AFL 2021 Season Previews: Melbourne

Demons skipper Max Gawn. Image Source: melbournefc.com.au

After the incredible heights of 2018, the Melbourne Demons have languished in the bottom half of the ladder in their two seasons after its preliminary final visit.

The newly founded expectation on Melbourne to compete for premierships hasn’t been reached by the club, as it has failed to make the finals in the following two seasons since their run to the second last week of the season.

2021 looms as a key year in the Simon Goodwin chapter in Melbourne’s history books, as there seem to be no true holes in their list.

Last year:

9th. 9 wins, 8 losses, 107.8%

Melbourne started its 2020 campaign rather inconsistently, with only wins against Carlton, Hawthorn, and Gold Coast in their first eight games. 

However, the second half of the season saw the Demons win six of its last nine matches, finishing just outside of the finals equation.

Late season slip-ups against lowly Fremantle and Sydney in consecutive weeks ruled out a realistic chance of playing in an elimination final.

Christian Petracca had teased a midfield role for years since being drafted as the number two pick in 2014, but 2020 was the first year where he rarely played out of the goal square. 

Joining Clayton Oliver and Max Gawn in the centre square, Petracca became an important feature in the Melbourne lineup, earning a third-place finish in the Brownlow Medal.

Steven May returned to full fitness after an injury-riddled 2019 and turned into one of the competition’s premier key defenders. Partnered with Jake Lever down back, the tandem was effective at shutting down most of the league’s major goalkickers. 

Debuts for highly prized draftees Luke Jackson and Kysaiah Pickett were met with enthusiasm from the fans, with Pickett playing 14 games across the season, each with electrifying highlights. Jackson is seen as more a developmental pick, however, the young ruck showed positive signs as he played alongside Gawn.

Track Watch

Melbourne fans will have one eye firmly fixated on the left leg of new recruit and star forward Ben Brown, who underwent surgery to assess cartilage damage on his left knee. It is expected Brown will begin running as part of his rehabilitation at the start of March, just weeks before the start of the season.

With two list spots currently available at Melbourne, former Roo Majak Daw has been training with the Demons as the key defender tries to find a new home. Daw is expected to sign with Melbourne as a depth forward option in the Supplemental Selection Period (SSP).

Christian Petracca is training well after a breakout season in 2020 that saw him place third in the Brownlow Medal, whilst Alex Neal-Bullen won Melbourne’s time trial around The Tan.

What to look forward to:

After a disappointing 2020 that followed a catastrophic 2019, Melbourne fans and players will have their eyes firmly set to return to the finals.

With arguably the best ruckman in Max Gawn alongside Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca, winning centre clearances will be firmly entrenched into Goodwin’s game plan. However, Melbourne’s forward structure is heavily reliant on the health of Ben Brown.

Draftees Bailey Laurie, Jake Bowey, and Fraser Rosman should all eventually debut in 2021, however, this is not a developmental season for the Demons and it won’t be a year of gifting games to youngsters.

It’s a big year for:

Angus Brayshaw has had two seasons of regression since his third-place finish in the 2018 Brownlow. Whilst he’s still contracted until the end of 2022, reports have linked the midfielder to Fremantle or West Coast in a trade.

The 25-year-old has his younger brother Andrew now firmly embedded in Fremantle’s midfield brigade, whilst Hamish is playing for West Coast’s WAFL side.

Brayshaw’s decline in statistical performance coincided with a change of position, with Goodwin electing to use him as a forward flanker. However, with Petracca and Oliver operating as inside midfielders, Brayshaw can offer the Demons clearance department a clean boot as the two stars feed the outside runner.

Brayshaw’s ability to break lines and deliver the ball forward was a big reason why Melbourne played finals football in 2018, and a return to the midfield may see him bring back the style of football that almost won him a Brownlow Medal.

Biggest unanswered question:

Will Ben Brown solve their key forward conundrum?

The recruitment of Ben Brown filled a void that has filled Melbourne’s forward 50 ever since Jesse Hogan was traded to Fremantle.

However, question marks over his fitness from 2020 have continued to present themselves during the preseason, with the prized recruit set to miss the start of the campaign with persistent swelling in the knee. Surgery to assess the damage to his cartilage will ensure he’s not running until the start of March, with a conservative approach for his return to senior football certainly in place.

Brown’s absence compounds the issue Melbourne is facing, with Sam Weideman expected to miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season with stress fractures in his upper leg. Brown and Weideman’s injuries were announced weeks apart, leaving Melbourne with just Tom McDonald, Luke Jackson, Harrison Petty, and Mitch Brown as key targets in front of goal.

With Majak Daw vying for a list spot, the former Roo may get games an early season as they attempt to fill that void up forward.

Coach Pressure Index:

High

Whilst Goodwin did steer Melbourne into their first finals appearance since 2006, the club has underperformed since then.

Melbourne CEO Gary Pert did give his support to Goodwin after a late-season slip up in 2020 which saw the Demons lose to both Sydney and Fremantle, costing their top eight spot.

Goodwin is out of contract in 2022 and is running out of time to build a contender.

Another season without finals may be enough to ensure Goodwin doesn’t receive another extension, but a catastrophic start may bring pressure to make some immediate changes at the top.

Ins: Ben Brown (North Melbourne), Jake Bowey (Sandringham Dragons), Bailey Laurie (Oakleigh Chargers), Fraser Rosman (Sandringham Dragons)

Outs: Mitch Hannan (Western Bulldogs), Braydon Preuss (Greater Western Sydney), Kyle Dunkley (Delisted), Oscar McDonald (Delisted), Corey Wagner (Delisted), Josh Wagner (Delisted), Harley Bennell (Retired), Kade Kolodjashnij (Retired)

Predicted Round 1 lineup:

FB: Christian Salem – Steven May – Trent Rivers

HB: Michael Hibberd – Jake Lever – James Harmes

C: Angus Brayshaw – Jack Viney – Ed Langdon

HF: Jake Melksham – Tom McDonald – Charlie Spargo

FF:  Mitch Brown – Bailey Fritsch – Kysaiah Pickett

R: Max Gawn – Clayton Oliver – Christian Petracca

I/C: Adam Tomlinson – Jay Lockhart – Aaron Vandenberg – Neville Jetta

Ladder Range:

6th-10th

Melbourne is firming for a return to the top eight and a finals berth along with it. However, without a genuine solution (for now) up forward, 2021 might be yet another write-off of a year.

If Brown can find fitness and provide Melbourne with a target up forward, the Demons don’t have many holes that need plugging.

Melbourne has too many quality players to enter yet another rebuilding year, but the competition is the most even it has been in years, with 12 teams realistically fighting for a top-eight position.

If Melbourne solves its problems and finishes in the top eight, it’s a side that could win multiple finals and push good teams deep in the campaign.

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