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Melbourne excitement machine Kysyaiah Pickett (Photo: Getty Images)

AFL 2022: Melbourne Demons season preview

Vendetta Sports Media is once again covering Australian Rules Football in 2022. Today we continue our AFL season preview series with a a look at the Melbourne Demons, a club that for the first time in over half a century come into the season as the reigning premier.

Melbourne’s home geurnsey

After an historically inept decade from 2007 to 2017, the Demons rebuild finally came together in a way that nobody could reasonably have expected in 2021, resulting in a finals series where they ran roughshod over their opposition, delivering the club’s 13th premiership and first since 1964. The question now is this: can the Demons catch lightning in a bottle twice?

For all of our previous season 2022 AFL team previews, click here.

Season 2021

1st position: 17 wins, 1 draw, 4 losses, 130.8%.

In 2018 the Demons broke a 12 year drought to play finals football. They followed that up with a bottom four finish in 2019 and a terrible run home to miss the finals in 2020. For those keeping count, that’s one finals appearance in 15 years. With that in mind, what reasonable person would believe that Melbourne would claim the premiership in a dominant finals run?

Whatever could go right did go right for Melbourne in 2021. The Dees shot out of the gates, winning their opening nine fixtures before losing to the Crows in a controversial one point reverse. That only strengthened the Demons resolve as they stuck in the top two for the entire home and away season, taking top spot with the last kick of their last game.

Once in the finals, the Demons held the Lions at arms length, absolutely destroyed Geelong in the preliminary finals before putting on a run for the ages to turn a tight and tense grand final into a 74 point pounding.

Midfield superstars Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver confirmed themselves as top five players in the entire league. Inspirational skipper Max Gawn capped a career year with the Captaincy of the All Australian team. Defensive linchpins Jake Lever and Stephen May were immense and up forward high profile recruit Ben Brown came on string late in the season to support the unlikely Bayley Frtisch, who led the forward line magnificently.

A bonus for the Demons was that in a dominant season they were also able to introduce a series of youngsters into the team: Jared Rivers, Tom Sparrow, Kysaiah Pickett, Harry Petty, Luke Jackson, Jake Bowey and James Jordon all seeing significant game time – all are now premiership players.

Key ins: Luke Dunstan (St Kilda), Jacob van Rooyen, Blake Howes, Taj Woewodin, Judd McVee, Andy Moniz-Wakefield (all draft)

Key outs: Nathan Jones, Neville Jetta, Aaron Vandenberg (all retired) Kye Declase, Austin Bradtke, Jay Lockhart, Aaron Nietschke, Marty Hore (all released)

The Demons have close to the perfect list. They possess high end quality in every area of the field; their best players are – on the whole – in or yet to reach the prime of their careers; their youngsters have shown enough to already be first team players in the best side in the competition. There is literally not a significant weakness in the side.

The Dees have skill all over the park, speed, strength, endurance, intelligence and coach Simon Goodwin (hopefully the Simon Badloss nickname is consigned to history) implements a solid structure and high pressure game plan.

In what was close to a perfect season, if there was one area of the team that had to overcome obstacles, it was the defense. The bedrock was May, Lever and the play making Christian Salem, who all earned All Australian honours. Around them, though, was a group that was always in flux until finally settling late in the season. Former All Australian Neville Jetta started the season well but faded badly, his legs simply unable to do what they used to in what proved his final AFL season. He was ably replaced by 2nd year pro Trent Rivers who impressed with his body work and run out of defense. Adam Tomlinson’s adaptation from midfield was going well before an ACL injury halted his season. The much maligned Harrison Petty stepping in and, after a few weeks of bedding in, emerged as a stout centre half back. The jet heeled, though erratic Jayden Hunt fell to injury with a month to go before the finals, allowing Jake Bowey to make his debut. Hunt never regained his place. Bowey’s composure and ball skill were in stark contrast to Hunt’s helter-skelter style, but it worked a treat. The 19 year old playing with the calm demeanour of a man many years older. With Hunt and Tomlinson available for selection, the Demons defense is the deepest in the competition.

Melbourne’s forward line was seen as a weakness coming into the year. Ben Brown came over from the Kangaroos, but was still struggling with the knee issues that curtailed his final years at North Melbourne. Tom McDonald was trade bait, so unwanted that the Demons were unable to find a new home for him. Around them were an exciting youngster in Pickett, the unproven Charlie Spargo, a running machine who too often failed to produce ant end product in Alex Neal-Bullen and the talented but underwhelming Fritsch. Nobody seems all that sure how it happened, but this forward line clicked in 2021.

Brown was in and out of the side as he managed his knee injuries until finding form and fitness just in time for the finals. Neal-Bullen played career best football, his delivery to a leading forward proving a highlight to football geeks. McDonald oscillated between using his immense running power to draw defenders out of position to monstering smaller players on his way to 33 goals. Spargo’s clever movement and intelligent ball use proved the perfect gap filler. Pickett (40 goals) established himself as the most exciting small forward in Demons colours since a young Aaron Davey. But it was Fritsch who emerged as the star man. He smashed his previous career high of 22 goals with a barely believable 59, including six in the grand final. There is more than a chance that this was a huge outlier of a season for Fritsch, but even if he settles as a 40-45 goal a season forward, the Demons have themselves a player to build a forward line around.

The Demons are strong all over the ground, though their strongest area is without doubt their midfield.

Led by the inspirational Gawn, who fed Petracca, Oliver, hard man Jack Viney and high end tagger James Harmes, this midfield was the best in the AFL all season. Petracca and Oliver were the dynamic double act that dominated the competition. On the rare occasion that a team could hold one of them below par, the other would compensate with a huge game. Like Pickett, Luke Jackson found another level in 2021. The 20 year old ruckman proved a more than capable backup (and long term successor) for Gawn whilst also giving defenses fits when he went forward. Throw in a running machine in Ed Langdon on one wing and the disciplined play of Angus Brayshaw – his chemistry with Salem was delightful – on the other and you have a team that is almost without weakness. In a case of the rich getting richer, the Demons added the versatile Like Dunstan from the Saints, who can fill any number of roles in the midfield mix.

Melbourne saw the retirements of club icon Nathan Jones and hard man Aaron Vandenberg, though it’s a testament to the depth in this midfield that neither will realistically be missed on game day.

If there is something for this team to improve upon, it’s their goal kicking. For all of the goals that they kicked, Melbourne generated so many more chances. Gawn and Oliver – neither are noted for their accuracy in front of goal – were particularly wasteful, though Pickett, Neal-Bullen and Pickett could also go cold.

Prediction: 2nd

Come finals time, the Demons are doubtless the favourites to win it all, but these predictions are for how the teams will finish the end of the regular season.

After a long, emotional season, it’s entirely understandable that the Demons don’t go quite as hard at the home and away season, rather keeping an eye on September action. They’ll also have to adapt to having a target on their backs from the outset – the Dees won’t take anybody by surprise in 2022.

That said, they still have the deepest and most talented list in the competition with match winners all over the park. All other things (i.e. injuries) being equal the Demons will secure a top two berth, earning a bye in the first week of the finals.

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