2013 AFL Preview: Western Bulldogs

In football, it’s hard to get near the top. It’s even harder to stay there for a prolonged period of time.

And it’s harder again to avoid falling heavily after that prolonged period of time.

After years of rebuilding, the Bulldogs spent 2008 through 2010 occupying top four positions. An impressive feat, but one that ultimately feels a little hollow in hindsight. The Doggies were consistently amongst the best teams in the competition throughout this period, but they were also consistently a step behind the very best two in each of those seasons. They succumbed at the Preliminary Final stage all three times, and in two of them it wasn’t exceptionally close.

In fact the penultimate week of the season hasn’t really been a good one for Footscray. They’ve lost the last seven times they’ve played in Prelims, despite leading at half time in three of them. In 1997, against the Crows, they led by four goals heading into the final term, and wound up losing by two points. Preliminary Final week is just a hurdle they can’t get past.

After the latest three failed attempts the inevitable decline began. Players like West, Johnson, Akermanis, Hall, Welsh, Eagleton, and Gilbee began to depart or seriously decline over those three seasons. 2011 came, and the team struggled due to the lost experience and fire power. Injury also afflicted 2008 Brownlow Medallist Adam Cooney. Having already won the award aged 23, Cooney should have then begun to enter his footballing prime. Persistent knee problems have hindered him since, and it’s almost certain we will never see a return to his previous heights.

The team also lost out due to the expansion clubs. Both the Suns and the Giants pillaged the Bulldogs, prying away Harbrow and Ward, two key young pieces in their rebuilding efforts. The draft concessions offered to these new clubs diluted the talent pool available come draft day, and turned what would’ve usually been high draft selections for the Bulldogs into mid or late first rounders. As a result, their rebuilding efforts have been set back significantly.

It hasn’t all been entirely disastrous though. In 2010 the Dogs had access to two very touted father son prospects, Thomas Liberatore and Mitch Wallis. They would be forced into using their first two selections on them. As both were first round prospects, getting one of them at a second round price would’ve been a bargain in any year. However, the introduction of the Gold Coast altered the draft landscape. Their first round selection, pick 22, which would usually be an early second round pick, was spent on Wallis. Their second round selection, pick 41,  which would typically be a mid third round pick, secured Liberatore. As far as silver linings go, the 2010 draft was a good time to have two highly rated father son selections.

Yes I realise a “Pro” like “got some good young players at a below value price” doesn’t quite cancel out “Cons” like “our best player has a degenerative knee and looks a shadow of his former self when he should be in the prime of his career”, “two of our best youngsters were stolen from us by clubs being spoon-fed success”, and “nobody could kick a goal last season”.

2012 Key Statistics

Western Bulldogs 2012 Offensive
Average per Game Competition Rank
Disposals 369.6 3rd
Contested Possessions 142.3 tied 9th
Clearances 39 5th
Inside 50s 48.3 13th
Marks Inside 50 8.4 17th
Hitouts 43.2 4th
Goals 9.9 16th
Western Bulldogs 2012 Defensive
Average per Game Competition Rank
Points Against 104.59 15th
Inside 50s Conceded 52.1 11th
Marks Inside 50 Conceded 13 16th
Tackles 60.7 12th
Western Bulldogs 2012 Offensive/Defensive Differentials
Total Competition Rank
Inside 50s Opponent Differential(Total Inside 50s minus Total Inside 50s conceded) -84 13th
Marks Inside 50 Opponent Differential(Total Marks Inside 50 minus Total Marks Inside 50 conceded) -102 17th

What are they great at?

The Bulldogs posted top four rankings in two areas, which is unusual for a bottom four side.

The first is hit-outs per game. With Ben Hudson departing, the majority of responsibility in the ruck fell to Will Minson, who finished the the year with the fourth best individual hit-out average.

The second was for average disposals. This high ranking is born primarily out of two areas, one positive and one negative. The positive is the work of Minson and the inside midfielders giving the side first possession more often than not. The negative is the over-possessing the Bulldogs are prone to employing.

What are they good at?

The Bulldogs are still a very good clearance side. They have two very good clearance players in Matthew Boyd and Tom Liberatore , and two others not far behind in Ryan Griffen and Mitchell Wallis.

What do they need to improve?

Efficiency. Despite the good work in the middle of the park, the Bulldogs could only finish 13th for inside fifty entries. Racking up that many possessions but turning it into relatively few forward entries points to inefficient use of the ball.

Defence was another concern. They posted below average rankings in several categories, and were disastrous when it came to limiting marks inside fifty and ultimately conceding on the scoreboard. Dale Morris missed the entire season through injury, and his return should result in some improvement in these areas.

What are they bad at?

The Doggies biggest problems are up forward. In fact they’ve been in real strife since the departures of Brad Johnson and Barry Hall. Only the Giants had less marks inside fifty last season, and only they and the Suns scored less. Their leading goal kicker was Daniel Giansiracusa, who kicked less goals than years he has been alive. Liam Jones was the closest thing they had to a key forward. Jarrad Grant only managed ten marks inside fifty and twelve goals in his thirteen games. Liam Jones averaged more marks, but less goals in his nine appearances. Tory Dickson led the entire team in marks inside fifty. Tory Dickson. The Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012, and if by world they meant Western Bulldogs goal scoring options, then they were right. They have by far the worst forward line stocks in the league, and it isn’t even close. The Suns are the only ones in the same postcode, but at least they can point to Lynch and Day and hide under the word potential.

Points of Interest in 2013

Impressive young midfield

The Dogs may be at the foot of the ladder but it isn’t all doom and gloom. The midfield was above average in several areas last season, despite it’s best member, Cooney, being cruelled repeatedly by knee troubles. Club captain Boyd is an extremely good clearance winner and ball magnet, even if his footskills leave a little to be desired. Ryan Griffen is the creative force in the middle and generally has a handful of games each season where he dominates in this unique and difficult to describe fashion. It’s almost as if everything is easy. He collects disposals with ease and yet none of them seem cheap, which makes his quieter games all the more disappointing. If you put the player he is now on a side with more support in the middle he would be a very scary proposition. With Cooney not looking the same player he was a few years ago, and Boyd’s relatively ineffectual disposal, opposition sides can afford to dedicate nearly all of their restrictive efforts onto number sixteen.

But it’s the junior brigade that should have Footscray fans excited. Father son duo Liberatore and Wallis were first on the scene in 2011, and both are already key members of the side. Both are very good clearance winners, and their prowess should only improve as they mature. The next season they added Clay Smith, who is your archetypal tough nut with questionable disposal.

In the off-season the club found themselves with two picks back to back inside the top ten as a result of Callan Ward’s departure. They decided to invest both into the midfield, selecting Jake Stringer and Jackson Macrae. Many people consider Stringer to have been the most talented player in the draft, and his slip to five was a result of broken leg that kept him out of football and hindered him upon his return.

Stringer is known for his excellent strength and versatility. Long term he is an out and out midfielder, but his strength and ability overhead mean he is capable of being dangerous up forward, and he is likely to spend quite a bit of time up there for the Western Bulldogs as he returns to full fitness.

Macrae is the opposite in some respects. Known for elusiveness and skill, Macrae has predominately spent his junior career as an outside player, often on a wing. The Bulldogs will be hoping to see Liberatore and Wallis feed the ball out to him over the next ten years.

Someone to kick a goal…. please?

Barry Hall’s retirement has left a gaping hole in the forward line, and nobody has come close to remotely emulating even ten per cent of what he brought to the table. The problem is a good key forward is perhaps the hardest single position to fill. They don’t grow on trees. So until they find one the Bulldogs will have to improvise.

Liam Jones looks likely to get first dibs on centre-half forward. At 22, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and it will be needed if their forward fortunes are to improve and he is to cement a place for himself in the future. Another father-son in Ayce Cordy will be given plenty of opportunity at full-forward. While recruited as a ruckman, Minson’s presence and the lack of talls means Cordy will be shifted to fill a hole. Another proposed move involves switching Robert Murphy from the half-back flank to the forward fifty. Murphy called the forward line home during the middle of the last decade, kicking over thirty goals on two occasions, and while his decision making and clean disposal would be missed in the back-half, it’s again a case of “more need”. The club can’t afford to have the same forward setup as last season, and they can cover Murphy’s loss from the backline easier than they can whip up a smart goal scoring option.

Long term though a genuine goal scoring option is required. The Bulldogs missed out on Hogan to Melbourne, but another key forward is on offer in the coming draft. Thomas Boyd is a young Victorian in a similar vein to Hogan and Patton at GWS. With the Western Bulldogs looking at another lean year in the wins department, they could be in a position to secure Boyd.

Or they could trick convince Lance Franklin into joining them.

2013 Outlook

It’s going to be another long year for the Footscray faithful. The defence features an interesting mix of experience and youth, and the midfield features several excellent youngsters.

But youngsters is what they are, and no matter how talented they are it always takes time before they find their feet and genuinely excel at the elite level. There is a real chance that at the end of the season the Bulldogs midfield brigade will be tipped for great things sooner rather than later.

Regardless of how important an elite midfield is in football, no midfield could overcome the limitations of their forward line. It’s quite baron, and it’s difficult to see where the bulk of the goals are going to come from. This will limit how far the Bulldogs can climb no matter how much they improve in the middle and down back. As a result they need to remedy this as soon as possible. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Cordy, Jones and Grant are the answer, but they haven’t really given us a reason to think they could be. Manufacturing enough goals to win games is going to be the biggest issue for the club this coming season, and is a big reason why they are almost a lock to finish amongst the bottom four.

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