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The season so far

BTV: Mid-season bests | Marks Watch Essendon's best marks from the first half of the season.

Even the best AFL teams never stop learning. Let alone those striving still to reach those heights. And that education can’t always be measured merely in terms of wins, losses and finals appearances.

It’s why Essendon remains a positive club, player and coaching group headed into the Bombers’ mid-season bye, despite a ladder position of 12th and a win-loss tally of 5-7.

Those bald statistics don’t speak of a past month which has yielded three wins from four games. They don’t address the scope for improvement by the Bombers over the back half of the 2018 season.

But most importantly, they don’t address the increasing confidence of those at the coalface that the right formula to significantly enhance that bottom line has been found.

“You learn a lot from those difficult times,” explains general manager of football Dan Richardson of the ordinary start to this season. “And the signs over the last month have been quite positive. Since round eight, three out of four is a good result.

“But probably the most pleasing part of it is that we’ve been able to define a clear brand of football based around speed, pressure, some stronger clearance work, and therefore being able to lock the ball a bit longer into our forward line.

“A huge factor in that is your centre bounce work, and I think our clearance work and centre bounce work has been significantly improved, as has our pressure and tackling. When you do that, it has a significant impact in being able to set up behind the ball defensively and then hold the ball in.

“There’s been a really clear emphasis on using our speed to first of all exert pressure on the opposition, and then, when you can turn the ball over, having the capacity to move it a bit quicker and be more damaging. We’ve still got some work to do around our scoring efficiency, but I think the numbers of inside 50s we’ve had in the second block of games have been vastly improved.”

Essendon registered 50-plus forward entries just twice in the first seven games this season, not coincidentally both those efforts rewarded with victories. The Bombers’ lowest tally in five games since then is 54, even in two defeats against Carlton and Richmond, and last week’s win over Brisbane produced 65, easily the best tally of 2018.

As Richardson notes, efficiency once inside the scoring zone is clearly one area for improvement, Essendon last year ranking first and third respectively for scores and goals per inside 50s, and currently only 11th and 10th in the same categories. But at least the opportunities are now being created, far more than in that first block of a half-dozen games.

There’s a stronger synergy now between the three senior-experienced imports in Devon Smith, Adam Saad and Jake Stringer and the rest of the group, former Giant Smith consistent all season, Saad turning in his best games of the season over the last few weeks, and former Bulldog premiership player Stringer’s form having proved pivotal.

“They’re all still relatively young, and I think we’ve learned more about them,” says Richardson. “In the last month, I think we’ve been able to find the right mix between the midfield and forward line for Jake as his fitness has improved, and he’s probably been one of the reasons for our improved work around clearances.”

Four other players – Matt Guelfi, Dylan Clarke, Jordan Ridley and Kobe Mutch – have also played their first games for Essendon, Mason Redman last week against Brisbane playing only his fourth. All have shown good signs, with Guelfi particularly impressive.

“He’s been outstanding,” says Richardson. “He comes in a bit older, having played some senior footy in Perth, and he’s worked really hard. He runs well, has a good engine and is reasonably composed for a young player.”

Kyle Langford, after a stop-start induction to senior football, has over the past four games begun to show his potential as a long-term midfield/forward option, starting to get some continuity of opportunity. And Aaron Francis is hammering on the door of senior selection with some impressive VFL performances.

“One of the things that has impressed me, not having been here that long, is the promise of that group under 23,” says Richardson. “There’s some really exciting prospects on that list.”

Their continued development will be a key to how the second half of the 2018 season pans out. But that will be balanced, says the football manager, with the on-going need to reward strong VFL form.

“We will continue to do that, and have some integrity around selection,” he says. “It certainly won’t be a case of playing youth at all costs, but if those guys, like Ridley and Redman and hopefully Francis in the not too distant future keep showing good form in the VFL, they will be rewarded.”

The wildcard remains the potential return of some big names off the injury list.

David Zaharakis and Darcy Parish are due to return in about six weeks. Richardson says it’s still too early to put a timeline on Joe Daniher’s return from a groin injury. Marty Gleeson had good results last week from a scan on his injured foot, but there’s still no guarantee he will return this season.

One big plus, however, could be the return of the speedy Travis Colyer, yet to play this year after foot surgery in February. Colyer has played limited minutes in the past two VFL games, and is scheduled to play a full game when the Bombers take on Box Hill next weekend.

But dealing with players either returning from or struggling with injury has been just another way in which Essendon has learned throughout the course of this season to date, Richardson says.

The month after the weekend break will be particularly challenging for the Bombers. A Thursday night game in Perth against West Coast. Successive games against top eight teams in North Melbourne and Collingwood. Then another road trip to Gold Coast.

In terms of the top eight, those few weeks could make or break the season. But does that necessarily dictate the success or failure of 2018? The answer, says Richardson, isn’t so black-and-white.

“If we continue to work on the brand footy that’s going take us forward and give us the best opportunity to get where we want to get, I think that’s when the year can be deemed a success,” he says. “Would you prefer the opportunity to demonstrate that in some finals footy? Of course, you would. But if you don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean the year has to be considered a failure.

“I would consider the year to be a success if we learn more about ourselves, about what our best team looks like, about the new players we’ve brought in, and about the growth of our leadership and the club as a whole.”

That’s as big a challenge for Essendon in the second half of 2018 as merely winning games of football, but on both levels, something the Bombers are now embracing with confidence about the future beyond just the next few months.

“I think more and more the evenness of the competition will mean we’ll see more teams that might not make finals one year finishing top four or even winning it the next,” says the former Richmond insider. And after what happened at Punt Road last year, he, more than anyone, knows that isn’t just an off-the-cuff comment.

You can read all Rohan Connolly’s work at Footyology and subscribe to Footyology TV at YouTube.