Bad luck, form, timing: Why there is still hope for Bombers
Essendon is not terrible.
That much is true from this topsy-turvy season, with Wednesday night's golden chance squandered against Gold Coast as the Bombers roared home.
But if they are honest with themselves their ninth position with five and a half wins from 10 games is exactly where they deserve to be - mired in mediocrity.
They might not be terrible but they are a million miles from elite, which is the goal they set at the start of the season.
The gains this year include the spectacular breakout season of Jordan Ridley, Andy McGrath's consistent season and the intoxicating taste of Sam Draper's raw-boned ruckwork.
But for all the potential they have a brilliant victory over Collingwood and four narrow wins over bottom five sides - 14 points against North Melbourne, three points against Sydney, three points against Adelaide, six points against Fremantle.
Here are some of the reasons why Essendon is stuck in third gear through a combination of bad luck, bad form and horrible timing with injuries.
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1. DEVON SMITH
Smith's form is reflective of Essendon this year.
Just OK. His elite pressure is still there and he has kicked six goals - albeit none in the past two weeks - but a player who won the 2018 best-and-fairest is ranking average for disposals, clearances and contested possessions. The raging bull who typified their attack on the ball has had a single 100-ranking point game since Round 3.
2. JAKE STRINGER'S SYNDESMOSIS
You don't have to be dead to be stiff. Stringer isn't a superstar but in the year of the mid-sized forward he was everything to the Dons.
He has played four games and was coming off three goals, 95 ranking points, seven tackles, two clearances, 50 pressure points and three score involvements against Collingwood when he needed syndesmosis surgery that still has him 2-3 weeks away. What a beautiful blend that is missing right now.
Playing a 63-37 per cent split as a mid-forward he added a clear target as a forward and flexibility as a mid who burst from stoppages and allowed Darcy Parish and Dev Smith to play more half forward.
3. CALE HOOKER'S INJURY
All Australian Hooker had come off a massive fortnight keeping Ben Brown to one goal and Josh Bruce to one goal when he pinged his calf.
He could be back against St Kilda but more likely against Richmond the following week.
So when Essendon rested Michael Hurley it left Sam Day and Ben King to thrive in critical moments. His injury also robs Essendon of the ability to throw him forward late in games where he has won multiple games off his own boot. If he or Hurley played against the Suns it might have been enough to get them home.
4. ANTHONY MCDONALD-TIPUNGWUTI
He is just going from an offensive standpoint with 10 goals in 10 games and three in the past four.
He is still a good pressure forward - elite for tackles as a general forward - but after 32 goals in 23 games last year he hasn't kicked more than two goals in any given game.
He sometimes gets the best small defender but not always - Wednesday night it was Connor Budarick but a mix of Heath Shaw and Aidan Corr the previous week and Noah Answerth and Luke Brown before that. Time for Tippa to lift.
5. STOPPING THE TRANSITION
As colleague Sam Landsberger pointed out, after Dylan Shiel's point put Essendon in front with 138 seconds on the clock, the Suns transitioned to Ben King in 16 seconds through Jack Lukosius to Touk Miller to Noah Anderson to Ben Ainsworth to King.
It was no fluke, with the Dons allowing an opponent to generate an inside 50 from their own defensive 50 an amazing 23 per cent of the time. That number is ranked 18th in the comp, with Port Adelaide allowing that to happen only 13.3 per cent of the time.
They also concede the third-most points from an opposition's defensive half chain.
For some clubs it's about how quickly they bring the ball inside 50 - and how they defend it - but given this was from a kick-out the Dons had no excuses not to be better organised.
It was a monumental structural breakdown.
6. THE DRAW ISN'T ESSENDON'S FRIEND
The Dons have beaten the ordinary teams but that's about it.
It means with no bye to come they have to face five of the top eight teams in St Kilda, Richmond, Geelong, West Coast and Port Adelaide. Plus the deferred Melbourne clash.
That means running into elite teams off short breaks with tired players. If they make finals, by gosh they will have deserved it.
7. ESSENDON IS LIKE RICHMOND, BUT NOT
The Dons want to play a forward handball game that maximises ball movement and gets the ball to forwards at maximum advantage.
They are still second for handball metres gained behind Richmond, with daylight third.
But Richmond is sixth for forward-half intercepts - which means they lock the ball in and win it back inside their forward half.
Essendon is 14th for that stat, has a negative differential for time in forward half, and can't defend ball movement.
In contrast, Richmond is third in defending scoring chains despite the speed it gets the ball in, which usually means it's hard to get numbers forward to defend it coming out.
8. JOE DANIHER
No one can understate the importance of losing your best player for the best part of three years.
In 2017 Daniher kicked 65 goals, averaging 2.8 goals a game, 1.9 contested marks and winning 39 per cent of his one-on-one contests, which ranked 8th of the top 50.
In short, he was a mega-star.
He has played 11 games since, including a spectacular four-goal Anzac Day performance.
Two games later he was gone for 15 months, with Daniher hoping to play in a scratch match next weekend.
9. SHOULD ADAM SAAD HAVE PLAYED ON IZAK RANKINE?
Rankine's pulled shot on goal spared Essendon blushes, but why wasn't the Dons' best defender Adam Saad playing on him in the first place?
Essendon played him on Ben Ainsworth and Saad had eight kicks and 324 metres gained, but Rankine ran amok again.
Since his debut in Round 6 he has had 23 shots on goal, second only in the comp to Josh Kennedy (28).
Guelfi got totally lost on a couple of occasions on Rankine, while Saad has conceded seven total goals for the season.
He kept Tom Papley to a goal and Eddie Betts, Linc McCarthy and Aaron Hall all goalless.
It's easy in hindsight but at worst should Ben Rutten have switched match-ups mid-game?
10. MRO WOES.
Essendon has just been downright unlucky with Zac Merrett suspended when Jack Silvagni's ribs were damaged by his swinging arm and Dylan Shiel suspended for two weeks for a hit on North Melbourne's Curtis Taylor.
The Dons lost to the Dogs without Shiel and just got over the line against Adelaide.
Even if both deserved suspensions, Dons fans believe other incidents of similar magnitude have gone unpunished.
11. COACHING TRANSITION
If you had a game-style issue would you go to John Worsfold, Blake Caracella or Ben Rutten? And would they all give you a consistent answer?
Every Essendon player talks about how the Dons have had a cohesive united message in the coaching transition and yet Worsfold admits the game-style is a work in transition that they literally haven't been able to train enough given short breaks and non-contact main sessions.
Mark Maclure said on AFL 360 it was an embarrassment to have Worsfold sitting on the bench without tactical control.
The Dons believe they can make it work, but by their own admission it's a work in progress.
12. WHAT TO DO WITH CONOR MCKENNA?
He isn't a small forward, with single-digit disposals in his two games as a pure forward, having kicked one goal and applied a single tackle. He applied the second-lowest amount of pressure for the Dons against the Suns. His opponent Heath Shaw kicked two goals last week, including one from a McKenna 50m penalty.
13. WHERE IS THE ONE-WOOD?
As Anthony Hudson said last week, why is the one-wood a common description for a club's area of strength given who can hit a driver consistently?
Serial swing tinkerer (and footy's best caller) Huddo certainly can't.
But ask Champion Data what Essendon's strength is and it's tumbleweeds.
The answer on Friday morning was literally, "Ummmmmmm," and a pause for six seconds.
They are 12th for offence, 12th for defence, rank only 15th for scores from inside 15 (38 per cent) and 14th for contested ball.
They have won the tackle count by an average of six this year but their pressure in the forward half is a lowly 16th.
So the real measure of pressure in the modern game - a forward half game locking the ball in and scoring - isn't reflected in what they do.
AND THE ONE REASON WHY WE WON'T WRITE ESSENDON OFF
The elite talent is still there.
In a crazy old year where no one would discount a team winning the flag from eighth, the Dons have to hope they can claw their way into the bottom half of the eight.
If, and it's a big if, the Dons can get back Daniher, Orazio Fantasia, Hooker, Stringer and Pat Ambrose, they still have serious weapons.
Andy McGrath has become an excellent player and ruckman Sam Draper gives them a one-two punch if they wanted to play him alongside Tom Bellchambers.
James Stewart's torrid 18 months, with a serious groin injury and being quarantined for two weeks for a brief wrestling drill with McKenna, might have turned after three goals against the Suns.
And the backline has extraordinary depth - Hurley, Hooker, Ambrose, Ridley, Zerk-Thatcher, Aaron Francis, Mason Redman as talls they can call on.
Can they do a Greater Western Sydney, which last year won four of its last six then three straight finals playing a brutal, effective contested-ball game?
Or will they remain mired in mediocrity before having to consider how to replace Daniher over summer and potentially McKenna if he departs for Ireland with legitimate homesickness issues?
Originally published as Bad luck, form, timing: Why there is still hope for Bombers