The spirit is willing, but the structure is weak as Bombers face D-Day

I’ve already had plenty to say about Essendon this week – but while all the talk about the Bombers’ off-field woes is and remains an important consideration when weighing up the immediate future of this club, there will come a time and place to unpack it further.

Instead, let’s just focus on the Bombers’ efforts on the field, in a 66-point defeat to a finals-bound Richmond that somehow managed to simultaneously feel more competitive than the eventual margin and never really a close contest.

This was a better Dons’ performance than what they dished up against Port Adelaide last week, but to even mention that ‘effort’ would be to damn with faint praise. After all the drama of the week, facing an uncertain future at the end of a wayward season, this was a perfectly acceptable effort from Essendon without being anywhere near groundbreaking. The sort of performance where supporters can go home, shrug, and be over their disappointment by Sunday morning.

It’s not that the Bombers are a God awful team, but they will finish the year 15th on the ladder for good reason. The gap between their best and worst is far and away the largest in the competition, and is patchy from not just game to game, but quarter to quarter, and sometimes even minute to minute. The only thing consistent about the Bombers is their inconsistency.

But everyone knows that about this club – it’s been thus for 15 years. Not since the Kevin Sheedy days (the ones as coach, not the modern ones as an omnipotent board member slash secret overlord) have you been able to turn up to an Essendon game safe in the knowledge that you’d basically know what you’d be getting out of them.

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They’re like a box of Cadbury Favourites except that all the Crunchies, Moros, Caramellos and Picnics have been replaced by celery sticks. You might still get a decent result out of dipping your hand in, but the odds aren’t great.

It’s in matches like this where the full array of problems facing this Essendon squad reveal themselves. Up for the fight early, matching the Tigers at the coalface and bringing an intent to tackle, lead hard and play attacking enterprising footy, the Bombers were at first parried repeatedly by Richmond, then given a roundhouse kick to the face to start the second half.

In a flash, the margin had exploded from 19 points at the main break, to 56 by the 17-minute mark. The Bombers had had just two inside 50s for the quarter, and hadn’t scored; the Tigers had gone in 13 times for six goals and a behind. Oof.

But just as frustrating as that complete annihilation was the Dons’ first half; playing with the spirit and dare that they did, a side with more stability behind the ball would have headed into the sheds with the game under their control.

Instead the Bombers, having by and large matched a better side in every aspect but on the scoreboard, were left chasing the game, and vulnerable to the kind of embarrassment that they seem to get handed more regularly than most other sides. The minute this team drops in intensity, the floodgates get thundered off their hinges.

With 15 tackles in the first 20 minutes, the Dons came with plenty of spirit. Harassing the Tigers into turnovers, pouncing on loose balls and excellent in stoppages, the Bombers showed the strengths that have made them a tricky, giant-killing opponent even in this wretched year.

By quarter time, the Dons had 14 inside 50s, one more than the Tigers, while also leading the clearances 8-7. It looked for all the world like an even fight – but the Tigers had six goals to three and led by 19 points.

The Bombers’ defence, pound for pound, is exceptionally weak compared to the rest of the competition – they ask Jordan Ridley and Jayden Laverde regularly to stand monstrous key forwards, have too many rebound options from Nick Hind, to Mason Redman, to Andrew McGrath these days, that simply don’t have the defensive instincts to hold up when under siege, and have the chemistry of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in Twilight.

It means that, when teams go forward against them, particularly a team like the Tigers that moves the ball with speed, they have open spaces everywhere in front of them.

Not helping matters under Rutten has been the Bombers’ tendency to either press exceptionally high, almost to the centre circle, or just get sucked up the ground by following opposition forwards too far. It makes them an easy team to get an overlap going on; if one of your half-backs gets clear of the Bombers’ attacking 50 and finds a target, trouble brews.

Far too often, you’ll see three or four Bombers making a mad dash back to goal, about three seconds behind the oncoming ball, where one of their backs – most often Laverde – is defending a forward one on one.

Before a three-goal rampage in the third term, Laverde did an exceptional job containing a red-hot Tom Lynch; but the dam wall wasn’t going to hold up indefinitely.

The paradox is that, if Laverde or whoever the last defender is, can win the contest, the cavalry can arrive and set up in time for a quick rebound to safety. But then other issues present themselves; notably, that the Bombers’ foot skills are bizarrely poor when needing to pinpoint a pass from an uncontested situation.

Their defensive woes extend to the rest of the ground, too; the Bombers gave up 35 uncontested marks in the first 20 minutes at the MCG, and 86 for the game. Do that, and you’re basically dependent on the opposition making a mistake, because if your set-up was capable of forcing teams to kick long to contests, you wouldn’t be giving up those numbers in the first place.

The Bombers were excellent in every aspect with ball in hand in that first half – but in modern footy, what you do without the ball is even more important as what you do with it.

Giving up 17 shots at goal in the first half from 28 inside 50s, a not insignificant amount of them low-pressure snaps from dead in front, is not something any decent team would be caught dead doing.

Having 13 shots from 27 inside 50s themselves, against a backline as well set up as Richmond’s, was a superb effort; the Bombers, when they run hard, can be an irresistible force moving forward.

Peter Wright has proved this year he’s a spearhead to build a side around, and one of Ben Rutten’s understated shrewd moves in the last fortnight has been to move Massimo D’Ambrosio from half-back to the forward line, where his closing pace, goal sense and accurate kicking make him an option worth investing in as a pressure small forward good for a couple of majors a game.

Sure, the Bombers ended with a relatively low score once the supply dried up in the second half; but in today’s game, 7.6 (48) at half time would usually bring with it a lead of some kind. Not a 19-point deficit.

Zach Merrett’s role in the midfield is also a fascinating study. He’s by some margin Essendon’s best player, he’s quick, he kicks it like a dream, he wins the hard ball, and he (mostly) makes good decisions with it.

The source of frustration seems to be that he’s never really made the last step up from very good player to the type of guy about whom opposition fans shriek ‘God, we’ve got to put someone on this guy, he’s KILLING us!’

The first term was a case in point; 15 disposals and seven clearances is a staggeringly good stat line, as it nearly always is with Merrett; but with just four kicks, his biggest asset, the one that sets him apart from his teammates and other midfielders of his kind in the competition, wasn’t being utilised.

It’s something for Rutten, or James Hird, or whoever coaches Essendon next year, needs to take a look at. The Bombers surely have enough players to win the ball at the coalface – Dylan Shiel and Darcy Parish are both excellent individually at that, even though they’re yet to click as a pairing – that Merrett can be used in a more constructive way than sending a Lamborghini to do a taxi driver’s work.

As an opposition fan, you’re almost fine allowing Merrett to be the one at the bottom of the pack, getting a quick handpass out to another teammate, because he’s not hitting up a pass on the outside.

He’s also got an annoying tendency to chase cheap touches in defensive 50, look for meaningless one-twos, and pad his stats more than he needs to. There’s something of 2016-era Dustin Martin about it – it’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Dusty was getting as many touches in the back pocket as he was up the ground in the dangerous spots he became renowned for dominating.

Matt Guelfi of the Bombers.

Matt Guelfi of the Bombers. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

None of this is Merrett’s fault, who was clearly the Bombers’ best player on the night with 37 touches- and having been criticised for his tackling pressure, especially when the tide is against the Dons, his effort to bring down Toby Nankervis in the third term was superb to watch.

But the Bombers have a very solid midfield – too solid to be ranked equal second-last for clearances, alongside the Tigers, before the start of the round. Parish, Shiel and Merrett are all All-Australian calibre players, while Jake Stringer’s absence from that rotation for most of this year owning to injury, and tonight concussion, hasn’t helped.

But not only have the former trio only rarely really worked as a tandem, they often get in each other’s way and all look to emerge from stoppages the same way, rather than spreading out in a wave like better teams do.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the underrated excellence of Fremantle’s midfield set-up, and I see Andrew Brayshaw’s role as one well suited for Merrett. Brayshaw gets a stack of the ball in dangerous situations every week despite being far from a clearance or contested king; it’s Caleb Serong, and on occasion Will Brodie, that do that heavy lifting in the contest.

In their match against GWS in Canberra, best afield Serong had 11 clearances, with Brayshaw only mustering two. That’s not because the latter had a dirty day; rather, he’s perpetually the one on the end of the handball out of traffic. That can be Merrett in a better Bombers set-up, with Shiel or Parish or both in the Serong role.

Defensively, the Dons are a harder fix, but Zach Reid is highly regarded as an emerging defender, Jordan Ridley could be a really good third tall-cum-interceptor with a bit more size around him, and Jake Kelly added Shai Bolton to his list of scalps with a really impressive night.

Lynch bagged five, all in the second half when the Tigers ran riot, but in the first half, with the match in dispute, the chief goalkickers were smalls Noah Cumberland and Shane Edwards with three apiece. Maurice Rioli Jr was also a constant menace.

Hind and Redman would do well to look at the balance of Daniel Rioli at the other end of the ground, whose run and dash from defence doesn’t come at a sacrifice to being able to guard an opponent to a high standard if need be.

With all that said, and all the obvious deficiencies the Bombers have, Sunday is an important day for the club, with the board set to convene to decide whether to back in Rutten or dump the Truck (ba dum tish).

The Dons aren’t so far into their rebuild to make it an idiotic move to start again; but make no mistake, this group would need a reboot under a new coach, whoever it may be.

This is not a Carlton-esque situation for a Michael Voss to come in and instantly bring about a bounce. It’s going to take time to fix the Bombers’ woes.

Backing Rutten in this year only to sack him in 12 months without any improvement would, however, be idiocy. Back him in, or cut your losses now.

If Rutten is the man, though, then devising a game plan that allows the Bombers to still flick the switch on their attacking instinct when required, but have a more stable bedrock to defend the turnover game, is a must.

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