Grand Final Preview
Well, here it is. Arguably the Grand Final we deserve after a long season full of uncertainty. These two spent 16 weeks occupying the top two spots on the ladder, so you can certainly mount a case that the two best teams have made the last Saturday in September.
Will the ultimate flag drought be finally broken for the Dees? Or can the endless supply of Dogs midfielders propel them to their second flag in six seasons? Let's take a look.
Best Matchup: Jack Viney v Tom Liberatore - two absolute bulls going head to head will be fun to watch. Libba is probably cleaner with his ball use, but Viney might not let him get hold of it much in the first place.
Player To Watch:
Melbourne: Bayley Fritsch - Gets the perfect conditions of Optus Stadium and a manageable opponent in order to put the score on the board for Melbourne. With Ben Brown keeping Alex Keath busy, Fritsch promises to be the one leading into space, and can kick goals multiple ways. Critical that he hits the scoreboard.
Western Bulldogs: Josh Dunkley - Nine games since his return from a 13-week injury, Dunkley is set to peak in the big one. Over 100 ranking points in his past two games, and the perfect soldier to take into a Grand Final among a bunch of other midfield stars. Could be the one that just keeps turning up for the Bulldogs at exactly the right time.
Unlikely Grand Final Hero:
Melbourne: Harry Petty - Everyone notices May and Lever doing their thing, but behind them is Petty being an absolute wall. He could take care of English and Martin, or even be given the job of blanketing Aaron Naughton. Wouldn't surprise to see him one of the leading intercept marks on the night.
Western Bulldogs: Mitch Hannan - Our preview last week wondered whether Hannan could graduate from "nearly" player to match winner. He answered that question emphatically, one of the top ten ranked players on the ground in a preliminary final. Even with Weightman returning, Hannan has all the tools to play another standout game, this time against his former side.
Norm Smith Medal:
Melbourne: Hard to ignore the obvious - toss up between Clayton Oliver (our first choice) and Christian Petracca. Slight chance to Christian Salem off half back if the voting panel are paying attention to his impact on the game.
Western Bulldogs: Again, not exactly going out on a limb here but if the Dogs were to win, the medal has Marcus Bontempelli's name written all over it. Hitting the scoreboard has been historically important for this award, and the Bont does it regularly. Outside chance to Tom Liberatore if looking for someone less obvious perhaps.
Our detailed preview below...
Melbourne v Western Bulldogs
Quite possibly the best midfield matchup in a Grand Final we have ever seen.
If you are a fan of ranking points (most commonly used in Supercoach), four of the top six ranked players for the entire season will line up at the first centre bounce. Six of the top ten if you use the more nuanced AFL Player Ratings. And we can't forget the quality of the wingers from both sides, either. Incredible.
The Dogs have tried to address their issues in the ruck for quite a while. Is Stefan Martin enough to quell the influence of Max Gawn? Some have suggested the Dogs go after Gawn physically, using the 2019 Round 1 match against Port Adelaide as an example. It might have worked on the day for Port, but that Melbourne side won five games for the season and finished 17th. Times have changed. Terrible idea.
Both sides are capable of throwing a tagger into the mix, too. Viney and Harmes are the obvious ones for Melbourne. Do the Dogs turn to Josh Dunkley and give him a stopping role? It can often backfire if you have one player glued to an opposition superstar, so they are just as likely to go head to head in the first quarter and see what happens.
Speaking of the first quarter, the first 30 minutes couldn't be any more enticing. The Bulldogs are an incredible 20-4 in first terms this year (scores level in one game). The Dees are a respectable 15-9, but it's their pressure that sets up their game. In both finals they've managed a 200+ pressure rating in the first term. So we have the fast-starting Bulldogs vs the manic Demons defence. An outstanding setup.
Hard to see the game being anything other than a contested possession war. The Dees have lost the contested possession count only four times this season. The Dogs have lost eight but have gone +22, +10 and a whopping +30 in the finals series. In hindsight, their flat spot in the last month of the regular season could be attributed to them simply waiting for the finals to start.
With both sides used to having the ball up their end - the top two sides for time in forward half do battle on Saturday - they will need to adjust to the very real scenario of having to constantly win the ball back. Can a ball movement side like the Bulldogs execute at a high enough level when they do? Or will Melbourne's rock solid defence be more suited to contested grind? Can't wait to find out.
Two unlucky Bulldogs here. Ryan Gardner and Laitham Vandermeer. In comes Alex Keath and Cody Weightman. The two logical inclusions.
Demons unchanged. The most stable side all year stays that way. Hunt or Smith would've been in the mix, but why would you change a winning formula...
The Case for Melbourne:
Simply put, Melbourne are now easy to trust. Would never have suggested that at the end of 2020, but the transformation has been remarkable.
Their effort is arguably the most consistent of any side this season - the third-best pressure rating, the most forward 50 tackles, the best post-clearance contested possession differential (by a long way) and the lowest points against tally since the Saints of 2009.
When did they really disappoint this season? They lost their first match in Round 10 by a point when the Crows played out of their skins. Offensively they struggled against Collingwood in Round 13, perhaps with one eye on the week off and facing a team who had just sacked their coach.
Their game against GWS in Round 16 was possibly their worst of the season, where they were taught a lesson at stoppage: 1.3 to 5.5 on the day, yet they still only lost by nine points. Those sorts of games end up a blessing in disguise - plenty of great learning opportunities in the match review, and a reality check for the home stretch.
From that moment they lost the stoppage scoring differential only twice more for the year (one of them against the Dogs), and come off the back of posting a record 101 points from stoppage in the preliminary final against Geelong. The Bulldogs are clearly a far greater challenge through the middle, but the Dees midfield simply couldn't be going any better.
Max Gawn has often said Stefan Martin tests him physically more than most other ruckman. That's assuming Martin is at his best. In his second game in three months, it's hard to see Martin being a significant challenge. Expecting Gawn to cover the ground far better than Martin (or English, for that matter), and take intercept marks in defence as well as threaten inside the Dees' forward 50.
Defensively, Melbourne have the weapons to stifle the Dogs' ball movement - built on pressure, finished off by discipline and positioning. If they can force the Dogs into backwards handball, something that has brought them undone a few times this year, then the Dees' turnover game should see them able to score heavily the other way. A turnover game would suit them down to a tea, but a stoppage game shouldn't really faze them either.
Up forward they have so many ways to score - Brown is in good form, Pickett, Spargo and Neal-Bullen score for fun, and Fritsch constantly hits the scoreboard. Tom McDonald is the trump card. He kicked 23 goals in the first half of the year, and only 8 in the second including the finals. Only one goal in the last three games. He could easily be the forgotten man on Saturday night.
That's the beauty of this Melbourne side - they can beat you different ways, boast an unpredictable forward line devoid of any real single focal point, and have a stronger bottom six than the Dogs. Everyone plays their role. If they execute the same way on Saturday night, they deserve rightful favouritism.
The Case for Western Bulldogs:
In our 2021 Season Preview, we asked a simple question: Can a team full of midfielders go all the way?
Obviously we were having a little bit of fun there, but the make up of this side is extraordinary. Reasonably settled with their centre bounce quartet, but the likes of Smith, Treloar, Dunkley and Hunter would be regular attendees in the middle in a stack of other sides. Those guys are pushed out to a wing or a half forward flank and become super dangerous in their own right. If you are step off defensively, the second-highest scoring offence of the season will carve you up.
With their first quarter record, the Dogs need to be brave from the outset. Playing as the underdogs suits them perfectly - they become the hunters in this game and should relish that scenario. That should also ensure they are disciplined at stoppage and don't just become ball hungry like they tend to do against the lesser sides.
Has their "slump" in the last three games of the regular season been overplayed? They lost to Essendon in Round 21 despite a +34 expected score, posted their lowest total for the year against Hawthorn a week later in a genuine shocker, and then lost to Port Adelaide in the final round of the year by only two points. A dip in form, yes, but the disappointment of seeing them miss a top four spot might have led everyone to exaggerate how they were playing.
With Aaron Naughton again looking dangerous in the air, he becomes pivotal to the Dogs' fortunes. Melbourne are a step up from Port Adelaide defensively so he can't do it all on his own. Do the Dogs simply use him as their "out" under pressure then try and lower their eyes inside 50 as much as possible? Feels like their window of opportunity.
Melbourne aren't often troubled too much by the big key forwards. It might be the resting midfielders and the small forwards that give them grief on Saturday night. The Dogs certainly have enough smalls to fly around and hit the scoreboard.
Up the other end there might be a few question marks on their defence, but to their credit they have probably held on better than most people thought this season. Before his injury, Alex Keath was airborne. His battle with Ben Brown will be great to watch.
Feel like the Dogs are right at home being outsiders. With the extra week off to prepare, they go into this with a great setup to thrive.
Clearly an upset wouldn't shock. At their best the Bulldogs can beat anyone. The only knock on them is that they just don't have as many weapons at either end compared to Melbourne, even if their midfield runs a little bit deeper.
So we still have to lean towards Melbourne here. The most consistent side of 2021, with the kind of defence that can really restrict the Bulldogs' ball movement. In our view, they have a better bottom six than the Dogs, which is super important in a Grand Final.
Any concerns about the Dees only playing one match in 28 days? Perhaps, especially against a fast-starting side like the Bulldogs. But over the course of 120 minutes (plus extra time?), Melbourne tend to overwhelm teams eventually. If they can avoid getting jumped in the first quarter then the Dees are in the box seat.
Neale, Garry, Ronald Dale and the rest of the long-suffering Demons faithful might be in for the best Saturday night of their lives.
Get the tissues ready, this could be an emotional one.