Dive Bombers: How Essendon have tumbled

When asked about the Bombers over summer, one rival club recruiter almost marvelled at the manner they had been moving the ball from one end of the ground to the other.

"Gee, they look good. They have more run and carry … and I can't see why they won't finish top four," he said.

That, well certainly a spot in the top six, had been the view of many heading into the 2018 campaign but with a 2-4 record, a disturbing percentage of 85 and languishing in 14th spot heading into a clash against arch rivals Hawthorn on Saturday, it's not out of the question to think the Bombers won't make the finals. Defeat this weekend would leave coach John Worsfold and his team two games outside the top eight and facing an uphill battle.

"What were the expectations? Improve on last year? Is that out of the question?" Worsfold said this week.

Well, the answer looms as yes to the latter question should there not be quick improvement.

There has been debate whether a marking forward line of Joe Daniher, Jake Stringer and James Stewart can work, leaving Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and recruit Devon Smith to be the hassling small forwards. The absence of an injured Orazio Fantasia, restricted to two matches but returning through the VFL this weekend, has hurt for he booted 39 goals last season and combined superbly with McDonald-Tipungwuti and Josh Green, the latter also injured this year.

All-Australian Daniher, flush with a lucrative contract, has been terribly out of form, in a year he was expected to join the competition's elite. He was goalless against Collingwood and Melbourne and has only 7.9 this season. He had 16 goals to this point last year. He has struggled with his kicking but, heading into his 100th match, the Bombers insist his work-rate has not been the issue. Stewart (12) and Stringer (10) have led the way in front of goal.

"He [Daniher] is winning as much of the footy [as last year] but he hasn't set himself up or been in as many contests close to goal. There are a couple of reasons for that and we are certainly well aware of that," Worsfold said.

"Joe's decision making, his ball use, has been just off – we haven't got quite the value out of the possessions he is getting. His goal-kicking hasn't been like it was in the second half of last year. He is working on that as well."

The Bombers needed a blue-chip inside midfielder to become the new Jobe Watson this season, having been bullied around the contest by the Swans in last year's losing elimination final, but opted to pursue Stringer, Smith and Adam Saad. They had hoped Stringer could help plug that midfield role in extensive spells, for he trained with the midfield group through the pre-season and has a seasoned body, but it quickly became apparent he did not have the tank or the guile.

Essendon watchers believe small forward Smith is likely to be leading the best and fairest and Saad has been handy, but they haven't provided the midfield depth the Bombers have needed.
That they have had a modest 41 and 47 inside 50s in the past fortnight has highlighted the supply problem, a worry considering they had 42 more disposals than the Demons.

Captain Dyson Heppell, despite averaging 26 disposals a game, the same as last year, has not been as consistent as he would like although the Bombers are happy with his leadership. Youngsters Darcy Parish and Andrew McGrath were expected to carry more midfield responsibility but haven't been able to deliver. David Myers, having managed only three games, is back this week, while Zach Merrett has struggled, averaging 22 touches a game – almost eight down on last year. The Dons will hope ruckman Tom Bellchambers, also returning this week, can edge Ben McEvoy.

Overall, the Bombers' contested-ball and stoppage work needs improvement and their forward press too easily picked apart, meaning they then find it harder to lock the ball inside 50.

There have certainly been supply issues in the third terms this year, the Bombers outscored by 15, 14, five, four, 13 and 37 points in their six matches. The Demons drilled four goals in the opening nine minutes of the third quarter last Sunday. Skill errors and a lack of intensity have been blamed, prompting a rethink this week as to how they prepare for the second half.

Essendon players training this week.

How much of the blame should be shouldered by the coach who has his eye on building a "great" team or is there only so much he can do from the stands?

This raises another issue, and one in which former captain Matthew Lloyd has called for change. That the Dons have struggled to move the ball with enough dash has brought Worsfold's game plan into question, and sparked calls for Blake Caracella, a strategy guru who worked at Geelong and was credited with Richmond's transformation last year, to return to the club in a senior assistant role.

Worsfold, even while leading West Coast to a flag in 2006, was seen as a great man manager but lacking imagination on game day.

"They [Bombers] are not playing the game the way it is going to win you games of football," Lloyd said on Footy Classified.

"Richmond were moving the ball out of their defence exactly like Essendon were in 2016. Blake Caracella joins and I think it's been the mix of the Geelong ball movement with the defensive pressure of Richmond which has made them a premiership side."

Where the Tigers, and most teams, including an emerging Collingwood, have built their attack on pressure inside attacking 50, where ferocious tackling and pressure and repeat stoppages provide opportunities to score, the Bombers are seen as still too reliant on generating run – and subsequent scores – from defence. That they sit first for points launched from the defensive half and percentage of scores launched from defensive half adds to the Lloyd argument.

Worsfold, however, said the Bombers were still finding cohesion and learning what was required. He also denied they had an out-dated game plan.

"If the ball is in your back half, it's hard to press otherwise that would mean we are all in our forward line … we are not deliberately letting the opposition work the ball into their forward line and trying to score from there. That's all part of our learning, that's part of the reason we have only won two games this year," he said.

"We are not playing really well defensively as a unit and some of us are new – there are going to be some learnings. Right at the moment, our game plan is not to start scoring from the back 50."

It should be remembered circumstances helped to dictate the Tigers' revamp last year, for they opted to have only the one true marking forward in Jack Riewoldt when injury curtailed Ben Griffiths' 2017 campaign. Josh Caddy has played as a medium-sized marking forward, who can also provide the pressure required.

Essendon club great Tim Watson claims the Bombers are too sluggish in defence and are "hellbent on this triple switch across half-back, which just goes nowhere". He has said they are "like a one-trick pony" and their style "doesn't stack up" come the finals. The Dons were thumped by 65 points by the Swans in their elimination final last year.

It's easy to over-analyse game plans and search for blame, for how much is the game plan at fault when players fail to win the one-on-one contests they have all week to prepare for? Worsfold, never one to mince words, was straight to the point after a tough fortnight.

"Overall we have got too many players that aren't performing at their best and we are not performing as a tight unit at our best. That's what we are searching for to try and play our best footy," he said.

                                2017                       2018
Points for         95.3 pts 3rd           83.7 pts  eq.12th
Points against 92.4 pts 12th          98.3 pts  eq.16th
Kick in                 5.9 pts 2nd                6.3 pts 1st
Turnover           58.3 pts 2nd               50.0 pts 12th
Clearances       30.9 pts 13th              27.2 pts 14th
Centre bounce 13.3 pts 2nd                6.7 pts 14th

Around the ground

                                                      2017          2018

Disposals diff                             +23.3 3rd      -10.0 13th
Kicking eff % diff                     -0.4% 11th    -3.8% 17th
Disposals eff% diff                    -0.3% 7th    -1.7% 14th
Contested possession diff        +0.8 10th     -4.2   13th
Uncontested possession diff  +22.1 2nd     -5.0  11th
Tackle diff                                       +4.3 3rd      +6.2  3rd
Inside 50 diff                                 -2.7 12th      -5.2 16th

Source: Champion Data

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