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AFL Friday Footy Fix: Melbourne prove it’s still their flag to lose as Zorko’s ‘faux tough’ Lions get humiliated

And you said that I was done

Well you were wrong, and now the best is yet to come

I’d be lying if I said I’d expected to start this piece with Kesha lyrics; but so perfectly do they fit Melbourne following their incredible 58-point victory over Brisbane that it was impossible to not include them.

Off the boil for half the season, having needed every ounce of luck they could muster to scrape past a wounded Carlton last week, the Dees were underdogs heading to the Gabba, and facing starting September from the back half of the eight.

Instead, the rest of the competition has been put on notice. From the SCG down to Geelong, and over east to Perth, the other contenders have been sent a warning as frightening as anything handed down this season.

They won’t be minor premiers, but this is still Melbourne’s flag to lose.

I wrote last week that the Dees had a myriad of problems, most to do with their forward line structure, that would make it impossible for them to win back-to-back premierships if they didn’t fix it.

They solved the issue like flicking a switch; from the moment Christian Petracca marked on the half-forward flank and sent a beautiful pass to Bayley Fritsch, leading exquisitely into space in exactly the fashion he hadn’t been doing for weeks, it was clear the Demons were ON.

We’ll get to Brisbane in a bit – no question they have serious issues that a side that was gunning for a fourth consecutive top-four finish heading into Friday night really should have solved by now – but the story of the night is Melbourne.

Play like they did tonight – and the whopping margin now means they’re in the box seat to not leave the MCG in September – and not even Geelong can topple them.

It has felt that, even with the Dees sleepwalking through the year following their 10-0 start, that they always had this extra gear in their back pocket. With top four under threat for really the first time all season, it was terrifying how quickly and ruthlessly they were able to return to their best.

The defence has, apart from serious lapses against the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood, been mostly still excellent during that period – but the pressure from the midfield lifted another gear to suffocate a Lions side that had none of their usual zip and dare.

It wasn’t even tackling pressure – the Dees had just 11 in the first quarter – but rather their expert positioning, and individual brilliance in reading the play. Simon Goodwin and the Dees’ on-field marshals, which one assumes are Max Gawn and Jack Viney, did this magnificently at the Gabba.

The Lions love to get the ball in the hands of their best users across half-back in Keidean Coleman and Daniel Rich, then look to bite off risky kicks into the centre that open the ground up, and continue running on the overlap in a wave of maroon, blue and gold.

So what was the Dees’ response? Don’t let the Lions anywhere near the corridor. The set-up was perfect – zoned far enough away from their Brisbane counterparts that kickers felt compelled to try for that inboard kick, and then close and quick enough to repeatedly knock the ball away. At which point it was the Demons’ turn to swarm: and when they got it, there wasn’t even close to the same amount of discipline and willpower going the other way.

Time after time the Dees were able to cut off kicks that the Lions get away with against most sides – even Rich, mostly kept under wraps by a consummate team effort that saw any number of players refuse to allow him to patrol as a loose man in dangerous spots, fell victim. And nothing in modern footy kills you more than a turnover; especially one in a deadly, central corridor position, ESPECIALLY against these Dees.

By half time, seven of Melbourne’s goals had come directly from turnover. That Brisbane had as much of the ball, and the play, as the Dees meant nothing – every time a red and blue jumper had the ball in the first half, it felt like a score wasn’t far away.

By three quarter time, the Demons had goalled from 43 per cent of their inside 50s – only two times all year has a team been more efficient.

Helped no doubt by the Lions’ defensive system being all at sea, the Dees forwards looked as collectively menacing as they have for a long time. The difference between their potency at the Gabba, and their lack of the same bar Jake Melksham against Carlton six days ago, was chalk and cheese.

From the moment he found space inside 50 in the opening minute, snapping a goal with all the languid ease in the world, Kysaiah Pickett was a menace. That first goal proved a sign of things to come – not even the usually superb Brandon Starcevich paid him anywhere near enough mind.

As the Blues found out last week, Pickett is a man who simply can’t be given a single second anywhere near goal. All night, the Lions gave him two. The result was a four-goal first half from a young man who looms as a serious finals wildcard, having only played a bit-part role in the Dees’ flag run in 2021.

But while Pickett stole the headlines, it was Ben Brown’s performance that would surely have pleased Goodwin most. Comprehensively outplaying no less than Harris Andrews in the first half with three goals of his own, it might have been Brown’s best performance in red and blue. Certainly, it was the one most reminiscent of his best days at North Melbourne.

Watching Brown struggle to lead, try and engage his Blues opponents one-on-one and by and large struggle for any impact last week, I honestly came to the conclusion his knee must be more stuffed than the Dees were giving away. Clearly on the evidence of Friday night, the system was the problem.

With Andrews bizarrely starting by zoning off a small rather than matched up against Brown, the number 50 was far too quick off the mark for Jack Payne; in the first term, he was away and leading into the pocket too fast for Payne to call for Andrews to pursue him. When Andrews looked back at Payne, caught flat-footed some 20 metres behind the play, you could almost hear him ask his fellow back who the bloody hell was supposed to be on him.

With 26.19 for the season heading into the night, Brown’s kicking hasn’t always been at its precise best this season. It was tonight, though: sinking goals from the wrong pocket with ease, it hearkened back to a time when, as a Kangaroo, he’d virtually never miss inside 50.

Fritsch was getting in on the act as well; it took until the third quarter for him to get a Joe the Goose goal handed to him, by which time he had three others.

Kysaiah Pickett of the Demons celebrates kicking a goal. (Photo by Albert Perez/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Kysaiah Pickett of the Demons celebrates kicking a goal. (Photo by Albert Perez/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Leading hard into space, pushing up the ground and then working his backside off to get back inside 50 and provide an option, he made himself the extraordinarily difficult match-up his strong hands, underrated pace and natural footy smarts deserve.

When he plays like this, there’s few defenders in the competition that can go with him – and with the Lions’ midfield and forwards putting on virtually no pressure, Fritsch had all the space and supply he needed to wreak havoc.

The most remarkable stat of the season was that, in a side between two top-four contenders, the inside-50 count was 26 apiece at half time… and the Lions were 66 points down.

Defensively, the Demons were miserly all night. Containing a side with the attacking options of Brisbane to just two first-half goals from a more than decent amount of ball was supreme. Everything worked in perfect sync – contrast it with what was going on up the other end, where the Lions often crossed each other’s streams, found themselves guarding the same space, and opening up more holes than the plot of a Marvel film.

If the Dees’ midfield is at their ferocious best – and remember, for much of the year they’ve been dead last in the pressure rating – then no opposition stands a chance. You have to pinpoint passes against this team, and spread the defence with quick ball use. You can’t just whack it in and hope for the best.

What was noticeable, though, was how quickly the Dees click into gear without the ball. Brisbane are, by nature, a fast-moving team, hampered though they were by Melbourne up the ground. Time and again, they’d force their way to half-forward, look up, and see a sea of red and blue ahead of them, daring them to bomb it to May, Lever and Max Gawn.

Ed Langdon is surely the hardest-running player in the league, to state the bleeding obvious. You don’t even need the official stats to quantify it: look at the TV every time the Dees’ opponents are looking inside 50, and you’ll find him in the zone, either blocking space or guarding a man. Then, a few minutes later when it’s the Demons’ turn to attack, there he is again, bobbing up near the goalsquare for a mark and goal, laying a timely tackle to lock the ball in, or drawing an opponent’s attention to free up space for a teammate.

He’ll never command the attention of Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver – the former of whom, by the way, looked menacing all evening long forward of centre – but a lot of things the Demons do better than anyone else without the ball in hand wouldn’t be possible without his tireless efforts running up and down the wing.

So there we have it: the Dees were manic in midfield, a wall in defence, and relentlessly efficient up forward. Handy trio of assets to have. It was, for all intents and purposes, a perfect game.

Having said that, not even the Demons could be 66 points up at half time against an opponent of supposed quality, if said team didn’t display every single one of their worst traits in 60 pathetic minutes.

Forget Collingwood – these are the one-trick Ponies Langdon should have been having a crack at. The Lions are like that meme with the big muscle-bound dog next to the small pupper; they’re the former when they have the ball, and the latter without it.

Against weaker teams, with a less cohesive defensive system and less pressure on the ball carrier, the Lions scythe their way up the field, nailing difficult kicks with pinpoint precision, and give their brilliant forward line ample space to lead into.

But against a team as good as Melbourne, good enough to deny them those ground-opening passes and restrict them to slow movement up the wings, it’s worrying that Chris Fagan had no alternative plan in mind. His Lions would either turn the ball over trying to bite off too much, or thump it aimlessly into a packed forward 50 and watch the Dees mark, spoil or clear it at will.

Joe Daniher and Eric Hipwood, and Dan McStay too, aren’t key forwards you can expect to do what Tom Lynch does: mark or neutralise balls sat on their head. Their strength is their height and speed, not their strength. They were on a hiding to nothing tonight.

That they were able to match Melbourne at the coalface, yet still lost comfortably, is equally concerning.

It’s usually the Lions whose efficiency forward of the ball gets them out of jail; tonight, their already worrying backline was made to look ridiculous as the Dees went in expecting a goal virtually every time.

Chris Fagan, for everything he has achieved in turning things around at Brisbane, strikes me more as a people person rather than a master tactician. Just as he did at Hawthorn alongside Alastair Clarkson, he has made the Lions a destination club, kept virtually all their star junior talent of the kinds that they hemorrhaged under Michael Voss and Justin Leppitsch… but six years is surely time enough to have a better defensive system than the Lions have at the moment. Justin Longmuir only needed two and a half to get it right at Fremantle, after all.

A side with the elite talent the Lions have across all lines – Starcevich, Andrews and Rich down back, McCluggage and Lachie Neale in midfield, Daniher, Charlie Cameron, Zac Bailey et.al up forward – really shouldn’t be treading water in the mid-range of the top eight.

Having won one final of six under Fagan, an elimination final loss this year – it would take a miracle now for the Lions to cling to fourth – would bring a stack of pressure, and justifiably so.

I’ll probably have more words about Dayne Zorko later in the week, but it’s hard to shake the feeling his captaincy and attitude is holding this team back.

The Lions came into Friday night wanting to hunt the Demons – flare-ups, late treatment and general all-round cheap shots were the order of the day even after the match had been blown to smithereens. Zorko was involved in more than his fair share of them.

That kind of stuff might work in a weak team on the way up, where Zorko made his name as a Lion to be admired when they were bad between 2012 and 2019. But now that they should be a premiership contender, playing the man and not the ball was a baffling move.

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This Lions team is terribly suited to the role of aggressors – especially with Mitch Robinson, one of the few blokes who lives for the scrap, the medical sub. It’s beneath the silky skills of Hugh McCluggage, the goal nous of Zac Bailey, and even Zorko of himself, to try and goad an opposition into mistakes.

It might or might not come out soon what exactly Zorko said to Harrison Petty that left the Demon close to tears at three quarter time – Alan Richardson told Seven he believed he heard a below-the-belt jibe concerning a family member.

But the fact it’s not surprising that Dayne Zorko would resort to weak stuff like that should be embarrassing for a player who deserves to be remembered as a driving force behind the Lions’ turnaround, and not the biggest arsehole in footy.

Garry Lyon called it ‘faux tough’ on Fox Footy, and he’s bang on. Cut it out, please, Dayne.

As a result, the Lions left the Gabba with not just top four hopes in tatters, not just with a 58-point defeat, but with absolutely zero dignity to take out of the match. Whether they play Carlton or Richmond in an elimination final, either side will be licking their lips waiting to have a crack at this team, even at the Gabba.

But the Lions aren’t the story. We said the Demons were done. Well, we were wrong.

The scariest part? The best might just be yet to come.

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