When is a win not really a win? When you’re the Bombers, and you scrape home against a Bulldogs outfit in rebuild mode. Essendon needed to make a statement on Saturday night. They did, but it’s probably fair to say it wasn’t the statement their fans were hoping for.
As their off-field woes dragged on last year, Bombers fans could take solace in the way that their team started to emerge from a long spell of mediocrity, even as the AFL threatened to ship them to Port Arthur at any moment.
This year, dominant performances against North Melbourne and Carlton in Rounds 1 and 3 suggested that James Hird’s enforced absence would be no hindrance to their continued development, but suddenly the wheels have fallen off.
The Bombers have done an uncanny impression of a well-drilled football team at times, but like an American actor with a dodgy accent, the impression keeps slipping.
After a limp performance against the modest might of St Kilda in Round 4, Mark Thompson needed a response from his charges on Anzac Day. Fortunately, his side duly provided one, with an impressive display of aggressive, skilful football. Unfortunately for him, it only lasted for a quarter before the Bombers were completely overrun by Collingwood. Against the Bulldogs, at times they played like a pack of teenagers woken by a 3am fire drill.
There is a good side in there somewhere, so what malaise has overcome the Bombers?
Neither here nor there: the swingmen
Let’s start with the obvious one, shall we? Everyone seems to agree that in moving Jake Carlisle and Michael Hurley into attack and defence respectively, Mark Thompson has managed to find a problem where none existed. The Bombers have some structural weaknesses, yes, but these two should be the very foundation of their side. Carlisle and Hurley are their bookends, and bookends are called that for a reason: pull them out of place and see what happens. Messy.
Over-reliance on key personnel
Of course, a lot of clubs would struggle if they couldn’t get their first-choice ruck pairing on the paddock. Paddy Ryder and Tom Bellchambers are a strong double act, but they’re yet to play together in 2014.
Jake Carlisle and Joe Daniher have done their best to fill the void (well, Daniher has anyway), but the Bombers, who need all the help they can get at stoppages, have been caught out. Couple this with the perennial problem of too much midfield responsibility being placed on Jobe Watson’s shoulders, exacerbated by Brendan Goddard and Heath Hocking’s recent absences, and you’ve suddenly got a side that’s flattering to deceive.
As promising as their list is, Essendon are a team of flankers, which explains why they’ve been so badly affected by only a few injuries. If any of Heppell, Melksham, Zaharakis, Winderlich, Dempsey, even Stanton etc. go down, another will take their place. They cannot, however, cover the loss of a key forward, a ruck or a genuine inside ballwinner, and they might need to recruit aggressively in the summer in this department before they can be considered a genuine top-four threat.
The elephant in the room
Then again, it could be that the pressure of enduring constant scrutiny and uncertainty is finally weighing on the playing group. Maybe James Hird has taken the siege mentality that served them so well through last year’s futile home and away campaign and put it in his storage unit. Maybe the psychological effects of playing for an unwilling head coach, and a temporary one at that, are more damaging than anyone could have predicted.
Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors. Whatever the root causes, though, the fact is that the Bombers could only limp over the line against an inexperienced Bulldogs side, and went down to a barely pubescent Saints outfit. They are better than that, but if they want redemption and a crack at the finals, they’re going to have to figure themselves out soon.