If you were to believe the shouting from talkback radio and certain sections of the media, Essendon’s 2022 season was over before it really began.
Even fans in the north of Melbourne fretted about a year potentially lost, five months from the end of the home-and away-season.
The AFL season is a grind, not a sprint. There are hard schedules, and then there is what Essendon has faced off against so far.
Despite this, the Bombers appear to be floundering in a sea full of AFL giants. Their defence has been constantly under threat, with mercurial Docker Matt Taberner the latest to enjoy a day out at the expense of Essendon.
Are the defensive concerns facing Ben Rutten and the Bombers due to their tough schedule so far, or a sign of far more significant issues?
Defending isn’t just defending in modern footy — it’s also the anchor for the attack. Winning the ball and generating scoring opportunities is critical.
As a result, teams are often forced into the debate of how defensive their defensive set-up should be, and how aggressive their ball movement should be.
Last year several clubs took the leap forward to a bold counter-attacking strategy, one with exciting ball movement opening up opportunities for forward lines.
At the cusp of this new trend were finalists Essendon and Sydney.
Attacking footy isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it is often winning footy in 2022.
For the Bombers last year, the quick ball movement helped generate marks and scoring opportunities inside 50, despite having fewer taller marking opportunities than other sides.
After taking the reins in 2021, Ben Rutten backed a new-look defensive unit, one that had strength in its mobility and athleticism.
A mobile backline can provide both defensive cover and attacking rebound, and the radical redesign — headed by Jayden Laverde, Andrew Phillips, Dyson Heppell, Jordan Ridley, Aaron Francis and Nick Hind — seemed to find the right balance between defence and attack.
But for this type of strategy to work, the defensive principles behind the ball have to be rock solid.
For Sydney — long near the top in the league for fewest points conceded per inside 50 — the fundamentals were in place to hold the fort. Sydney has ridden this attacking success to more success so far this year, scything sides up along the way.
The Bombers, meanwhile, were able to limit their opponents to 1.57 points per inside 50 last year, just below the league average but far from the worst. While not at all a defensive juggernaut, they were able to hold opponents to a low enough score to kick a winning one themselves.
In 2022, the balance has shifted.
Essendon is conceding more points from turnovers from its own defensive third than any side did last year. At the same time, it has been unable to score from defensive-third intercepts, struggling to effectively move the ball forward.
The Rutten-led Bombers move the ball in hard running waves out of defence, relying on handballs as much as any other side in those scoring chains. Turnovers can hurt when rebounding like this. It is a painful feeling they largely avoided last year, but is being heavily experienced now.
It can often mean that a line or layer in the defence is missing or easily broken. Short of a skill error or desperate pressure on the ball, it can make defending very hard.
In the lead-up to their match against Fremantle, Rutten talked about what he saw as the key priority for the side.
“I think we are constantly working on [defence], talking about the defensive part of our game — how we can continue to defend better and more consistently,” Rutten said.
“There’s some really good parts of our defence and how we move the ball. There are some other times where it wasn’t so good and it hurts us on the scoreboard.”
The Bombers have faced off against some of the deadliest forward-half defences so far this year, with sides like the Demons living off repeat entries forward and tackles inside 50.
After a good first year, the Bombers’ defence is suffering “sophomore” struggles against the sternest of opponents.
The Bombers’ defensive issues have also been clearly shown in their ability in the most fundamental of footballing contests: the one-on-one battle.
In an era of team defences, the “mano a mano” battle is optimal for attacks and a nightmare for defences.
No side has been worse at defending one-on-one contests than Essendon this year. In fact, the Bombers of early 2022 have lost one-on-ones at a rate and volume barely seen in the past decade.
They have also seen more one-on-one contests than almost any other side in that span. Good sides can get away with being bad in one-on-one contests (see the recent iterations of the Bulldogs) if they have strategies to avoid their players being isolated in the first place.
Forty players have seen 10 or more contested defensive one-on-ones this year, an average of about two per team. Essendon has four players in that group.
The average loss rate for those high volume one-on-one defenders is about 24 per cent. All four of Essendon’s players in this group have lost more than the average. All four are performing at the worst rates of their careers as well.
In theory, Essendon’s athletic, mobile defence should be able to prevent them from being isolated in one-on-ones. The Bombers’ defence is heavy on intercepting defenders, players able to fly as the third man up.
However, their aggressive ball use and inability to effectively move the ball out of defence has often left them exposed.
It is a similar problem that Carlton faced last year, but one the Blues have largely fixed this year.
Why the turnaround?
At the start of the year Rutten was surprisingly circumspect about the priorities for 2022.
Instead of necessarily talking about winning a flag, Rutten focused on building a culture of continual improvement being key for the future of the club.
Rutten also mentioned that the club expected to evolve their style as the season progressed, as their needs became apparent.
Part of those needs is clearly the defensive set-up and how the Bombers move the ball. After their loss to Fremantle, Rutten emphasised that — in that match at least — part of the issue was their inability to win clearances and the sheer workload placed on the defence.
He has a point. No side has a worse clearance differential than the Bombers so far this year, while they are also in the bottom four on the inside-50 differential standings.
All fans of sporting teams know that improvement isn’t always linear. A good week or two from a young team is often followed by a bad one. Footy is dynamic, and the opposition are moving targets.
The Bombers’ strong 2021 season may have set expectations a little higher than would naturally be expected early into a rebuild. This season has seen an aggressive correction the opposite way.
Another big part of these struggles is the difficulty of the opponents faced so far. The Bombers have seen the hardest set of opponents to date.
In the preseason, ABC Sport calculated that Essendon faced the toughest fixture of 2022 outside of the two grand finalists. While its schedule starts to open up a little, it is by no means a cakewalk.
This round’s traditional Anzac Day clash against Collingwood presents itself as a stress test against a weaker opponent. The Bombers don’t have much room for error left, and another poor defensive outing could have diehard Bombers fans drifting towards 2023.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC