Essendon have issues, Ben Keays can't be stopped and Jack Sinclair's ascension

The statistics that highlight Essendon's issues, Ben Keays continues to impress and is Jack Sinclair the most improved player in the AFL?

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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The Bombers have issues

Essendon are the talk of the town in AFL circles this week and for all the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I had planned to discuss my expectations of them earlier this year, however, I decided to hold off until this week given they were to play an opponent on a similar trajectory to them. Or at least what I thought to be a similar trajectory.

Boy was that a bad decision...

Essendon were deplorable against Fremantle. They allowed Fremantle to dictate the game in the second half without any show of fight. I praised Fremantle last week for the subtle tweaks and improvements they’ve made to their defensive structures and it was apparent on Sunday. Well, today it's very much the opposite with Essendon. But to save you all from reading another lengthy bashing of Essendon, I am going to list some key statistics that really emphasis where things are going wrong and why (spoiler alert: there’s a lot going wrong).

Essendon’s midfielders refuse to defend with little to no organisation around stoppages. They rank dead last for stoppage clearance differential in the AFL, meaning they have the largest discrepancy in stoppage clearance losses each week (-6).

Of course, winning the clearance battle isn’t everything. Melbourne are miles ahead of the competition and even they are poor in the clearance battle. But they are one of the best teams at winning the ball post clearance.

Essendon are poor in both areas, mostly because their shape and balance around the contest is uncoordinated and disorganised. Midfielders like Parish, McGrath and Shiel are 'bees to a honey pot'. They all hunt for the ball and rarely have the awareness to hold their shape when a teammate is in a better position to win the initial possession. There are countless occurrences this season where Essendon’s inside mids disregard the importance of the sweeper role, don't win the initial possession and allow their opponent to exit through the front of the stoppage.

Naturally, this means Essendon are playing a game of 'all or nothing' where they either win the initial possession inside or are completely exposed on the outside. But that’s not even the case. They are ranked 17th in the AFL for contested possessions. They aren't winning the disputed ball.

It gets worse. Their pressure is non existent and they are failing to do the simple things, such as checking an oppositions run after they dispose of the ball or to locate a man outside their own D50 - defence 101 kind of stuff.

These efforts were common on Sunday:

- Parish doesn't check Colyer's run and then musters to a walk as Colyer blows by him for another disposal

- Switkowski is left unmanned just outside 50. Colyer has time to pick up a juggling ball, find Switkowski with no Essendon player within 5 metres of him who turns around unimpeded and hits Taberner alone inside 50. All of this in a slow play scenario.

Essendon are ranked 18th in the AFL for tackles even though they gather 18 less disposals on average a game. A team that gives up ten unanswered goals has holes everywhere but when that same team is giving up on average over 100 points every week, that isn’t an anomaly, it's a problematic trend. It starts and ends with the midfield and plenty of blame can go to Essendon’s midfielders, but not all of it...

Essendon cannot lock the ball in their forward half. Guys like Perkins, Guelfi and Waterman are high half forwards that provide little pressure once the ball hits the ground, resulting in easy exits for opposition teams. The statistics back it up, Essendon are ranked 15th for tackles inside 50. Turnovers are king in the modern AFL and Essendon’s forwards and midfielders don’t generate nearly enough when they don’t have the ball. They are 17th for turnovers caused. That's the key difference between a team like Fremantle - who is generating easy scores by being one of the best forward half turnover teams.

An interesting thing to consider and a likely reason for this disfunction is just how inexperienced Essendon’s forward line actually is. At one point on the weekend, they had Wright, Perkins, Cox, Waterman and Hobbs all in the same forward line. None have played over 100 games and most aren’t even close to 50. Essendon are setting them up to fail with a lack of direction and leadership down there.

Further, Essendon are one of the worst inside 50 differential teams in the AFL, averaging 7 less a game. This is reflected in their shots on goal, averaging only 22.6 shots a game (4th worst in the AFL). Essendon aren’t giving their forwards sustainable opportunities but they aren’t taking their limited opportunities either. Not a good combination for kicking a winning score.

The most damning statistic of all. Essendon have only won 6/20 quarters this season.

This is BIG warning signs for Ben Rutten. This isn’t a slow start nor a tough fixture situation. Whatever defensive philosophy he came into the season with is unidentifiable watching this team. What were the key points of emphasis and improvement areas that Rutten flagged in the pre season?

There is little structure or balance with their midfielders. Their forwards don't emphasise covering off exits (especially off ball side) leaving their defenders on an island. They simply do not defend sufficiently for long enough, especially when momentum is against them.

This isn’t a quick fix either because there’s so many issues to remediate. It's old school but Rutten needs to strip things down to a basic level defensively.

Midfielders are given defensive starting points and told to beat their individual opponent. Changes are made to their forward structure to ensure that a. there’s enough pressure around the ball when it hits the ground and b. their talls are bringing the ball to ground (something they were poor at allowing Pearce to mop up everything that came in).

We are only 5 rounds in but it feels like we are quickly approaching a fork in the road moment for Essendon’s long term vision come ANZAC day. The AFL competition can leave you behind in a heartbeat. Essendon better figure it out quickly or that’s exactly what will happen.

Ben Keays can’t be stopped

I don’t think enough has been said about the year Ben Keays is having. I went in depth on the progression of Keays last year and how he was one of the biggest improvers in the AFL. Yet, improvement aside, he ended up arguably the Crows best player in 2021. He finished 2nd in their B&F, averaging 28 disposals, 6 tackles and 5 clearances.

That’s a remarkable season for a player many deemed lucky to win a rookie spot with the Crows in the first place. Most (including myself) believed Keays would regress in 2022, due to the return of Crouch and because it’s a common occurrence when a player ascends so quickly the year prior. Yet, 5 rounds in and Ben Keays can’t be stopped. He’s gone to another level.

It’s reflected in his per games statistics:

31 disposals (4th in the AFL), 5 marks, 6 tackles (7th), 6 inside 50's (8th) and 6 clearances (15th)

Our analysis last year encapsulates the kind of player Keays is and the strengths he brings to the table but it’s worth noting some further points here:

Keays’ work rate is arguably the best in the AFL. He averages 7.8 score involvements (12th in AFL) and 9.4 ground ball gets a game (7th in AFL). He is consistently the first to arrive and first to leave a stoppage, meaning he consistently provides Adelaide with an outnumber around the ball. This year more than ever, his work rate is placing him in more dangerous spots around goal.

Here, he pushes hard forward off a defensive transition and has the class to step his opponent and finish.

PS. Notice how his direct match up on the day, Parish, jogs to a stop outside 50 while Keays is 20 metres ahead of him and kicks the goal. Another example regarding our discussion point above.

Further, Keays is a center clearance specialist. He averages almost 4 center clearances a game, ranked 4th in the AFL. He has a knack for reading the direction of the ruckmens tap and consistently gets to the drop of the ball. Even when he starts out of position or isn’t the go to, his ability to win the second disposal change, commonly off an opposition midfielder, is elite. This is a superb tackle to win possession for Adelaide when he was completely out of position initially.

So why don’t we hear him talked about as a Brownlow or AA candidate? With Keays, it comes back to his foot skills and composure going inside 50. Sure, his effectiveness by foot, according to the stats, has improved this year. Albeit, he's still considered below average and it's part of the reason why Keays continues to amass high possession games. Teams are content for Keays to kick the ball rather than a Laird or Dawson type.

It’s undoubtedly the biggest knock in his game and the main reason why he isn’t considered a top 5-10 midfielder in the AFL. Regardless, Keays’ drive to impact games is impressive and he has the ability to turn games. Ben Keay’s can’t and won’t stop.

Jack Sinclair is the most improved player in the AFL

Jack Sinclair was ranked the 4th best player in the AFL coming into this round. Yes, you read that correctly. Sinclair’s been St Kilda’s best player in 2022 and is a key reason why they are sitting 4th on the ladder. On the season to date, Sinclair is averaging:

27 disposals, 5 marks, 5 score involvements and 500 metres gained per game

Sinclair has made a shift into an inside midfield role this year, a smart move given Sinclair’s traits add a different dimension to a midfield that was incredibly one paced last year.

Sinclair’s been a bit of a journeyman over the years. He was a rookie draft selection by St Kilda in 2014 and progressed his way into the senior side through a small forward role before being thrown into the backline last season as a line breaking defender.

Now, that speed is prevalent throughout the middle of the ground, where Sinclair is utilised as a zippy yet tough on baller.

'Zippy' is a perfect description for Sinclair - he has a quick couple of steps to get out of traffic, he’s elusive and can change angles to release teammates into damaging positions. He’s mostly a one touch player and he’s tidy by foot, regularly hitting targets even when he looks out of control.

Sometimes he has these kinds of moments where you think to yourself, only a handful of elite players can actually do that. This goal in Round 1 was one of them.

I love how hard Sinclair works back into his D50, evidenced by his R50 numbers for a midfielder (4 per game) (worth noting he started the year in the backline). It’s incredibly important for St Kilda, given other midfielders have been called out for their front running antics over the years (Crouch and Ross in particular)

St Kilda are now 4-1 and an absence of top tier opposition aside, have made significant strides defensively. They are causing more midfield turnovers and are generating easier shots on goal off their back of their defence. Their transition from the back half to forward half off turnover has been particularly noteworthy - playing with much more speed on the ball this year compared to last.

Their key midfielders in Steele and Crouch have seen their defensive pressure numbers improve dramatically. Further, it can’t be understated how important Gresham and Sinclair’s impact has been to this midfield group with their ability to break the lines and be creative with ball in hand. Both possess X-factor and can change the angles with their low centre of gravity and steps inside, which completely opens up the play for St Kilda.

Sinclair’s easily the most improved player in the AFL to date and if things continue, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to suggest he has an All Australian case.

Thanks for reading all!

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