How Bailey Dale Helped Turn The Bulldogs Into A Premiership Threat
Bailey Dale is having some sort of season.
Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge is known for his love of throwing the magnets around, however it’s the move of Dale to defence that’s proven to be the biggest hit for the league’s ladder leader.
The 24-year-old has been a revelation off half-back in 2021, with the dogs opting to use his more penetrating kicking as their main option out of defence, replacing the precise, calm rebounding of Caleb Daniel.
We’ve seen fantastic glimpses from Dale in the past, however he often been let down by injury and consistency.
In 2016, he averaged 17 disposals and a goal a game playing an outside role. 2019 saw 21 goals from his 10 games which included bags of 5 against St Kilda and Adelaide.
However in a year where the Bulldogs are the second-most likely team to win the Premiership according to the Stats Insider futures model, the former Dandenong Stingray has produced All-Australian worthy performances that have had a huge impact on the team.
Dale is averaging an elite 23 disposals and 501.4 metres gained per match, as well as 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 marks and 5.5 intercept possessions a game. His kicking efficiency of 78% is among the best in the league.
Clearly, his natural skills, particularly his kicking, have been matched by a work rate that had gone previously unheralded in a forward half role, with the 45th pick of the 2014 draft managing 8 goals and 6 goal assists in his 15 games this year. Dale’s also ranked third in the competition for running bounces.
The positional alteration gave a clear indication of the shift in direction and focus Beveridge was looking to implement.
His team has always been one of great talent, however since the Premiership year in 2016, it hasn’t all necessarily clicked.
As a result, three definitive moves were made by the coaching staff.
Playing the extra tall forward has given a greater aerial contest in attack, and Tim English has thrived when able to play in the role, making the club more dangerous.
Also important has been the anchor role Tom Liberatore has played in the midfield, being the catalyst to the midfield’s success as the premier extractor of the competition. Any individual medals handed out in September to his teammates should give “Libba” royalties.
However it was the understanding that the Bulldogs needed to be more decisive with ball in hand and actually make their high disposal tallies count that really elevated the club this season, starting with the move of Dale into defence.
The impact has been simply massive.
The Bulldogs have immediately gone from being ranked 9th in metres gained to 2nd in 2021, and have gone from being dead-last in intercepts per game in 2020, to 8th this season. The rise in score launches from 11th to 3rd has been a clear defining factor in the team being far more direct both out of defence and out of stoppages.
Dale’s average of 501.4 metres gained is second at the club only to Marcus Bontempelli, and both players are the only two to have averaged above 500 metres gained per game for the Bulldogs since individual records were maintained in 2015.
Getting the ball in Dale’s hands and letting him set the play up hasn’t been seen all that much since 2016, when Jason Johannisen and Matthew Boyd averaged 490 metres gained each off half back. Attempts to emulate the style have fallen flat, with Matt Suckling and Bailey Williams being used as these key distributors in recent years but without the consistent influence.
The shift of Daniel to Dale as main rebounder, who were taken in consecutive picks in 2014, has been interesting and clearly benefitted the offensive weaponry that the Bulldogs possess.
Daniel had a starring season in 2019, averaging 26.5 disposals, 6 rebounds and 438.4 metres gained per game. Finishing with 6.8 intercept possessions and 3 tackles per game, there was a little bit of flexibility in using the smaller player a little closer to the defensive goal line at times given his ability to win some contested ball and close down an opponent stemming from midfield experience.
2020 saw a slight shift in his role and while his kicking was precise and soothing under pressure and earned him an All-Australian blazer and a club best and fairest, it wasn’t instigating a meaningful transition often enough.
Dale is able to play more across the defensive arc and not get caught out on the goal line, which has a two-fold effect in allowing him to drift across as an interceptor at times, but to really focus on using his kicking ability to create plays. His offensive numbers are far greater than what Daniel was able to provide as the main man.
Of course, there’s a distinct likelihood that these two will co-exist and work wonderfully out of defence together as Josh Dunkley and Adam Treloar return, allowing Daniel to push further back. The Bulldogs will love having the best of both worlds while the likes of Taylor Duryea and Bailey Williams can play to their own strengths.
It's the metronomic consistency that we’ve seen from Dale in 2021 though that has influenced the Bulldogs the most and has seen him go from a fringe forward to a genuine star.
The defender has dropped below 20 disposals just once since Round 3, kicking multiple goals out of defence on four occasions and finishing with at least five intercepts in all but four games this season.
In the last six games, Dale has finished with less than 580 metres gained in a game on one occasion.
The beauty of the switch into defence is the potential for growth out of an already above average player for the position.
With more work in the off-season, one would suspect that Dale will improve his marking numbers. It’s unlikely he’ll become an elite interceptor in the ilk of James Sicily, but there are some similarities to Andrew Mackie with more responsibility and influence.
And not that much improvement is needed at all.
Dale is not only playing excellent footy, but he has been one of the Bulldogs’ most influential players in their 2021 successes with a new focus.
An All-Australian selection seems likely, but if he keeps playing in this manner, Dale may well have a premiership medal around his neck in September.
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