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Rohan's Round Preview - 4

Rohan Connolly  April 13, 2018 11:58 AM

BTV: Guelfi set to debut Young midfielder Matt Guelfi is set to make his debut against the Power.

THE BACKGROUND

Sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t accurately reflect the magnitude of victory or defeat. And it’s fair to say Essendon’s defeat last week to the Western Bulldogs fell into that category.

Though the final margin was only 21 points, there’s no escaping it was a bad afternoon for the Bombers, one which left the club and its supporters desperately disappointing, and one which saw some serious public questioning about the football the Dons play.

Essendon failed to exert nearly enough pressure on the Dogs, who but for early inaccuracy might have held a match-winning lead by quarter time. The statistics exposed a lack of work-rate and a lack of intensity, particularly in the forward half.

The aftermath was costly, too, with valuable defensive runner Conor McKenna suspended for three games. And things aren’t about to get a lot easier.

The challenge on Sunday is immense, Essendon facing the AFL’s only unbeaten team, Port Adelaide, the Power having survived a scare at home last week against Brisbane, but ultimately still taking the points.

If there’s a “but”, however, it’s the Bombers capacity in recent times to lift against more-fancied opponents, the home venue, and the memory of last season’s Etihad Stadium clash between the clubs, when Essendon turned in arguably its most complete performance of the season for a crushing 70-point win.

THE BOMBERS

Aspiring top teams can rely neither on history or hope, though, and it’s been a week of soul-searching at The Hangar as a result. Changes have been made, with Western Australian recruit Matt Guelfi set to come into a midfield which to date has failed to click.

Coach John Worsfold has reaffirmed the determination to pursue a more balanced game style with a greater emphasis on defence.

“You can revert back to some basic old stuff and maybe we could have won the same number of games this year if we just stuck with what we were doing last year,” Worsfold told the media during the week.

“Or we can challenge ourselves that we’ve got to adjust and get better and become a great team and that’s what we’re working towards. Hopefully that happens this year and if that doesn’t happen this year the aim is that we’re going to be really close to that next year.”

Essendon certainly won’t be able to concede the level of uncontested possession and marks to Port it did to the Bulldogs if it is to have any hope of causing an upset. It needs its smaller forwards to work harder defensively, and will be after a big game on-ball from Zach Merrett, yet to recapture his spark of the past couple of years.

THE OPPOSITION

Port Adelaide loaded up on experience in post-season trading, and to date the results have been impressive, the likes of Steven Motlop, Jack Watts and Tom Rockliff adding to an already-imposing group.

The Power’s greatest weapon is their flexibility. Robbie Gray and Chad Wingard are arguably the two best forward/midfielders in the game, capable of All-Australian standards in either spot.

But skipper Travis Boak has also shown his capacity to inflict damage as a forward, helping turn the game against Sydney in round two. Motlop, Watts and Rockliff can all play midfield or closer to goal, ditto Brad Ebert, and even talls Charlie Dixon and Justin Westhoff can be swung between key forward posts or ruck duties, and in Westhoff’s case, even midfield.

Port’s defence, meanwhile, remains relatively low-profile, but has proved very effective, the Power ranked second in the AFL for fewest points conceded last season, and to date this year conceding little scoreboard damage on the turnover.

The Power’s recent record at Etihad is 50-50, but Essendon has proved a sticking point there, the Bombers winning four of the past five clashes with Port under the roof.

THE TEAMS

Midfielder Guelfi comes into the mix for his AFL debut, the 20-year-old already with senior WAFL under his belt, and having impressed both in pre-season and in Essendon’s opening VFL round win over Frankston last weekend. McKenna is the man replaced, this week only the first of a three-game suspension.

Port will be without valuable midfielder Sam Powell-Pepper, suspended by the club after an off-field incident. It could be a costly loss, given his capacity to lock down on a key opposition mid.

THE STATS

Essendon was down by more than 100 disposals and 100 uncontested disposals by just after half-time last Sunday, largesse which cannot be afforded any opponent, let alone one as capable of capitalising on any freedom as is Port Adelaide.

The Bombers are also having all sorts of trouble locking the ball in their forward 50, currently ranked last for forward half stoppages, second-last for points scored from the forward half and third-last for time in forward half.

The onus is on Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Josh Green and Orazio Fantasia to work furiously to keep the ball trapped near goal once it hits the feet of key targets Joe Daniher, Cale Hooker and James Stewart.

Centre bounces are an important scoring source at Etihad, and this has remained a Port Adelaide strength even without the injured Paddy Ryder, the Power currently ranked first in the competition for scoring from centre bounce wins.

THE PLAN

We continue to talk about balance between attack and defence, but finding a better blend of both is an undoubted key to a better Essendon performance.

That means much harder defensive running than against the Bulldogs, and that will be assisted by a forward set-up which can hold the ball in long enough for the mids not too constantly find themselves haring back away from goals on the turnover.

Stoppage wins will also be a key, with Port’s record this season much more impressive than the home side’s. The in-and-under capabilities of the Essendon midfield contingent will be crucial to the result.

Essendon’s aim is to hold the fort defensively and strike when in possession. That means not only winning far more ball, but utilising it a lot more cleanly than has been the case over the past two weeks.

Port doesn’t have an overly tall defensive set-up, so given the right sort of opportunities, there’s a real chance for Daniher, Hooker, Stewart and Jake Stringer to utilise their height and strength.

THE RESULT

It’s difficult on current form not to tip a Port Adelaide victory. But Essendon is certainly not lacking in motivation after being given the rounds of the critical kitchen this week. It knows its best is capable of causing the upset. And while history can’t necessarily be a guide, after the win over the Power last year, it at least provides food for thought.

You can read all Rohan Connolly’s work at Footyology.