The Western Bulldogs have a number of midfield superstars pushing them towards a second flag opportunity in as many years. However, arguably their most important midfield piece heading into finals isn't who you'd expect. Tim English is their point of difference and will be key to a Bulldogs premiership.
Tim English (#44) has reached new heights this year and has grown into an A grade ruckman. His progression as a sole ruck (and forward) this year isn't what many expected. The acquisition of Stefan Martin suggests the Bulldogs didn't think so either. They'd be thrilled with how things have turned out. At 23 years old, English has now developed into one of the best ruckman in the AFL with his defining qualities beginning to shine at an elite level. Let's start with the Martin offseason trade.
The Bulldog's acquired Martin for two reasons:
1. To protect English's development by not burdening him with the sole ruck responsibility. In prior years, English would wear down as games went on and he would become a liability against the AFL's best ruckmen;
2. With Martin taking most of the ruck reps and English pinch hitting in the ruck - it would allow English to develop his forward craft and improve his long term prospects by adding positional versatility to his game.
It worked well early on. Martin became a mentor for English who started to impact games as a tall marking option. He kicked 8 goals in his first 4 games. But Martin is susceptible to injuries and this year has been no different. The English-Martin pairing lasted six games and aside from a Jordan Sweet five-game-cameo, English has been given another opportunity as the sole ruck. He hasn't disappointed...
English is averaging 14 disposals, 5.3 marks (2nd in the AFL amongst ruckman) including 1.7 contested marks (ranked 6th in the AFL for rucks), 5.7 hit outs to advantage, 4.6 score involvements and 1.1 goals a game (1st for ruckman). There are a few things to note regarding English's improvement. The first is his bigger size. English entered the AFL at 86 kg - extremely light for a +200cm ruck. Now at 103 kg in his 5th season, the improved strength is evident. English no longer gets pushed off the ball easily or manhandled in the ruck and has a stronger upper body to combat physical pressure when he flies for marks.
The strength component is always an interesting topic for skinny ruckman entering the AFL. It's difficult to ascertain whether they struggle with the physicality simply because of their skinny build or whether the size is inconsequential and it's more of an issue with their timing and feel for protecting space. Luckily for Bulldogs fans, for English it seemed the former. A random anecdote to put this into context is English's duels against Grundy - one of the premier ruckman in the competition. Since his debut season, Grundy would manhandle and outwork English in those match ups. He beat him soundly in ruck contests both in the air with tap work and on ground level and would kill English on the spread around the ground. For any fantasy fans, most would remember Grundy as the automatic captain selection any time the Bulldogs played Collingwood. How much that has changed now.
English easily won the match up in Round 1, kicking four goals as a forward but dominating Grundy around the ground when he went into the ruck. His body work and added size really troubled Grundy.
From my perspective that game felt like the one for English - the game he realised he had arrived. Since then, the confidence is evident. His contested marking game has gone to new heights and he is now one of the best marking bigs in the league. This makes him threat around the ground given his aerobic fitness and he really challenges opposition ruckman. He's equal second among rucks for marks inside 50 and often hunts mismatches on a defensive switch when he pushes hard forward. If his direct match up is ball watching (as O'Brien does here), he's too big for opposition defenders to impact the contest in the air.
There's a reason he averages a goal and two shots a game (both rated elite per AFL standards). Defensively, he gets back to chop out his defenders and doesn't mind sitting in the hole.
It isn't just aerially that English has impressed. Given English's height, it's remarkable how clean and skilled he is. He's really improved on his follow up work at ground level and is more often than not a one touch player below his knees.
English is also a steady ball user. At times he looks like an extra midfielder. How many other ruckman can hit this kick? (and how many midfielders would actually give this to their ruckman?)
It's unlikely English ever reaches the heights of a Naitanui or even a Darcy when it comes to his clearance work. He rates quite poor in this category currently. But these clips are a source of optimism that his clearance numbers can improve and at worst, he can be a dangerous post clearance outlet. This point is emphasised further given that his poor clearance numbers are somewhat a consequence of the midfield talent around him.
Another area of improvement is English's tap work. At 207cm, English should be ranking inside the top 20 for both hit outs and hit outs to advantage. Whilst those numbers are a little misleading given his time forward earlier this year, he needs to provide more favourable delivery to his midfielders.
Nonetheless, the English improvement is an interesting subplot heading into the finals. English could be the missing link to a Bulldogs flag. The one weakness or question mark over their midfield going into this season was their ruck department and how it was going to work with both Martin and English. Unless it works structurally playing an extra tall, it seems unlikely now that Martin plays finals. English has well and truly stepped up to the plate. He's gone from a liability to a genuine match winner. Why English could be so important to their flag tilt is that the quality of ruckman, especially in the Top 4, is quite suspect. The only other top 4 team with a better ruckman is Melbourne. English is now a point of difference for a Bulldogs midfield who already possess a number of match up problems with their absurd midfield depth on the inside and outside. Leveraging English's stoppage work at ground level plus his offensive spread from contests against the likes of Stanley, McInerney and even Hickey could be the difference between a finals win or loss. He gets nowhere near the same attention as his teammates but make no mistake - Tim English is a key piece of the 2021 Bulldogs premiership puzzle.
Let us know if you agree.