The rise and fall of the Melbourne Demons has been one of the most perplexing events to track in footy over the past three years.
At the end of 2018 the Dees looked poised to put years of pain behind them and become a perennial premiership contender. Instead, they have been banished back to the cellar.
There’s no simple explanation for Melbourne’s untimely decline – no Krusty Doll good/evil switch that has been mistakenly set and can be flicked back to the proper position.
But a look into the stats can provide some context for their downfall, identify where poor decisions were made, and perhaps offer some ideas for the future.
In 2018 Melbourne scored an elite 1.97 points per minute of possession. Tom McDonald and Jesse Hogan kicked precisely 100 goals between them (53 and 47 respectively), and the Dees were the highest scoring team in the league.
But in 2019 Melbourne’s points per minute in possession dropped to 1.45, ranked 17th in the league, and in 2020 so far it has declined even further to 1.27, better only than ailing Adelaide.
Why has their ability to score dried up? The absence of Jesse Hogan can’t be understated as a factor.
While many have pointed out that he wasn’t a part of their much-celebrated finals victories, they might not have played those matches at all without his contributions during the home-and-away season.
McDonald has dealt with injury issues in the time since, but the absence of a strong second target to draw focus from him has undoubtedly also had an impact on his form.
It was hoped Sam Weideman would provide this, but that was a large bet to make on a player who had kicked just 16 career goals at the end of 2018. He has added only 11 more to his tally in the time since.
That Hogan has so far been unable to perform or even play consistently at his new home, Fremantle, has somewhat masked the impact of his absence on Melbourne.
You can certainly debate whether in an alternate reality he would still now be providing the Dees with the same level of performance that he did two years ago, but what’s undeniable is that no one else has stepped up to do so.
However while it’s clear that the Demons’ ability to turn possession into points has dropped off, so has their ability to get their hands on the ball to begin with.
Melbourne scored 63 per cent of their points in 2018 via intercepts – with only Richmond and Hawthorn scoring more of their points from this source – and it worked well while they were able to force opposition turnovers in volume.
They averaged an elite 6.0 pressure acts per minute of opposition possession that year, but in 2019 that dropped to 5.4 – which may not seem like much at first, but it was enough to make them the second-worst pressure side in the league.
What’s more, they saw a staggering decline from many of their best intercepting players. In 2018 they had five players who recorded a total of more than 100 intercept possessions for the year: Jordan Lewis, Neville Jetta, Oscar McDonald, Michael Hibberd and Christian Salem.
Only Hibberd and Salem could maintain the same output in 2019. Lewis, Jetta and McDonald all fell away for one reason or another and instead Melbourne’s No.1 interceptor for 2019 became Sam Frost, whose heart-attack-inducing ball use out of the backline became such a frustration that he was pushed out of the club at the end of the year.
An effort was made over the 2019 offseason to bring some ball-moving wingers to the club but they haven’t replaced their lost intercepting ability.
This is a role they’d have hoped Jake Lever would fill, but while he’s recovered from an unfortunate second ACL injury suffered in 2018, his intercept numbers are still – even adjusted for the shortened gametime – several notches worse than his best form as a Crow.
To simplify it as much as possible, Melbourne’s biggest mistake lies in judging the quality of their list on the best moments of their 2018 finals campaign, rather than taking in the full picture.
Had the Demons somehow gone on to win the premiership that year they’d have been an uncharacteristically young premiership side. In the last 20 years, only three premiership 22s have been younger than 25 on average – they would have been the fourth.
It wasn’t a list ready to win a flag, instead, it was a list enjoying a pleasant but brief crossover period of some great form from both their veterans and a rising youth battalion.
Now that those veterans have dwindled or moved on, that form simply can’t and won’t be recaptured, and any time spent fixated on trying to achieve that will be time wasted.
But that impressive youth generation remains and with a few more pieces added over time can be competitive. The Dees’ decision to take three picks inside the first two rounds at last year’s draft suggests to me they are once again looking to the longer term, and wisely so.
The addition of Trent Rivers could prove vital in restoring that intercepting ability. He’s been impressive in his short career so far.
I’d have liked to see them take Hayden Young with their first pick for the same reasons, but the Dees evidently believe Luke Jackson has the higher scope, and he may well prove them right.
However, another strong forward target remains likely their greatest priority. It’s something just about every club would like to find – but one of Melbourne’s other new recruits might be the perfect left-field solution.
Adam Tomlinson was brought to the club to play a wing role, which he’s done solidly without starring so far, but it’s often forgotten that in his early days at Greater Western Sydney, Tomlinson was occasionally played as a key forward and showed some aptitude.
GWS mostly prioritised the likes of Jeremy Cameron et al in that role instead, and Tomlinson never really got to develop there beyond a few cameos. I’d like to see Melbourne give him more of a crack at it.
Let’s be honest – they aren’t winning the flag or likely even playing finals this year. Why not send Tomlinson forward for a handful of games and see if he can have an impact? There’s little to be lost, much to be gained.
Overall, I don’t think the Dees’ position is a dire as some make it out to be. Their 2020 players who were 23 or younger on January 1 this year have 399 career AFLCA votes between them – more than you’ll find on any other AFL list.
Some may be out of form but they haven’t lost their talent. Put the right pieces around them over the next five years and when those players are in their prime, Melbourne can be a force.
Still, that poor pressure rating would haunt me. There’s no stat in the game that perfectly quantifies just how much the players are buying into the coach’s gameplan, but if any comes close I reckon it’s this one.
The Dees are bottom six for that marker again so far in 2020 – having risen up the table slightly more due to other sides’ decline rather than any serious improvement on their behalf.
Funny thing about that stat: it tends to jump pretty quickly when a senior coach gets the sack. Personally, I’m sceptical that it’s time to start sharpening the axe – particularly given the extreme and unusual circumstances of the 2020 AFL season.
But if he isn’t already doing so, I bet a loss to the Gold Coast Suns this weekend – should it occur – would make Simon Goodwin start to sweat.