2020?
Well, much like in those aforementioned peak years, the key defender-cum-forward is in his second season at the Bulldogs where he is quite clearly the second, or even third option in attack.
Aaron Naughton is the man of the future at the Bulldogs and has an aerial presence that is domineering and demanding of close attention.
When fit, Tim English has proven to have strong forward craft that is also dependent on contested marking, without the reckless abandon of Naughton.
Bruce has fallen back into a familiar groove where his style is that of a complementary attacker, attracting the sort of opposition defender that perhaps doesn’t have both the strength in contests or work rate that he himself has.
The game against Carlton is a good example, where Liam Jones thrives in his ability to spoil, yet Bruce finished with 5 goals and 6 marks inside-50 due to his ability to work Jones into the ground, taking contested marks when his opponent was often too tired to follow up.
While Bruce’s tackles are down to 1.4 per game, he's laid 3 tackles in each of his past two games and has maintained a strong presence at ground level all season.
His 9.7 pressure acts a game are only slightly below his best numbers, and his average of 1.6 ground-ball gets inside 50 indicates Bruce has found the ground-level aggression and is following up well.
Heat maps tend to show that the Bulldogs have clearly defined roles for their three key forwards when all are playing together, with Naughton hanging deep to goal when inside 50, English playing a traditional centre half-forward role and Bruce manipulating the space in the arc.
Nine games in and Bruce is yet to be held goalless and hasn’t finished a game without both a contested mark and a mark inside 50.
Beyond the good numbers, the 10th year forward’s ability to create pockets of space for Aaron Naughton has allowed his teammate’s true breakout season and has this forward line operating better than we’ve seen in recent seasons.
Make no mistake, there is still a long way to go in the season.
But after nine games, the popular whipping boy has quietened his critics and is playing a vital role for the Bulldogs.
Josh Bruce has recaptured some of his best form and maintaining his current output will go a long way for his team in 2021.
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