Essendon’s desperate bid to address their midfield woes

Before Essendon’s main training session on Friday, midfielder Dylan Shiel ran around the oval with Bombers skipper Dyson Heppell.

The official word was that Shiel was feeling crook. It was no wonder.

The 29-year-old had been dropped, midway through a six-year deal, after a series of poor performances that could not be denied, joining another big name recruit Devon Smith in the VFL.

After a crook start to the season, Essendon have become a club making statements at selection, on the radio and internally as 2022 turns into the year they have to have if they want to develop the game style and attitude that makes teams contenders. The decision on Shiel is emblematic of the hard-nosed approach.

And it will all start with the Bombers’ midfield, an area of the ground considered a strength leading into the season that has – even considering injuries – failed to go anywhere near matching the best opposition.

“We want to keep improving our stoppage work, we want to keep improving our ball movement and the effectiveness of our ball winners through there, understand their role as to how we defend as a group,” Rutten said.

That’s a list of to-do items no senior coach wants at round seven, but after six rounds Essendon remained in the bottom six for inside 50 differentials and second bottom for contested possessions, and teams are slicing through them on rebound.

The impact of Darcy Parish’s 44-touch game on Anzac day was debatedCredit:Getty Images

In the first three rounds the best player on the ground was their opponent’s gun midfielder, with Patrick Dangerfield, Lachie Neale and Clayton Oliver all feasting on their lack of accountability. When they get the ball, the Bombers handball sideways to avoid pressure and their kicks don’t threaten defences.

Darcy Parish’s game against Collingwood symbolised the questions that surround the Bombers’ game style and whether it is bringing the best out of a midfield that looks good on paper.

Parish’s ball-winning ability with 44 disposals – 30 at half-time – was clear, but his impact was debatable as he recorded just 310 metres gained, the 15th-most metres gained for the game.

AFL legend Leigh Matthews said the statistics Essendon midfielders record don’t reflect their impact – or lack of impact – on the game with Parish’s game a stark example.

Essendon coach Ben Rutten.knows the challenges facing the BombersCredit:AFL Photos

“If you don’t look at the stats sheet I don’t know whether you would have noticed Darcy Parish that much in the first half,” Matthews said on 3AW.

Parish’s former teammate Jobe Watson agreed, as the only judge on the selection panel not to give Parish a vote in the Anzac Medal.

The midfielder received eight coaches’ votes to sit alongside Collingwood’s Jack Ginnivan and Jeremy Howe, and Rutten said on Friday he was happy with Parish’s response to the week of criticism that followed the club’s loss to Fremantle.

“We’re always looking at how the contribution impacts the team, that is first and foremost,” Rutten said.

The coaches might, but until last week such matters did not seem to be the Essendon midfielders’ biggest concern.

A club source said the loss of Kyle Langford and Will Snelling (who finished third in last year’s best and fairest) to injury had been underestimated as that pair have the defensive instincts and endurance to protect the ball hunters who have been found wanting in those areas. That mitigating factor has merit, but the inability of others to accept such responsibilities in the duo’s absence has been damning.

Another industry source said Essendon do not play a game style that maximised midfield talents such as Zach Merrett, Parish (who has been battling an ankle injury this week), Shiel, Jye Caldwell, Jake Stringer and Andy McGrath. In their view, the team’s inability to absorb pressure and attract opponents before releasing a teammate showed more contest work was needed at training.

Unlike the best midfielders, Essendon’s handball or kick sideways when they sense pressure, rather than wanting to go forward or work their way through congestion, is why their clearances don’t worry opposition defences.

“Our clearances overall were pretty good against the Pies … we got some good dominance at centre bounce but weren’t as effective in scoring and being able to put some pressure on the forward line,” Rutten said.

Melbourne midfielder Clayton Oliver has evolved his game to become more damagingCredit:Getty

Parish only has to look at how Melbourne’s Oliver and the Brisbane Lions’ Neale have evolved to use the ball more evenly by foot and hand after starting their careers heavily reliant on handball. In Parish’s past three games he has had 34 kicks and 97 handballs, numbers similar to Oliver and Neale early in their careers.

Oliver and Neale also push back into defence, setting themselves up to attack as their positioning allows them to receive the ball in space when their team transitions from defence into attack. Essendon’s midfielders don’t work hard enough or for each other, the reason that former skipper Matthew Lloyd could say on radio after the loss to the Dockers that the team “lacked honesty”.

Melbourne and the Lions’ approach through the midfield is helped by their confidence in their defensive set-up, which Essendon do not have as they can’t defend teams running the ball from end to end.

But the midfield’s first step, as a club assistant coach said, is to see themselves as a unit working together.

Rutten did not try to hide the deficiencies that had been identified, although they will not all be fixed overnight.

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“Some of it is our entry [inside 50], some of it is our method at ground ball, our pressure, our set-up behind the ball … we want to improve in all those areas,” Rutten said. “It will not only help us defend but keeping possession of the ball and scoring yourself is the best way to stop having to defend so much.”

Now the question hovering above Rutten is whether he can transfer the lessons from this horror patch into a midfield system that matches the best.

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