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Five things we learned: Round 18

BTV: Rd 18 | Every Goal Watch every Essendon goal from our round 18 win over Adelaide.

In 2019 we will be looking back on five key lessons to take away from every Bombers match, thanks to RMIT.

This time we look into the Bombers’ unbelievable comeback victory over Adelaide at Adelaide Oval on Friday.

1. The system continues to hold up

When you’re missing several of your best players and down by 30 points in a hostile environment with a makeshift collection of key-position players, it takes something pretty special to win. 

The Bombers did just that with their backs well and truly against the wall on Friday and it was another clear sign of a strong structure and tactics executed brilliantly by a well-drilled squad.

Essendon’s depth has been remarkable this year in the face of adversity with all inclusions stepping up to the top level and slotting in comfortably to play their role, knowing exactly what is required of them.

That was the case against the Crows as new Bomber Will Snelling (1056 days after his last AFL game) competed well and experienced Don Michael Hartley (450 days on) did everything required from him in a Swiss-army-knife effort in defence, attack and the ruck.

It wasn’t just an outstanding coaching performance in terms of preparation, it was also impressive during the game on Friday.

The Bombers were in great need of a spark and something had to change. But rather than waiting until the main break to move things around, Essendon used the ace up its sleeve early, swinging regular defender Cale Hooker forward to instant reward with the leader booting a crucial goal late in the half. 

2. Essendon’s leaders are as good as they come

Captain Dyson Heppell and vice-skipper Zach Merrett had 17 disposals between them to half-time. It had been a tough night at the office for most Bombers.

Another team may have dropped its head, but this side is made of sterner stuff and its enormous comeback stemmed from the inspirational pair at Adelaide Oval.

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The Bombers booted 12 of the final 15 goals and Heppell and Merrett had a huge hand in that run. The duo doubled their output on the ball in the second half, claiming 34 disposals in the last two terms as they lifted the team around them.

Both players had just three goals to their name this season before Friday’s match, but they shared three more in the final term alone to down the Crows in a massive display of inspirational leadership under no shortage of pressure.

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Fellow experienced pair David Zaharakis (25 disposals, six marks, four inside 50s and a goal assist) and Hooker (19 disposals, 11 contested possessions, seven marks and a goal) should also be commended for their efforts in setting the right tone in the big win, particularly in the absence of several other club leaders.

3. Francis is gathering momentum with the side

Aaron Francis’ year hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but the immensely talented young Bomber has struck a purple patch of form.

His performance on Friday was incredible, standing up in defence with Michael Hurley out of the side and impressing with his athleticism, decision making and classy ball use.

Francis was simply sure of himself, maintaining his calm in possession throughout the clash and finishing the game with 17 disposals (his second-highest career tally) at 82.4 per cent efficiency, an equal career-high eight one percenters and two goal assists.

It was his ability to drive the ball forward with purpose that perhaps impressed the most, particularly his sensational assist to young Bomber Matt Guelfi in the third term.

Francis first gathered the ball just outside the defensive 50, setting off a huge handball chain along the wing. He followed the chain all the way up the ground, directing his teammates as he sprinted into position to reclaim the ball just outside the forward 50 and deliver a clean and clever kick to Guelfi at a vital stage of the game.

4. Defending Dons do the job again

Francis was far from the only backman to star against the Crows; speedster Conor McKenna proved damaging, Adam Saad held Adelaide star Eddie Betts goalless, Patrick Ambrose kept Crow Josh Jenkins off the scoreboard in the second half and recently returned Bomber Marty Gleeson once again showed how much all fans had missed him in his year on the sidelines.

The Dons kept Adelaide to just three goals in the powerful second half, but it was their trademark ability to slingshot the ball back into a dangerous position that stood out once again.

McKenna led the way in that department on Friday like no other player can, backing his speed and judgement to repeatedly cut the Crows apart through the middle of the ground.

The clean and exciting Bomber claimed 24 disposals, seven running bounces, six rebound 50s and 531 metres gained, but the clear highlight of his night was a textbook solo dummy that drew applause from even the most one-eyed Crows fans.

McKenna has single-handedly added ‘solo’ to our footballing vocabulary and he not only continues to capture the imagination of ironed on footy fans in Australia, but also the attention of those back home. Irish journalist Conan Doherty described the moment best in Sports Joe.

“Coming down the right flank, the half-back saw poor Lachlan Murphy charging in and he set him up devastatingly for a trip to the shops,” Doherty wrote.

“Adelaide's Murphy attempts to block McKenna's wound-up right boot only for the oval ball to disappear, back in the clutches of the cheeky Tyrone man, who rounds him and picks out a pass as Murphy is left with a shopping list and shaken ankle.”

5. The fans are still getting their money’s worth

How is your heart traveling after recent weeks?

Nothing other than football can send you on such a rollercoaster of emotions and all Essendon fans felt every single rise and fall on Friday.

The win is among the best many can recall in recent memory and it made it four on the trot for the first time since 2013, a year in which the Bombers strung together six straight wins on two occasions and last beat Adelaide on its own turf.

The 21-point margin on paper certainly doesn’t do the cuttable tension of the game justice. A four-goal Bomber blitz in a stunning seven-minute period in the final term was what secured the victory, but the prior arm wrestle between the pair of finals aspirants definitely got the blood pumping.

It followed a trio narrow of successes that went down to the wire against Greater Western Sydney, Sydney and North Melbourne, and there is no doubt that the entertaining Bombers have been worth witnessing.

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