The Bombers were the great unknown as the 2017 AFL Season began; the reintroduction of their top talent meant last year’s Wooden Spoon (a first for the club) was largely irrelevant in predicting results. Another addition was Andrew McGrath, the number one draft pick, and the Bombers carved out a place for him in the halfback line. Up front, Joe Daniher had a career-best year, coming 4th in the Coleman Medal, as he provided an X-factor up front that powered a delicious forward line.
What they did well
They produced an exciting brand of footy
Week in, week out, the Bombers built a brand of footy that was amongst the most exhilarating in the competition. The ‘run and gun’ style that John Worsfold has developed since coming to the Bombers reached its peak this year as there were weeks where they ran quality opposition such as West Coast, Port Adelaide and St Kilda off the park. While it did backfire in some places (perhaps they should have played more conservatively in the closing minutes against Sydney), it ultimately made for an easy-on-the-eye team that garnered a lot of good press for their brand of footy.
They groomed their young superstars
There are two constant pillars to every great team; a key forward and an elite midfielder. Essendon seems to have uncovered theirs with Joe Daniher and Zach Merrett, both of whom made the All Australian Team despite their young age along with Michael Hurley. Along with other burgeoning stars such as Orazio Fantasia, they were given their big chance in the 2016 season and continued their rise this year. Number 1 pick Andrew McGrath was also effective in his debut season, winning the Rising Star award. Adding in Dyson Heppell, David Zaharakis, Cale Hooker and Darcy Parish, the Bombers have the bones of a contending team for years to come.
They dominated their forward 50
Two stats sum up the Bombers season; they had the most effective forward line in the competition, but the 11th most inside 50s. They got a shot at goal 55.3% of the time the ball entered their forward 50, the next best in the competition was Adelaide with 53.4%. With the talls Daniher, Hooker and Stewart working in unison, and Fantasia and Tipungwuti feeding off them, they were devastating up front. How dangerous could they be with their fair share of opportunities?
What they didn’t do well
They didn’t attack the contest
While the Dons were excellent on the outside, they struggled supremely when the match slowed down. Dyson Heppell led the team in contested ball with 258 (11.22 per game), which was 19th in the competition, but Jobe Watson was their next best with 203. While they finished 10th in the league as a team for contested possessions, they had only two players with over 200 total for the season; the only other top 8 side with so few was Richmond. They seem to lack one or two more contested ball monsters, a situation only set to amplify with the retirement of Jobe Watson. Though Jobe slowed in his later years, he was still extremely useful when the game slowed down.
Another stat showing their lack of pressure was their low tackle count, averaging only 67 per game, 15th in the competition, with no player in the top 20 for the competition. Though that’s a result of their game plan in which they tried to open the game up, and teams averaged only 62 against them (3rd in the competition), their lack of contested ability was exposed when teams chose to slow the game down.
They didn’t stand up in big games
Playing teams around their level, (finishing 5th-13th), the Bombers had a record of 6-3, meaning they usually showed up when faced with level competition. However, when facing top 4 sides, their record was 1-4, including two thumpings against Adelaide, and losses to GWS and Richmond, their only win coming against Geelong in one of their form slumps. Also considering their awful performance in the Elimination Final to Sydney and there was a track record showing that when the going got tough, the Bombers didn’t get going.
They took the opposition for granted at times
They lost games they shouldn’t have and struggled for consistency against lower sides
While the Bombers exceeded expectations overall this year, it could have been better. Their record against bottom five teams was 5-3, a record that was better at face value than the performances indicated. Those five wins included a performance against Brisbane where they built up an enormous lead at halftime only to let it disappear and scrape a win; a win against a North Melbourne side so young the club was accused of tanking, though they still struggled for 3 quarters; a win against Carlton in which they had to kick 3 goals in the last 5 minutes to get in front; and lackluster wins against Gold Coast and Fremantle in the final rounds which were devoid of energy.
All in all, not an entirely convincing record, especially when paired with the poor losses. They lost in the wet to Carlton, showing they had no Plan B when they were unable to run the football, and a disastrous loss to Brisbane mid-year that had CEO Xavier Campbell publicly criticising the team, and suffered a loss to Fremantle.
There wasn’t a single match against that bottom 5 sides that had the Essendon faithful walking away from the stadium thinking ‘we took care of business like a true top 8 team.’ Speaking of matches they should have won, how could they lose a 19-point lead to Sydney in the final five minutes?
Switching off in the final minutes as they did perhaps showed an arrogance that the Bombers will need to overcome to play out matches, or take the competition easy-beats seriously. Had they not capitulated against Sydney in round 14, Brisbane in round 15, and picked up wins they should have taken like Carlton in Round 3 they would have had a home final in week one, and potentially challenged for top four.
Final word and rating
Overall, it was a pleasing season for Bombers fans, though it’s a low bar after the last few years of turmoil for the club. They successfully reintegrated several key players who’d spent a year out, but the year of throwing youngsters in the deep end gave them the chance to uncover some diamonds in the rough. It means the future is bright for the Bombers, but it’s clear they will require reinforcements to challenge in the coming years.
The Bombers have already been linked with Jake Stringer for the upcoming trade period, though will hope they don’t have to part with Pick 11 in the upcoming draft to get him. They’ve also made clear they will be targeting an elite midfielder as they aim to cover the loss of Jobe Watson.
As disappointing as their finals loss to Sydney was, any result would merely have been icing on the cake after they proved many doubters wrong by simply playing finals. The focus for Bomber fans should be the future, as the club finally works its way out of the wilderness.
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