Sports

Epic win or not, the Dees have a serious problem. It’s bye bye back-to-back unless they fix it

For a team currently sitting second on the ladder, with every hope of claiming a second consecutive premiership in a few weeks’ time, Melbourne have undergone an awful lot of autopsies of late.

And it gives me great pleasure to add one of my own, following one of the most incredible finishes of the season, with the Demons, thanks to Kysaiah Pickett, emerging with a five-point win… somehow.

Every man and his dog seems to have an opinion on where it’s going ‘wrong’ for the Dees – by ‘wrong’, it’s presumably that they’re not the world-eating force that they were in last year’s finals series and just an ordinary very good team. Their midfielders just bang the ball long and hope. Their forwards have no structure. Bayley Fritsch is selfish. The midfielders don’t run both ways.

Here’s my contribution: the Demons seem to have forgotten how to lead. And time and time again in their clash with Carlton, it left them incapable of scoring in a match they were otherwise in control of.

It’s a remarkably basic problem to have, yet look at any Dees game and tell me you don’t see it. If Clayton Oliver or Christian Petracca or any number of other Dees break through the middle and look to surge forward, there is rarely if ever anyone hitting up at the ball-carrier.

Instead, Ben Brown, Fritsch and the rest are either caught too far upfield by the speedy play and calling for the ball running back with the flight, a difficult kick to hit with precision; or camping back near the top of the goalsquare, asking for the ball to be sat atop their heads.

The contrast with Harry McKay in particular, who for a man his size is seldom content with being stationary and calling for the Blues to kick it on him, was stark.

That the Demons got it done in the end – and we’ll get to just how unlikely it all was – means they’re now in the driver’s seat for a top-two berth. But that also means that from here on out, they’ll be facing top-four teams, starting with Brisbane next week – they’re not going four out of four with such a glaring, crucial deficiency.

Fritsch in particular is worth analysing. It’s harsh to have too hard a crack at a bloke who has now kicked 105 goals in 45 games since the start of 2021 – but it’s worth noting as well that he gets an inordinate number of them cribbing out the back.

He’s not a cherry-picker – it’s more that he shows a bizarre reluctance to not lead at the ball-carrier, instead regularly either looking to move laterally or wanting to engage one-on-one with whichever defender he’s on.

His goal on the stroke of half-time, from a downfield free kick, saw him benefit from Tom Sparrow getting bumped; but while he’d have taken anyway, he always had himself goal side of opponent Caleb Marchbank. He made not a single move to perform the classic forward’s move of doubling back and going hell for leather on the lead.

The result made a perfectly reasonable but certainly not awe-inspiring Blues defence look majestic. With Jacob Weitering and Lewis Young more than a match for Ben Brown and Luke Jackson in most marking contests, it was really only when Max Gawn drifted down there that something good looked likely to happen from the long bomb in.

Incidentally, a Gawn lead into the central corridor in the third quarter, honoured by Christian Salem and ending in a vital Demons goal, was, to my eye, only the second time all game the Dees had hit up a leading target on the attack. That it was still their seventh mark inside 50 was mostly down to sheer weight of numbers.

Even when the Dees did manage to find a goal, the problem persisted. Who knows whether the tendency of Petracca and Oliver to bomb away aimlessly into attacking 50 is because of the lack of options afield, or if the lack of options afield is why that pair do it, but either way, every Demon seems to have no desire to present up and give him an option.

In the end, the ball comes off hands, and Jake Melksham snaps truly. You can get away with this sort of stuff from centre bounces, with just six Blues allowed behind the ball. You can’t when the opposition flood numbers back and clog up the space.

Suffocating pressure throughout the game from both sides, at its most frenetic in the early stages, made pinpointing passes fraught with risk – but it’s more the lack of options presenting themselves that should concern Simon Goodwin. Even on the high balls, Brown and co. aren’t hitting the ball at full tilt; rather, they’re arriving early and having to win a battle of strength to mark, which isn’t their go.

To be sure, the absence of Tom McDonald, a lead-up forward capable of 50 goals a year, hasn’t helped. But Brown had year after year of marks on the lead, monstrous run-ups and 60-plus majors at North Melbourne. 50 goals in 38 games in red and blue – and yes, he has a premiership medal to go with it – isn’t half of what he’s capable of, unless his knee is more shot than we realise.

Brown didn’t take a mark until halfway through the third quarter. Shocker – it was from being found on the lead, with strong hands overhead.

All of the above can be said about each of the Dees’ forwards – with the exception of Jake Melksham. Hit up twice on leads inside 50, he constantly looked their most dangerous forward – primarily because he was the only one willing to put in a sprint and demand to be passed to.

With three goals, a player consistently on the fringes of selection, fighting every week for his spot in the 22, was at times the only one keeping them in the game. Funny that.

In the end, the hacked kicks got them the two goals they needed – but good luck replicating either of them. First, Melksham somehow took a mark opposed to approximately seven million Blues; then, from the ultimate Hail Mary in the last seconds, up steps Pickett to snap the winner.

Both are moments of inspiration rather than perspiration – magnificent, to be sure, but a team like Melbourne can’t afford to be banking on those to win finals.

Kysaiah Pickett of the Demons kicks a goal to defeat Carlton.

Kysaiah Pickett of the Demons kicks a goal to defeat Carlton. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Putting aside Pickett’s magnificence, there was another moment in the dying minutes that caught my eye – Viney, charging forward, had a leading Alex Neal-Bullen in space directly in front of him, exactly the sort of movement the Dees had seldom enacted all evening.

But a simple 25-metre pass sailed over his head, and only a desperate spoil from Charlie Spargo prevented the intercept mark. As harsh as I’ve been here about the Dees’ forwards, I’d probably give up on leading if my superstar mids couldn’t find me lace out in an acre of space. By all rights, it should have cost them the game.

It’s also worth noting, for whatever it’s worth, that the Blues were phenomenal.

With everything to play for, little wonder they attacked every contest as if it were their last – but then again, I watched the Western Bulldogs sleepwalk through their equally high-stakes game on Saturday afternoon, so these things can’t be taken for granted.

Patrick Cripps was colossal in the centre, stepping up in the absence of Matt Kennedy, Adam Cerra and George Hewett and taking the game by its horns. He had a staggering 10 clearances – only Brayshaw had more – and with 12 tackles, led from the front in every facet.

Michael Voss, too, showed a bag of tricks he thus far hasn’t had to play often as Blues coach. Throwing Sam Docherty onto the ball was a stroke of genius – a weathered, hardened body, both on a professional and personal front, the former co-captain was the perfect man to give them some grunt at the coalface.

With 10 tackles and 12 contested possessions, he was as industrous as anyone in the heat of battle, but also showed all the nous and ability to find space that has made him an elite half-back. Whether it was funnelling out handpasses to the outside run of Zac Fisher or Will Setterfield, or being on the end of said handpasses and driving it forward, I can’t recall him having too many more pivotal games.

With Jack Silvagni in the side instead of Tom De Koning, the Blues also looked more mobile around the ground than they have in weeks. Silvagni is now a very capable second ruck – even outbodying Luke Jackson on more than one occasion the longer the match went on – and he has the confidence to take the ball out of the ruck and smack it forward, which you don’t see from two many second-stringers.

As good as De Koning has been this year filling in for Marc Pittonet, it’s hard to see the Blues being able to play both from here on out. And with Silvagni so good, they don’t have to.

As for this play… this, well, was just everything the Blues are under Voss. From the desperation of Adam Saad, to the courage of Sam Walsh, to the perfect crumb of Jack Martin (incidentally, his best game as a Blue), it was a goal that by all rights should have been a match-winner.

In the end, the biggest takeaway out of the game was this: the Blues, for the defeat, deserve to make finals, and can have an impact if they get there with some midfield soldiers to perhaps return.

As for the Dees, it’s not, and shouldn’t be, about merely stumbling into finals. The premiership is still up for grabs – but if they think they can win it by continuing to rain long bombs on the heads of stationery forwards, they’d better think again.



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