14/04/2024

Sam Walsh has been a standout for the Blues so far in 2021. Image: Carlton FC

The tale of Carlton’s season has been all too familiar for its fans, but there's much that can still be salvaged from the remainder of 2021.

As we hit the bye rounds in the AFL season, The Inner Sanctum will be conducting our mid-season reviews of all 18 clubs and assessing the first half of the season and what fortunes may lie ahead.

Up next, Carlton.

Snapshot:

The tale of Carlton’s season has been all too familiar for its fans. Sitting at 4-8 after 12 games, the Blues have shown signs of promise with rousing victories over Fremantle and Essendon, and comfortable wins against Gold Coast and Hawthorn.

However, it’s been Carlton’s performances in winnable games that have let it down, surrendering convincing leads to the second-placed Western Bulldogs and 2021 bolters Sydney despite controlling large parts of each game.

The Blues have also failed to perform to expectations in games they entered as favourites, with performances against Collingwood in round two and West Coast in round 12 highlighting a tendency to compete, but never threaten, particularly in games that should in hindsight be non-negotiables.

Reflecting on pre-season expectations, one may be lenient on Carlton’s performances, as all its losses have come against sides who were 2020 finalists or are current top eight sides. 

However, the lack of improvement, and perhaps even recession, on their 2020 form has seen fans grow increasingly restless once again and an off-field shake-up in store for the Blues heading into the bye.

What’s Worked:

Harry McKay’s improvement in season 2021 has been one of the highlights of the Blues’ season, as he leads the Coleman Medal race after 12 rounds. 

McKay equaled his previous best season goal tally of 26 by round six, but another highlight for the Blues has been the support he’s received from the rest of the forward line, and more broadly, the midfield. 

Eddie Betts has continued to wow everyone with his creative and chance-creating best, kicking 17 goals from his 10 games in 2021. While the all-time great is winding the clock back in the twilight of his career, the Blues may have unearthed a successor in the form of Matt Owies. The category B rookie received his call-up to the senior side in round seven and has been a mainstay in the side since, kicking goals on a weekly basis.

Owies has booted ten goals from his six games and is averaging four tackles per game, providing the forward tackling pressure the Blues have lacked for some time.

2020 recruit Lachie Fogarty has also been brilliant in this area, averaging 4.1 tackles and 16.5 disposals playing forward with stints through the midfield. 

Adam Saad has also proved to be a brilliant pick-up for the Blues across the half-backline, providing much-needed run and carry and averaging 477 metres gained 4.2 rebound 50s, and 3.7 inside 50s per game. 

Saad’s inclusion has enabled co-captain Sam Docherty and fellow recruit Zac Williams to rotate between the midfield and backline, the former averaging 25.3 disposals and nearing his 2017 All-Australian best. 

What Hasn’t:

Much of the Blues fans’ frustration lies with the setup and arrangement of the senior team.

Liam Stocker, recruited in 2018 as an inside midfielder, has held his own since his inclusion in the senior team but has been played mostly as a small defender.

Stocker was matched up on Liam Ryan in the round 12 match against the West Coast Eagles. As Ryan running rampant to boot four goals in a clinical performance, Stocker was persisted with as the chosen matchup for Ryan with no changes made. Stocker was also tasked with the matchup of Tom Papley the week prior, the Swan also kicking three final quarter goals as the Swans ran away with the win.

For a player drafted as a midfielder, this position is certainly not where Stocker is likely to provide the most impact on the senior side. With a midfield mix typically lacking versatility each game, Blues fans will be hoping to see Stocker, Paddy Dow, and others given more centre bounce attendances and genuine midfield minutes in order to allow them to improve and thrive in their natural positions.

Similarly, the lack of flexibility in the Blues’ gameplan has been a factor that has at points, left them exposed around the ground. 

A hesitancy to adjust and fix areas in which his side is being beaten frequently plagues the Blues and coach David Teague mid-game, seen on multiple occasions this year, as with Stocker playing on Ryan. 

Small forward Matt Owies was tasked during the Blues’ game against Melbourne to match up on Jake Lever, despite a stark 14cm height difference. Will Setterfield was also played on a wing early on in the season, despite his natural capabilities as a big-bodied midfielder, and was dropped from the side following these less impressive performances. 

A reluctance to fix these issues when they are causing headaches mid-game, and even week-to-week, has undoubtedly been a frustrating element of the Blues’ season. Heading into the second half of 2021, fans will be hoping for a more agile and adaptable game plan to rectify issues such as these when they rear their head. 

The other bugbear of many Carlton fans and people has been the lack of defensive structure and the ease at which opposition teams score against them. 5 times Carlton have conceded over 100 points in a game and 3 more times they have conceded over 95 points. The Blues are ranked 5th in the competition for total points againts.

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(John Nicholls Medal) Best and fairest contenders:

Two words: Sam Walsh.

In just his third season at AFL level, it would be no stretch of the imagination to say that Walsh is the Blues’ best and most important player, let alone midfielder.

Averaging 30.3 disposals in 2021, Walsh hasn’t dipped below 24 in a game, and has surpassed 30 disposals in eight of his 12 matches, averaging 76% disposal efficiency.

With such consistent and prolific performance in the first half of season 2021, Walsh should be the heavy favourite to go one-up on his efforts in 2020, and claim his first John Nicholls medal come season’s end.

Another name to mention is Harry McKay, who sits two goals clear atop the Coleman Medal race after round 12, despite going goalless as he was subbed out of the Blues’ match against the Eagles. 

After 12 rounds, McKay is also ranked second in the league for marks inside 50 and third for contested marks, ranked ‘elite’ and ‘above average’, again despite a 1-disposal, 1-mark game against the Eagles.

There’s no doubt McKay has improved immensely in 2021, thriving in his role as Carlton’s #1 forward target in the absence of Charlie Curnow and Mitch McGovern. With an equally prolific second half of 2021, could he become the first key forward since Lance Whitnall in 2006 to take home a John Nicholls Medal?

Who needs to lift?

It’s been a frustrating season for Paddy Dow, who after a couple of impressive preseason displays has failed to make a consistent impact when receiving his chances at the top level. 

He was dropped ahead of round 5 and named the medical sub but didn’t take to the field, and once recalled in round seven was subbed out of the game with injury after recording six disposals and three clearances in a very short period of game time.

The second half of the season is important for Dow, who needs to take hold of the chances he is given at AFL level, and establish himself firmly in Carlton’s best 22.

Similarly feeling the pressure from beneath will be ruckman Marc Pittonet, who has played every game for the Blues in 2021. With his ruck counterpart Tom De Koning returning recently, the pressure is on Pittonet to perform well and support his young teammate as De Koning finds his feet at AFL level.

Pittonet is averaging 22.2 hitouts and 6.8 hitouts to advantage, with a hitout win percentage of 41.1 in 2021, ranked ‘average’ for each of these three categories. 

Particularly with De Koning still developing and the Blues currently lacking another viable backup ruck option, Pittonet needs to improve in these areas to give the likes of Sam Walsh, Patrick Cripps and the Blues’ midfield unit the best chance of winning the ball at stoppages.

Expectations for the second half of the season:

For many Blues fans, the round 12 loss to West Coast signalled the death of the Blues’ finals chances, the key pre-season expectation for Carlton. 

However, there is still a lot that can be salvaged from the season, particularly in terms of being able to compete consistently during games. There’s no doubt that the Blues have the talent needed to compete with the league’s top teams, but they still seem a long way off the pace.

Ranked 14th heading into the round 13 bye and with three of its four 2021 scalps placed above it on the ladder, Carlton can certainly compete with its surrounding teams. With the right strategy and approach in the second half of 2021, the Blues playing group and fanbase should be expecting to surpass 2020’s tally of seven wins by the end of the season. 

Prediction

12th

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