Josh Dunkley's defensive presence, Hayden Young's growth and player evaluations

Josh Dunkley's defensive work is integral to a successful Bulldogs season, Hayden Young's progression in his second season is super impressive and quick fire evaluations of a number of interesting players in the AFL

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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1. Josh Dunkley's Defensive Presence

After a 0-2 start, the Bulldogs are on the winners list after a close victory against the red hot Sydney Swans. Much of what we’ve come to love about the Bulldogs was on full display for the majority of the game. The run in waves, the outnumbering at the contest, the ground ball presence and their trademark handball chains to surge forward was evident. There was a sense of urgency to start well that wasn't apparent in the first two weeks.

It's remarkable to watch when they play this way. There are a number of Bulldogs players who work the angles of their handballs so well (Treloar, Hunter and Liberatore in particular) to the point where they can make a great defensive team like the Sydney Swans look disorganised with their come forward to defend principles. These handball chains are a thing of beauty when Bulldogs players are in sync:

But maybe even more important than the Bulldogs finding their offensive groove is how much stronger the Dogs looked defensively. Let’s not forget that Sydney was the highest scoring team going into Round 3 and made their living scoring off turnovers and transitions from their defensive half. We saw with Geelong that if you aren't prepared to defend and cover up your mistakes on turnover, Sydney will score on you.

The plan from Beveridge was evident. In regards to defending in the forward half, the Dogs had a clear focus to close off Sydney’s exits on the off ball side, provide maximum pressure with their smalls (Weightman was sensational with this) and attempt to limit the ball use of Campbell and Blakey, two of Sydney’s better drivers out the back half. Yet, in order for the Dogs to defend in their forward half and keep Sydney in front of them, they had to win the territory battle and close off Sydney’s exits outside of the stoppage.

To win the territory battle, grunt and ball winning ability around the contest is key. Enter Josh Dunkley. Dunkley is a big bodied midfielder elite on the inside of a contest when given the licence to hunt and win his own ball. Dunkley has his critics and some of it’s warranted. He lacks the leg speed to damage teams on the outside and is an average kick with little variety in his type of kicks. He has the versatility to play a mid-forward role, but has never really troubled defenders in 1v1 scenarios with his body work given his size and ranks average in contested marks for his position. So a big bodied midfielder who gets a lot of disposals but isn’t damaging by foot? Sounds like an empty stat midfielder.

The thing with Dunkley is he is one of, if not the best, disruptive midfielder in the AFL when he wants to be. Outside of his impressive 31 disposals and 6 clearances on the weekend, he had 11 tackles. No other player on the ground had more than 7. These weren’t bottom of the pack tackles either. Dunkley dispossess midfielders with a clear path to dispose of the ball, creating an instant turnover opportunity for the Bulldogs to pounce on.

The below vision encapsulates the statement that Dunkley is a ‘disruptive defensive midfielder’. He first lays a diving tackle on Mills’ that turns a definite inside 50 into a 50/50 disputed ball in the middle of the ground. Sydney wins the disputed ball but Dunkley doesn’t stop there, following up again for another tackle, pinning Mills and winning a free kick. This kind of work rate without the ball can be game changing.

Here's another scenario - a likely inside 50 for Sydney results in a midfielder stoppage due to Dunkley's desire to lay a smother. Inspirational stuff.

The combination in Dunkley’s game to cause turnovers and disrupt defensively through his tackling and his ball winning ability inside makes him a very valuable midfielder in the modern AFL. While the statistic can be overhyped, winning contested possession consistently builds trust with outside midfielders to hold their width and be dangerous as outlets, an important point when those players are Smith, Hunter, Daniel and Dale out of the backline.

Dunkley is pivotal to the success and balance of this Dog’s midfield. He was inconsistent with his defensive pressure last year due to a mixture of injuries and lack of midfield minutes. There isn’t an expectation that he amasses 11 tackles every week but his desire to nullify opposing midfielders at the contest and cause turnovers when they arise will be crucial. Dunkley is the biggest bull in the AFL when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Keep an eye on him.

2. Lightning round player evaluation

Quick fire evaluation of interesting players across the AFL:

Matthew Kennedy

The big difference between the Kennedy of now and a few years ago is his improved aerobic fitness and his ability to make contested marks as a forward. Neither the Giants nor Carlton were in a position to gift games to a player who was lazy defensively and Kennedy was. Now that Kennedy coves the ground consistently, it allows his strongest qualities to shine and he’s quietly becoming a top grade AFL midfielder. 9th in the AFL for disposals and 13th for Inside 50’s signifies a damaging midfielder who is winning a strong clip of his disposals in the forward half. Kennedy tackles hard and is incredibly strong in the air, providing mismatch issues for defenders when he pushes forward. The issue with Kennedy will be finding enough minutes for him in the midfield. A like for like player in Cripps hurts that opportunity, but he’s shown enough versatility forward of the ball to be impactful. He showed this promise late last year but I’m not sure he’ll keep up this production as the year progresses and Carlton hits an inevitable roadblock.

Sam Switkowski

One of those players that the casual fan outside of Fremantle wouldn't know about. Switkowski is a small forward that plays both as a high half forward and a crumbing small forward. Switkowski has elite, game changing pace. His speed along with his elusiveness makes him an incredibly dangerous forward roaming back to goal from higher up the ground. Because of his work rate to provide pressure, he often loses his defender running back to goal. He creates scoring opportunities for Fremantle simply through breaking the lines with his pace and putting on forward pressure I50. He ranks 5th for bounces and 15th for tackles inside 50. In seasons past, he’s been a low volume disposal / high impact player, averaging a score involvement every second disposal (10-12 disposals per game). Small sample size but in 2022 that has jumped up to an average of 18 disposals while averaging 6.5 score involvements per game. He’s crucial to Fremantle finding avenues to goal in what is one of the more unconventional forward lines in the AFL.

Brad Close

Light frame and small in stature but is incredibly composed, weights his kicks well and is a one touch player. He’s the exact type of player Geelong need, a smart forward who acts as a connector between Geelong’s midfielders and the Hawkins-Cameron duo. Ball users who understand timing and angles with their kicks are valuable, especially given Geelong’s plethora of lead up forwards. Again, small sample size but Close has significantly increased his marks per game (+2.9 and +1.6 goals from 2021). This partly due to a role change (he’s playing higher) but also Close is great at identifying when to separate from his defender at a disputed contest and spread to the outside. He’s quickly overtaken Dahlhaus in that role given he provides similar pressure yet provides far more class with his ball use and goal kicking nous inside 50. Unfortunately, Close has a low ceiling as anything other than a smart small forward given his size. He needs to put on more weight to enhance his upside.

3. Hayden Young

I’ve been really impressed with Hayden Young’s development this year. Pick 7 pick from last years draft, Young is a tall but fluid player at 189cm with the ability to play on both smalls and talls. Prior to an injury that took away most of his rookie season, Young immediately looked comfortable at AFL level, even with his light frame.

There are a couple of things that jump out about Young. The first being his exquisite kicking skills. Young has a lovely left foot which is mechanically sound and simple. He has all the variations in his arsenal - weighted kicks to advantage, penetrating kicks that spend little time in the air, long 50m+ kicks perfect for clearing D50 and kicking across his body to hit dangerous 45 degree kicks . What was prevalent about Young when he entered the league was the confidence in his ability with the ball. This is an obvious yet important trait for any good kick, but especially for a young player. to attempt the difficult ones. This is a composed, weighted kick to Schultz advantage.

Everyone knew of Young’s kicking skills coming into the draft. That along with his size automatically made him a tantalising prospect. Young is famous for in the dying stages of the U/18 carnival, he kicked a ball across the ground from almost one wing to another to set up the match winning goal, a moment that had recruiters jumping out of their seats.

But what has come as a surprise to me about Young is how confident he is in the air. His timing and positioning in the back half to float across and intercept forward entries has been impressive. He leads Fremantle in marks this year with 23 and is 18th in the AFL for intercepts. You can tell this is a smart player when they are making reads like this in the back half.

Young is highly regarded as a player because he has two qualities that are really valued at AFL level (efficient kicking skills and aerial intercept ability). Given these skills both coincide with one another and are skills that can’t really be taught to an elite level, Fremantle have a special player in the making. Interceptors can only be truly impactful offensively if they can hurt teams with their disposal going the other way off the turnover. In most instances, such interceptors look to try and find their damaging teammates post intercept to make the most of the situation. Think Keith with Dale/Daniel, Lever with Salem, Jones with Docherty (last year) etc. But Young doesn’t need to find that player after an intercept. He is that player. Young’s score involvements and intercepts have both improved this year - representing the value in the combination of those skills.

The natural progression for Young will be a move to the midfield but he’s a natural fit off half back, setting up Fremantle’s transition drives from the backline. Young is as smooth as they come with ball in hand. I believe he’s a future star of the competition. Let me know if you agree.

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