Essendon faces the perfect storm — where to now for the Bombers?

An Essendon midfielder looks at the ball as he kicks it downfield, while a group of other players lie on the ground behind him.

At the end of last year’s home and away season, many in football including Essendon fans were getting excited by the team’s late surge to hit finals in 2021.

Under first-year coach Ben Rutten, the Bombers won five of their last seven games to clinch a spot in September — they were playing an exciting brand of football with plenty of young talent and Essendon seemed to be a team on the rise.

Fast forward eight games and it is a very different story.

The Bombers have been bounced out of finals by the Western Bulldogs, before crashing to a 1-6 record after seven rounds, culminating in a bookend loss to the same Bulldogs, who while having their own struggles this season had too much in reserve for Essendon.

The team is off the pace, the fans are restless, the players are under fire for their on-field performances, the coach has admitted to frustration and the club is decidedly not where it thought it would be at this point.

So what has caused this perfect storm at Bomberland?

The two Essendons

Let’s take the seven games leading into the finals, and compare with the eight that came afterwards.

Rounds 17-23:

An Essendon midfielder looks at the ball as he kicks it downfield, while a group of other players lie on the ground behind him.
Darcy Parish had 47 clearances for Essendon between rounds 17 and 23 last season.(Getty Images / AFL Photos: Darrian Traynor)

The signs were good. A little earlier than this period, in round 15, they held eventual premiers Melbourne to within two goals at the MCG — and in round 21 they beat the other soon-to-be grand finalists, Western Bulldogs, by 13 points.

Some of the other wins were against less impressive opposition (Gold Coast, Adelaide, Collingwood and North Melbourne). But they came close to the finals-bound GWS as well — form-wise they were ticking boxes.

The Bombers were winning clearances, led by Darcy Parish — who was on his way to a top-five finish in the Brownlow. They had the advantage in inside 50s, taking an average of four more marks inside 50 and making an average of five more tackles inside the forward arc than opponents.

The effort was there, and the results were too.

Elimination Final to round 7:

Looking back at season’s end, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Bulldogs — who later frightened the hell out of Melbourne for two and a half quarters in the grand final — had too much firepower for Essendon in the elimination final.

An Essendon AFL player puts his arms out as he falls to ground near the ball as he is surrounded by Western Bulldogs players.An Essendon AFL player puts his arms out as he falls to ground near the ball as he is surrounded by Western Bulldogs players.
Jake Stringer is tackled by Marcus Bontempelli during the 2021 AFL First Elimination Final match between the Western Bulldogs and the Essendon Bombers.(Getty Images: Rob Blakers)

But the size of the loss (49 points) and the scale of it were hugely disappointing. The Bombers were well beaten in contested possessions and clearances, the Bulldogs produced 18 tackles inside 50 to put huge pressure on Essendon — and Rutten’s team were forced to make 80 tackles around the ground.

The feeling was still positive entering 2022, but even before round one things started to go wrong.

Will Snelling did his calf days before the season opener, so Essendon had to go without his forward pressure — he has not returned and is still seen as a few weeks away.

Anthony McDonald Tipungwuti last played for Essendon in round 21 — his pressure was missed against the Bulldogs and in games following, not to mention his goalscoring ability and assists. Then Kyle Langford picked up a hamstring injury in the opening game.

It’s not just the personnel who are out, however. Given the relevant records (5-2 late last year to 1-7 since), you might expect that the team would be down across the board — and you’d be right.

But a few areas stand out. The Bombers are giving up 10 more turnovers a game than they were late last season, they are averaging three fewer goals scored per game in 2022, they’re down 4.5 a game in clearances, 3.5 in contested marks, 2.6 in marks inside 50 and 3.3 in tackles inside 50.

Aside from turnovers, the only place Essendon is going up is a slight rise in overall tackles and contested possessions, and a big jump in uncontested possessions — the Bombers are averaging 267.5 a game, up 34 on late last year.

This all helps paint a picture. The midfield is struggling — Devon Smith is out of form and out of the side, Dylan Shiel was dropped for last week and then reprieved because of a late out. Skipper Dyson Heppell is down in several areas, including tackles and inside 50s.

Overall, inside 50s have dropped slightly, but against the Demons (39), Dockers (41) and last weekend against the Bulldogs (41), the numbers fell away.

The Bombers had more possession than the Bulldogs, but their cautious, sideways style meant they went inside forward 50 27 fewer times.

This does not seem to be a quick fix — it’s not just a couple of key areas, it’s across the board.

Whether the outcome is a result of the game style, or the players’ failure to execute — or both — what is clear is that confidence levels are at a low ebb.

Where to now?

The pressure is building fast on Essendon, and the schedule doesn’t offer much help in the foreseeable future.

First up are the Hawks at Docklands on Saturday night, which shapes almost as a line in the sand.

A serious-looking AFL coach talks to a player at three quarter-time in a match as other players watch stand near him.A serious-looking AFL coach talks to a player at three quarter-time in a match as other players watch stand near him.
Ben Rutten and Essendon were hoping to build on last year’s finals appearance, but the task facing the coach and his team looks a lot tougher after seven rounds of 2022.(Getty Images / AFL Photos: Dylan Burns)

Hawthorn were tipped for the wooden spoon by plenty of pundits before the start of the season — instead, they are only a game plus 15 per cent out of the top eight, with wins over Port Adelaide and Geelong on the way.

Then there is a trip to Sydney to face the Swans, followed by a test against Richmond at the MCG. Next will be a trip to Adelaide to face the Power, who are slowly recovering from their own horror start to the year.

Round 12 is the bye, before matches against Carlton and St Kilda.

There is still a lot of talent on this list. And there are a number of players who will come back into the mix.

Rutten acknowledged recently that McDonald Tipungwuti was “still a while away”.

But if the Bombers could get him back he would lift the team — at his best he provides the ability to change the game, not just his forward pressure and goal assists, but his ability to bob up and kick three, four or five goals.

If they can get some players back, raise their intensity and convert more of their chances the atmosphere could change. Even if Essendon could manage to win three of the next six, finals would probably be out of the question, but it could be a building block to next year.

The danger is, if the problems persist, then there is a possibility that the Bombers could fail to crack a win in this next run of games, which would leave them at 1-12 with the season in ruins and a rethink of where the club sits.

Regardless, the heat is going to be on the coach — and his team — for the foreseeable future.



Author: Ivan Robinson