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Five big questions: Round five

BTV: Rd 5 | Team Selection Senior Coach John Worsfold takes us through the team to face North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium on Good Friday.

There’s plenty of analogies you could use to describe the first four games of Essendon’s 2019 campaign, but something about rags and riches would pretty much cover it.

Certainly, the Bombers of the past fortnight - free-flowing, high-scoring and most importantly, victorious - have born little resemblance to the side that struggled through the first two games.

So, at 2-2 and back in the ball game, which version shows up for Essendon’s first-ever Good Friday clash, against North Melbourne? Indeed, which version of the Roos will show up, having breathed life into their own season with a first win last week?

These two great rivals of the northern suburbs have been going at it for bragging rights for a long time. Their tussles are often tight and tough. But the last couple have also been hugely entertaining.

Given the importance of maintaining winning momentum for either side, we could be in for a great game to watch over the obligatory Good Friday hot cross buns. And here’s what we believe might be the keys to determining the victor.

1. What sort of game should we expect?

These two teams had a series of relatively low-scoring and dour scraps for a while. But in their last two clashes - last year and in 2017, both at this venue - we’ve been treated to two very entertaining contests, both in which either team topped 100 points.

North has worked hard to develop its outside game, but until last week, may have over-corrected. Essendon, too, has struck the right balance between offence and defence over the past two rounds. Significantly though, while the Dons have appeared to have a lot more dash and flair, that’s only been possible with a better effort at the contest and in the stoppages to get the ball to dangerous spots on the outside and not under so much pressure. That in turn has made delivery inside 50 a lot cleaner, with more goal-scoring opportunities from more gettable positions.

It all means that while this may be superficially a free-flowing and perhaps free-scoring game, it’s still more than likely to be won by the side which emerges on top in the grittier elements.

2. How has Essendon’s forward set-up turned things around?

The Bombers managed a total of just 12 goals in the first two games. In the last two rounds, they’ve scored 20 and 17 respectively. That’s some difference, but how has it happened?

As mentioned above, hard work from further afield has been a big factor, both in terms of the volume and quality of chances. Essendon managed just 14 marks inside 50 in the first two games. Against Melbourne, it was 16 and 11 last week against Brisbane. And it hasn't just been the big blokes, with four of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti’s seven goals against the Lions coming from marks inside 50 and a fifth following a dropped mark-turned free kick.

The key targets have been “getting on the bike” more, too. Against Melbourne it was Shaun McKernan, and against Brisbane Mitch Brown played the role of lead-up forward to perfection, with the dual impact of providing a target for the runners coming off half-back while also leaving more space for his forward cohorts. It’s the sort of balance the forward zone had sorely missed in the first two rounds.

3. What do we need to know about North Melbourne?

Cynics might suggest not much, given the Roos are just 1-3. But that would be a big mistake you can be sure the Essendon brains trust isn’t making.

North Melbourne certainly hasn’t started as it would have liked, but since its first round thrashing at the hands of Fremantle, the Roos haven’t been that far away, overrun by an impressive Brisbane and within 16 points of Hawthorn before breaking the ice last week against Adelaide - a 12-point win which could have been a lot bigger.

North’s clearance game has been a big issue but the Roos have improved that area week by week, winning the stoppage count by 12 against Adelaide and, after having conceded 44 points or more from opposition clearances in each of the first three games, giving up just 15 points last Saturday night. The Roos also started to create some decent scoring opportunities. And while 9.17 (71) wasn’t a great return, it was significantly more shots generated than the Roos had managed previously.

4. Who are the Kangaroos that most need culling?

Not much doubt about the player Essendon will have been considering most in its planning. That’s gun midfielder Shaun Higgins, currently ranked eighth in the AFL for average disposals at 32.5 per game, and coming 12th in the AFL coaches award despite his side having won just the one game.

Obviously, Higgins leads the Roos for disposals, as well as uncontested possessions and inside 50s, and ranks second behind Jared Polec for metres gained. And the former Port Adelaide winger is another to be watched closely, his game against the Crows the best he’s yet played for his new club.

There’s no doubt the return of midfield pair Jed Anderson and Paul Ahern last weekend was a big factor in the Roos’ improvement at stoppages. And up forward, spearhead Ben Brown had easily his best game of 2019 with four goals. Cale Hooker, who made a terrific return to senior football last Saturday, did a great shutdown job on Brown last time these sides met in round 15 last season. He’ll be getting that job again.

Shaun Higgins has started the season in brilliant fashion. (Photo: AFL Media)

5. Would we be a better chance of winning this game at the MCG?

Not necessarily. Indeed, before this season began, you would have argued definitely not, despite the fact North Melbourne has won 12 of the 18 clashes between the two clubs at Marvel Stadium. That’s because the Bombers had lost seven of their last eight at the MCG, while over the same period having won seven of nine at Docklands.

Those trends (from an admittedly small sample size) have been flipped so far this year, with one game under the roof lost and both at the MCG won. There’s an argument Essendon would be in a better position to exploit its edge in leg speed over the Roos at the 'G than at Marvel. But the difference between the two grounds can be overstated a little.

While the MCG is about 10m wider wing to wing, Marvel is only 2.5, shorter from goal to goal. It is, however, a ground that offers good scoring opportunities from centre bounce clearances - an area the Dons have won well in victory over the past fortnight.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at his FOOTYOLOGY website.