2021 AFL Grand Final
Melbourne midfielder Jack Viney (Photo: Getty Images)

After 206 matches, 4,747 goals and more COVID restrictions that this writer cares to count, it comes down to this: The Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs playing off in the 2021 AFL Grand Final.

A season of highs and lows sees the two teams that have, by general consensus, been the best all year take their place on the Last Saturday in September. For 16 of the 23 home and away seasons, these two sides occupied the top two places on the AFL ladder. Only a late season form slump saw the Dogs fall, not just outside of the top two, but the top four.

Before we delve into the tactical battles that may occur on Saturday evening, let’s look back at the 2021 campaigns of the two combatants.

The Demons

After a decade as comfortably the worst side in the AFL, the Demons broke their finals duck in 2018. Clearly, they decided that all winning wasn’t for them, dropping all the way to 17th on 2019 before frustratingly playing themselves out of finals contention late in the 2020 season.

This year was seen as make-or-break for a talented but flaky list as well as under pressure coach Simon Goodwin.

A finals berth was a minimum requirement. Winning a final or two would be a bonus. Top spot on the ladder and a Grand Final? Only the most optimistic/delusional Dees fans would have held those lofty expectations.

Yet, here we are.

A 9-0 start to the season set the Dees on their way, never falling outside the top four all year. Like every team, there was a form slump. For Melbourne that involved a narrow loss to lowly Collingwood and a draw to a struggling Hawthorn outfit.

For all of their success, the Demons only claimed 1st place on the ladder with the last kick of their home and away campaign. In a straight shootout with Geelong at Kardinia Park, Melbourne staged a most dramatic comeback before captain Max Gawn kicked a clutch goal after the siren to steal both the win and top spot from the Cats.

In the finals they’ve barely been troubled, taking care of a spirited Brisbane before nonchalantly swatting aside the Cats in the preliminary final.

The Demons boast the best defense in the league with Steven May and Jake Lever both earning All Australian honours. Their midfield is star studded with Gawn and superstars Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver also named as All Australians.

The Demons forward line took some time to find its feet, but the reemergence of Ben Brown and Tom McDonald gave Melbourne some much needed structure and marking power, allowing little men in Charlie Spargo, Alex Neal-Bullen and the exciting Kysaiah Pickett to thrive. Bayley Fritsch has enjoyed a career year, kicking 53 goals to lead the team.

The Bulldogs

The last time the Bulldogs were here they came via a similar route, defying the odds to claim the Premiership from 7th position on the ladder. They’re no strangers to doing things the hard way.

That said, for much of the season the Dogs were expected to top the AFL table or, at worst, finish 2nd. But for that late form slump – losing to the fast finishing Bombers, playing a truly awful game of football to get thumped by the Hawks and then losing in a nail biter to Port Adelaide – they would have comfortably claimed one of those spots.

The Dogs announced themselves early with a 128 point evisceration of the Kangaroos early in the year. Amazingly, it wasn’t their only 100+ win of the year, taking out St Kilda by 111 few weeks later.

Starting the finals as more of an …uhh… underdog (sorry) that they perhaps should have been has suited them down to the ground. Coach Luke Beveridge is a masterful tactician, though he loves nothing more than circling the wagons, playing the ‘us against the world’ card.

The Bulldogs have slowly but surely gained momentum as the finals have progressed. They did just enough to hold off a spirited Bombers side playing with nothing to lose, before a stirring final term comeback saw them stun the Lions. In the preliminary final, they blitzed the Power early, cantering to a 71 point victory.

Their outstanding midfield of skipper Marcus Bontompelli, ball magnet Jack Macrae and clearance king Tom Liberatore feed a forward line possessing options that on any day could tear you apart. Josh Bruce was playing career best football before injuring his knee in that late season loss to Essendon, Aaron Naughton confirmed his status as a star centrepiece, Cody Weightman is as unpredictable as they come and cult hero Bailey Smith is a genuine goal kicking wingman.

The Dogs’ concern is their defense, which can be picked apart. The emergence of former #2 pick Josh Schache as a defensive forward has proven telling and a renewed defensive focus from a midfield that prefers to get forward has helped solidify that end of the ground.

Prior meetings

The two clubs have faced off twice in 2021, splitting their encounters.

Round 11: Melbourne 13.9 (87) defeated Western Bulldogs 8.11 (59)

Both teams held 9-1 records coming into this game. Melbourne set the tone early with suffocating pressure forcing the usually fast moving dogs to repeatedly cough up the ball. Fritsch and McDonald kicked thee apiece for Melbourne, whilst Oliver (32 possessions) led the midfield. The Dogs could point to a slightly mitigating factor in missing key men in Josh Dunkley and Adam Treloar.

Round 19: Western Bulldogs 13.7 (85) defeated Melbourne 9.77 (65)

In a sloppy, wet weather game, the Bulldogs held off a fast finishing Melbourne, whose inaccurate goal kicking (an Achilles heel all year) saw them unable to put early scoreboard pressure on the Dogs. For the Bulldogs, Bontompelli (31 possessions, 2 goals in a dominant display), Macrae (38 and Caleb Daniel (34) were outstanding.

Gameplay

As the old saying goes, styles make fights. These two teams lineup in such a way that strength, on the whole, meets strength. It’s the methodology where they differ.

Melbourne are perhaps the most organised team in the AFL where as the Bulldogs, whilst not quite chaotic, thrive on the unpredictability of their best performers.

In the middle

It’s going to be a pleasure to watch such star studded midfields, certainly the two best in the AFL – the order is almost irrelevant – face off in the biggest game of the year.

Both teams are kings of clearance football. Bulldog Tom Liberatore and Demon Clayton Oliver rank 1st and 2nd for clearances (182 to 181) on the season. The Demons’ ability at the stoppages starts with the ruck dominance of Gawn. The Bearded One has slimmed down this season, combining his elite tap work with a motor that doesn’t stop, allowing him to reach more stoppages and in turn provide service to his midfield. He feeds a pair of superstars in Oliver and Petracca as well as the bull-headed Jack Viney.

As well as his improved running, another key factor in Gawn’s dominance has been the emergence of Luke Jackson as a genuine 2nd ruckman. He’s not elite by any means, but he does hold his own. That in turn allows Gawn to drift back into defense as another strong marking option, or drift forward to create a mismatch.

Oliver leads the AFL in contested possessions by a laughable distance, overall averaging 31.5 disposals per game in 2021. His partner in crime is a highlight machine in Petracca. The Raging Bull, as he’s known (weirdly, given he’s one of the most genial people in the league) has put up 28.8 possessions per game, ranking 7th in the AFL in clearances and 2nd in forward entries as well as averaging just over a goal. A big bodied, hard runner with pace and skill, he’s the man most likely to break the game open for Melbourne.

Viney has had a spotty couple of seasons but is in peak form at just the right time. He’s averaged 31 possessions and eight clearances through the finals.

The Demons will have James Harmes go straight to Liberatore. ‘Libba’ set the tone for the Dogs lightning start against the Port Adelaide last time out, as Power tagger Willem Drew looked on from the interchange. The Demons surely won’t make the same mistake. Ed Langdon, whose foot skills have at long last caught up to his elite aerobic capacity, will pay a key role in linking defense and attack.

For the Bulldogs, it all starts with their charismatic leader Bontompelli. He is the man around which everything revolved for the Dogs. He might be the best do-it-all midfielder in the game, able to win the ball in traffic, run on the outside, deliver skilfully by hand or foot and kick goals. Alongside Petracca, they’re perhaps the most fun midfielders in the league to sit back and watch. Petracca is perhaps a tad more consistent, but Bontompelli’s best is better than anyone’s in football.

Jack Macrae’s record breaking 2021 campaign has flown under the radar somewhat, given his understated stylings. His 2021 season saw him garner more disposals than any player over a season in the long history of the league. He’s averaging over 35 per game! When this writer was a youngster (cue sepia toned images) anybody averaging above 30 was truly elite. The game is different now, of course, but those numbers are XBox like. In addition to mere accumulation, he’s also a magnificent distributor, rarely making an error by foot as evidenced by his ranking 2nd in assists in the competition.

Liberatore is the bellwether for the Dogs. When he gets his hands on the ball and feeds his teammates, the Dogs generally play very well. Look at his numbers in the two games against the Demons: 16 possessions in the loss; 27 in the win. His match up with Harmes will be fascinating and could prove vital in the outcome of the match.

Lachie Hunter – 7th in the AFL in assists – is an underrated gatherer of the football and set up man for the Dogs. A Liberatore Lite type, his work around the stoppages can’t be underestimated. Like Angus Brayshaw for Melbourne, he often sacrifices his own stats for the betterment of the team, but tends to sneak under the radar. His reading of the play is other worldly.

Off season pick up Adam Treloar was supposed to make Josh Dunkley redundant. Instead, they’ve both thrived as hard headed midfielders with the ability to win the ball inside and create options on the run. They round out a remarkably deep, talented and tough midfield group.

Where the Dogs could struggle is in the ruck, where they have to match the dominance of Gawn and Jackson with a converted forward in Tim English and the 35 year old (and former Demon) Stefan Martin. Martin will take the opening bounce and though he’s as wily as they come, his once elite athleticism has severely waned as he’s aged. He’ll contest well at the stoppages and may even beat Jackson in the ruck contests, but he can’t hold a candle to those two when it comes to the running game. Similarly, English, who at 6’10” has the size to match the Demons pair, doesn’t have either the running capacity or the ruck craft to seriously trouble the Demons.

Fortunately for the Dogs, they’ve been playing without a dominant ruck all year and have become masters of sharking the opposition ruckman. The Demons will have to be creative with their ruck routines on Saturday night.

When the Bulldogs go forward

The Dogs sported the league’s best attack for most of the season before that late season blip saw them drop to #2, with 90.6 points per match.

The Bulldogs lost leading goal kicker Josh Bruce late in the season, though they’ve adapted wonderfully well, putting a lot more speed and ground ball coverage around the high flying Aaron Naughton.

Every time Naughton leaps for a mark, you’re not sure if he’s going to come down in one piece, such is the almost reckless abandon with which he ataucks the football. It’s that aleatory nature of his that makes him so hard to defend: if he doesn’t know what he’s about to do, how on earth does his marker? The beauty of his game is that even if he doesn’t take a spectacular mark, he crashes packs and brings the ball to ground, where the likes of the equally unpredictable Cody Weightman, ex-Demon Mitch Hannan, 2016 Norm Smith Medalist Jason Johannisen or cult hero Bailey Smith can pounce.

Ah, yes: the most famous mullet in football.

Smith’s emergence this season has proven a key cog the Dogs attack. Nominally a winger, he spends the majority of his time forward as he has neither the field kicking or stamina to play as a full time midfielder just yet. His finals performances have been outrageous, especially his 2nd half against the Lions.

This is a side that can put points on the board in a hurry and play a style that makes them a neutrals favourite.

They will come up against the most well organised team in the AFL. Practically all season, Melbourne’s defense ranked 1st in the league, conceding just 65.6 points per game.

The headliners in the Demons back line are of course a shutdown full back in May and an interception machine in Lever (the Demons have yet to concede 100 points in a game the pair have played) but, like most elite defences in just about any team sport, its about more than just the individuals.

Melbourne’s defense starts on wings with Brayshaw playing a selfless holding role on one wing, the hard running Langdon on the other. Harmes performs a lock down role in midfield. The work they do to slow down the opposition in midfield allow the Demons’ formidable back line to find their shape. As the key big defender May will go to Naughton. Harry Petty (who has acquitted himself so well after coming into the team for the injured Adam Tomlinson) is a brave and physical presence. He allows Lever to move to a less potent forward – likely Hannan – though the Dogs will make every effort to get him switched onto Schache.

An underrated part of Melbourne’s defense is its speed once the ball comes to ground. Veteran Michael Hibberd, the rugged Trent Rivers and Jake Bowey make a habit of getting to the loose ball first, through they are not always as locked in defensively since the decline of Neville Jetta. From time to time, small forwards can get hold of the Demons’ back line, though it’s rare for a bigger forward to take them to task.

The rookie Bowey is also a skilled user of the ball who turns defense into attack. It’s inevitable, though, that the Demons defense looks to counter through the silky half back Christian Salem. Despite not possessing the same leg speed as his fellow backs, he is deadly by foot, setting up counter attacks with his booming left boot.

The key match up in this part of the ground will revolve around the Dogs’ attempts to nullify Lever’s intercept game. But keep an eye on who the Demons turn to in closing down Bailey Smith – a job that will probably fall to Rivers – and May’s ability to curtail the faster Naughton without further damaging the hamstring he strained in the preliminary final.

When the Demons go forward

This is an area of the ground where there are undoubted positives, but certainly question marks for both teams.

Melbourne’s attack, despite their 9-0 start, took some time to really find it’s feet in 2021. Averaging 85.8 points – good for 5th in the AFL – the Demons have belatedly found a structure that works, centred around former Kangaroos spearhead Ben Brown. Whilst not as prolific as he was at North Melbourne – partly by design, given he spends more time leading up the ground as a Demon – he provides a huge target for the Melbourne midfielders. He’s still as accurate as ever on the set shot, but his overall effect is two fold. He frees up Tom McDonald – miscast in previous years as a #1 option – to roam the forward line with a lesser defender tailing him, and he halves contest, allowing the Demons productive small forwards to strut their stuff.

Charlie Spargo has emerged in 2021 as a clever forward line rover, able to set up teammates and hit the scoreboard. Alex Neal-Bullen is low-key one of the best short kicks in the AFL, a stand out hitting a leading forward. But the two key men up front are without doubt Fritsch and Pickett. Fritsch is a tough match up: able to play bigger than his 6’2” frame thanks to a prodigious leap and vice like hands, whilst proving too nimble at ground level for bigger opponents. He has also proven remarkably consistent, with only one haul of 5+ goals all season – he’s always chipping in with two or three majors.

The man the fans come to see, however, is Kwicksliver Kozzie.

The 20 year old is a nightmare match up. He’ll often line up at centre bounces to provide a bit of speed to the demons midfield, as well as leading all the way to the wing to drag his defender away from their comfort zones. Closer to goal, he’s an elite rover with the sort of elusiveness and sixth sense for goal that reminds you of a young Eddie Betts.

Defensively, underrate the Dogs at your peril. They ranked 4th in the competition giving up only 68.2 points per game despite a relatively no name group.

Alex Keath, returning for the Grand Final after a hamstring strain, is the pillar around which the Bulldogs create their defense. The former 1st class cricketer is an outstanding reader of the play. He combines elements of May’s one-on-one staunchness with Lever’s intercept marking, without being quite as good at either as the Demons pair. Still, his return and likely match up with Brown is huge for the Dogs.

Around Keath, the Dogs possess a phalanx of capable mid sized defenders. Former captain Easton Wood has lost a step, but remains a strong physical presence. Bailey Williams has followed up his breakout 2020 with a fine season. He’s once again one of the most improved players in the league in 2021. Alongside fellow veteran Taylor Duryea, all could prove capable match ups for Fritsch or Spargo. Though none have the sheer speed and agility to go step for step with Pickett, expect Duryea, a wily defender who plays his angles superbly, to try to go with the Demons live wire.

On the counter, the Dogs can funnel their play through the brilliant kicking of Bailey Dale or the diminutive Caleb Daniel. Both are outstanding quarterbacks from half back and Dale in particular has shown an ability to hit the scoreboard in 2021. Dale has, in essence, taken on the role on Johannisen in this team. Could he repeat JJ’s Norm Smith heroics from 2016?

Where the Dogs back line can be vulnerable is at centre half back, where Zaine Cordy will mark McDonald. Whilst strong in the air, Cordy isn’t by any means a high end runner and his agility is somewhat lacking. If McDonald can get up the ground on longer leads it could see the Dees forward line open right up.

The Prediction

This has all the makings of a finals for the ages (which, by the laws of The Jinx, obviously means it’s going to be a blowout, one way or the other!).

Two absolutely outstanding midfield groups; a star studded forward line matching up with a brick wall of a defense at one end; an enigmatic group of forwards against a vulnerable back line at the other.

So, who wins?

This is a close call, but this writer thinks the Demons will prevail by 14 points, breaking the Curse of the Red Fox and ending a 57 year Premiership drought. Look for Ed Langdon to upset the odds and win the Norm Smith Medal.