It’s time to have a look at the Melbourne Football Club’s NAB Challenge – one which yielded three wins out of three games.
Unlike other years, however, this NAB Challenge campaign displayed some very exciting football from the Demons – a Melbourne outfit that actually looked enterprising and entertaining for the first time in a long time. However, it cannot be stressed enough – it is the NAB Challenge. This kind of football needs to be seen in Round One.
The Game Plan
Yes, it can be improved. I’ll touch on that later. But one thing which could help us turn the tide is the much improved game plan that Simon Goodwin has obviously had all his hands on, with assistance, of course, from Paul Roos. The coaching handover, after a brief spell, now returns to Roos.
Of which I’m hoping Roos is only coach because it says so.
It looks as though Goodwin will have more control of the box this year, while Roosy could spend some time on the bench, as per the NAB Challenge. If this is the case, then expect more of the same from the game plan.
The ball movement was something else for the first time in a long time. With all due respect to what Roos has done for our football club, too often in 2014-15, the ball movement was too stagnant, forward 50 entries took too long and our game was far too defensively minded.
This time around, under Goodwin, there’s no mucking around. Quick ball movement which belies our overall speed – something which the Western Bulldogs preached big time last year – switching which fits the ‘in one way, out the other’ mould and – perhaps the most impressive part of our game plan – focusing our attention on defensive pressure once inside the forward line – forward half turnovers were recorded at a record rate throughout the NAB Challenge for the Demons.
It’s not perfect, but gee, what a start…
…and it’s helping us score 91 points per game.
Think about it. In 2014 we were averaging, what, 60 points a game? It was pretty much our lowest average since 1919 from what I can recall. In 2015, we increased that slightly to around 72 points a game, but that was still the third worst in the league.
The NAB Challenge saw the Dees score 274 points at an average of 91 points a game – equal fifth with North Melbourne. Additionally, the Dees also had the sixth best defence throughout the Challenge series – conceding 73 points a game. Basically, if we saw those averages by Round 23, you would likely see the Demons play finals football.
Perhaps most pleasing about the fact that we scored above 90 points a game is that we had little contribution from the likes of Jesse Hogan, who only scored three goals from two games. Sam Frost and Cameron Pederson were solid without being spectacular, and Chris Dawes and gun draft pick Sam Weideman didn’t play at all.
Instead, it was the small forwards taking charge.
Notice how I was talking about defensive pressure inside the forward line before. Well, the form of Jeff Garlett, Dean Kent and Ben Kennedy could be crucial to Melbourne taking that next step. All three players’ displayed tremendous defensive pressure throughout the Challenge series.
We all knew what Garlett was capable of, and we were absolutely gutted to lose Kent to a season ending hamstring injury in Round Four last season. But it was Kennedy who I was most pleasantly surprised with. There were always question marks on his decision making, kicking, and defensive pressure whilst he was at Collingwood, but on this early evidence it appears he has worked hard on two of these qualities (his kicking I’m still not entirely sold on, yet).
Those defensive qualities were evident in the second half of NAB1. Countless chase-downs, countless forward half turnovers allowed the Dees to turn the course of the game big time, holding Port Adelaide scoreless in that third quarter. It was brilliant to watch.
Second half acceleration
Speaking of second halves – check out the differences from the second halves in all the games. In NAB1, it was a 42-point turnaround (although with the Power up by five goals at one point, technically it was a 49-point turnaround). NAB2 saw the Demons outscore the Bulldogs by 13 points, albeit in a wind affected game. Finally, in NAB3 yesterday, the Demons outscored the Saints by 14 points in the second half.
The Demons were able to turn the wick up really efficiently, and were able to finish right on top of their opponents. A good example is in NAB2, and although we kicked with the wind, the inside-50 differential was 17-3 in the final quarter. Most of it was spent in our forward half. It seems as though the boys have had a very solid pre-season if that’s anything to go by, even allowing for the 90-interchange cap which can impact on a young side.
Okay though, it’s only March. We’ll keep finding out more on our endurance as the season unfolds.
Who the hell do you take out of this lineup?
The biggest positive overall as a group is you can now try to pick apart Melbourne’s list and put 22 blokes in. In 2013, you could do it easily. But now, there’s a side that can realistically be picked where you can struggle to see a spot opening up for Chris Dawes and Heritier Lumumba. Then you have the likes of Angus Brayshaw and Christian Petracca who will be pushing for spots. Who do you take out?
From yesterday’s squad you would probably expect Josh Wagner and Viv Michie not to play (one of these two will get elevated, though). I also expect Oscar McDonald to get omitted, and perhaps Matt Jones, who is unlucky given he had a great start to the game yesterday, then got concussed. That probably opens up spots for Lumumba and Brayshaw (who is on track for Round One) at least.
Those who I saw as on the bubble pre-season (the likes of James Harmes, Dean Kent, Ben Kennedy and Jack Grimes) have probably done enough to stay in the side for Round One.
Jack Watts was one of the bigger standouts, which was pleasantly surprising. As we have all seen over the past eight years, we’ve always questioned Watts’ hunger, his desire and a lot of other qualities over his game. He might be starting to put those qualities to rest. All throughout the NAB Challenge, you could see the hunger as he flew for marks, playing brilliantly as a higher leading forward. You could see him running in both directions, making himself a target, while also helping out in defence. The only problem is, it’s in March!!! Watts now needs to play like this throughout the season. It’s imperative for our fortunes.
Possibly the most underrated pick-up is Tomas Bugg. Remember the start of his career in 2012 (with GWS) when he played predominantly as a ball-winner? The start which saw him collect more than 50 touches in his first two games? Unfortunately, the rapid development of more talented midfielders forced Bugg to play either as a tagger or in the NEAFL. With Viney and Vince assuming tagging roles, Bugg can play as a natural ball winner again, and collected excellent numbers throughout the Challenge series. Good signs.
The real surprise in the Melbourne line-up was Clayton Oliver. When I first saw him training you could tell Melbourne were going to take it slowly and easily with him, and I thought they would ease him in through the VFL. How wrong I was. Now that it appears Bernie Vince will be playing behind the footy, a spot opens up. Oliver looks like he’s well within the frame – actually, scratch that, the bloke should be playing Round One. He’s a jet.
Jack Viney is another one who was a standout. His numbers throughout the back end of last season almost saw him pinch the best and fairest. Then his first two games of the Challenge series were simply outstanding. It saw him given plenty of respect from St Kilda yesterday as he was dealt with a tag. Although he struggled over the first three quarters, he finally broke the shackles. Positive development.
But the biggest standout was literally the biggest. Big Max Gawn has enjoyed a brilliant rise to stardom, and his NAB Challenge series was something else. The first two games left Port Adelaide and the Bulldogs perplexed as to how they could stop him, as he accumulated almost 45 hitouts a game. It took the influence of both Tom Hickey and Jason Holmes yesterday to quell him somewhat, but big Max was still one of the most influential players on the ground.
What Can Be Improved
Our Ruck Reliance
Big Max is simply pivotal to our improvement in 2016. Lose him, and we’re in a spot of bother. With Jake Spencer spending most of the pre-season in rehab, if we were to lose Max Gawn to a training mishap this week, we’d either have to rush Spencer in or throw Liam Hulett, Mitch King or Max King to the wolves. Not a great thought.
You could tell, too, once Hickey and Holmes started jumping all over Gawn yesterday, the midfield dominance we had in the first two games waned around the ground, and we ended up losing the clearances. Given Gawn’s sheer size, if he were to play all 22 games, it’d take a lot to beat him, though.
We’re way too open defensively.
This is an issue which has seen me very much annoyed throughout all three games. Our forward press has been super impressive. But let slip a little lapse here and there and the opposition are all over us with their superior speed. Way too often, you would see the opposition forward line way too open, with a one-on-one fairly deep in the forward line as a result.
There was a period in NAB1 which I highlighted in my last article, where we held the ball inside 50 for 90 seconds, saw the ball go out and it went straight to Jay Schulz who goaled. It happened again yesterday. We dominated much of the third quarter. Unfortunately, when you kick five behinds in a row it never augurs well for missed opportunities. The second St Kilda got a sniff, it was déjà vu. Straight down the ground, goal, margin back to 13 points when it should be five goals.
Good on Goodwin for promoting a much more attacking game-plan but we won’t be progressing until we finally manage that balance between attack and defense. You know, the one which has seen the Hawks win the past three flags.
All three wins come with small asterisks.
Small but significant. NAB1 saw us beat a strong Port Adelaide team, mind you, one that played to the interchange rules, whilst we didn’t. Then again, Port already had a run under their belt, and it was our first game. NAB2 – the Dogs only had about eight players you can consider in their best 22 at the moment, and two of them would probably be in that all important bottom six. We only got over them by two goals with a strong unit. And then NAB3 – the Saints had a very big break between their last game and yesterday after the washout in Mackay.
They are footnotes for Melbourne fans just to keep the lid shut for now. Round One is a big test against the Giants – who do add Mumford and Shiel (and perhaps Jono Patton) from our last clash in Round 23 last season, but also loses Bugg, Townsend, Treloar and (one would think) key forward duo Cameron and McCarthy.
So Melbourne fans! Are you optimistic about the season ahead? Still worth keeping a lid on things? 12 more days to go…