The Demons and the Bulldogs. The two best teams of the 2021 AFL season face off in the last dance. Here’s a statistic to perfectly encapsulate how dominant both of these teams have been for 2021. The Bulldogs were either 1st or 2nd on the ladder from Rounds 3-21 and the Demons were either 1st, 2nd or 3rd from Round 3-23. They have both beaten each other this year with plenty to take away from those encounters, yet both teams are quite different then to now. This is one of the more highly anticipated Grand Finals in recent years and it’s easy to see why. There is a ridiculous amount of elite AFL talent on display (six of the top eight ranked players in the AFL per AFL ratings). There is also just an inevitable feeling that this may be the start of a long finals rivalry between these two clubs given their list demographics. There’s plenty to discuss so lets get into it!
Mids, Mids and more Mids
Is there any surprise that these two teams made the Grand Final given the absurd talent and depth of their midfields? Recency bias aside, this may be the best Grand Final midfield battle we’ve had in the last decade.
Petracca, Oliver, Bontempelli, Macrae and Gawn. Five All Australian’s who are dominant in multiple facets of the game. Viney and Liberatore are two of the best inside midfielders in the AFL. We all know how talented Dunkley and Treloar are when fit and firing and Harmes is back to his versatile best with his move into the midfield. Smith, Hunter and Langdon are three of the best metres gained wingmen in the competition and Brayshaw plays an important defensive role that will be pivotal against the Bulldogs. The numbers paint the picture and emphasis the dominance of both midfields during the season.
For all the subsequent analysis below regarding a number of important focus areas, it’d be careless not to make this point very clear. The midfield group who can get on top will more than likely win the Grand Final for their team. The benefits of winning the midfield battle are endless – quality F50 entries, favourable field position and multiple stoppages inside forward 50 resulting in quality scoring opportunities. Given how strong both midfields are, expect patches of dominance and waves of momentum from both sides. It’ll come down to the midfield group who can take advantage of that momentum for the longest.
The first thing that jumps out is the difference in styles. The Bulldogs are a handball happy, draw and release type of midfield. They are far more willing to work their way through a stoppage scenario with hands as opposed to quick kicks, sometimes diverting backwards as a mechanism to launch forward alongside their damaging half backs. They rank 3rd for handballs per game yet rank 15th for kicks and 17th for marks. They don’t value holding possession with marks like a Geelong or even Port Adelaide. They prefer live ball, fast play scenarios which caters to the strengths of their dynamic inside/outside mix. They run in waves both behind the ball carrier, laterally and forward of the ball carrier. Beveridge gives the Bulldogs a licence to use forward handballs at their own discretion. If the opposition doesn’t place enough pressure at the source, the Bulldogs make teams look silly and generate damaging post clearance opportunities like this one.
But this is where the midfield duel will be so fascinating. Who’s strength will hold up for long enough? The Bulldogs are aware that Melbourne are not only the best defensive team in the league, they are one of the best at applying pressure at the source. Melbourne rank 1st for tackles and 1st for midfield intercepts – an alarming combination given the excess use of hand balls invites such pressure and creates turnover opportunities. Melbourne were ruthless with their pressure last week against Geelong, forcing them into countless mistakes and hurting them on the counter attack.
Round 11 was an interesting case study where Melbourne brought the heat and the Bulldogs fell away quickly. Even after Melbourne’s pressure drop off, the Dogs fumbled for the rest of the night due to perceived pressure. Interestingly, the Bulldogs handballed far less that night at a K:H ratio of 1.49 (season average of 1.33). Round 19 was a different story – the Bulldogs won the game and were far more efficient in front of goal. They were able to hand ball chain more out of stoppages on the wider MCG and all of the Bulldogs midfielders had a significant impact on the game. In saying this, based on expected scores the Round 19 game should have been a draw. Sometimes it’s just as simple as taking your chances.
Melbourne offensively are balanced in their approach. They aren’t a metres gained at all costs team like Brisbane. They aren’t a mark possession control tempo team like Geelong nor are they the handball happy Bulldogs. They prefer a blend of all three (3rd in Kicks, 13th in Marks and 8th in handballs). They can score in multiple ways. In the Prelim, it was their scores from stoppage scenarios – kicking 101 points from that area of the ground against Geelong. All year, Melbourne has valued forward momentum and favourable field position because that’s how they get the game on their terms with their defence. But as said above, their ball movement isn’t about forward momentum at all costs. It’s so evident this year how much Petracca and Oliver have emphasised driving their legs out of stoppages and taking the space in front of them. Instead of quick kicks forward, Melbourne now implore that extra handball release when it’s there to put another player into space forward of the ball. This results in far more deeper, dangerous forward 50 entries (an issue of Melbourne’s since 2018). Here’s two examples against Geelong where both Petracca and Oliver drove with their legs to exit congestion which resulted in meaningful forward opportunities.
If the Bulldogs allow the Demons to get quality exits like this consistently, they can almost kiss the game goodbye. Melbourne are too good at suffocating their opponents inside forward 50 due to their pressure (1st in the AFL for tackles inside 50). Add this to the fact that they are organised defensively and can play either Gawn or Jackson as a loose ruckman behind the ball for added protection – it’ll be a tall order for the Dogs.
The Bulldogs had midfield issues prior to the finals with their positioning and players disregarding their defensive assignments. Hawthorn made them look second rate with how they set up and allowed players to come through the front of the stoppage. Obviously, they cleaned this up as noted here but it must be their top priority as a midfield group against Melbourne – a team who taps backwards frequently but surge forward from behind the stoppage.
It helps when you have the best player in the AFL leading your midfield. Bontempelli’s positioning the last two weeks has been a master class in football IQ. Against Brisbane, he adjusted his positioning to assume a deeper sweeper role when it was evident Brisbane were going to surge the ball forward via their ruck dominance. Last week, he played forward of the stoppage, equalising Port’s defensive sweeper, defending any handball chains out the back and acting as a facilitator to outside Bulldogs midfielders.
The Bulldogs are also a strong defensive midfield group and they’ll need to be at their best in this area. Melbourne will give the Bulldogs chances on turnover. Melbourne average the 3rd most turnovers in the AFL and in their Round 19 win, the Bulldogs forced Melbourne into a +26 clanger differential and tied Melbourne in the tackle count. That’s the blueprint to creating enough quality scoring opportunities. Specifically for Dunkley, Bontempelli and Liberatore, their defensive performance will be just as important as their offensive performance to winning the Grand Final.
This is one of the most tactically important decisions of the game for both coaches. Are the Bulldogs going to continue pushing a forward into the stoppage as a +1? (usually Smith or Treloar) If so, will Melbourne decide to create drop off or follow that player into the stoppage?
Last week, the Bulldogs destroyed Port Adelaide on the inside. Tactically, Port were disorganised and allowed Smith or Treloar to roll up into the stoppage while they opted to play a loose defender out the back. Here is one of the many examples of the Bulldogs taking advantage of that +1 with Byrnes Jones ineffective as the drop off in a sweeper role. (note that Smith is also the +1 as Port elected to play Jonas as a deeper drop off and affects the final kick)
Here’s what we think will happen. The Bulldogs will try a myriad of things – going with even numbers at the stoppage, one extra or sometimes even two. At least initially, Melbourne’s defenders will be instructed to drop off – something they’ve done for the entire year. When Melbourne are given time from a slow stoppage restart, look for them to generate the drop off they want. Ideally that’s Lever. Lever will look to play on a medium sized forward regardless, but if it’s Salem’s opponent who pushes into the stoppage, look for Lever to organise Salem to take his man and allow Lever to sit in the hole as that extra.
With no time to generate that, Melbourne have been happy for Salem to sit off the contest given his smarts and ability to find a quick mark from a releasing backwards handball. Because of that extra around the ball, the Bulldogs are far more likely to win that initial contest but if Melbourne’s pressure is solid and the Bulldogs are forced into rushed decisions, this is where Lever will take advantage. Melbourne and specifically Yze (Melbourne’s midfield coach) will be flexible in this approach. If the Bulldogs are generating quality clearances from that extra midfielder at the stoppage, they’ll change things up and neutralise the outnumber inside. But I fully expect Melbourne to begin with a drop off if the Bulldogs play a +1 at the stoppage.
Overall, Melbourne have more margin for error in the midfield given their ability to score from intercepts in the back half. But given how damaging the Dogs are both on the inside and outside, it’s a risk that Melbourne can’t afford to take. If Melbourne’s pressure is slightly off, the Bulldogs will generate quality inside 50 entries with their ability to use handballs to get their midfielders into open space. Who else can’t wait for this midfield battle?
Don’t Lever Jake Alone (…apologies)
Jake Lever has been discussed at length in the Demons finals previews and it’s both warranted and unwarranted. Warranted because he may go down as one of the best intercept defenders we’ve ever seen and is the leader and organiser of the best defensive team in the AFL. It’s somewhat unwarranted because it isn’t so much Lever’s individual brilliance that makes Melbourne great but their defensive system headed by May, Lever and Petty. It’s the best combination of key defensive position players in the league. However, Lever is the focal point given he is the most damaging offensively as a defender with his ability to intercept and begin counter attack launches. The Bulldogs are aware of how damaging intercept possessions in the back half are and it’s why they clearly game planned for it against a similar intercept defender in Aliir Aliir.
In the preliminary final, as we predicted, Josh Schache essentially tagged Aliir Aliir. He didn’t lead up at the ball or push high up the ground which made it impossible for Aliir to drop off. In marking contests, he took Aliir’s body legally with physicality and deterred Aliir’s ability to run and jump at the ball. Look at the Bulldogs players get into Aliir after the Naughton mark – this was a clear plan.
Aliir was taken out of his comfort zone and was visibility helpless but it wasn’t just Schache either. There was a clear plan for other Bulldogs forwards and midfielders up the ground. If a Bulldog forward other than Schache was matched up on Aliir, their role wasn’t to fly or crumb – it was to put your body in front of Aliir and ensure he couldn’t impact the contest. The Bulldogs midfielders had a clear strategy that if they had to kick, they would kick it to Aliir Aliir instead of avoiding him. Avoiding Aliir allows him to play to his strengths and read the ball in the air and mark coming in from the side of the contest – something Lever also does well. This approach allowed Schache to engage Aliir and forced him to defend 1v1. The Bulldogs were so disciplined in their approach that it worked magnificently.
They will attempt the same with Lever. If the Bulldogs can bring the same cohesiveness and discipline, Lever will struggle to play his natural intercepting game and will be forced to defend Schache 1v1. But there’s a couple of things to flag if I’m the Bulldogs.
Lever’s received similar attention for most of this year and is a far better one on one defender than Aliir. Lever will drop off at any opportuntiy he gets. Schache has to be super cautious of this because he isn’t going to get Lever as high up the ground . One of the mistakes Port made in the Prelim was continuing to use Aliir as a marking target exit out of kick outs. This meant he was immediately out of position when the ball came back in. Lever won’t give Schache this much space out the back. (side note but look at how methodical the Bulldogs midfielders are to not rush this kick to Aliir but work it through hands before kicking it on Aliir’s head out of position)
Lever is different in that regard. He is happy to play the goal keeper role for Melbourne behind the deepest match up on the ground and read the play forward of the ball to make smart decisions if the opposition get into a fast play. Lever is far more inclined to drop off and play the deepest defender and if Schache wants to follow him a hundred metres off the ball, Melbourne will take that as a win.
The other factor in tagging Lever is that it creates a greater reliance on English and in particular Naughton to provide a bail out marking option for the Bulldogs. Naughton was superb last week and tore the game apart early but going from McKenzie to May is a significant difference. May’s had Naughton’s measure in their previous match ups and is excellent at worrying Naughton with his physicality. If Schache is tasked with tagging Lever which creates effectively one less forward, it forces Naughton to play higher up the ground where May won’t mind assuming the intercepting role and dropping off on Naughton when appropriate. Most have seen the vision of Hannan seeking the May match up to expose Lever on Naughton but it won’t phase Melbourne – Lever still had 15 intercept possessions that night.
They also attempted such a tactic with Josh Bruce in the side who is a significant loss in the context of this mini battle. The Schache tactic is smart and the right one for the Bulldogs on Lever especially given how effective it was against Aliir. But they’ve played their hand now – Lever’s had two weeks to prepare for this. Of course, some things are impossible to stop even when a player knows it’s coming. But I have a feeling Lever and Melbourne’s defenders will be ready and adjust accordingly. Regardless, they are comfortable with May or even Petty playing as that intercept defender if Lever is forced into a lockdown role. This is a really important tactical battle in the context of this game. Look out for it in the Grand Final.
Lets start with the Bulldogs forward line. We’ve discussed the match ups of May and Naughton and Lever and Schache above. The other key one will be Petty on English. English hit the scoreboard against Melbourne in Round 19 switching between ruck and forward and poses as a threat for Melbourne as a more permanent forward given Martin’s back in the ruck. Petty’s quietly emerged as a really good defender – one that excels both in 1v1 scenarios and as an intercepter. Much like May with Naughton, Petty has to do his work early on English and not allow him a straight line jump at the ball. This is especially the case given English has 10cm on Petty and (likely) has a longer wingspan. Petty engaged Hawkins early and wasn’t afraid to play in front and dictate his leading space. This was easy because the pressure up the ground was good enough. If it isn’t on Saturday, Petty may lose English in the air which poses as a great opportunity for the Dogs to exploit this match up. Again, it must be noted that Bruce is a big out against Melbourne given he averages 1.6 goals against them and would have forced one of May, Lever or Petty to be accountable to him.
Salem seems the natural match up for Hannan. Both players were at their best for their respective teams in the Prelims finals. Salem had 29 disposals, 7 inside 50’s and 720 metres gained and Hannan had 14 disposals, 4 inside 50’s, 7 score involvements and 3 goals. The Bulldogs have to put time into Salem’s offensive game out of the backline. He’s too damaging and integral to how Melbourne score from the back half to let him roam all on his lonesome . He doesn’t need much time to hurt teams.
Hannan’s a great match up as a solid defensive forward who will make Salem accountable given he’s dangerous in the air and has an ability to finish around goals.
Rivers (who’s been shaky in his first finals series) took Weightman last time and both had their moments in that match up. Yet, Weightman’s grown as a player since and it’s a huge responsibility for Rivers. Ideally, Melbourne give Hibberd that match up but they’d much prefer to back in Rivers on Weightman and give Hibberd whichever midfielder out of Treloar/Smith/Dunkley is forward at the time.
Bailey Smith is the wildcard for the Bulldogs’ scoring potential. He’s moved from an inside midfield role to a hybrid wing / forward role and he’s excelled in the finals. He’s kicked 7 goals in the last two weeks! Melbourne must respect him – it’s been nothing short of insane watching both Brisbane and Port Adelaide allow Smith to push high up the ground but not track him on the way back to goal unaccounted. In these finals, there’s been numerous instances where he’s been unmarked running inside 50 and has kicked crucial goals. Hibberd seems the likely match up and he’ll have to be disciplined in his approach. Smith holds his shape outside the contest and bolts forward once the Bulldogs win a clearance. Hibberd can’t ball watch like McCluggage did here.
Given their multiple avenues to goal, if Smith kicks 3 the Bulldogs likely win this game.
The key discrepancy in the midfield is the ruck department. Gawn is in career best form and is starting to cement his legacy as one of the all time best Melbourne players AND rucks ever. I haven’t witnessed a better preliminary finals performance in my lifetime. Martin will do his best to negate and should be better for the run against Port but if Gawn starts to get on top around the ground, English will have to play more ruck minutes – something Beveridge has been reluctant to do. Both Gawn and Jackson will hurt the Bulldogs with their follow up work and act almost as another midfielder inside – another reason why Melbourne are happy to give the Bulldogs that +1. English’s tap work isn’t his strength but he needs to take advantage of this when he’s against Jackson in this facet of the game. It’ll be a luxury if he can tap it to his dynamic midfielders on the move.
The rest of the midfield battle will be head to head match ups with superstars everywhere. Bontempelli, Petracca, Oliver, Macrae and Liberatore are all capable of match winning performances. It’s a lock that one of these five players will have a legacy defining grand final performance which wins the game for their club. The one tag may come from Harmes who Melbourne sent to Liberatore in Round 11 and will do again (Sparrow if not Harmes). Liberatore was instrumental to the Bulldogs start in the prelim, amassing 5 contested possessions and a number of clearances early to drive them forward. Port again were disorganised in starting Drew on the bench. Expect Viney to start on Liberatore but a quick hand over with Harmes to occur early – Melbourne won’t make Port’s mistake. Liberatore will know the attention is coming. It’ll be important that he fights through the tag and that the Bulldog’s midfielders chop him out with blocks around stoppages.
Melbourne’s forward line vs. the Bulldogs backline is where the biggest discrepancy in quality lies even if it’s quite marginal. Melbourne have so many avenues to goal which will stretch this Bulldogs defence. In terms of kicking multiple goals, if it isn’t Brown or Fritsch, it’s Pickett or Spargo. McDonald looks to be returning closer to his best form. Every player is capable of kicking at least two goals in a game – a rare trait for any forward line. But the Bulldogs will be more confident with their best defender in Keath back who will take the Brown match up. Brown’s playing with more confidence and is starting to actually take contested marks now but Keath’s a superb defender in one on one scenarios (18% contested defence loss rate). Brown will look to leverage his aerobic tank to force Keath high up the ground and try to beat him back to goal.
Duryea on Pickett will be important and it’s a similar match up to Duryea’s superb lockdown role on Cameron a few weeks ago. He will have to be cautious not to overcommit with Pickett who is elusive and has a deadly step. Pickett’s a bit of a barometer for this Melbourne forward line that has struggled in the past to kick goals in patches of games. When Pickett kicks 2+ goals, Melbourne are 10-1-1 (that one loss against the Bulldogs!).
Dale and Daniel are the two offensive generators for the Bulldogs out of the back half. On average, they combine for 916 metres gained per game. The Demons need to be weary of Dale at all times – especially around stoppage situations in the Bulldogs’ front half. Dale has such a penetrating kick that he’s a threat out the back of contests to generate deep forward 50 entries which allow the Bulldogs to set up behind the ball. Sparrow seems the natural match up to play a defensive role on Dale but Sparrow loves to hunt the football and can lose his shape around the contest when the ball is in dispute. If he gets the match up, he’ll have strict orders to start on Dale as a reference point and work off him.
Spargo will get the Daniel match up and is a sound footballer both defensively and offensively. Daniel has hurt Melbourne in the past with his creative ball use and is the key player that opens up handball running lanes for the Bulldogs with his exquisite kicking skills through the middle of the ground. Spargo will look to force Daniel to defend but must be cautious of Daniel as the Bulldogs will go through him.
The other likely match ups are Wood on McDonald and Williams on Fritsch.
It feels like Melbourne’s grand final to lose. All year we’ve talked ad nauseum about their ability to get the game on their terms by locking the ball in their forward half of the ground and setting up their defensive press to force forward half turnovers. The Bulldogs will have to be at their free flowing best – running in waves with consecutive, well timed handballs that beat Melbourne’s pressure. Not only do they have to be their risk taking best – there’s also an understanding that they have to control the tempo of the game when Lever or May are parked behind the ball. Isolating and winning the Lever match up with Schache/Hannan will go a long way to winning this game, especially if the Bulldogs can get on top around the ball and give their forwards quick access. The Demons just have less margin for error than the Bulldogs. If they win or break even in the midfield – they will get more scoring opportunities. The Bulldogs can’t afford to lose the midfield battle and expect to win this game given how Melbourne set up behind the ball. The difference is Melbourne can lose this area and still win given their ability to generate intercepts and create scoring opportunities from their back half. Now, more scoring opportunities doesn’t necessarily mean Melbourne win, as we’ve seen in past grand finals and Melbourne have been inaccurate in front of goal this year. If the Bulldogs take their chances early and Melbourne squander theirs – we could be in for a tight finish. And we can’t forget, the Bulldogs have the best player in the AFL on their side which means for something especially if the game is close at the end. Melbourne by 19.
Let us know if you agree.
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