AFL Media's Callum Twomey reviews Essendon's 2019 season.
In a nutshell
Essendon's slow start to the season again saw the Bombers treading a fine line in the second half of the year before scraping into the finals. They claimed nine wins from their last 14 home and away games to finish in eighth position, but were unable to cause any damage in the finals, defeated by West Coast in the elimination final.
What was said in the pre-season
This reporter tipped Essendon to finish sixth on the ladder, with recruit Dylan Shiel expected to be a big difference in the Bombers' rise back into premiership contention. However, the gap between the best sides and Essendon was still evident: the Bombers still couldn't beat Collingwood, Richmond, West Coast and Geelong, and were well beaten by Greater Western Sydney in round one.
The half-back line
Essendon has the most ballistic, brilliant half-back line in the competition with speedy duo Adam Saad and Conor McKenna. The pair's pace sets up Essendon's slingshot ball movement and has become a key way the Bombers generate scores.
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More midfield time for Darcy Parish
The Bombers have spent time playing Parish as a half-forward in his early years at the club, and left him out for round one, but he showed this year he is a genuine ball-winning midfielder. He averaged 21 disposals and had a breakout patch in the middle of the season, including a 31-disposal effort and two-goal game against Carlton in round 11.
The Parish ascension in 2019— Essendon FC (@essendonfc) July 30, 2019
Get ready for more of this. pic.twitter.com/UPPz4T8cth
Winning close games
Essendon won five out of seven games decided by 10 or fewer points, making it a strong side in close games. Four of those came in a five-week stretch, when the Bombers won tight contests with Greater Western Sydney, Sydney, North Melbourne and Gold Coast, and also travelled to Adelaide and beat the Crows during that patch.
What didn’t work
Getting Joe Daniher's body right
Daniher returned after missing nearly all of last year with a groin injury to succumb to the same issue after just four games this year, forcing him into surgery.
The Bombers talk plenty about being a more consistent side, but endured another up-and-down season.
Breaking the drought
Essendon managed to get back into the top eight for the first time since 2017, but was again defeated in a final. It was their fifth straight elimination final loss, and they still haven't won a final since 2004.
Jake Stringer: He was Essendon's most important player this season, particularly given the long absence of Daniher. Stringer kicked 33 goals from 19 games, with hamstring niggles forcing him out at stages across the year. He led the Bombers' goalkicking for the second straight season since joining the club from the Bulldogs.
Mason Redman: The defender had endured a tough run with injury before this season, managing just five games in his first three seasons at Essendon. But he settled into the Essendon backline with aplomb this year, adding pace, grunt and sharp kicking skills.
Aaron Francis: One of the positives to come out of Essendon's elimination final loss was the performance of Francis, who had 20 disposals and nine marks against the Eagles in the back half and was impressive.
Orazio Fantasia: The 23-year-old battled a hip injury in the second half of the season that will require surgery. It limited his output in what was overall a quieter year for the small forward. He kicked 20 goals from 15 games and eight of those came in two games. Essendon needs him at his best because he brings crucial speed and class.
Round 17: Essendon 12.14 (86) def North Melbourne 12.9 (81)
Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti led Essendon to an amazing comeback against the Roos. In the last 30 seconds, McDonald-Tipungwuti snapped an amazing goal from the pocket to help Essendon to a five-point win. It was his fourth goal of the game.
Best individual performance
Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti: Round four v Brisbane
The electric small forward certainly provided his fair share of highlights this year. But round four was the best game of his time in the red and black, booting a career-best seven goals from 20 disposals in Essendon's strong win over the Lions.
The big questions
How do they take the next step?
Getting Devon Smith back from the knee injury that saw him miss most of 2019 will be important, as will Daniher. But the Bombers must get more out of more players to contend.
Do they need to change their game plan?
Essendon plays a frenetic, thrilling brand of football. But the question has been raised about its susceptibilities in September, when games naturally get more congested and contested and the corridor gets shut down. It will be interesting to see if Essendon forsakes some of the dash for a style proven in the finals, with incoming assistant Blake Caracella's influence to be something to keep an eye on.
Who steps up?
The Bombers need some growth from within. Who is it going to be? Can Jordan Ridley be a senior regular? Will Kobe Mutch and Brayden Ham overtake other wingmen? Does Sam Draper become a No.1 ruckman? Will Brandon Zerk-Thatcher force his way into the back half?
Retirements: Mark Baguley, Matt Dea, David Myers
Unsigned free agents: Zac Clarke, Michael Hartley, Mitch Brown, Will Snelling