AFL 2021 Season Preview: Carlton

Zac Williams is likely to return for Carlton this week Image Source: carltonfc.com.au

Following four years at ground zero, Carlton started to slowly make its move in season 2020. Rising from the bottom rungs of the ladder up to the midst of finals contention.

Entering the sixth year from the biggest rebuild ever undertaken at the club, Carlton is entering season 2021 in a position of strength both on and off the field. Record memberships, debt-free, and a playing list that looks primed and ready to realize its full potential with several handy additions in the offseason.

With strength comes expectations. Expectations that this is the year that Carlton finally breakthrough for its first finals campaign since 2013.

Last year: 

11th. 7 wins, 10 losses. 94.3%

It was the year Carlton started making its move. From perennial cellar-dwellers, Carlton was still an outside chance of qualifying for finals last season with two rounds to play.

With David Teague taking charge of his first full pre-season, The Blues looked to transition their game style into a more attacking brand, moving the ball faster through the corridor.

This left them vulnerable on the counter-attack, finding themselves unable to stop momentum swings and concede multiple consecutive goals within short periods of game time.

This would be a common theme as the year progressed and would ultimately cost them multiple games.

Treating its fans to a number of close finishes in 2020, Carlton was involved in six games that were decided by a goal or less, including two famous after the siren finishes which one went its way and one didn’t.

After hovering around the periphery of the top eight for most of the year and maintaining an even ledger, the Blues fell away late to finish the year off disappointingly. Leaving plenty none the wiser if they were actually ready to take the next step

Track watch

Harder, faster, stronger, better has been the blueprint for the Blues this pre-season as they look to add layers to their game style and solidify a fast pace and energetic brand of football.

New recruits Adam Saad and Zac Williams have wasted no time settling in to their new club, immediately lifting the standards and raising the intensity levels of the collective group. New young draftee Corey Durdin has also made a strong impression and is firming for some game time at senior level early in the season.

Last season’s boom recruit Jack Martin has spent the majority of the pre-season with the midfield group, with a plan to use the skilful ball hunter and distributor as an inside midfielder to add to a growing midfield rotation.

Captain and superstar Patrick Cripps has resumed full training after being hampered by a shoulder injury last year and has bulked up again in a bid to return to his All Australian, clearance winning, powerful best.

Along with Cripps, plenty of other young blues have been impressing on the track, bringing the added strength and maturity as they enter their third, fourth and fifth year in the AFL system and progress to the next stage in their development.

Zac Fisher has continued to impress in his new role as a small forward while young midfielders Sam Walsh, Will Setterfield, and Paddy Dow have continued to further step up in their development.

The injury front has not been kind to the Blues this offseason with young utility Brodie Kemp aggravating an ankle and will sit out the first three months of the year while Tom De Koning will miss the first few rounds with a back injury. Charlie Curnow continues to make steady progress from a series of serious knee injuries.

What to look forward to

Speed of ball movement

The Blues recruiting strategy this off-season was centred around the way they wanted to play.

Win the ball at the contest, which they did with aplomb last season, and get into motion.

While the inclusion of Zac Williams and Adam Saad – the dash brothers if you will, off half-back sounds a mouth-watering prospect for Blues fans, Williams being deployed in the centre of the ground will give Carlton the turbocharge their midfield desperately needs. Adding much-needed speed and burst out of congestion.

Carlton was amongst the best teams in the competition in 2020 in winning the ball at stoppages and winning clearances around the ground, ranking fourth in the competition for total clearances per game.

An area where it came unstuck for Carlton was the midfield-forward connection and converting many forward 50 entries into quality entries and scoring opportunities.

With the class of Saad and Williams and Martin spending more time in the midfield, this is one area that is seen as the growth area in Carlton’s game plan.

It’s a big year for

Throw a blanket of several players who could fall in this category but 2021 looms as a major year in the career of Paddy Dow.

Restricted to only three games last year due to a knee injury and inconsistent regular match play up in the hub, Dow’s struggles for consistency and poor disposal but foot have been a constant across his short AFL career to date.

Despite a tough start to his life in the AFL system at Carlton, After 42 games and entering his fourth year in the system, the time is now for Paddy Dow to break into the senior side and justify the tag of a Pick 3 draft pick back in 2017.

Possessing speed, evasiveness, and other qualities that are a point of difference in a very one-paced midfield, Dow still looms as an important piece in this Carlton midfield.

He faces a battle to win his spot in a midfield which has gotten deeper and has fallen back in the queue.

Biggest unanswered question

Can they stop the run ons?

It’s the most talked about stat about Carlton over the last 12 months and it’s abundantly clear that for all the good things David Teague has done with this group, there remains a chink in the plan which continues to set them back.

The numbers don’t lie. On nine occasions in 2020 Carlton let opposition teams put a run of at least five unanswered goals on. Since David Teague has been coach, Carlton has conceded a five-goal swing in 17 of 27 matches.

It started early in games and then it became a problem later in games where momentum would swing against them and it wouldn’t be able to be stemmed mid-quarter.

If Carlton are to take the next step in 2021 and break into the finals, this is the biggest area of its game plan that needs tidying up.

Coach pressure index

Low to Medium

It certainly wasn’t the year David Teague was expecting to have with his first full year in the chair.

But as any coach knows, especially any coach of this club, you can never afford to get comfortable or complacent.

While Teague has been accepted by the masses and lauded by the Carlton faithful for instilling belief and a plan in this group, he enters season 2021 with the pressure and the knowledge that the list he has at his disposal is ready to challenge and be among the top eight sides come the end of the year.

However Carlton goes this year, expect the pressure dial to be even greater next year. The real breaking point time if things go awry this time around.

Ins:

Jack Carroll (National Draft – East Fremantle), Corey Durdin (National Draft – Central District), Lachie Fogarty (Traded – Geelong), Luke Parks (Rookie Draft – Glenelg), Adam Saad (Traded – Essendon), Zac Williams (Free Agent – GWS Giants)

Outs:

Hugh Goddard (Delisted), Matthew Kreuzer (Retired), Darcy Lang (Delisted), Harrison Macreadie (Delisted), Callum Moore (Delisted)*,  Finbar O’Dwyer (Delisted), Fraser Phillips (Delisted), Cameron Polson (Delisted), Ben Silvagni (Delisted), Kade Simpson (Retired)

*Callum Moore is training at the club over pre-season in a bid to earn the final list spot

Predicted Rd 1 line-up:

B: Lachie Plowman – Liam Jones – Tom Williamson

HB: Sam Docherty – Jacob Weitering – Adam Saad

C: Jack Newnes – Patrick Cripps – David Cuningham

HF: Jack Martin – Levi Casboult – Marc Murphy

F: Zac Fisher – Harry McKay – Michael Gibbons

R: Marc Pittonet – Sam Walsh – Zac Williams

I/C: Sam Petrevski-Seton – Ed Curnow – Will Setterfield – Nic Newman                      

Ladder range:

6th-10th

From the outset, everything looks like this team is ready to go and shoot up the ladder. After recruiting A-grade talent, clearing all outstanding debt, and breaking its membership record for the third year in a row, it would finally seem that Carlton has all its ducks in a row.

Though, the natives are getting restless.

A passionate supporter base who has been through a significant amount of pain over the last five seasons especially, the time is now to start delivering, on-field, on all the promises and potential that exists within this list and the club.

With all that said, they could easily not make it and only finish marginally higher than the 11th placed finish in 2020, a result which would really put the blowtorch on everyone at Princes Park.

A situation they and all the Blues fans desperately want to avoid.

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