Just a fortnight ago, the footballing world was at the feet of the Demons.
Riding high on a 17-game winning streak, including a premiership along the way, many in the footy media were questioning more along the lines of who would come second than contend against Melbourne for the flag.
While some were busy anointing Melbourne for the flag, their closest contenders were busy trying to work out how to beat them. The top spot on the ladder comes with a target on your back.
After the team’s eighth win, Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead.
While the wins were coming, they perhaps weren’t as dominating as they were during the 2021 finals campaign.
Then, in the last two weeks, the wins stopped altogether. Both Fremantle and Sydney have lowered the colours of the Demons. The dream of an undefeated season fell by the wayside, and nervous Melbourne fans started looking over their shoulders again.
But is there real reason for concern or was it just two bad days out for the reigning premiers? And have sides finally worked out how to beat Melbourne?
Hope rises in the west
Coming into the season, Fremantle were a side that many picked to rise up the ladder, and contend for finals. Few, however, expected them to sit entrenched inside the top four at the halfway mark of the season. Fewer still thought them to be real contenders without Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe playing a major role.
The key to the rise of the Dockers up the ladder is an off-season re-work of their defensive identity, especially up the ground.
In practice, Fremantle resembles the Demons of last year: a strong team defence underpinned by a strong, ball-winning midfield.
The Dockers have suffocated teams this year, setting up solidly behind the ball to create repeat forward 50 entries.
It’s an equal-opportunity defence, with several intercepting options playing a critical role. No Docker sits inside the top 35 in the competition for intercepts. Instead, seven Freo players average more than five intercepts a game — inside the top 100 of the competition.
Meanwhile, while their centre bounce midfield has conceded ground to opponents this year, the Dockers have convincingly won the stoppage battle both in quality and quantity. The Dockers lead the league for stoppage clearance differential, limiting how teams can attack from dead balls.
Against the Demons, both sides of their game came into play perfectly. Through the first 10 weeks of the season, Melbourne scored 57 points per game from intercepts — 27 of those from the back half. Against the Dockers they were able to only score 24 points from their 60 turnovers.
When getting possession in the back half, Melbourne often looked up to find a wall of Dockers.
While Melbourne are comfortable playing slowly when needed, the Demons struggled to crack through the effective Dockers press zone. While the Demons have set the standard in the past 12 months for setting up after conceding a turnover, the Dockers proved that they are not far behind.
Melbourne’s backup plan is often to slow the game up, and use their Gawn advantage to regain dominance through the stoppages. The Dockers were also able to nullify this, winning the stoppage clearance count, 26 to 20, and scoring 22 points to 16 from this source.
Up forward, the Dockers made the most of May’s early concussion to put pressure on the Dees’ defence.
In front-half stoppage situations, the Dockers often played their talls super deep, dragging the dangerous Melbourne interceptors away from the contest.
It also created leading alleys for when they won the ball, and bailout pack options as a backup.
By creating pack situations, it also heightened the opportunities for their skilful crumbers, who were able to manufacture goals from broken play.
While the Dockers aren’t the most attack-focused team in the league, solid fundamentals and a couple of strategic tweaks gave them the opportunity to beat the trendsetters.
Number one with the rush
The Swans made their leap into the eight last year, but 2022 shaped as a season to work out whether they were true contenders or just making up finals numbers. So far, their footy has been alternatively fun and frustrating to fans, with their best a fair way from their worst.
If the Dockers have followed the Melbourne blueprint, Sydney are forging their own way. Few teams play more excitingly than the Swans, constantly counter-punching against teams and lulling opponents to take one risk too many.
It’s real risk-reward type football and thrilling to watch. It can give them a chance against any team on their day, but can expose them to the chance of upsets against lesser sides.
It was this counter-attack that tore the Demons up, scoring 54 points from turnovers against the Melbourne defence.
Going the other way, the Demons only managed to score four points from their own intercepts.
Of those 54 points, 32 points came from turnovers from their back half. Despite the Swans playing four taller options on defence in Dane Rampe, Nick Blakey and the McCartin brothers, the Swans effectively move the ball, looking for creases in opposition defences.
The speed that the Swans typically move the ball doesn’t allow the Demons’ suffocating defence time to set up, putting them on the back foot.
Against a Melbourne defence trying to adjust to the absence of All-Australian Steven May, the Swans were able to deny the reigning premiers their biggest strength.
The Swans looked to attack through the corridor, often quickly, catching Melbourne off-balance.
In contrast to Fremantle, the Swans often dropped a smaller forward — such as Tom Papley — deep to draw the taller defenders away.
In theory, this attacking type of play was potentially the most challenging to Melbourne on paper, albeit with little room for error. When the Swans have played well this year they have looked nearly unbeatable, but that hasn’t happened every week yet.
Similar to the Dockers, the Swans were able to limit the Demons in the stoppage game, scoring as many times as the Demons from this source, from three extra stoppage clearances.
The Swans were also missing arguably the greatest forward of this generation, with Lance Franklin watching from the sidelines. Sydney’s ability to beat the competition’s strongest defence in the last year and a half was a vindication for beautiful, aggressive footy and a potential blueprint for other attacking sides.
The exact colour of doubt
Despite the two losses, Melbourne still sit on the top of the ladder, clear of second by a full game. If you asked a Melbourne fan if they would be in this position a mere 18 months ago, they would call you crazy.
Compared to their 67 seasons in the wilderness, their two losses to good teams do not constitute a crisis.
Many point to the absence of Steven May as a critical factor, articulating his importance to the side.
While the Territorian is undoubtedly one of the finest defenders in the competition, the Demons’ talls have largely held the fort. It was the Dockers’ ground attack and up-ground defence that was the most critical element in their first loss.
And it was Sydney’s bigs playing small that hurt Melbourne in their second loss, with the mobility and pressure of Sam Reid the key.
Melbourne also held strong without May last year, effectively covering for his absence and injuries during finals.
Slightly more worrying is their inability to generate scores from front-half turnovers and stoppages, with their weapons blunted by two hungry sides.
While both Sydney and Fremantle were smart and executed well, it might be another part of Melbourne’s game that might be cause for concern.
Melbourne’s forward line has looked increasingly unsettled as the season has progressed.
The issue is not new for Melbourne, with little continuity in its key posts in recent seasons. While their underlying structure seems solid, the bodies to fill those roles have been in flux in recent weeks.
Weideman, McDonald, Jackson, Gawn and both Browns have filled tall roles up forward, with varying levels of success.
With Tom McDonald seemingly out for the season, the second tall role is up for grabs with no clear leader on the role.
Even last year, Melbourne was mid-pack for forward-line efficiency, relying on repeat inside 50s and sheer weight of the ball to generate scores.
As the pack starts to work out how to counter the Demons upfield, Melbourne’s forward line will have to become better to keep them at bay.
It has to be said that, as much as premierships aren’t won in April, they also aren’t won in June.
Two losses in the middle of the season matter little in September. Melbourne should still rightfully be seen as the team to beat.
However, as was predicted before the season started, the 2022 season shapes as being one of the most even across the board (with the exception of a couple of teams).
Almost any team has a fighting chance of beating any other. It’s what makes modern footy so captivating.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC