As the 2021 AFL season begins with the traditional opener between Carlton and Richmond, here at Vendetta Sports Media we present the last of our team previews: the Western Bulldogs.

For all of our other team previews for AFL season 2021, click here.

Western Bulldogs home guernsey

Th Bulldogs recorded a second consecutive 7th placed finish in 2020, confirming their status as an emerging premiership challenger. That may seem strange to say, given that the Dogs secured only their second ever flag in 2016, but that veteran laden group has been quickly supplanted by a talented crop of younger players. Can the Bulldogs push on and join the elite teams in 2021?

Season 2020

7th: 10 wins, 7 losses, 106.7%

Finals: lost to St Kilda by 3 points in week 1

The Dogs mixed standout seasons from veterans and breakout campaigns from youngsters in 2020. Diminutive forward Caleb Daniel was reborn as a rebounding defender-cum-midfielder, winning his first club Best and Fairest. Superstar midfielders Marcus Bontompelli and Jack Macrae were both once again superb, earning All Australian honours, alongside Daniel.

With Taylor Duryea injured, the emergence of Bailey Williams as a running defender helped take the pressure away from Jason Johannisen. Alex Keath had his best season as a Bulldog, forming a solid key defensive partnership with veteran Easton Wood. Aaron Naughton showed potential as a key forward, though it was a disappointing first season at Whitten Oval for Josh Bruce, who’s return of 14 goals (six of which came in a single match against the Kangaroos) was far below what both he and the club would have hoped for.

Key Ins: Adam Treloar (Magpies), Mitch Hannan (Demons), Stefan Martin (Lions), Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Dom Bedendo, Lachie McNeil (all draft)

Key Outs: Lachie Young (Kangaroos), Tory Dickson, Sam Lloyd, Matt Sucking (all retired), Jackson Trengove, Billy Gowers, Fergus Greene, Brad Lynch, Callum Porter (all released)

The Bulldogs pulled off a double coup in the offseason. Firstly, they held on to star midfielder Josh Dunkley despite very, very strong interest from Essendon; secondly, they were able to secure perhaps the biggest name to move clubs – with apologies to Jeremy Cameron – this offseason in Adam Treloar from Collingwood.

The former Magpie will add more ball winning ability and toughness to the Dogs midfield brigade that is already blessed with talent like Lachie Hunter and Mitch Wallis as well as the aforementioned trio of Bontompelli, Dunkley and Macrae. That group can lay claim to being the best sextet of midfielders in the entire AFL. If he can get back to his best, Tom Liberatore could well join that group.

When the Bulldogs fell away after their storming 2016 premiership run, it was their defense that could perhaps take most of the blame. They lost key leaders and, Wood aside, didn’t really have any established stars left in that part of the park. The emergence of Keath as a stopper and Williams as a rebounding defender have been integral in the Dogs rise back up the ladder.

The Bulldogs defensive strength, though, comes in the attack they generate from the backline. Johannisen won a Norm Smith medal solely through his ability to attack from half back. Williams, Danial and the returning Duryea give the Dogs a small army of playmakers in the back half of the field. Even Wood – now the bedrock that those attacking players rely upon – made his name as a counter attacking player.

Whilst as a group they’re not always as attentive as they perhaps should be, you simply must make your attacks count against the Dogs – if you don’t, they’ll run the ball straight back at you.

If there is a weakness in this Bulldogs line up, it’s consistently kicking a winning score. Mitch Wallis – a midfielder by trade – led the team with only 25 majors. That is indicative of the Bulldogs problems: they have an array of midfielders that can contribute to the scoreboard, but rather than being icing on the cake, they’re too often relied upon.

Naughton was next with a mere 15 goals to his name, albeit in less appearances. Naughton certainly looks the part of an AFL full forward. He’s big, quick, can take a great mark and is a very good kick for goal. He’s wildly inconsistent, but at age 21 he has plenty of time to put it all together. As mentioned above, Josh Bruce was not at his best in 2020. He’ll hope to perform far better in his second season as a Bulldog.

The good news for Bulldogs supporters is that help is on the way. Heralded draft pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is of course yet to play an official AFL game, but the rookie looks every bit the superstar forward in the making. He’s big, lighting fast, and has a flair that reminds many of a young Buddy Franklin. If he has a career that approximates that man, the Dogs – and the AFL in general – will be in for a treat. He’ll be joined by the promising Laitham Vandemeer, a converted defender who played well as a forward in 2020. Mitch Hannan, picked up from Melbourne, is a fine mid-sized forward who can excel in the right matchup.

Despite turning 34 years old in the offseason, Stefan Martin is an underrated acquisition by the Bulldogs. He’s still just about as athletic as ever and his presence will both mentor and take the pressure away from Tim English, who is a promising player but has looked a little jaded at times, playing without another true ruckman to support him.

Prediction: 4th

Will 2021 be the year that the Bulldogs make the top four, marking themselves as a true AFL elite? This writer says yes.

The Dogs are chock full of midfielders and attacking defenders that can outmuscle you in the trenches, out run you on the flanks, and deliver the ball on a platter to a suddenly very interesting forward line. If those young forwards in Ugle-Hagan, Naughton and Vandemeer shine; if the midfield can provide just enough support to the more conservatively minded defenders, then the Dogs are primed for a genuine premiership tilt.