When you make it to the last day of footy in September, there’s very little you don’t know about your opponent.
Their gameplan, personnel, and any ducks and drakes they’re capable of have generally been well exposed.
But if there’s one coach who has the ability to throw the magnets around it’s Luke Beveridge – and that’s certainly not the only string to his bow.
A master motivator, how he’s managed to get his team this far has been incredible.
Locked in a hotel for weeks on end, he’s rallied his Bulldog troops with an ‘us against them’ mantra that’s fired them from a late season slump to the verge of another premiership.
We know he can be a little quirky at times, but that’s what endears him to his players and neutrals alike. That touch of flair and unpredictability can also play out at selection.
He’s made his team versatile.
The Dogs probably have a touch more midfield depth than the Demons and those midfielders have proved they can play multiple roles, whether it be forward, back or negating the opposition.
So, is there a move that Beveridge could have up his sleeve this week? And would he want to use it in the biggest game of the year?
It’s no secret the midfield battle is crucial in deciding any game, and particularly this one, given the talent on both teams.
Could Josh Dunkley be employed in a run-with role on Clayton Oliver?
Dunkley did a job on Darcy Parish in the second half of the elimination final victory over Essendon, before spending time on Lachie Neale and Ollie Wines in the semi and preliminary finals.
Clayton Oliver and Josh Dunkley.Credit:The Age
While both the Dees and Dogs have never been afraid to go head-to-head with their opposition around the footy, Dunkley’s ability to win his own ball means, if he does go to Oliver, it doesn’t throw out the balance of the midfield.
Could Jack Viney also play a similar role on Tom Liberatore, who’s proven integral to the Dogs engine room, unlocking his more ‘outside’ midfield team-mates with his quick hands and hard-nosed approach?
Pound for pound, what a battle that would be.
Dangerous Bulldog Tom Liberatore.Credit:AFL Photos
Then there’s the question of Max Gawn.
Lachie Hunter admitted during the week the Dogs will have a plan for the All-Australian ruckman after his five-goal performance in the preliminary final smashing of Geelong.
Because of that dominance, Stef Martin looms as one of the most important players on the ground on Saturday night.
After making his return from a groin injury a fortnight ago, now, with another few training sessions under his belt he should be better for the run.
For Stef, it’s simply about being a workhorse. He needs to be body to body with Max and fight for every inch in every moment.
We know he’s honest, but can he run out a game against the best ruck combo in the AFL in Gawn and Luke Jackson?
His target must be neutralising the contest. Not only does that allow the midfielders at his feet to be a little more proactive, but it stops Melbourne from getting a clear run at the footy.
The Dogs simply can’t give the Demons easy passage through the front of the contest like they were allowed against the Cats.
The Dees on-ballers must be pushed wide or backwards with any clearances.
Structurally Martin becomes so important when you consider what it also means for Tim English playing forward – even if he’s not always clunking them at the moment.
For the Dogs to kick a winning score they’ll need goals from their midfield whether it be Marcus Bontempelli, Dunkley, ‘Libba’, Jack Macrae, Adam Treloar or Bailey Smith.
With seven goals in his past two games Smith has been a real offensive weapon. The key to beating him might not be sitting on him, but quite the opposite.
Can Ed Langdon – one of the premier runners in the game – hurt him heading in the other direction? If he can make Smith work defensively, it can tire him out and dull his ability to hit the scoreboard.
He must be made accountable.
The other key questions Beveridge and his team will be pondering will be focused on the Melbourne defence.
Much has been said about Jake Lever and Steven May.
While I don’t think the Dogs can necessarily exploit May’s recent hamstring issue, they should take him out of his comfort zone at every opportunity.
I love Aaron Naughton and the way he flies for the footy. May wants to be the deepest defender. Get him up the ground and turn him around.
Then there’s Josh Schache. The way he was deployed on Aliir Aliir in the preliminary final was a masterstroke. Can he do the same on Lever?
Josh Schache. Credit:AFL Photos
Josh has to prove he can back that performance up with more of the same on the biggest day on the footy calendar.
There are so many other factors which will go into deciding this result.
Melbourne have a great forward mix with Ben Brown and Tom McDonald as their pillars, surrounded by the x-factor of Bayley Fritsch, Kysaiah Pickett and Christian Petracca, at times.
Charlie Spargo also provides great energy. And let’s not forget Max, when he goes forward.
Will the week off hurt the Demons? Only time will tell. Knowing how hard to train is crucial, but from what we’ve seen it seems they’ve put in the extra work on the track.
The week off and what it can do to you mentally is difficult to explain. It might sound silly but if you’re not properly prepared you can almost ‘forget’ what’s required – that intensity and sharpness that’s needed from the bounce in a big final.
Sometimes that only needs to be lacking for 10 minutes and the game can get away from you.
For the Dogs, meanwhile, the longer lead-in seems like the perfect freshen up.
But all that being said, I’m sticking with the Demons. For me, the onus is on the Bulldogs to make things happen against the best defensive team of the season.
Unless the Dogs midfield gets right on top, I’m not sure their forwards will get enough opportunities against May and Lever to kick a winning score.
It should be close, and looms as an entertaining battle, but it’s Melbourne’s time to end the drought.
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