Upset in the Wet - Essendon lose to Carlton

Written by Will Beitzel (@willkbeitzel) on 11 April 2017   

Footy fans got their first real taste of wet weather footy in season 2017 on Sunday afternoon, when the heavens opened in Melbourne and dumped buckets of rain on the Blues and the Bombers. Carlton adapted well to the conditions, but the Bombers couldn’t get the running game that served them so well in the first two games.

Where the game was won

Carlton’s ascendancy began in defence. Essendon, who for the last fortnight had waltzed through the middle of the ground into the forward 50, found themselves struggling to penetrate the half forward line and gain some threatening inside 50s. Sam Docherty played an excellent game, racking up four rebound 50’s and 6 one percenters. Sam Rowe was a general in defence, blanketing Joe Daniher and amassing 11 one percenters, the majority being spoils.

Carlton was able to gain an advantage in defence by deploying a spare man in defence. Knowing that Essendon had generated scores from lightning quick forward entries into space, coach Brendon Bolton used a spare man in defence to block open space inside defensive 50 and cut off avenues to goal.

With the wet conditions neutralising the majority of Essendon’s ball movement, quick kicks forward became the only way forward for Essendon for most of the day.

This played right into Carlton’s hands, as they were able to pick off Essendon’s forward entries with ease. Without an easy way into forward 50, Essendon’s scoring dried up, and Carlton restricted them to just 12 scoring shots. Here’s an example of the attacking plays the Bombers had and how simple it was for Carlton to defend:

Here, Marty Gleeson marks the quick kick forward from Silvagni on the wing. As you can see in the clip, he has three options in board – Zaharakis as a handball option, or Brent Stanton and Zach Merrett in board if he opted to switch the play. Instead, he chooses the long bomb down the line to Dyson Heppell caught in a one-on-three – Carlton was able to kill the contest and sweep the ball forward.

These decisions highlight the lack of confidence Essendon players had in their skills in the wet. I’d wager dollars for donuts that on a clear, dry day Gleeson would have opted to take the risk of switching the ball in board. Instead, he took the safer, but lower percentage, kick down the line. Essendon needed to have a bit more trust in their ability to hit targets in the wet, as their conservative ball movement certainly cost them numerous scoring opportunities.

Conversely, the very few times Essendon were able to get some run and carry going, their inability to adapt to the conditions stopped them from putting the Carlton defence under pressure:

The missed handball from Hooker is crucial, as it disrupted Daniher’s lead, forcing him to reset. His second lead to the pocket was doomed from the start, as Rowe was hot on his tail and in a position to contest the ball. Finally, the kick from Hocking was poor, as it hit Daniher on the half volley and skidded out of bounds. In dry weather, this passage of play might have been more successful – but in the sloppy conditions on Sunday, ball skills had to be perfect. The Bombers’ skills weren’t, and it severely impacted their ability to generate scoring opportunities.

In wet slogs like the one we saw on Sunday, the inside game is always going to be where the game is won and lost. Structures tend to go out the window in the wet, turning the match into a game of territory. To get the ball forward, you need to take possession of the ball first.

In that regard, Carlton had Essendon well-covered thanks to the play of Matthew Kreuzer, Bryce Gibbs, Ed Curnow and Patrick Cripps. Kreuzer was dominant against Matthew Leuenberger. He lost the battle in the hit-outs but won the war with his superior play when the ball hit the deck. He registered 11 tackles and eight clearances to Leuenberger’s six tackles and three clearances.

Unfortunately for Essendon, the conditions probably suited Shaun McKernan more than Leuenberger – McKernan is less of a threat in the ruck but does provide a contest when the ball goes to ground, and he could have neutralised Kreuzer’s ascendancy in that area.

Gibbs, Curnow, Cripps and Kreuzer registered 60 contested possessions. The Essendon midfield brigade of Goddard, Watson, Heppell and Leuenberger could only manage 47, meaning that Carlton was first to the ball when it mattered most – in the midfield.

The clearance total (+9 to Carlton) and inside 50 counts (+22 to Carlton) reflected that.

If Essendon were able to make up their reduced quality of inside 50s with a higher quantity, the result could have been different.

But you don’t win too many games of football giving up 22 more inside 50s, especially on a wet track like the one we saw at the MCG on Sunday. That makes it three games in a row Essendon has lost the inside 50 count – against the Hawks and the Lions they were able to cover that by getting high-quality forward entries.

On a day when quick ball movement and overlap was next to impossible, their inability to get on top in the middle finally came back to bite them.

The inside 50 differential was the killer blow for the Bombers. Once the Blues were able to get the ball inside 50, they were much more efficient in locking the ball inside 50 and keeping the game on their terms. Sam Petrevski-Seton played the best game of his short career so far, hassling Essendon’s defenders all game and preventing them from getting clean disposals off half back. He registered eight tackles, had 12 contested possessions and kicked a crucial goal in the third quarter.

On a day when the big forwards were rendered obsolete, his intensity and cleanness with the ball typified how well the Blues outclassed the Bombers.

What's next for the Bombers

There are plenty of lessons for the Dons to learn moving forward. The key lesson will be maintaining a solid midfield presence and getting more inside 50s for their forward line.

The Bombers are 15th in the competition for clearances - they need their inside midfielders to have more of an impact on the game. The return of David Myers will help enormously, as it gives them a big inside presence to disrupt opposition midfielders and give teammates first use of the football.

Essendon has proven that when they do get the ball into space, they can be deadly – they just need to do it more often. The way to do that is simple - get the ball before the opposition does.

Another point of emphasis for Essendon will be adapting to the conditions. They will have to play in the wet every now and again, and the goal will be to back their skills regardless of the conditions and not totally abandon the gameplan that looked so damaging in the first two rounds.

A loss to the Bluebaggers always stings more than usual, but the game contained some valuable lessons for the Dons to take on as they continue this season.

How they respond against the Crows should tell us how their season will unfold - an improved effort against the current best side in the competition will mean that Sunday's performance was the exception, not the rule.

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